Category Archives: Book club

‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ and ‘Life, Death and the After Life’

This month, I review two books on Tibetan Buddhist beliefs about death, dying and the ‘after death’: The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Soygal Rinpoche and Life Death and After Death by Lama Yeshe.

The Tibetan Book of Living and DyingThe-Tibetan-Book-of-Living-and-Dying-Rinpoche-Sogyal-9780062508348

For those people, myself included, who have tried and failed to make it through the Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying comes as a relief. The first part gives an introduction to some basic Buddhist concepts, such as the impermanence of conditioned existence and the ‘true perfect nature of the mind’. Soygal Rinpoche explains that the ‘true nature of the mind’ can be experienced through meditation and a number of meditation practices are described.

The second part focuses on providing advice on how to help the dying, including information about communication, cultivating compassion, and providing spiritual and bereavement care.

Tibetan Buddhism encourages followers to mediate on death, indeed, to experience the process of death through meditation and to prepare throughout their lives for the moment of death. A person’s state of mind approaching and at the moment of death directly influences their next rebirth. A good death therefore means a good rebirth, and the consequences of a bad death are far-reaching. Helping others ‘die well’ is considered an important part of preparing for one’s own death and parallels are drawn between Tibetan Buddhist end-of-life practices and the approach to care taken by the modern hospice movement. The work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Cicely Saunders, amongst others, is praised for challenging the medicalisation of death and for providing compassionate care for the dying.

The actual dying process (the painful ‘bardo’ of dying) is described from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. The physical deterioration that often precedes death is described in terms of the four elements that make up the body (fire, water, earth and air) dissolving and disappearing one by one. According to Tibetan Buddhism, after a person has been declared medically dead, there are still a number of internal processes (the inner dissolution) that continue before the ‘mind’ actually leaves the body. It is therefore recommended not to move the body during this time.

Some of the advice given in the book resonates with palliative care principles. For example, telling the truth about diagnosis and prognosis is considered essential in order for the patient to prepare for death. People are encouraged to talk with their relatives and physicians about their end-of-life preferences and living wills are recommended. Futile medical interventions are also discouraged: when it is certain that death is near, medical staff are advised to avoid disturbing the patient, turn off monitors, stop taking tests and to move the patient to a private room if possible.

Ethical debates surrounding death and dying are also addressed (in the appendix). Prolonging life, when there is no hope of recovery, is said to be worthwhile only if a person is capable of having positive, virtuous thoughts. Euthanasia is also discussed: no explicit opposition to euthanasia is stated, however, both Cicley Sauder’s and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ arguments against euthanasia are outlined.

Although the more dogmatic sections may put some people off, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is, at its core, about genuine and compassionate care for the dying and, as such, has relevance for people from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs.

Life, Death and the After Life

Lama YesheLife, Death and the After Life covers much of the same subject matter as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The book consists of the transcripts of three talks given in the 80s by Lama Yeshe, a charismatic Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

The book does not situate Buddhist teachings in their historical or cultural context to the same extent as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, however, its shorter length, simple language and often humorous approach makes it a very accessible introduction to the core Tibetan Buddhist beliefs on death and dying.

The book also gives simple meditation techniques that it claims can help people achieve equanimity and cultivate compassion. Meditating on the process of death is recommended to dispel fears about death and lead to a better death when the time comes.

Reviewer: Natalie Evans

For the next bookclub, Natalie will review The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics by Arthur W. Frank. If you would like to suggest a book for review, or review a book yourself, please get in contact with Natalie –


Welcome to our virtual book club!

Every month we will review a book that influences, or has influenced, research on culture and end-of-life care. To kick off our book club series we’ll be having a look at Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize–winning, ‘The Denial of Death’.

In Denial of Death, published nearly 40 years ago, Becker builds on previously developed ideas (in his earlier books, “The birth and death of meaning: a perspective in psychiatry and anthropology” and “The escape from evil”) to eloquently argue that fear of death is the primary, unconscious, motivating force underpinning all human action.

Becker reinterprets the theories of Freud: taking inspiration from the works of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and the psychologist Otto Rank, he uses an ‘existential’ rather than sexual framework.

Becker argues that humans are caught in an existential dilemma: we are mortal beings conscious of our own mortality. Differentiated from the animal kingdom due to our symbolic identity, we are nonetheless consigned to the same fate as every animal. Hence this is our core problem: we are “simultaneously worms and Gods”.

As they grow, children become aware of their bodily, and hence mortal, nature. This awareness produces anxiety – a ‘terror’ – that must be repressed in order to continue as a member of society. Repression of the fear of death is therefore innate and universal; as Becker puts it, ‘Everything man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate’.

‘Heroism’ is a reflex response to this ‘terror’: the need to triumph over death through forming part of something larger and immortal. Not only is our character formed to repress awareness of death, but also culture is described as a symbolic action system designed to serve human heroism.

Such a description of human society sounds, from the outset, rather noble: a system that supports heroic intentions. Becker however argues that from these noble intentions, ‘evil’ develops: conflicts and wars are, essentially, battles over immortality projects.

In addition to developing a theory of character, culture and even evil, Becker convincingly reinterprets Freud’s most famous theories, applying his existential ‘death anxiety’ framework, and outlines how mental illness is linked to too little or too much repression of the terror of death. ‘Good’ mental health is associated with not having too many, or the wrong sorts, of repressions. However, as everyone experiences death anxiety, freedom from repression is impossible. The most anyone can hope for is ‘a kind of relaxed openness to experience that makes him less of a burden on others’. This openness can be achieved by exploring the fear of death to get closer to the ‘authentic self’

Becker’s theory of culture can be seen as functionalist: immortality projects are a latent function of cultural-systems. Critiques of sociological functionalist perspectives are therefore also applicable to Becker’s work. Even though functionalist approaches remain unfashionable, the influence of the Denial of Death is still huge; a quick search in google scholar reveals over 10,000 articles published on terror management theory (directly derived from Becker’s work) in 2012 alone.

The enduring appeal of Becker’s work may lie in its hopeful message: facing our fear of death can, ultimately, lead to better lives and better societies.

Reviewer: Natalie Evans

Next month’s book club choices look at the end of life from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective. Natalie will review ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ by Sogyal Rinpoche  and ‘Life, Death and the After Death’ by Lama Yeshe on December 20th.

 If you would like to suggest a book for review, or indeed review a book yourself, please get in contact with Natalie –