After Death Experiences in Tibetan Buddhism and Zoroastrianism



Excerpted from N. F. Gier "Humanistic Self-Judgment and After-Death
Experiences" in Geddes MacGregor, ed., Immortality and Human Destiny. New
York: Paragon House, 1985, pp. 3-20.

For a related article see N. F. Gier, "Last
Judgment as Self-Judgment: Kant, Autonomy, and Divine Power
Indian Philosophical Quarterly
28:1 (January, 2001), pp. 15-32.

Note 1: in this article a "humanist ethics" is defined as a moral
theory in which human beings have the capacity to conform to the moral law and/or achieve
the good life on their own powers.

Note 2: Recent
critics of the after-death experiences have offered good counter arguments. 
Particularly compelling are the facts about what a person experiences with the
gradual shutting down of the brain and especially the demise of the occipital
lobe that controls vision. Dark tunnel vision with a bright light at the center
is exactly what one would experience in such a state.  The critics,
however, still have to explain the detailed accounts of the actions in and the
contents of the room that unconscious patients are able to relate.

H. H. Price’s View of the Afterlife

English philosopher H. H. Price has given one of the most persuasive
arguments for the possibility of after-death experiences. Price argues that we could
conceive of such experiences on the basis of an analogy with dream experiences. He
contends that dream worlds and the hypothetical "next world would be realms of real
mental images." As Price states: "Mental images are not…imaginary at all. We
do actually experience them, and they are no more imaginary than sensations"
("Survival and the Idea of Another World," Proceedings of the Society for
Psychical Research
50 [January, 1953]).

Mental images do indeed resemble percepts. This similarity gives credibility
to those accounts of mediumistic communication in which the dead find it difficult to
believe that they are dead. "This is just what we should expect," says Price,
"if the next world is an image-world." Price goes on to observe that such a
world is no less substantial than the world of some European philosophers, who claim that
the world is nothing but sense data arranged according to custom and habit. Price’s
after-world is built along similar lines: "Such a family of interrelated images would
make a pretty good object. It would be quite a satisfactory substitute for the material
objects we perceive in this present life. And a whole world composed of such families of
mental images would make a perfectly good world."

Such a world would be spatial-temporal as well as being filled with
qualities. We would, for example, be able to tell the head from the tail of a dream tiger;
we would be able to see color and spatial arrangement of its stripes; and we would
experience the exciting temporal sequence of the tiger chasing us through an Indian
forest. Therefore, the dream world has definite spatial-temporal relations and contains
extended, bounded entities. Concluding that "there is no a priori reason why
all extended entities must be in physical space," Price suggests the possibility of
some nonphysical body.

Contemporary Near-Death Studies

Price has given us a coherent and meaningful conceptual framework for
after-death experiences. In contrast to other scenarios, Price’s hypothesis is both
compatible and continuous with earthly human existence. Recent scientific work with
persons who have had close encounters with death offers some tentative, yet tantalizing,
evidence that Price’s ideas may be more than just hypothetical. Definite patterns
have emerged in the 3,000 cases studied so far, and I shall extract the points which are
relevant with regard to Price’s hypothesis and my humanist eschatology.

Almost without exception, the patients reported that they found themselves
outside their physical bodies. Although most of them did not speak of a spiritual body,
they all described their experiences in terms of definite spatial-temporal relations.
According to the accounts, the subjects claimed to have had supernormal powers, e.g., the
ability to see into other rooms. Kenneth Ring’s patients also reported a "state
of heightened mental clarity dominated by a (subjective) sense of logic, detachment, and
rationality" ( Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death
[New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980], p. 92; see also Michael
B. Sabom, Recollections of Death [New York: Harper & Row, 1981]; and Raymond A.
Moody, Life after Life [New York: Bantam Books, 1976]).

Except for one study done by Maurice Rawlings, there were virtually no
accounts of negative experiences and no signs of external judgment. Contrary to widespread
opinion, even those who survived suicide attempts told of feelings of bliss and
contentment. Maurice Rawlings claims that up to half of his cases contained
"hellish" elements. Rawlings contends that most researchers interview their
subjects too late, and that the negative dimensions of their near-death encounter have all
been suppressed. As a cardiologist involved in many resuscitations, Rawlings has had the
opportunity to speak to these people soon after their traumas. (See Maurice Rawlings, Beyond
Death’s Door
[Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978].).

