It is commonly said that we have no idea what happens after death because no one has ever returned to tell about it. This, however is not altogether true. In fact, we have three sources of information for what happens after death: 1) the reports of people who have actually survived "clinical death" (the cessation of all physical life signs) and have reported what are today called near-death experiences (NDE's); 2) the observations of practitioners in those traditions (such as Tibetan Buddhism) which have actually developed meditative techniques for mimicking the death process; 3) the postmortem mythologies found in virtuallyall the world's religions. Furthermore, despite many disparities between these various accounts, there are also certain underlying patterns and motifs which recur from culture to culture and individual to individual with a frequency striking enough to prohibit us from simply dismissing them as mere products of personal fancy.
It is not, however, our intention here to present a full analysis of this body of evidence for what happens during and after death. (Indeed, a truly comprehensive study of the subject has, to our knowledge, yet to be done. ) Instead, we shall explore one aspect of death upon which at least the mystics of all traditions unanimously agree: for those who are spiritually prepared, death presents a "golden opportunity" for attaining that Gnosis or Enlightenment which frees one from all suffering and death, forever.
In the Tibetan tradition, for example, death is seen to unfold in eight stages, during which the dying person's various physical and mental constituents are absorbed into each other, until finally, there is nothing left but an apparent void. This is the critical moment. If the dying person can Recognize that this 'void' is actually the "fundamental clear light," which is 'the nature of the mind, itself," (i.e., Ultimate Reality) then he or she will achieve full Enlightenment; for, as Bokar Rinpoche explains:
Recognizing this fundamental clear light means "Becoming Buddha in the absolute body at the moment of death." 
In the Hindu Upanishads, we find a similar description of what happens .during the death process which also leads to a moment in which the Ultimate Nature of Reality can be Realized:
When, dear one, a person dies, his voice is absorbed into his mind; his mind into his breath; his breath into heat; and heat into formless Spirit. That is the Real. That is the essence of this whole world. That thou art. 
According to both the Christian and Islamic cosmologies, believers who die after leading a virtuous life will be admitted into paradise following the world's destruction at the end of time. Now on the face of it, this sounds quite different from the Hindu and Tibetan conceptions. But if we read the "destruction of the world" as a mythological description of what an individual experiences during the death process, the two accounts are perfectly compatible. From the point of view of the dying person, the progressive eradication of all phenomena from consciousness must, indeed, seem like the "end of the world." In fact, this is precisely how Tibetan master, Kalu Rinpoche describes it:
The internal experience for the dying person is of a great wind sweeping away the whole world...an incredible maelstrom of wind, consuming the entire universe. 
Moreover, according to the early Christian paradigm, although religious belief may earn one entry into paradise, belief, by itself, is not sufficient to realize the eternal life promised by Jesus. Eternal life comes only through spiritual knowledge (Gnosis), for, as Augustine pointed out, Jesus did not say, "this is eternal life that ye believe in God", but rather, "This is eternal life that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent."  Thus, believers who failed to attain such a 'Vision of God" (as Augustine called it) in this life, would be granted it in the hereafter and in this way win salvation from suffering and death.
An almost identical view was held by the mystics of Islam. For instance, the great Sufi philosopher, Al Ghazzali, insisted that upon entering paradise the true lover of God would receive a "Vision of the Divine Countenance," which, he affirmed, was "none other than the gnosis (ma'rifa) already given in an inferior and more fleeting fashion to the saints in this world" 
But in order to understand exactly why death should provide such a golden opportunity for attaining Gnosis, we must try to get a better idea of what happens from the point-of-view of the person who is dying. Because the Tibetans have developed the greatest expertise in simulating death in meditation, let us begin by taking a closer look at what they have to say about the kinds of internal states death generates.
During the first four stages, as the dying person's body shuts down, he or she begins to lose contact with the external world Consequently, objects appearing in the five sense fields (sights, sounds, sensations, tastes and smells) progressively drop out of awareness. In their place, the dying person starts to experience various apparitions—lights, sparks, mists, colors, etc. (similar to those reported in NDE's). This continues until the end of the fourth stage when the breath ceases, marking the moment of actual physical death. According to the Tibetans however, this is not the end of the dying process. There are four more stages that take from five to twenty minutes longer to unfold
In the fifth stage, the ability to conceptualize breaks down. As conceptions disappear, the dying person's mind becomes pervaded by a brilliant white light (also a prominent feature of NDE's) . The Tibetans describe this state as being like "a clear autumn sky filled with moonlight," and call it the mind of white appearance.
