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Tibetan tradition holds that death unfolds in eight stages. During each stage a different physical and spiritual element of the person dissolves or melts, leaving an apparent nothingness at the end. If at the end the dying person can recognize this nothingness as the Ultimate Reality, then he or she will achieve enlightenment. The first four stages, the gross stages, are the sequential dissolution of the individual’s elements: earth, water, fire and wind. The last four stages, the subtle stages, culminate in the void of the Ultimate Reality.
First Stage — Dissolution of Earth
The external manifestation of the first stage, the dissolution of earth, is the deterioration of the hard parts of the body. It includes emaciation, weakness, fatigue and clouded vision. The internal manifestation of the first stage is described as mirages of the mind by the Ven, according to Pende Hawter on Buddhanet. These mirages evolve into other inner visions as the subject passes through the other seven stages.
Second Stage — Dissolution of Water
The external manifestation of the second stage, the dissolution of water, is a decrease in the liquids of the body. The mouth becomes dry and there is a marked decrease in other liquids such as urine, blood, sweat, and semen. The internal manifestation of the second stage is a vision of smoke.
Third Stage — Dissolution of Fire
The external manifestation of the third stage, the dissolution of fire, is coldness in the body, especially around the navel, considered the heat center of the body. This stage is also marked by an inability to digest food and drink, forgetfulness of friends’ names, unconcern about the affairs of others, the loss of smell, and short inhalation and long exhalation. The internal manifestation is a vision of sparks within the smoke seen in the second stage.
Fourth Stage — Dissolution of Wind
The external manifestation of the fourth stage, the dissolution of wind, is the inability to perform physical actions and unawareness or unconcern of external worldly activities. The subject neither tastes nor recognizes textures. The internal manifestation is an addition of a sputtering candle flame or lamp to the mirage.
Fifth Through Eighth Stages – Subtle Stages
The fifth stage is the first subtle stage. The external manifestations of the subtle stages are a complete cessation of movement, breath, heartbeat and memory. While to a westerner it might seem that death has occurred, the Tibetan tradition is that the subject still retains a consciousness.
Internally the subject perceives a white appearance. As the subject advances through the subtle stages, the white appearance first turns red, then black. The appearance of black is considered the stage of near-attainment of enlightenment, which at the end, transforms into the clear light of death.