Thursday, September 07, 2006

Near Death and Great Death Experiences

Near Death and Great Death Experiences
By Gregory Wonderwheel
(c) 2006

There was no limit to the outpouring as I came to the rapturous awareness of the infinite nature of God's love. There was no place that God did not exist and I was within God. I am an inseparable part of the light. The truth of who I am, indeed, who we all are, is perfect love as a creation of God. All of God's creation is one creation and I am one with creation. God and I are one, Creator and created.

I had spent a lifetime of fear of judgment and now, standing with God, I had been known completely and found faultless. I knew God regarded me as perfect. God loved me because love is the totality of God. God loves without limit. Finally it all made sense. God could only love me because God is only love, nothing other than love. The only reality is God; there cannot be another and GOD IS LOVE.

I had reached my true home. I turned to Christ and said, "This is beautiful. I am home. This is where I want to be. I want to stay." And Christ answered, "You can stay for a little while and then you must return."

I recently came across this fascinating account by Linda Stewart of her near death experience. It is wonderful reading, and I thank Linda Stewart for sharing it. Here, I want to discuss how Linda's account demonstrates why these experiences are called "near death" experiences and are not the "Great Death" experience of awakening in Buddhism.

Cross culturally, modern Western near death experiences (whether viewed in Christian terms or not) are very similar to the reports of the American Plains Indians’ vision quest, African shaman journeys, Christian desert mystics, etc. These paths of spiritual inquiry may lead to Great Death experiences, but it is not usual, just as it is not usual in Buddhist communities that every meditator experiences Great Death.

As fascinating and wonderful as these reports are, one should know that near death experiences are not Buddhist awakening experiences because even though the experience of the infinite light is reached the person does not go past the light, and instead only bathes in it. You can see from Linda's account that she still objectified "God" and kept a subtle self in subjective relationship with the infinite light. Though she says "God and I are one" she immediately adds "Creator and created" which shows the subtle self still lingering.

In Buddhist terminology she first met Avalokiteshvara (Ch. Kwan Yin, whom she called Christ) and then she met the Buddha of Infinite Light (A.K.A. Amitayus, Amitbha, or Amida, whom she called God). As Linda says, the names don't really matter as every culture and spiritual path has its own name for these experiences. Of course the problem for some folks who haven't experienced this is that the name still does mean more to them than the experience, and an account like Linda's becomes incorporated into their belief structure of "Jesus Christ" as the one and only Son of the Infinite Light God and all others are still wrong to use a different name, even though the person telling the account explicitly relates how the name is for convenience only.

I do not want to downplay the wonderful joy of a near death experience such as Linda's nor do I deny the awe inspiring sense of belonging and acceptance that it engenders, but in the Buddhist path this is one of the stages along the path of the jhana states of rapture, joy, equanimity, and abiding peace not the full awakening.

Jhāna (nt.) [Sanskrit, dhyāna. The popular etymology from meditation on objects & from burning up anything adverse] literally meditation. But it never means vaguely meditation. It is the technical term for a special religious experience, reached in a certain order of mental states. It will be seen that there is no suggestion of trance, but rather of an enhanced vitality. In the descriptions of the crises in the religious experiences of Christian saints and mystics, expressions similar to those used in the jhānas are frequent (see F. Heiler Die Buddhistische Versenkung, 1918). Laymen could pass through the four jhānas. The jhānas are only a means, not the end. To imagine that experiencing them was equivalent to Arahantship (and was therefore the end aimed at) is condemned as a deadly heresy. (Entry abridged, full Pali Text Dictionary entry on Jhana)

First Jhana

But to look at Linda's account a little more closely, it is important to note the stages that she took. First was the letting go of the idea of a physical body. That is the giving up of corporeality. "The decision to leave this world hung suspended in an extended moment of absolute quiet." That is samatha, the stopping of disturbance. This is the sometimes spontaneous immediate meditation that is brought on by extended pain or acute trauma which lets a person who has not formally practiced meditation still have the letting go experience. This feeling of having let go of corporeality is the first jhana of rapture born of withdrawal.

Second Jhana

She continues, "I observed my new reality with tranquility. Slowly I looked around and below me I saw a vast, endless blackness. Like a void or black hole, I was irresistibly drawn toward the darkness. Gradually, I felt myself sinking toward it. I thought, without fear or any emotional reaction, "Isn't that strange?" " Here she is encountering the fear gate of the Bardo realm she has entered. If she had reacted with the fear of the "blackness" that she expected she would not have been able to meet the light. This is a crucial part of the transition. The fear reaction would have sent her back to the body or to another Bardo state of confusion. Having no fear born of evaluation of the "blackness" she entered the second jhana, the rapture born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation.

Third Jhana

Having no fear arise, Linda next says, "Offering no resistance, I released my hold on any remaining shred of consciousness and personal identity." This is the entrance to the third jhana state equanimous and mindful, having a pleasurable abiding. She says, "I became aware of a deep sense of peace and warmth that permeated my senses." Here she encounters the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the beingness of love and mercy known as Avalokiteshvara, Christ, etc. "I did not see the Spirit as I had seen Jesus of Nazareth depicted in paintings, but the innate knowing of my heart remembered and acknowledged Christ. The radiant Spirit was Christ, the manifestation and expression of pure love." She adds, "Safe in the gentle yet powerful embrace of his love, I rested, secure that everything was okay, exactly as it was supposed to be." This is a perfect statement of the third jhana, as a sutta says, "He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the pleasure divested of rapture."