In the sixth stage, all traces of aversion and aggression vanish, and the white light pervading the mind gives way to a red or golden light. The Tibetans compare this state to an autumn sky "filled with intense sunlight," and call it the mind of red increase.
In the seventh stage, cravings and desires disappear. Now the mind has been emptied of all phenomena of any kind, and so appears to be a dark void or nothingness—like "an autumn sky without any light whatsoever." This, the Tibetans call the mind of black-near-attainment, and it is this mind of black-near-attainment that provides the "golden opportunity" for Enlightenment, because (as we have already seen) if the mind of black-near-attainment can be Recognized as the fundamental clear light, then one enters the eighth and final stage of death—called by the Tibetans the attainment clear light—which constitutes full Buddhahood.
The crucial word here, however, is if, for according to the Tibetans it is by no means easy to recognize that the empty mind of black-near-attainment is, in reality, the fundamental clear light. In order to do this one must die with a mind meditating on emptiness, and this, in turn, can usually be achieved only after long practice. If, however, one can die with a mind meditating on emptiness, then, as the Venerable Lama Lodš explains:
There will be a spontaneous recognition that the mind which has been meditating on emptiness and the state of emptiness itself [the mind of black-near-attainment] are one and the same. Each will mutually recognize the other. The mind which meditates on emptiness during the lifetime is called the son; the natural reality of the mind itself is known as the mother. The person who has accomplished very thorough and profound meditation will experience a merging of the two...When you realize the emptiness of the mind and also the emptiness of the realization, then you attain the highest enlightenment, Dharmakaya. 
Let us now try to translate this Tibetan description of the death process into our own more generic terminology. We can see immediately that the mind of black-near-attainment is literally Consciousness-without-an-object—that is, a state of Consciousness in which all phenomena (both physical and mental) have been utterly eliminated. When this occurs, Consciousness Itself stands revealed in its purest form (or, rather, form-less-ness.) Yet just because there are no objects in this Formless Consciousness, it will seem to the deluded person like an absolute blackness or total nothing. In order to take full advantage of this "golden opportunity," which the revelation of Pure Consciousness presents, one must die with a "mind meditating on emptiness." But what does this mean?
In the Tibetan tradition, meditating on emptiness does not mean that the mind itself is empty of all objects. Rather, it means that one meditates on the emptiness of the inherent existence of whatever objects do arise—especially those objects considered to constitute a substantially existing 'self'. When this meditation produces a direct experience of one's own selflessness, a state of Consciousness-without-a-subject arises. Thus, if one can die in (or approaching) a state of Consciousness-without-a-subject (the son), then, when Consciousness-without-an-object (the mother) appears, there will be no (or few) obstacles to spontaneously Realizing that Consciousness-without-an-object is indistinguishable from Consciousness-without-a-subject (the merging of mother and son). Put differently, the dying person will Awaken to the fact that he or she is (and always has been) identical to Consciousness-without-an-object-and-without-a-subject (or Consciousness Itself)—which is the Ultimate, Non-dual Ground of all things.
Now, the reason this Gnostic Awakening (attaining the clear light) "sets one free" from suffering and death is because it makes transparently clear that the experience of being a limited, transitory entity, or 'self' (which could be subject to birth, suffering, and death) has been a delusion from the very beginning. Here is how Bokar Rinpoche expresses it within the Tibetan tradition:
What is suffering? What is death? In reality, they do not have any existence. They appear within the framework of the manifestations produced by the mind wrapped up in an illusion, just as they appear in a dream...In the emptiness of mind, there is no death. No one dies. There is no suffering and no fear. 
But the Realization that there is no truly existing 'self' constitutes not only the essential teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, but of all other mystical traditions, as well. Listen, for example, to the great Hindu sage, Shankara:
There is neither birth nor death, neither bound nor aspiring soul, neither liberated soul nor seeker after liberation—this is the ultimate and absolute truth. 
