What to Do For the Dead, and Ourselves Along the Way


In several previous posts we have examined the role of death and dying in general as it appears in several schools of Western esotericism, and have noted that while death and various notions of the afterlife, reincarnation, and cosmic planes exists within esotericism, little practical advice is given regarding them and how to prepare for the inevitable fate that awaits us all. While some statements are made that can be seen as practical, in most instances, it is no different than what one finds in conventional, or exoteric religious practices.  Now for modern esotericism, that of the 21st Century, this creates quite the problem. At the risk of being repetitive for our longtime readers, let me restate for the new ones that until recently esotericism was intimately connected to conventional religion in some form, it was not, as one is led to believe today, a completely separate and independent entity.  That said, what are we to do when faced with our last breath?  Well, much of this has been answered in Between the Gates – Lucid Dreaming, Astral Projection and the Body of Light in Western Esotericism (Red Wheel). However, what else is there that we can do for those who have died? Is there a practice, or set of practices we can undertake that will benefit the recently, or even long time deceased?

While any prayer offered at anytime will be of value, clearly the right prayer, at the right time, will be of more value. In this case we are talking about the period prior to, at the time of, and immediately following death. While we have given some methods of assisting the dying in Between the Gates, the following will help put that information into the broader context of both mainstream and esoteric Christianity, and will be of interest to those in the Martinist, Rosicrucian, Templar and Gnostic traditions in particular.

Death in Eastern Orthodoxy, the branch of Christianity said to be the most mystical and favored by many Martinists and Gnostic movements, is called, “Falling Asleep in the Lord”. Clearly the notion is that sleep refers to physical body, wherein they rest awaiting resurrection at the time of the Second Coming, wherein the earth will be transformed into a heavenly Paradise; as well as to their soul awakening to heavenly realities as revealed through the person of Jesus Christ.

Like all traditional practices, both private as well as public prayers are encouraged, one could even say required, for those we love and who are about to, or who have died. These prayers are completed at the end of the Divine Liturgy, and are called, the “Trisagion Prayers for the Departed”. Trisagion means ‘thrice holy’ and is from the Greek, tri, three, and agios, holy. The hymn or prayer is “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” These prayers are traditionally said on the day of death, as well as on the third, ninth and fortieth days after death. Custom dictates, although it is not required, that bread or boiled wheat, and sometimes both, are to be prepared on the fortieth day.  Offerings of course also accompany these prayers, but these are secondary to the prayers themselves.

The numbers three, seven, and forty should be well known to each of you, in both their Biblical usage, as well as their qabalistic and alchemical – particularly for students of The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians of the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Freemasonry and several Rosicrucian schools have funeral rituals, and as some may know, marriage and naming rituals as well.  Albert Pike attempted to create a complete line of rituals designed to replace those of the Christian churches of his day, thereby making Freemasonry a de facto philosophical replacement for Christianity without technically making it a religion.  However, Pike’s vision never came to fruition.

Herein lies one of the great challenges facing the various schools of contemporary esotericism – how to incorporate those rites and practices deemed ‘exoteric’ or ‘sacramental’ without simply reinventing the religious wheel?  In truth, they cannot. These contemporary schools must either fully embrace their symbiotic relationship with mainstream religions, or, essentially become religious bodies themselves, complete with appropriate sacramental rites for birth, naming, marriage, and death.  Otherwise, if this is not done, we are left with an esoteric or occult movements wherein their members do not fully connect to the phases of life and the communal aspect of worship that religion is designed to supply; nor do we have religious movements that can supply the multi-leveled meanings and methods that those on the Path require.  We in short, are left with a glass half empty or half full, but regardless of what you call it, it is still half of what it could be and therefore can only partially quench one’s spiritual thirst.