Ring does not deny the possibility of some negative elements in the
near-death experience, but he suspects that Rawlings has exaggerated their frequency.
First, Rawlings, like Raymond Moody, has no statistical control over his data. Second, the
suppression hypothesis does not seem to be borne out by data drawn from other areas, like
bad drug trips. Third, Michael Sabom is also a cardiologist involved in resuscitation and
he does not report any hellish accounts. Fourth, Rawlings does not hide the fact that he
is writing from a conservative Christian standpoint and that he is intent on demonstrating
that the negative experiences are the result of not turning to the Lord. But Ring points
out that Osis and Haraldsson’s cross-cultural study, containing many non-Christians,
did not show signs of judgment or damnation (pp. 193-4).

Most of the subjects interviewed said they went through a dark tunnel to a
realm of light. Moody’s patients said that they met a great being of light,
identified by many as Jesus or God. Sabom and Ring’s subjects did not report so much
an individual being as a presence that which was usually not described in religious terms.
Moody’s being of light is explained in terms of total compassion–gentle and
persuasive, never judgmental–and this being instigates a total review of the
subject’s life.

Only twenty-five percent of Ring’s subjects reported life- reviews with
the highest frequency among accident victims (55%). Ring’s patients generally
described the life-review in terms of a crucial decision about whether to go back to the
body or to continue on to final death. One subject reported that the presence gave him a
choice, and another woman said who "had a decision to make and…it was totally up to
me (pp. 67, 73). One suicide survivor gave the following account: "The only thing I
felt judged by would be myself. Like in the very beginning, when I thought about these
things, all these terrible things, then I thought about the good things, then it felt like
I’d just run through my life and I’d think of all the stupid things… all the
mistakes I’ve made. I think the judging was mainly myself judging myself" (p.

On the basis of this report and others like it, Ring suggests that the
presence is actually the higher self encouraging the ordinary self on to full
self-actualization. Ring himself has been profoundly influenced by Paul Brunton, an
English mystic who explains the preceding point this way: "Through (the
Overself’s) eyes he will gaze afresh at the total impression rather than the episodal
detail of his early life. Through its revelatory eyes he becomes his own incorruptible
judge" (The Wisdom of the Overself [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1945], p. 55).

Critics say that there must be natural explanations for these experiences.
Some, for example, have proposed that  some of the details–a long, dark tunnel, loud
ringing noises, a brilliant light–might simply be a mental replay of the process of
birth. Still others claim that these experiences constitute some type of hallucination. In
their books Ring and Sabom gives plausible counter-arguments to these and other
naturalistic explanations of near-death encounters. In contrast to most of the reports,
Ring and Sabom’s investigation of 220 subjects was done under rigorous empirical
controls. For example, Sabom was able to demonstrate that his clinically dead subjects
were able to give correct descriptions of medical attempts to revive them.

Zoroastrian Self-Judgment

Ring and Sabom stress the tentativeness of their conclusions, and much more
careful work has to be done in this area before we can even begin to understand these
intriguing accounts. Contemporary near-death experiences compare most favorably with two
ancient religious traditions–Zoroastrianism, and most
extensively, Tibetan Buddhism. Zoroastrian scriptures describe the soul hovering close by
the corpse for three days and three nights. In addition, there are strong elements of
self-judgment; and, at least in Pahlavi scriptures, a limited period of trial and
tribulation after death.

The Zoroastrian first meets his good deeds in the form of a beautiful maiden.
At first the eschatological pilgrim does not realize that the maiden is his good deeds, so
the maiden corrects him: "I am no girl but thy own good deeds, O young man whose
thoughts and words, deeds and religion were good" (quoted in R. C. Zaehner, The
Teachings of the Magi
[New York: Oxford University Press, 1976], p. 134.) The maiden
then goes on to describe the details of the man’s virtuous life. The wicked people,
on the other hand, are dragged off by demons, and they are met by an ugly hag, a symbol of
their evil deeds. Zoroaster describes their demise: "Long-lasting darkness, ill food,
and wailin–to such an existence shall your conscience lead you by your own deeds,
wicked ones" (Yasna 31:20). These ideas of self-judgment go all the way back
to Zoroaster’s Gathas: "They shall be tortured by their own souls and
their own consciences" (Yasna 46:11); "may all of their actions turn against
them with hostility" (46:8); "…their sorrows shall be self-induced, if they
persevere in their hostility. Their own consciences would not only bring on their ruin,
but would form part of their punishment" (31:20).