And consider this passage penned by Ibn 'Arabi, the Sufi "Shaykh of shaykhs,"
For knowledge of God does not presuppose the ceasing of existence nor the ceasing of that ceasing. For things have no existence, and what does not exist cannot cease to exist...Then if thou know thyself without existence or ceasing to be, then thou knowest God; and if not, then not. 
Of course, it is not necessary to wait for physical death in order to attain such a Gnosis, otherwise "Liberation in this life" would be impossible. Actually, one may have a Gnostic Awakening at any time. This potentialexists not only because Consciousness is always and everywhere the In-formed Reality of all experience, but also, and more precisely, because all forms of Consciousness are continually being 'born' and 'dying'. Thus, according to the Tibetans, the whole process of birth and death (including a brief glimpse of the mind of black-near - attainment) actually occurs whenever any phenomena arises or passes from Consciousness.
Nor again is this teaching exclusively Tibetan. Speaking for the Hindu tradition, Ramana Maharshi writes:
The ego in its purity [i.e., the Atman] is experienced in the intervals between two states or between two thoughts. The ego is like the worm which leaves one hold only after it catches another. Its true nature is known when it is out of contact with objects or thoughts. You should realize this interval as the abiding, unchangeable Reality, your we Being. 
And the fourteenth century Kabbalist, Rabbi Joseph ben Shalom of Barcelona, taught:
In every transformation of reality, in every change of form, or every time the stature of a thing is altered, the abyss of nothingness is crossed and for a fleeting mystical moment becomes visible. 
The reason we do not normally notice this abyss of nothingness is that, first of all, its appearance is exceedingly brief. More importantly, our attention is conditioned to focus only on things, but this abyss of nothingness is not a 'thing', consequently, our attention habitually ignores it in its search for the next phenomenon to arise. If, however, we train our attention through meditation to remain stable and clear, then all that is required to point to this abyss of nothingness is an ordinary gesture of the most mundane kind. This is why Zen students, ripened by meditative practice, can attain Enlightenment simply from the whack of a master's stick, or upon hearing the call of a bird, or by witnessing a candle being blown out. In the "intervals" just before and after the arising and passing of each of these phenomena, pure Consciousness-without-an-object stands unveiled in all its nakedness.
But there are other moments in the course of our lives in which Consciousness-without-an-object is disclosed more dramatically and for longer periods of time. One of these occurs every twenty-four hours during the transition from the waking state to sleep. Here it is not merely a single sound or a single sight that "dies," but the entire waking world! This is why an ancient Hindu text has Shiva instructing his consort, Devi, to observe carefully the moment "when sleep has not yet come and external wakefulness vanishes, [for] at this point BEING is REVEALED."  The trouble is that, here again, when most of us fall asleep our minds are compulsively occupied with reviewing past events, making future plans, or spinning all sorts of fantasies. Because our attention is so absorbed in these mental activities, we fail to recognize Consciousness without-an-object when it appears. Instead, we experience it as a kind of black out, a state of unconsciousness, when, in fact, it is pure Consciousness!
Finally, Consciousness-without-an-object can be experienced by practicing certain meditative techniques that lead to states of samadhi (as they are called in the East) or suspension (as they are called in the West). There are two problems with this approach, however. First, these techniques usually require a concerted effort, made over a long period of time, which renders them too difficult for seekers living a householder's life to perfect. The second problem is that states of samadhi almost always generate an overpowering sense of bliss. Seekers who attain samadhi without having thoroughly practiced selflessness are in great danger of mistaking this bliss for a Gnostic Awakening. When this happens, not only do they miss the point of the practice (which is not to enjoy bliss but to attain Gnosis), but they fall into one of the worst delusions of all: they imagine they have been liberated, when they have not.
In any case, the point is that, although opportunities for Realization arise in many different situations, attaining it in this life is (as you probably already know) not easy. The primary problem is that we are constantly being distracted by myriad self-centered thoughts, feelings, sensations, desires, aversions, attachments, etc.-all of which seem rooted in Nature itself. When death arrives, however, everything will be reversed. Nature will actually cooperate with your practice (as the Tibetans say) by progressively removing each and every distraction from your mind until there is nothing left but Pure Consciousness. All you will really have to do is wait for this Pure Consciousness to appear, and then Recognize it for what it is. Death will take care of the rest!