I recently had the good fortune to spend sometime on a sunny late summer afternoon with Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal at his house on the ground of Padma Samye Ling monastery and retreat center near Sidney Center (Upstate) New York.  My visit was specifically for the purpose of having Khenpo bless a thangka, or painted banner, similar to Eastern Orthodox icons, that my wife had crafted during the summer.  Those of you unfamiliar with this will recognize that it is similar to the notions of the ancient Egyptian schools that a representation of a god is in some form the actual presence of the god, their energies, and wisdom. In this case it was not a deity, but an image representing an aspect of the pure, and fully awakened mind.  Once finished, these images can be used for meditation after being blessed, and having the three syllables of pure body, speech, and mind – or as the Bible says, “thought, word and deed” – inscribed on them in the appropriate locations, or charkas.  Again, one can find similar practices within the Eastern and Western Catholic rites, wherein imagery is placed, consecrated, and treated as a living representation of the divine.  They are in fact, large two and three-dimensional talismans for specific aspects of worship and practice.

One of the reasons I mention this is because a great deal of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Oriental practices in general, have many prayers, rituals, and practices designed to strengthen the life force of a person, as well as to allow them to release it when the time come to die.  Some of these can also delay the time of death as well. To us who are unfamiliar with the brutal realities of life in the harsh climates and conditions of this and nearby parts of the world, such practices seem somewhat out of place. However, should we find ourselves without relatively easy access to highly accurate and effective modern medicine, or even a shadowy similarity to it, we quickly would find ourselves looking for methods to maintain vitality, health, and achieve longevity so that our Path of Awakening could be completed.  One need only look at the majority of practices associated with folk magic to see how important healing of “man and beast” was to even our grandparents and great-grandparents generation of occultists and the clients they served.

In his work, Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom – The Life and Legacy of H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal (Snow Lion Publications) gives this account of a teaching from Dudjom Rinpoche on life and death.

“First, think of how difficult it is to obtain the freedoms and endowments of the precious human body. Second, consider how life and compounded things are impermanent. Third, recognize the inexorability of karma, of results inevitably following from causes. Fourth, observe that none of the three realms of cyclic existence is beyond trouble and suffering. The main point of this contemplation is to reduce attachment and grasping to the activities of samsara [cyclic existence, mind stuck in duality]….take refuge with clarity and a profound aspiration to achieve the state of buddhahood [awakening, enlightenment] beyond samsara. It is imperative to develop unshakable bodhichitta [compassion of the awakened heart] to benefit the limitless numbers of sentient beings who have experienced uninterrupted difficulties throughout all their lifetimes.  Develop unconditional love and compassion to liberate all beings from suffering. Again and again practice wishing bodhichitta and performing bodhichitta according to your capacity, combining it with emptiness meditation.  To achieve…enlightenment, we must remove the two obscurations, and this can be accomplished by accumulating both merit and wisdom.  There are many methods of accumulation, but one that is simply and brings big results is the mandala offering practice [repeatedly giving the world, your possessions, actions, and body as an offering to the pure and unobstructed force of enlightenment as embodied by the deity of choice].  The means to instantly destroy all faults, downfalls, and obscurations is to meditate on Vajrasattva [lord of purification], who is lord of all the families of deities, and to recite the hundred-syllable mantra, the king of the secret mantras.  To remove obscurations and increase merit quickly, the ultimate essence of the vajrayana path is guru yoga [meditation on the enlightened mind of the teacher and the lineage] combined with meditation on shamatha [emptiness, or the nature that everything is subject to change and has no substantial or permanent reality to it] and vipashana [observing the thoughts, how they arise, their source, and dissipation]. Whoever follows these practices is making their life more meaningful, and therefore, the bardo of birth and life is more meaningful.

…the bardo [period or cycle] of birth and life is so very important. If you can recognize this bardo as nothing more than a dream and a magical display and combine that recognition with uncontrived bodhichitta born from your heart, then you will master this bardo of birth and life..[and]… you will master all the other bardos.  You will become a great hero or heroine, not frightened by birth, sickness, old age, and death. There will be no need for special instructions concerning the bardo of death and dying.