R. P. Masani, a modern Zoroastrian from the Bombay Community, believes that
the greatest contribution of Zoroastrianism is a clear doctrine that virtue is its own
reward and vice its own punishment. In contrast to earlier Zoroastrians, Masani and his
fellow believers reject the notion of afterlife altogether: "Heaven is simply the
 best life or the region of best mental state, and Hell is the worst life or the
region of the worst thought" (Zoroastrianism: The Religion of the Good Life [New
York: Macmillan, 1968], p. 74).

This concept of self-judgment most likely stems from the Zoroastrian
insistence that God is perfect goodness and that such a God could not inflict the pain of
punishment. As R. C. Zaehner has said: "According to the Zoroastrian the Moslem God
is not good, neither does he pretend to be, while the Christian God advertises himself as
good, and plainly is not" (Zaehner, op. cit., p. 55; see Isaiah 45:7). As Ahura Mazda
can create no evil, the pain of any Hell must come from demons independent of God’s
power or, as the Gathas indicate, must be self-inflicted. Ahura Mazda does
instigate the final ordeal of molten metal, but it is clear that the suffering depends on
the person’s nature, for the righteous swim in this fluid as if it were warm milk.

Buddhist Self-Judgment

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Th�dol) throws some
interesting light on contemporary accounts and offers the most consistent support for a
humanist eschatology. As in Zoroastrianism, the soul remains in the vicinity of the dead
body for some unspecified time. It is imperative that a priest be present for the death
rites and, specifically, to read the Bardo Th�dol. This scripture comes from the
8th century C.E. and is designed as a guide for the soul during the 49-day intermediate
state, the period between incarnations.

Right at the beginning of the first bardo, the soul meets a clear radiant
light, which, in Mahayanist Tibet, is a symbol of the Dharmakaya, the Body of Law, the
Buddhist Godhead itself. If the soul is advanced enough and recognizes the light as the
Buddha, then the soul can immediately reach Nirvana. Most souls, however, pass through the
experience of the light without realizing that it is their own true essence. This is the
Buddhist equivalent of Ring’s hypothesis that the being of light is one’s true self.

During the first bardo on the sixth day, the soul is met by "forty-two
perfectly endowed deities, issuing from within thy heart, being the product of thine own
pure love" (The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. W. Y. Evans-Wentz [New York:
Oxford University Press, 1960], p. 121). The priest emphasizes that "these realms are
not come from somewhere outside (thyself)….They issue from within [thee], and shine upon
thee….They exist from eternity within the faculties of thine own intellect. Know them to
be of that nature" (pp. 121-2).

By the eighth day, blissful interaction with one’s good deeds is
finished and it is time to confront one’s evil deeds. They will come as
"fifty-eight flame-enhaloed, wrathful, blood-drinking deities…who are only the
former Peaceful Deities in changed aspect–according to the place (or psychic-centre of
the bardo-body of the deceased whence they proceed)…(p. 131). Here, even though it is
still possible to be liberated, most souls, even  well-trained yogis, panic and
attempt to seek refuge from the symbolic projections of their own evil deeds. In Tibetan
Buddhism the hellish experiences come late, and this might be the reason for their virtual
absence in the contemporary reports.

The Bardo Th�dol provides an excellent working model of Last Judgment
as self-judgment. The focus of the after-death experience is exclusively moral. We are
forced to acknowledge our thoughts and deeds and to accept them as our own. This process
may take, as it does in Buddhism, the form of a dialogue with peaceful and wrathful
deities, but we are continually reminded that these external forms are nothing but the
past productions of our own hearts.

