The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

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This is one of the books from my TBR pile which I finished a couple of weeks ago, and am finally getting around to creating a post about.

I have mixed views about this book. It is a gentle and helpful guide. It was also a long read, and a little too esoteric for me in places. I am interested in general Buddhist philosophy but have no desire to become a Buddhist myself. However, I got a lot out of reading this book none the less.

The book is separated into four main parts. The first deals with living. The Buddhist secret of dying well is first of all to learn to live well. There is some excellent information in this section especially insights on meditation and why we all would benefit from the practice.

“We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home.

Meditation, then, is bringing the mind home.”

The second section of the book is called ‘dying’. In our culture so little is said about the taboo subject of dying that it is a relief to read words that address this essential part of the human experience. Death is largely ignored by society. The dying are hidden out of sight and mind and the subject is swept under the carpet, until, when a loved one or we ourselves become terminally ill,  we are stunned into facing this most difficult part of our journey.

In my own life people I loved have died, both sudden and slow deaths. I was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the situations. When my grandmother was dying of breast cancer in hospital years ago, I am ashamed to say I ran out of the hospital in tears unable to face her pain and sickness. When my brother lay in a coma for nine days before his death I was lost in an ocean of fear and confusion. I was scared and naive and had no understanding of how to be with a person who is dying or how to cope once a person has gone. This is the normal state of things in the Western world. In the time since I have been grateful to be able to remedy this lack in some way by reading and learning about the process of death.

It is not morbid to want to learn about death, if anything it makes living richer. We more deeply appreciate what we have now, when we bravely face the fact that our lives do not last forever.

“Perhaps the deepest reason why we are afraid of death is because we do not know who we are. We believe in a personal, unique, and separate identity — but if we dare to examine it, we find that this identity depends entirely on an endless collection of things to prop it up: our name, our ‘biography’, our partners, family, home, job, friends, credit cards… It is on their fragile and transient support that we rely for our security. So when they are all taken away, will we have any idea of who we really are?

Without our familiar props, we are faced with just ourselves, a person we do not know, an unnerving stranger with whom we have been living all the time but we never really wanted to meet. Isn’t that why we have tried to fill every moment of time with noise and activity, however boring or trivial, to ensure that we are never left in silence with this stranger on our own?”

The third section is on death and rebirth and focuses mainly on the Buddhist theories of what happens beyond death. I found this section difficult to follow and nearly gave up reading it altogether.

The final section is the conclusion, bringing together the previous sections and calling on readers to become a part of the ‘quiet revolution’ in the way we look at death and care for the dying. A revolution too, in fact, that will bring greater peace and compassion to the way we live and the way we care for the living.

I recommend this book if you are willing to keep an open mind and be enlightened by ideas that may be very different to the one’s you currently hold.

17 thoughts on “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

  1. Kim, After we are born. The thing we can be most sure of, is dying. Yet, that is ignored, by most people. Now, I’m not saying it is wise to have a morbid or maudlin approach. Yet, few seem to take notice. Until it’s too late to start changing.

    I started using meditation, in my early twenties. Forty years on, I can hardly remember the time prior. I enjoy it. It brings a soothing. The method taught to me, can be used almost all the time. No need to sit in a quiet room, although that is a better experience.

    I do not follow any organized religion. For it seems all of them have a similar theme and experience? Just different ways of describing.

    It is about the heart and keeping love, in our hearts. In the face of adversity. For God is love and love is God. God can only be found in our hearts. Churches, Cathedrals, Mosques and Temples. All seem, to me, more about pride than humility. In the face of the power, we call God.

    Some of the most caring people, I’ve found, are those who deny existence of a supreme being. Too often we expect God to be there for us. Yet the real question might be. Are we there for God?

    Your sensitivity toward approaching death, for others, is likely your personality kicking in? Your experience is valid. I’m sure that in many ways you were a quiet comfort, for your brother. We are all a bit naive, when it comes to death. Nothing to be ashamed about, nor does it seem as though you are.

    You come across as a sensitive and caring individual and your children are probably better for it?

    Nice post! Cheers Jamie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment Jamie.

    I agree with you about organised religion, for the most part. I do understand it provides a sense of community and support to some people though that is difficult to find otherwise. That’s just what I’ve noticed from the outside and I can empathise with wanting that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. True enough.

    Yet many people treat the various temples as though God lives there, instead of their hearts. Community and support are quite admirable. Yet those who participate often gravitate to “being someone” within. For it tickles the ego, to be regarded as saintly by their peers. That’s not to denigrate the importance of community.

    Nothing is absolute. We can always find reasons for critique, or a lack of participation. Where none should exist, including myself.

    Cheers Jamie

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you Kim. I am really happy you brought this up, good with a book that talks about death, but also about life! I totally agree about the trying not to show in our society. Being afraid doesn’t make it go away 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Have been curious about this book for a long time, so thank you for reading and reviewing it. I think my own response would echo, to some extent, your experience.

    My father was my emotional support when I was growing up, a gentle man with a deep sense of curiosity. Somewhere, in my mid thirties, I realized that I would have to face his death. Decided to take the training course for becoming a Hospice volunteer. It made a tremendous impact on my sense of self and the world around me. At one point, in the course, we watched a film about a young woman who was dying. She wrote a song about her experience and sang it as a part of video. I can only paraphrase her words as this all took place over thirty years ago, but in the song she said, “Come help me to die, and I will teach you to live.”

    I didn’t become a volunteer, discovering that I was pregnant with my third child curtailed that activity. However, about four years later my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. During his final days, I was elected (by my sisters and mother) to be his nurse. The Hospice nurse taught me how to administer his insulin shots and check his blood sugar levels. Something I had never dreamed of doing. Yet, I did. And as I bathed and cared for this man I loved deeply, I remembered that young woman’s song and knew the depths of its truth.

    Later, in college, I took part in many discussions about death and dying and read a great deal that was offered at the time. It helped on many levels. We all learn in different ways and I believe that books are essential because they open the doors of our minds and get us thinking. Thanks for sharing your experience and allowing me to remember my own.

    Elizabeth

    http://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a beautiful and heartfelt story Elizabeth. I only hope we as a society can learn to be more accepting of old age and death. Not to be overly focused on it, but to be respectful of the experience as an opportunity for connection and growth.

      I love the words ‘come help me to die, and I’ll teach you to live’, I may have failed in the past, but I so see the truth of these words. Thank you so much for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Kim, I have had your post open in a tab on my computer for two days now with no time to read it, but ‘knowing’ that I should. This quiet morning I was able to read and appreciate very much the time you took to read and review this book. I am very interested in reading it myself and now most definitely will. Have a fabulous weekend. 🙂 Melissa

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    1. Thanks Melissa, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

      Fingers crossed the weather brightens this weekend so I can spend longer in the garden. Have a great weekend yourself! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kim, what an excellent writing on your experience with The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. You opened such an important dialogue here, and I hope that it will gain momentum and continue.

    One of my first jobs when I was very young was the midnight shift in a progressive care retirement community. This was a very high end expensive facility, a one of a kind in the area, and had a long waiting list for admission. At the time I always thought it an ironic phrase as the only direction our residents progressed to was the critical care unit to pass. They did not call it hospice then, but there was a time frame agreed upon by either the patient, family, care providers, or some combination of those involved, when simple palliative care was provided.

    I worked the midnight to 7AM shift. The majority of our residents passed on that shift, between the hours of 3AM and sunrise. You could generally tell a few days in advance, and last goodbyes by family were usually said then, and clergy would often visit. Another variation was family members and clergy insisting to the patient that they would be feeling better soon, just a bit of a setback. I never witnessed that part of the process, hearing about it from the residents, read any chart notes made, observed the personal affects removed from the room, often to the dismay of the resident if they were still cognizant. The fear of death was very much present in the charting instructions, routinely indicating that if their loved one was passing in the night to call in the morning.

    Since I was the ‘aide’, I was usually assigned to be with the residents in those final hours. Over the period I worked there, and keep in mind I was very young and neither mature or experienced, I became very familiar with the various ways people left their lives here on earth. Many who were deeply religious fought their deaths in fear of God’s punishment, revealed to me their ‘sins’, which so many times were simply nothing to fear damnation for in my young mind/heart’ opinion. It became clear to me during that time period that there certainly was a very real disconnect between this God of love some patients believed in, relied on, and trusted in all things while living, and this God they suddenly feared was waiting to get a hold and punish them when they died.

    Other of the residents almost glowed with their passing, they became calm, quiet, and many times appeared to be visually seeing others, acknowledged them, smiled the most beautiful smiles and then simply let go of their bodies. I prayed with and sang to a lot of dying elders, and felt privileged to be with them. There is a word used currently for death called ‘transitioning’ and it certainly describes what I witnessed.

    And there were many variations of dying in between where the physical body was failing in stages, and the individual was struggling to respond to that physical body failing, weary and ready and yet not letting go.

    I came to believe based on my experiences on that midnight shift that who we are, that spark within us that is our life, is so very much a separate entity from our physical bodies. When people pass on their left behind body is so not them anymore. Post mortal care procedures convinced me of that. Body as vehicle to get about as human energy form kind of thinking came very early to me and has stayed with me all the way to being in a body that has been well taken care of, respected, but deteriorating, and is wearing out. No fear of death in me, having shared the experience with so many when I was so young. Our time here in human form is such a gift, and our bodies are just amazing places to navigate our life here. Very much connected is our body and our true self, but I do not believe our bodies are who we are.

    I hope I have not offended anyone with my comments here, as it was not my intent. Also keep in mind that the hospice movement so prevalent now was not the norm then at all, coming many years later.
    These are just my own recollections of experiences I had as a young person.

    My best to everyone, and Sue you continue to do such gentle good for so many with your website!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thank you so much for sharing Johanna. These are just the kinds of experiences I think should be talked about more often.

    The residents who died in your care were themselves privileged to be with one so aware and understanding.

    It is interesting that you say some deeply religious people do not let go peacefully. It is a pity, but I can see how this would be true. I am not a Christian but I have been following the Christian blog of Kara Tippetts – http://www.mundanefaithfulness.com – she has been battling cancer for the last couple of years and is now in hospice care in the last stage of her life. I greatly admire her courage and faith. She has steadfastly held to her belief in the value of the process of suffering and dying. She does not downplay the physical or emotional pain – especially of leaving her four children and family and friends – yet she makes every effort to see love and goodness in each moment as much as she is able. A brave brave woman.

    “Our time here in human form is such a gift, and our bodies are just amazing places to navigate our life here. Very much connected is our body and our true self, but I do not believe our bodies are who we are.” – Thank you for these words. I very much agree. Take care. x

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you. I am very self conscious and unsure about speaking candidly in the blogs. Still resolving the tone, balance, self disclosure, narrative voice issues that arrive when initially engaging in this journey.

    When I responded to your excellent post I fretted some about it because I was ‘speaking deep.’
    But from my youthful experience with the dying, I just knew I wanted to share it as it had such a profound impact on me.

    I am so grateful for your response and must go visit Kara Tippets.

    Liked by 1 person

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