Here, however, a word of warning is called for. The fact that Nature will remove all obstacles at the time of death in no way negates the necessity for practicing in this life. On the contrary, if you do not engage in spiritual practices (and thus have no personal insight into true selflessness), you will almost certainly be stricken with anguish and terror when death actually arrives. Rather than surrender wholeheartedly to its operations, your instinct will be to fight against it with all your might. Consequently, when Consciousness-without-an-object finally dawns, instead of attaining Gnosis, you will fall into a state of profound unconsciousness. Nor is this the end of it. Sooner or later Consciousness will again resume its Divine Play, manifesting those worlds and beings which constitute the heavens and hells of traditional mythologies. And while these states are, in fact, mere self-projections of your own deluded mind, they will certainly seem real enough, for as Bokar Rinpoche explains:
The appearances that manifest [after death] do not depend on our beliefs but on our karma which is the positive or negative quality of deeds we have actually accomplished. Even if we do not believe that hell exists, if we have committed negative deeds, that will cause hell to manifest; our mind will produce the false appearances causing immense suffering when the time is right. That is what hell is about. 
Likewise, Al-Ghazzali writes about those who doubt that unbelievers will be tormented by snakes in the hereafter (as Islamic mythology describes):
They do not understand that these snakes have their abode within the unbeliever's spirit, and that they existed in him even before he died, for they were his own evil qualities symbolized, such as jealousy, hatred, hypocrisy, pride, deceit, etc. 
In other words, in death as in life, it is we, ourselves, who create our own happiness or suffering; and while the mythological accounts of these postmortem states may vary from tradition to tradition, it is axiomatic among mystics of all traditions that so long as a person fails to attain Gnosis (whether in this life or the next) he or she will continue to have pleasant or unpleasant experiences even after physical death, depending on the selfless or selfish qualities that have been cultivated during life. Therefore, if suffering is to be avoided and death's golden opportunity seized, it is imperative that you make spiritual preparations now, for as Simone Weil, one of the great mystics of our own century, wrote:
The instant of death is the center and object of life...for those who live as they should, it is the instant when, for an infinitesimal fraction of time, pure truth, naked, certain, and eternal enters the soul. I may . say that I have never desired any other good for myself. 
May all beings attain this good.
- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Spring 1995. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.
1. For a fuller discussion of how death is viewed in different traditions, see The Gate of Death, an audio recording published by the Center for Sacred Sciences.
2. Bokar Rinpoche, Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism, French trans. Francois Jacquemart, English trans. Christiane Buchet, ed. Jennifer Pessereau, (San Francisco: ClearPoint Press, 1993), 19.
3. The Chandogya Upanishad, 6:8:6-7
4. Cited in Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, a division of HarperCollins, 1992), 253.
5. "On Free Choice" in The Essential Augustine, ed. Vernon J. Bouake, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1974),25.
6. Al-Ghazzali, The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife: Book XL of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. T. J. Winter (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1989),250 n.
7. Venerable Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death and Rebirth, revised ed. (San Francisco: KDK, 1982), 7-8.
8. Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism, 75.
9. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, 3rd ed. (Hollywood, California: Vedanta Press, 1978), 127.
10. Ibn 'Arabi, Whoso Knoweth Himself, trans. T.H. Weir (Gloucestersire, England: Beshara Publications, 1976), 5.
11. Ramana Maharshi, The Spiritual Teachings of Ramana Maharshi (Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, 1972), 69.
12. Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941; reprint, New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 217.
13. Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1957), 120. (See also Joel's spiritual autobiography, Naked Through the Gate, for an account of his own Enlightenment which occurred precisely at this moment.)
14. Death and the Art of Dying in Tibetan Buddhism, 35.
15. Al-Ghazzali, The Alchemy of Happiness, trans. Claud Field (1964; reprint, Lahore, Pakistan: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, October, 1983), 63.
16. Simone Weil, Waiting For God, trans. Emma Craufurd (1951; reprint, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 63.