Critical Remarks

There are obviously problems with the model I have constructed. First,
careful readers will have noticed the phrase "forced to acknowledge" in the last
paragraph. A fundamental axiom of humanist ethics is that authentic persons will not allow
themselves to be coerced. Kant’s idea of a kingdom of ends is one in which the
sovereign rules by the dictates of reason such that any of its laws would be completely
compatible with laws made by self-legislating citizens. Although no ethical objectivist,
except for perhaps an adherent of Jainism, would conceive of the moral law acting in the
same way as the law of gravity, it is not at all impossible that the moral law, especially
in the after-world, would impress itself upon us in a particularly compelling way, one
which would not necessarily undermine moral autonomy.

Many of us, usually in times of death-threatening situations, have had the
experience of seeing our entire life before the mind’s eye. Such experiences must
initially be connected with the brain’s memory function, but how these images could
be generated in an out-of-body experience has yet to be explained. In any case, the
life-review arises independently of the will. If the life-review is some sort of natural
reflex, then it would not compromise moral autonomy.

This argument, however, does not take care of the problem. Even if the
life-review is not initiated by a will–either human or divine–people could still refuse
to own up to the acts of their lives. They could pat themselves on the back for their good
deeds, but then refuse to acknowledge their immoral acts. As a response, I thought I could
argue that we are always a harsher judge of ourselves than others ever could be, but the
wide-spread practice of self-deception appears to be an insurmountable barrier to a
successful defense of such an optimistic view of self-judgment. Even apart from the
debilitating effects of self-deception, human beings are always much more adept at
directing moral judgment outwards rather than inwards.

Buddhism and other religions of reincarnation have a  solution to this
problem: persons who are reluctant to take responsibility for their acts must continue the
cycle of death and rebirth until they do so. Reincarnation, however, is incompatible with
humanist ethics for several reasons. First, the law of karma represents the strictest
expression of moral objectivism and requires that moral perfection, sometimes through
thousands of lifetimes, be reached. One could argue that moral objectivism does not
necessarily require that we become superhumans, for this would become a form of spiritual
Titanism. Second, reincarnation through thousands of
lifetimes raises the problem of personal continuity and identity, a problem discussed
thoroughly by John Hick in his Death and Eternal Life. It is not clear that
reincarnationists can defend themselves successfully on this point.

With regard to a humanist ethic, Buddhism does have the fewest liabilities
among the Indian alternatives. One of the basic problems of reincarnation arises from the
belief in an eternal soul substance, which is the locus of an eternal personal identity.
There are at least two problems with this soul substance: (1) how can the unchanging soul
at all relate to the changing ego? and (2) how can such a pure soul carry karma from one
life to another? In Questions of Milinda, the Buddhist monk-dialectician Nagasena
argues brilliantly that personal continuity and moral responsibility can be grounded in a
phenomenalist view of the self. Human selves are nothing but bundles of skandhas
which acquire karma, and the karmic debt is passed along even though one bundle dissolves
and is rearranged for rebirth as another person.

Buddhism also differs from other Indian philosophies on the question of moral
perfection. The key to the Buddha’s middle way is not some heroic, and ultimately
self-indulgent, attempt to become a pure soul like the God Ishvara of the Sankhya-Yoga
philosophy. Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth requires only that we stop
craving. Ordinary desire–aiming only at those goals which can be attained–is acceptable,
but craving must be stopped completely. Sankhya-Yoga and Jainism are inclined to spiritual
Titanism while Buddhism generally is not.

The Buddhist solution to the problems of personal continuity is not without
its problems, and the goal of not-craving could be interpreted as inimical to Western
humanist ideas. First, the ability to stop craving may require the same superhuman efforts
of the Yogi’s emulation of Ishvara. The Buddha once claimed that since he was without
craving, he was "neither a god nor a gandhabba nor a yakkha nor a
man" (quoted in David J. Kalupahana, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 112.) Second,
humanists should be allowed to participate in the full range of human experience–most
certainly craving–as long as they are willing to take responsibility for their acts.
Therefore, humanist ethics must presently reject the idea of reincarnation and suffice
with a limited afterlife and a simple, perhaps Nirvana-like end, after one has been
reconciled with all of one’s deeds and thoughts.