Fourth Jhana

Then, she goes on, "Ascending ever farther, I lifted my eyes to see a great light in the vast distance." "The light moved over and through me, washing every hidden place of my heart, removing all hurt and fear, transforming my very being into a song of joy. I had thought the love I felt from Christ was complete, yet, the light toward which we were soaring was the fulfillment of my search, the loving Source of all that exists, the God of truth and unconditional love, the origin of creation."

Here she is in the fourth jhana, purity of equanimity and mindfulness. What a wonderful experience. A Sutta describes it thus, "He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There's nothing of his entire body unpervaded by pure, bright awareness."

The Attainments of the Formless Heavens

Still, that is not the ultimate in Buddhist terms, but unfortunately in Christian terms it is seen as the ultimate achievable in life until actual death takes us to heaven, and it is most difficult for Christians to proceed beyond this point. Not because of any inate difference, but because the mind-set of the teaching framework doesn't teach to go further and so one rests satisfied with a feeling and doesn't go to the cessation of perception and feeling. This was also true of Brahmins and the wandering shamans in India at the time of Buddha. It was Buddha's greatest discovery to see that jhana/dhyana/chan/zen practice must proceed past the jhanas and not be satisfied with even the purity of unconditional love and bright awareness or the sense of being one with the origin of creation – while a subtle self still maintains an objective relationship with God as an object of experience.

As Linda says, "I had spent a lifetime of fear of judgment and now, standing with God, I had been known completely and found faultless. I knew God regarded me as perfect. God loved me because love is the totality of God. God loves without limit. Finally it all made sense. God could only love me because God is only love, nothing other than love. The only reality is God; there cannot be another and GOD IS LOVE."

As wonderful as this is for Linda, as it is for anyone who experiences this state, Buddha teaches that there are more formless states to pass through before complete awakening. The four jhana states that arrive at the perception of Infinite Light and Love are the heavens of form. Beyond the Heavens of Form are the Formless Heavens and the attainment of these perceptions are the threshold of the final attainment of emptiness.

In the formless states even the notions of God and creator are let go. When the light completely burns away any lingering sense of subject and object then, going beyond the light, there is the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of space. Letting go of the infinitude of space one enters Manjusri's diamond-like castle of the perception of the dimension of the infinitude of consciousness. When Manjusri's sword destroys even the sense of consciousness then one discerns the perception of the dimension of nothingness. Letting go all sense of nothingness then one comes to the singleness based on the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.

The Theme-less Concentration of Awareness

Finally, letting go of even the state of neither perception nor non-perception, then one attends to the singleness based on the theme-less concentration (samadhi) of awareness. This is the true Dharma rain. In this state the meditator "discerns that 'This theme-less concentration of awareness is fabricated & mentally fashioned.' And he discerns that 'Whatever is fabricated & mentally fashioned is inconstant & subject to cessation.' For him — thus knowing, thus seeing — the mind is released from the effluent of sensuality, the effluent of becoming, the effluent of ignorance. With release, there is the knowledge, 'Released.' He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

"He discerns that 'Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the effluent of sensuality... the effluent of becoming... the effluent of ignorance, are not present. And there is only this modicum of disturbance: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.' He discerns that 'This mode of perception is empty of the effluent of sensuality... becoming... ignorance. And there is just this non-emptiness: that connected with the six sensory spheres, dependent on this very body with life as its condition.' Thus he regards it as empty of whatever is not there. Whatever remains, he discerns as present: 'There is this.' And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, pure — superior & unsurpassed."
The Lesser Discourse on Emptiness

Great Death

This is the description of the Great Death as "entry into emptiness according with actuality." Many people fear Buddhism because they think emptiness means forgetting or losing the awareness of God's or Buddha's Infinite Light and Love, but this is a superficial understanding. This going beyond to full emptiness (a wonderful oxymoron) does not mean losing or forgetting infinite light and love, it means seeing their place in the whole scheme (Dharma) of things (dharmas). Here there is no forgetfulness, as one bodilessly abides as all three bodies (body of reality, bliss body of infinite light and love, and appearance body among the myriad forms) simultaneously.

The above analysis of states on the path to final attainment is what the Indian Buddhist Dhyana masters excelled in. In China, Chan developed (which of course became Zen in Japan, Soen in Korea, and Thien in Vietnam) which was not so interested in the fine-toothed analysis of dhyana states but in the direct realization of the final "stage" of the themeless concentration of awareness as the direct threshold of awakening.

The point is that after the Great Death is the Great Life. As Zen master Seung Sahn said of life after awakening, "Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way come from this attainment." That is because even though one has discerned that there is nothing further in this world, one's continued presence in this world of appearances is now informed by all the jhanas including the knowledge of Infinite Light and Love that one has passed through. Though people with near death experiences usually do not find the state of mind of theme-less concentration of awareness, they too are informed by the shared plateau of perception of Infinite Light and Love and for this they and we may all be grateful.

Enough said,
Gratitude and bows,

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