Need dying be traumatic?

This was the guiding question during last Wednesday night’s discussion at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City for the second meeting of the Tibetan Book of the Dead Book Club, which encourages attendees to consider what the ancient text can offer us in the modern era. In this conversation, Dr. Mark Epstein, a renowned psychiatrist who explores the intersection of Buddhism and psychology, and Dr. Ramon N. Prats, a leading Tibetan scholar, discussed the relationship between trauma and death.

Epstein opened the dialogue by sharing a provocative perspective on trauma, which he defined as any event that threatens our physical integrity and incites fear, terror, and shock.

“Trauma gladdens the heart,” he said. “Maintaining a realistic view of trauma can help many people.”

While Westerners largely consider death a traumatic event, dying is not something that is generally feared in Tibetan culture. This is likely because many Tibetan Buddhists engage in lifelong practices to prepare themselves for death, such as meditating on impermanence and cultivating a keen awareness that death is inevitable. Then, at the actual time of death, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is traditionally read to the corpse by a lama [Buddhist teacher], fellow disciple, or close friend. These words are meant to guide the individual’s consciousness through the in-between states after death and before rebirth [bardos] toward liberation.

“The teachings aren’t new to the person,” Prats said. “The officiant is reading the text in order to remind the dying person of what they have spent years studying, what they already know.” 

Prats also discussed the importance of engaging in practices that cultivate awareness, such as meditation and dream yoga, which uses lucid dreaming to transform our waking lives. These methods can encourage us to resist distractions and stay present as we experience other states of consciousness.

“Tibetan dream yoga is like a dress rehearsal for death,” he said. “If you’re capable of being aware of your dreams while in the dream state—which is also a bardo—then you’re on track.”  

A discussion about dukkha [suffering] placed a Western explanation of trauma in an Eastern context. When we move closer to topics that are difficult to experience—such as old age, sickness, death, or other traumatic events—we are bound to suffer. However, when we look directly at our suffering and work through it, we can experience growth and freedom.

“The Buddha taught us that dukkha has to be acknowledged,” Epstein said. “When you allow yourself to acknowledge the presence of death, or another aspect of life that’s hard to face, something moves in the heart. The heart opens a little bit.”

Related: What the Tibetan Book of the Dead Can Teach Us About Dying Today

In his book The Trauma of Everyday Life, Epstein positions trauma as a foundational component of our psychological development. He also offers an analysis of the Buddha’s early childhood trauma—the loss of his mother when he was five days old, a primitive knowledge that he said the Buddha “held in his body.” He also integrated stories from his practice as a therapist, as well as his own personal experiences.

“The Buddha reminded us that our minds are a precious instrument that can be tuned,” Epstein said. “He taught that our work is in cultivating ourselves, not in subduing ourselves. That kind of thinking was revolutionary.”

Prats also shared a popular saying among Tibetans, one that seemed to resonate throughout the evening: “What comes earlier: tomorrow or death?”

We cannot know for sure, but perhaps if we can talk about and prepare for the latter, it may help us feel more liberated and less traumatized.

 The Tibetan Book of the Dead Book Club is held on Wednesday evenings through July 26, 7-8:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 for a single program and $165 for the series. More information on the speakers and lineup is available here.

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