Tukdam (ཐུགས་དམ་), literally integrity of the mind/heart, refers to one’s meditation practice. A person who is in meditation is described as being in tukdam. In the specific context of tukdam after death, Himalayan Buddhist traditions believe in the ability of some persons to remain in meditation even after death and thereby also slow down the process of physical disintegration due to the transformation of their minds. Thus, when we hear that a spiritual master is in tukdam, such a figure is believed to remain in a meditative state, defying the usual signs of clinical death and decomposition.
What happens during death?
From a Himalayan Buddhist perspective, dying is considered an important process because it gives the person a window of opportunity to become fully enlightened. The teachings on bardo deal with ways of leveraging the death process for spiritual enlightenment. During the dying process, or chikha bardo (འཆི་ཁ་བར་དོ་), the intermediate state of death, a person undergoes psycho-somatic dissolution. The physical body breaks down, losing its life-supporting functions and the person subsequently gradually loses his/her physical motor functions, sensory perception, cognitive abilities, and emotions. This process of existential dissolution is presents generally through the disintegration of various neuro-centres for vital energy and the dysfunction of five elements, which make up the physical bases of life and consciousness.
According to great masters such as Pénor Rinpoché (1932-2009), during death, when the element of earth dissolves into water, the neuro-centre at the navel breaks down, resulting in physical symptoms such as the loss of physical strength and motor function. Then, water dissolves into fire, fire into air, air into space, and the neuro-centres of heart, throat and reproductive organs cease to function. The active process of breathing, also known as lékyi lung (ལས་ཀྱི་རླུང་), becomes shallower and eventually fades. At this stage, the white fluid which is the quintessence of genetic material received from the father descends down from the neuro-centre at top of the head to the heart and the red fluid which is the quintessence of the genetic material passed down from the mother rises from the navel centre to the heart. The person encounters different forms of light at this time. Once the red and white merge at the heart, the person goes through an intense experience of being knocked into an utterly blank and unconscious state.
As the physical elements totally give way and cease to support mental and emotional functions, all mental constructs, emotions, and obscurations collapse like a house of cards, exposing one’s innate consciousness to the bare nature of existence. The forty impressions of attachment, thirty-three impressions of aggression, and seven impressions of stupidity are said to dissipate without a trace. The dying person loses all sense of individuality and is momentarily in the state of Ground Luminosity, zhi ösel (གཞིའི་འོད་གསལ་), and has a split-second opportunity to realise the true nature of existence and fully align him- or herself with the way things are, unobstructed by concepts, thoughts, prejudices and emotions.
How can one achieve tukdam?
An experienced meditator with deep insight into emptiness (སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་) will be able to grasp that moment, remain in that state, and merge with the dharmakāya (ཆོས་སྐུ་) or innate nature of reality. In order to assist in this experience, lamas are often present to remind the dying person of this opportunity and guide him/her through the process. Many persons, who are said to have remained in tukdam, effectively grasp this opportunity and become a Buddha by merging into the Ground Luminosity. Their existential identity as sentient beings cease to exist, and they achieve full enlightenment.
If the person fails to abide in this natural state of Ground Luminosity, the propensities of ordinariness rise again in the form of thoughts, emotions, and their projections. The deceased person now enters the phase of chönyi bardo (ཆོས་ཉིད་བར་དོ་) or the intermediate state of reality, where s/he begins to see various visions, hear sounds, and often have traumatic nightmares. Generally speaking, the deceased encounters a sequence of visions and experiences, which are expressions of the innate existence. First, one has the experience of sonic resonance, radiance, and rays of the Ground Luminosity. Then, the impressions of one’s five inner elements and psychological components begin to unfold as external images, figures, and sounds. Depending on one’s perception, these phenomena can be perceived to be either frightening forces of bardo or overwhelming energies of enlightenment.
A lama once again guides the deceased’s consciousness to approach those experiences with a positive attitude and a pure mind free from attachment and aggression. The deceased person is instructed to see the overwhelming blue light of bardo as the expansive energy of enlightenment or the Buddha Vairocana, the white light as the immutable energy of enlightenment or Buddha Aksobhya, and so forth. People in Bhutan generally think of these energies as Buddhas with human figures but the enlightened energies should not be reified into human or god figures; rather, they should be seen as pure and open flow of luminous spiritual energy of enlightenment.
If the deceased person succeeds in viewing the experience of bardo as enlightened energies and connects with them, the person realizes the sambhogakāya (ལོངས་སྐུ་) state of enlightenment. Such a person would also be considered to remain in tukdam. If one fails to become enlightened in the chikha or chönyi bardo stages, the consciousness then actively seeks rebirth in the cycle of existence.
Those who succeed in these chikha or chönyi bardo stages remain in tukdam and experience a spiritual transformation of the mind and their bodies, and as a result, also do not undergo the usual course of disintegration. The muscles may remain tight, skin remains lustrous, and the body retains some warmth at the heart as if still subliminally functioning. Externally, the inner transformation may show in forms of unusual lights, rainbows, mild earthquakes, and an auspicious drizzle. When the body becomes sloppy, loses hue, and emits excretions or smells, the person is said to have woken from tukdam.
What should one think of tukdam?
A Vajrayana Buddhist should aspire to reach enlightenment in this life, or at the time of death, seek to merge into the Ground Luminosity. An effective and composed death is considered a great spiritual achievement sought by Bhutanese practitioners. However, tukdam after death is not the sole indication of enlightenment and thus claims of tukdam should not be exaggerated. If there is a genuine case of tukdam, believers ought to make prayers in the presence of such a person and create a positive connection with him/her.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel as part of a series called “Why We Do What We Do.”