Does the name sound familiar to you?
This ancient Tibetan Buddhist text has fascinated the West since it was first translated into English in the 1920s.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or as it is known in Tibet, Bardo Thödol, “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State,” is a Tibetan Buddhist text that serves as a guide for the recently deceased as their consciousness travels from their body into the Bardos, or intermediate states, of the afterlife.
But what is a Bardo?
Well, a Bardo is a transitional, or an in-between, state of consciousness that one experiences within the process of life, death, and rebirth. The state of consciousness you are experiencing now is considered a Bardo, called the Kyenay Bardo, the Bardo of life. When you lay your head down to sleep at night and enter a world of dreams, you have entered the Milam Bardo. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, after you die, your consciousness will leave your body, and you shall start your journey of death and rebirth, which is said to last 49 days.
During this period, your consciousness will move through three different Bardos before finally being reincarnated into a new form.
These three are known as:
- The Chikhai Bardo — The bardo during physical death and the moment afterwards in which the dissolution of the various elements of the body take place and one briefly experiences the “clear light of reality,” the luminous nature of mind associated with Buddha-nature.
- The Chönyi Bardo — The bardo of experiencing reality where one experiences different visual and auditory phenomena of many elemental Buddha forms.
- The Sidpa Bardo — The bardo in which one experiences karmically influenced visions that eventually culminate in rebirth.
It is believed that while your consciousness travels through these Bardos, you are still able to hear incantations, prayers and instructions spoken to your dead body. Thus, the Tibetan Book of the Dead provides guidance as you move through your after death experience toward either a final transition to Nirvana or into your eventual rebirth.
Tibetan Buddhist tradition holds that The Tibetan Book of the Dead was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, an Indian tantric guru. Padmasambhava was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet and founding the Nyingma tradition of Tantric Buddhism. The book was hidden and buried for several centuries before it was discovered in the 14th century. It was revealed to a man named Karma Lingpa, who was said to be a reincarnation of Padmasambhava’s disciple, Chokro Lü Gyeltsen.
Karma Lingpa is, therefore, well renowned in Tibetan Buddhism as a “tertön,” or revealer of a sacred text.
While it is known to western readers as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the original title of the work is bar do thos grol, or “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.” The book itself is part of a larger work called the “Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones.” The sacred text received its popular western name from the American anthropologist Walter Evans-Wentz who produced, along with his translator Lama A. Govinda, the first English language translation in 1927. He decided to name his version the Tibetan Book of the Dead because of the apparent similarities he found to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
From there, the sacred text became very well known to the western audience, as the popularity of Buddhism began to flourish throughout the western world. In the 1960s, the Tibetan Book of the Dead became very influential in the psychedelic counter-culture. It became the foundation for The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, authored by the psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Baba Ram Dass. In it, they likened the occurrences of ego death and depersonalization often experienced under psychedelic compounds to the process of death and rebirth that is described in the Buddhist text.
Although aspects of the Tibetan Book of the Dead may seem rather esoteric and difficult for a western reader to relate to, integrating its ideas can benefit you tremendously. It’s not necessary to take the Tibetan Book of the Dead literally to glean insights that could ease the suffering or dukkha, you experience throughout your life.
As Ernest Becker professes in his book, The Denial of Death, all human beings are tormented by enormous anxiety regarding their own death, and fruitlessly try to deny it through the actions we take and the belief systems we adopt. In other words, we undertake something called an immortality project, or causa sui project, during our lives. This is essentially any project that gives us the perception that we are a part of something eternal, and thus, not subject to death. We ‘live on’ through our immortality project, so to speak.
However, no matter what, we cannot deny death. It is inevitable. It was always part of the deal. This Causa Sui project may give us the illusion of immortality, but it’s just that: an illusion.
As the Buddha has said, the root of all suffering is attachment. Human beings are naturally attached to their Earthly lives and cannot bear the thought of dying. Yet, our desire to deny death can only result in suffering. Seeking to deny death will only distance ourselves from the truth.
We must, instead, cultivate a state of equanimity with our mortality. The Buddha said we must make peace with the impermanence of all things, including our humanly self.
In reading the prayers of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we can contemplate our own mortality and develop this Right Understanding regarding our deaths. A literal belief in the Bardos is not a necessary prerequisite to benefit from these teachings. Rather, reading passages of the Tibetan Book of the Dead can help us accept and understand the impermanence of our lives. And in doing so, it can help us to liberate ourselves from the on-going process of samsara, of death and rebirth.
Not only that, but the instructions given in theTibetan Book of the Dead for obtaining a favorable rebirth (or for transcending rebirth altogether) are the same instructions that were taught by the Buddha in order to attain a better existence in this bardo of life. That is, equanimity, compassion, and the avoidance of attraction or aversion. The same rules of the afterdeath states are the same rules for the here and now.
In this way, the book can help everyone lead a happier, more peaceful, and more compassionate life by following the methods and adopting the attitudes that it prescribes.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, can accomplish its purpose, for the secular and religious reader alike. All those that hear its words, whether living or dead, can better prepare themselves to recognize the od gsal, or the clear light of the luminous mind, the true reality. According to the Book, this recognition is vital to achieve either a favorable rebirth or Nirvana. So adopting the attitudes and methods of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, both for this life and the next, is a way for everyone to live a better life and to, one day, achieve enlightenment.
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