However, to make sure that the bardo of death and dying will be a journey under your control, make sure right now you really understand that the time of death is uncertain, the cause of death is uncertain, and life is impermanent…Therefore, regard everything you see in samsara as dreamlike…Why be troubled by fear and attachment? It won’t help. Therefore, think, “I will never be afraid or attached,” and keep thinking it as often as you can in this, your current life. Then make offerings of all your belongings, including your body, to the buddhas [enlightened beings] and bodhisattvas [saints and those dedicated to the Path of Awakening] of the ten directions, particularly to Amitabha [Lord of Infinite Light].  Just as you would plan for a trip, plan for your death and where you will go…your attitude, without any fear or sadness, is joyful and confident.  Now, when you possess vitality and all of your faculties, is the time to practice generosity, giving as much as you can to others, thereby accumulating merit. If you can’t do this now, how will you do it when death is near?….prepare now, perform virtuous activities, ensure that you have no fears and regrets…Rehearse your lama’s instructions once more like an actress glancing at herself in the mirror before going on stage, then die with a smile and confidence.”

While it is easy to see the particular format that is presented in the above practice, it is often difficult to see similar or existing structures within Western religious practices, particularly since they have been abandoned wholesale by many in the West, both within and outside of esoteric circles. Again referring to the Orthodox Church, within the Byzantine Liturgy, we see a specific structure develop over the centuries. While there is not a direct correspondence between these actions and the above practices, that is, one is aimed at salvation, wherein the other is directed towards enlightenment, key elements are present in both. For in fact, there is an aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that has an element of salvation in it, if you will, wherein the practitioner aims to reincarnate not in the physical world, but in the realm of Dewachen [meaning blissful, where all the enlightened being reside], the Buddhafield of Amitaba, where they may continue their practices and achieve enlightenment. This would be on par with the notion of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Elsewhere we also find similarities, and often again, the only difference being one system is aimed at experiencing salvation from sin and error at the hands of a merciful god, wherein the other is seeking enlightenment, or inner knowledge that removes the causes and conditions that give rise to sin and suffering. In his work, Let Us Attend – A Journey Through the Ortjodox Divine Liturgy, Father Lawrence Farley states,

“There are only a few times in the Divine Liturgy when the deacon exhorts the faithful to ‘stand upright’ – …If any in the congregation are sitting, slouching, or leaning, they are exhorted to straighten up and stand erect. Our entrance into the presence of Christ is about to culminate, and we me stand straight to greet our King.

Some might think that our posture does not matter, and that as long as a person pay attention in the heart, the bodily position is irrelevant. If we were angels, that might be so. Presumably the holy bodiless powers (as they are called) do not have to worry about physical posture, but man is not bodiless. It is not so much that case that we have bodies; rather, we are bodies [italic original].  Since we are a compound of spirit and matte, what our bodies do also affects our spirits. That is why the church bids us to make prostrations during Great Lent, for the humbling of the body helps humble the spirit. In the same way, standing up straight and tall helps us attend to the presence of Christ in our midst…we heighten our attitude of expectancy as we enter the presence of God.”

One need only take a cursory look at any book on meditation or yoga to see nearly the exact language and concepts being expressed. Further on he states the importance of prayers, not only for ourself, but for the world, and not just alone, but as the first act of collective worship to take place within the liturgy. The Church prays for the world, for that is what its first and foremost function is – redemption of the Fallen, those in sin and error. This is the same concept as bodhichitta expressed in different language – wherein we pray for and act in ways that help others rise above the error and suffering experienced in duality (cyclic existence) and find the peace of nirvana – enlightenment, underlying unity. Christ and Nirvana are the same – Christ is One, Nirvana is One, in them there is no separation, no duality, and in the Heavenly Western Realm of Dewachen, or in the Heavenly Jerusalem, we can experience that oneness and further develop it within our own consciousness wherein we transcend the concepts of Samasara and Nirvana, or Life and Death. In the esoteric Christian tradition this can be seen in the Book of Revelations wherein the Heavenly and Earthly Jerusalem are one.

For this to happen however, we must be diligent in our Work. We must recognize the importance of daily practice, of expanding the heart, praying for and finally for others, as well as ourselves, and being generous RIGHT NOW, while we can. While we are strong and healthy enough to do so, and not to put off until tomorrow what we can do this very day. In this, we help others, we help ourselves, and we become as it were, like the ancient Classical heroes, conquerors of life and death – both for ourselves, and others.



One comment

  1. Food for thought. I need some time to process this article. Thank you for writing it down!


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