I recently went to a short retreat with Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The subject of the retreat was “awakening.” At the retreat, Ṭhānissaro described the death and rebirth process. Ṭhānissaro was almost electrocuted when he was 35 years old, so he had a near death experience. Thus, his description was from a first-hand experience, not just something that was handed down to him from the tradition.
Ṭhānissaro described four possible stages. In the first stage we see whatever things we hang on to from this life. For some people, this will be the only stage before they are reborn. If you have a lot of regret, the rebirth is not likely to be auspicious. The texts describe just such an event. Queen Mallika, who was the wife of King Pasenadi of Kosala, was a very virtuous woman, very sweet, kind, and selfless. However, she had committed an act of sexual indiscretion, and then she compounded the act by lying about it. When she died, this weighed on her mind. She was reborn in one of the hell realms.
However, because she was an otherwise virtuous person, she only spent seven days there. Then she was reborn in the Tusita heaven.
This story is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teachings on the Lump of Salt, in which the Buddha described how an otherwise virtuous person will have the occasional indiscretion absorbed like a lump of salt that is thrown into the Ganges. It will not affect the taste of the water. However, for the normally immoral person, it is like putting a lump of salt into a cup of water. That lump of salt will make the water undrinkable.
If you can let go of your earthly attachments, you enter the next stage. Here you think of all the kind and generous things that you did during your life. This may help you overcome any regret, and it prepares the mind for an auspicious rebirth.
The next stage is that you begin to cycle through the heavenly realms, seeing each one in turn. This is all happening very quickly. Think of times in your life when you flashed on something. These experiences are happening like that. Your mind is processing them at lightning speed. And as you cycle through seeing the heavenly realms, if you have an affinity for one of them, that is where you will be reborn. That is not such a bad thing. It is certainly better than being reborn in one of the lower realms.
However, if you can overcome any attachment or affinity for any of the heavenly realms, you may get the ultimate prize, and that is to escape the rounds of rebirth altogether. In that case you will awaken, and enter the realm of Nirvāṇa.
One of the things that struck me was how similar the first stage is to the Buddha’s instructions for meditation, where he says, “Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.”
“Putting away covetousness and grief for the world.”
How many times have you heard a meditation teacher give this instruction, or something like it? When you sit down to meditate, you must put aside any thoughts about worldly affairs. If you are concerned about your job, family, health, etc., you are not going to be able to settle the mind. And when we wish mettā for ourselves, that is akin to the second stage where we establish a mind that is happy and content. Finally, if we can enter jhāna, or at least get the mind quiet and somewhat serene, this is like entering a heavenly realm. The commentaries even tell us that there are heavenly realms that map to the jhānas.
What Ṭhānissaro’s story tells us is that our meditation can be a dress rehearsal for our death and subsequent rebirth. We can use the start of our meditation to let go of all of our earthly thoughts and attachments. We wish mettā for ourselves and then get the mind as quiet and serene as possible. Ultimately this practice may help us gain entry into one of the heavenly realms, or perhaps even attain awakening.