What Will Happen to Me After I Die?
A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective 
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is probably ‘The most celebrated and widely read work of Tibetan literature outside of Tibet’, an ‘Extraordinary guide to the experiences of living, dying, death and rebirth’.
It gives a detailed account of the many and varied visions we may experience when our consciousness leaves our body and we enter the intermediate state or bardo between this life and the next one. According to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, we remain in this bardo for up to 49 days by which time we have found a rebirth.
Below there are some excerpts from Graham Coleman’s wonderful book called Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss – The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the bardo, we start by experiencing vivid ‘dreams’, that initially involve what we might call ‘peaceful deities’. If we do not recognize these dreams as projections of our own mind, but instead believe them to be real, we are then confronted with ‘wrathful deities’ who try to wake us up to the reality of what might happen to us.
Apparently, for many people, the bardo can be a frightening experience. For others it can be blissful and transforming. It is well to be prepared beforehand for what one might encounter. It is good to remember that what we experience in the bardo are karmic imprints on our mindstream. When we practice mindfulness now, and try to live ethically with a good heart, we are training our mind in practices that will help us through the bardo, without falling into the animal, anguished spirit, or hell realms.
Here is a taste of the text that follows in the other sections below:
O Child of Buddha Nature, when your mind and body separate, the pure luminous apparitions of reality itself will arise: subtle and clear, radiant and dazzling, naturally bright and awesome, shimmering like a mirage on a plain in summer.
Do not fear them! Do not be terrified! Do not be awed!
They are the natural luminosities of your own actual reality. Therefore recognize them as they are!
Apparently our own fundamental ‘buddha-nature’ is so bright and so pure that when it arises at the moment of death, we will be frightened of it.
The ‘near-death experiences’ that have been documented elsewhere often speak of an encounter with a blissful white light, very similar to what the yogis and enlightened beings say will occur in the after-death state. However, all the lamas caution us against reading too much into near-death experiences: evidently they are not the same as the after-death experiences.
If you first want to get a brief idea of what is presented in the full text of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, then read the three summary sections below first:
- Extracts from the Characteristics of the After-Death State
- Extracts from Balancing Light and Dark in the Bardo
- Extracts from Moving Towards a New Birth
To experience the power of the full text, look for and click on the links beginning with + Read More on… to reveal more detail on each subject.
 Contents by Len Warren of Pure Land of the Indestructible Buddha, Hayagriva Buddhist Centre, 64 Banksia Terrace, Kensington 6151 Western Australia, July 2017. Quotes from:
■ Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead by Graham Coleman, Viking, 2009 and
■ The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation by Graham Coleman, Penguin Classics, 2005
Extracts from the Characteristics of the After-Death State 
The Tibetan Book of the Dead explains: “O Child of Buddha Nature, when your mind and body separate, the pure, luminous apparitions of reality itself will arise: subtle and clear, radiant and dazzling, naturally bright and awesome, shimmering like a mirage on a plain in summer. Do not fear them! Do not be terrified! Do not be awed! They are the natural luminosities of your own actual reality. Therefore recognize them as they are!
From within these lights, the natural sound of reality will resound, clear and thunderous, reverberating like a thousand peals of thunder. This is the natural sound of your own actual reality. So, do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! Do not be awed!
The body that you now have is called a ‘mental body’, it is the product of subtle propensities and not a solid corporeal body of flesh and blood. This body is described in the tantras:
Having the bodily form of one’s past and emergent existences,
Complete with all sense faculties, and the power of unobstructed movement,
Endowed with miraculous abilities derived from past actions,
Visible to those similar in kind and through pure clairvoyance.
Here, ‘past and emergent’ means that your present body, which is a product of past habitual tendencies, will resemble a body of flesh and blood, but, like a body of the auspicious eon, it will also be radiant and possess certain of the major and minor marks. Since this state is an apparitional experience of the mental body, it is called the ‘apparitional experience of the mental body in the intermediate state’.
At this time, if you are to be born as a god, you will come to experience the apparitional field of the realm of the gods. Depending on whichever of the realms you are to take birth in, whether that of the anti-gods, humans, animals, anguished spirits, or hell beings, you will come to experience its particular apparitional field.
Therefore, ‘past’ means that for three and a half days you will possess the bodily form that is a product of your past habitual tendencies and existences. And ‘emergent’ means that, after three and a half days, the apparitional field of the next realm into which you are to be born will emerge. Hence the expression ‘past and emergent’ existences.
The Six Classes of Sentient Beings
- God realm
- Anti-god realm
- Human realm
- Animal realm
- Realm of anguished spirits or hungry ghosts
- Hell realm
Whatever apparitional fields emerge at this time, do not be drawn by them! Do not become attached to them! Do not cling to them! If you cling to them and become attached, you will continue to roam among The Six Classes of Sentient Beings and be turning toward suffering.
O Child of Buddha Nature, with a body having qualities such as these just described, you will once again see your homeland and your relatives, as if in a dream. Yet even though you call out to your relatives, they will not reply. You will see your family and relatives crying and realize: “I am dead. What should I do now?” Thinking this, you will be overwhelmed by intense suffering – you will feel like a fish expelled from the water, writhing on hot sand. Although you will suffer on realizing that you are dead, this is not helpful to you now. If you have a spiritual teacher, pray to your spiritual teacher!
At this stage, in the case of those individuals who have gathered the accumulations of merit and pristine cognition and have sincerely practiced the teachings, one will be welcomed by visions of abundant riches and one will experience manifold blissful and happy states. In the case of those individuals who are indifferent or deluded, who have been neither virtuous nor negative, one will experience neither pleasure nor pain, but only an apathetic delusion. Whichever of these happens, O Child of Buddha Nature, whatever objects of desire or blissful or happy states appear before you, do not be attached to them. Do not cling to them! Be free from attachment and clinging and mentally offer these experiences to your spiritual teacher and to the Three Precious Jewels.
You will feel deeply saddened by your existence in a mental body and wish, “O that I might obtain a physical body!” Consequently, you will experience roaming here and there in search of a body. You might even attempt, many times, to re-enter your own body, but a long time has already elapsed in the previous intermediate state of reality. In winter your body will have frozen, in summer it will have decayed. Alternatively, your relatives will have cremated it, buried it in a grave, or offered it to the birds and wild animals. Not finding a way back, you will feel utterly distressed, and you will certainly feel yourself trying to squeeze into the crevices between stones and rocks.”
 From Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead, Graham Coleman, Viking, 2009, page 107
Extracts from Balancing Light and Dark in the Bardo 
If you have not by this stage realized that the visions you are having are from your own mind, and do not exist independent of your mind, then the hallucinations will become more frightening as the wrathful deities appear. The Tibetan Book of the Dead says:
“Liberation can be obtained in the intermediate state as a result of the above introduction. However, even though this introduction is given, due to negative past actions, recognition may not occur. So again, you should call to the deceased by name and say the following words:
The Great Seal or the Four Seals of Buddhism
- All compounded things are impermanent
- All contaminated phenomena are in the nature of suffering
- All things have no inherent existence
- Nirvana is peace
O Child of Buddha Nature, (call to the deceased by name), listen to me. It is due to your own past actions that you are now suffering in this way. No one else is responsible – this is solely the result of your own past actions. Pray ardently now to the Three Precious Jewels [Buddha, Dharma and Sangha]. They will protect you. If you do not pray intensely now, especially if you do not know how to meditate on The Great Seal, or if you cannot meditate on a meditational deity, the “innate good conscience” within you will now gather together all your virtuous actions, counting them out with white pebbles, and the “innate bad conscience” within you will gather together all your non-virtuous actions, counting them out with black pebbles.
At this moment you will tremble with extreme fear, awe, and terror. You will tell lies, saying “I have not committed non-virtuous actions!” But at this, Yama [the Lord of Death] will say: “I shall consult the mirror of past actions.” In the mirror of past actions, all your virtues and non-virtues will be reflected vividly and precisely. Your attempts at deceit will be of no use. Tying a rope around your neck, Yama will drag you forward. He will sever your head at the neck, extract your heart, pull out your entrails, lick your brains, drink your blood, eat your flesh, and suck your bones. Despite this, you will not die. Even as your body is repeatedly cut into pieces, it will be continuously revived. Experiencing being cut into pieces in this way, time after time, will cause enormous suffering.
From the moment the counting of the pebbles begins, do not be afraid! Do not be terrified! Do not lie, and do not be afraid of Yama. The body you now have is a mental body; therefore, even though you experience being slain and cut into pieces, you cannot die.
Alternatively, your mind may grow attached to your wealth and possessions, now left behind, or else, knowing that your wealth and possessions are being enjoyed and owned by others, you may become both attached to those worldly goods and also hateful toward those left behind who are using your possessions. As a result of this, a connecting link will certainly be formed to a birth among the hell beings or among the anguished spirits, even though you may have been at the point of attaining birth in one of the higher realms. However attached you may be to the wealth now left behind, you do not have the ability to enjoy it. Since it is absolutely of no use to you, abandon your attachment and yearning for the wealth that you have left behind. Let it go! Be decisive! Let it go! Cultivate devotion, and imagine that you are offering these worldly possessions to your spiritual teacher and to the Three Precious Jewels. Rest in a state free from attachment and free from clinging.
O Child of Buddha Nature, in short, since your awareness during this intermediate state lacks any material support, it is light and volatile, and therefore, whatever virtuous or non-virtuous perceptions arise, these are very powerful. Do not be absorbed by non-virtuous thoughts! Call to mind the virtuous practices of your past! Even if you did not engage in virtuous practices during your life, maintain purity of perception and deep devotion!
 From Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead, Graham Coleman, Viking, 2009, page 115
Extracts from Moving Towards a New Birth 
O Child of Buddha Nature, if you have taken to heart the introduction that has gone before, from now on the body of your past life will grow more faint and the body of your next life will grow more vivid. At this, you will be dismayed, and you will think: “I am experiencing such misery! Now I will look for whatever kind of body I can find.”
Thinking in this way, you will move haphazardly and randomly toward whatever might appear and consequently the six lights indicative of the six realms of living beings will dawn; and, according to your past actions, the light of the realm into which you are to be born will shine the most of all.
|Colour of the light that dawns in the bardo
|Realm of cyclic existence that the colour indicates
|Anguished spirit or hungry ghost (preta)
|Hell being (narak)
O Child of Buddha Nature, listen! What are these six lights, you may ask? A dull white light indicative of the realm of the gods will arise. A dull red light indicative of the realm of the anti-gods will arise. A dull blue light indicative of the human realm will arise. A dull green light indicative of the animal realm will arise. A dull yellow light indicative of the realm of the anguished spirits will arise, and a dull smoky light indicative of the realm of the hell beings will arise. These six lights will emerge. And at this time, your present body will take on the colour of the light of the realm into which you are to be born. O Child of Buddha Nature, at this juncture, the essential points of the oral instructions are extremely important.
Meditate now on the light that dawns as being Mahakarunika! Meditate on the thought that when the light dawns, it is Mahakarunika. This is the most profound crucial point. It is extremely important, because this oral instruction obstructs birth.
At this stage, it is extremely important that you carefully employ the methods for obstructing the womb entrances. Principally, there are two such methods of obstruction. These are: first, the method that obstructs the person who is to enter the womb and, second, the methods that obstruct the womb that is to be entered.
Set down above are several profound and genuine instructions for effecting the obstruction of the womb entrances. For those with high, average, or low ability it is impossible not to be liberated by these instructions. This is because: first, consciousness in the intermediate state is endowed with an, albeit corrupt, supernormal cognitive ability. Therefore, whatever one says to the deceased is heard by the deceased. Second, even if the deceased was deaf or blind while in the human world, now, in the intermediate state, all the sensory faculties will be complete and therefore whatever is said will be apprehended. Third, since the deceased is continually being overwhelmed by fear and terror, there is an undistracted concentration on what to do; therefore, what is said will be listened to. Fourth, since the consciousness has no physical support, it is easy to guide and it can penetrate to the essence of whatever is focused upon. Additionally, since the power of retention is now many times clearer, even the mentally weak will have, in the intermediate state, a lucid awareness, by virtue of their past actions. Hence, they will have the gift of knowing how to meditate on that which is taught and the gift to assimilate such points of instruction. These are the reasons why the performance of rituals on behalf of the dead is beneficial.
It is extremely important that your motivation be firmly concentrated as you approach the womb entrance. Therefore think as follows: “Ah! For the sake of all sentient beings, I shall be born as a universal monarch, or acting purely like a great dignified sal tree, I shall be born into the brahman class, or as the child of an accomplished master, or into a family that maintains an immaculate lineage of the sacred teachings, or into a family where the mother and father are deeply devout. Then, once I have taken on a body that is blessed with the merit of being able to act on behalf of all sentient beings, I shall dedicate myself to acting on their behalf!” You must concentrate your motivation on this thought and thus enter the womb.
Nevertheless, with the exception of certain persons who have experience of this equanimity, it is difficult for being to sever themselves from the deep-seated and long-lasting disease of negative habitual tendencies. Therefore, if the deceased remains unable to be free from attachment and aversion, in the above manner, such negative beings who are of the lowest capacity may seek refuge in the animal realms or similar kinds of inferior existences. In order to counteract this, again calling to the deceased by name, you should speak as follows:
O Child of Buddha Nature, if you do not know how to choose a womb entrance and you are unable to give up your attachments and your aversion, then, regardless of which of the above appearances arise, you must call out, by name, to the Three Precious Jewels. Take refuge in them! Pray to Mahakarunika! Go forward with your head held high. Recognize that this is the intermediate state! Give up your attachment and your clinging to the friends, sons, daughters, and relatives that you have left behind. These attachments are not helpful to you now. Enter into the blue light of the human realm. Enter into the white light of the realm of the gods. Enter into the mansions of precious jewels and the gardens of delight.
 From Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead, Graham Coleman, Viking, 2009, page 123
* About this web page: The contents of this web page were prepared in July 2017 by Len Warren of Pure Land of the Indestructible Buddha, Hayagriva Buddhist Centre, 64 Banksia Terrace, Kensington 6151 Western Australia. It contains quotes taken from:
- Meditations on Living, Dying and Loss: The Essential Tibetan Book of the Dead by Graham Coleman, Viking, 2009
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation by Graham Coleman, Penguin Classics, 2005