Humanists might object that I have added an unacceptable burden by insisting
that thoughts as well as deeds must be a part of the judgment process. This might be
interpreted as an unwelcomed intrusion of Asian philosophy into European  humanism.
In the West persons are legally responsible only for outward acts and not inward sins.
Indeed, libertarians believe that we should be free to sin in private acts involving
ourselves and consenting adults. It is not true that this notion is exclusive to the
eastern tradition, for we do have Jesus admonishing us that lust in the heart is just as
reprehensible as lechery in deed. St. Augustine was the first Christian philosopher to
reflect at length on this problem, and his arguments about sinning while dreaming in the Confessions
have been taken seriously by at least one contemporary philosopher. (See William Mann, "Dreams of Immorality" a paper presented at the
American Philosophical Association meeting, Pacific Division, March, 1982.) The argument
is especially strong if we assume that dreams are bona
human experiences. We of
course agree with Price that the after-world is best conceived as a type of dream world.

It is true that in our dreams thoughts and deeds do merge into one. This
phenomenon may be similar to what the Arab Aristotelians meant when they proposed that
Gods knowledge is "productive": namely, that things are created directly from
thought itself. Furthermore, there would be no division between the consciousness and the
unconscious, or other normal psychological distinctions. Price believes that if
"repression is a biological phenomenon, [then] the threshold between conscious and
unconscious no longer operates in the disembodied state" (op. cit., p. 357).

This is perhaps a clue to the solution to a problem discussed earlier:
self-deception and averting one’s eye from one’s own deeds would no longer be
possible. Price says that "the secrets of [the] heart will be revealed and there will
be no refuge from the ultimate moral imperative of full self-judgment. Price speculates
that disembodied souls could communicate telepathically, so thoughts and deeds would merge
into one.

Furthermore, if self-deception is due to the biological body and its
passions, as Plato and others have held, then this time-honored psychological tactic would
simply not be available. Near-death patients also speak of telepathic communication, and
recall that Kenneth Ring’s subjects report that reasoning and objectivity dominated
their experiences. Although telepathy is not part of Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of
Hell, his psychological insights in No Exit are applicable at this point.
Sartre’s classic play not only offers us a sober reminder of the ease at which we
deceive ourselves, but his existentialism embodies crucial elements of the humanism which
informs my current speculation. We are what we will ourselves to be, and we are therefore
fully responsible for the acts we have committed.

While various evasive tactics are possible in our worldly lives, there is no
place to hide in Sartre’s Hell. Inez tell Garcin that "You have us in the nude
all right; and Garcin agrees that–we’re naked, naked right through, and I can see
 into your heart" (No Exit and Three Other Plays [New York: Random House,
1948], pp. 29, 31). With all escape routes barred, each of them finally confesses; they
can no longer hold any secrets. Garcin, Inez, and Estelle slowly realize that the pain of
being exposed for what they are and the difficulty of coming to grips with their deeds are
far worse than all the anticipated tortures of the traditional Hell. As Garcin concludes:
"There’s no need of red-hot pokers. Hell is–other people" (p. 47).

While much of the action involves the judgment by others, there are also
basic elements of self-judgment. Garcin states: "There were days when you peered into
yourself, into the secret places of your heart, and what you saw there made you faint with
horror….Yes, you know what evil costs" (p. 43). The door to the cell finally opens
mysteriously, and the prisoners are momentarily elated by the prospects of escape; but
they realize that they will never escape the final reckoning which they carry around
inside of them. Sartre is much more pessimistic about human nature than the Buddhists, but
their Hell would contain just as many wrathful deities as Sartre’s.

Eschatologies East and West have both assumed a general working axiom: the
type of after-death experiences will depend on the type of lives we have led. There is no
question that many people lead similar lives, including similar desires and actions. If
there is an afterlife, it is conceivable that these people would then find themselves in
the same place, one essentially of their own making. Dante’s nine levels of Hell are
designed according to a person’s principal sins (lust, greed, gluttony, etc.), and
the great number of realms (loka) in Hindu eschatology is based on the same

Price finds these traditional views compatible with his own speculations
about the after-world: "If this is right, an image-world such as I am describing
would not be the product of one single mind only, nor would it be purely private. It would
be the joint product of a group of telepathically interacting minds and public to all of
them. Nevertheless, one would not expect it to have unrestricted publicity. It is likely
that there would still be many next worlds, a different one for each group of like-minded
personalities" As Garcin tells Inez: "You are of my kind" (p. 44).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *