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what happens at/after death?

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Arnold_Bocklin_The_Isle_of_the_Dead_From time to time this  question comes up in conversation at hospice. Recently a woman asked: I wish I had my sister’s belief. She’s religious and has such a clear picture of what’ll happen to dad when he goes. What do you think?

The world’s major religions agree that death is not the end, that “something” survives, although they differ in details and interpretation. Buddhism identifies “mind” as the fundamental nature that survives the death of the physical body.

Though our bodies will dissolve back into the elements of which they are formed (writes Tibetan teacher Tulku Thondup), we will  continue as mind and consciousness, which will transmigrate into another existence. As long as we are alive, the mind cohabits together with the body, which provides an earthy structure that gives us a sense of identify. …

But at the moment of death, all these appearances will vanish. The mind will separate from the physical body, which will begin to decay. As soon as consciousness departs from the body, the things that we saw and the feelings that we had in life will change utterly. What we experience after death will depend solely on our mind, on the habitual mental tendencies and thoughts that we created and fostered while we were alive.

To me, this sounds as plausible as going to heaven or hell, to return to Nature, or to disappear into the Void. All are beliefs — all attempts at explaining that which is beyond explanation. So where does that leave me as hospice spiritual care worker? What do I say to the woman who longs for the comfort of her sister’s religion? The best I can do is to admit that I don’t know … to invite her to do likewise … and to sit with the mystery of living and dying … to welcome “not-knowing.” And then to turn to her father and be present for the precious moments that remain.

source: Thondup, T. (2006). Peaceful death, joyful rebirth: a Tibetan Buddhist guidebook. Boston: Shambala, pp.2-3. image: The Isle Of the Dead by the 19th-Century Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. 

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