The Bardo: Death as an Opportunity

There is an old Tibetan Buddhist saying that: “We cry when we are born, while the world celebrates; and the world cries when we die, but for us it is a chance for liberation.” For those who are prepared, death is a spiritual opportunity. The bardo, or “antarābhava” in Sanskrit, is one of the central concepts in Buddhist descriptions of what happens after we die. It is literally the “middle state,” especially between the end of this life and our next rebirth, but there are many bardos. Although it is best known through Tibetan tantric practices, it was a source of debate in Buddhist thought since even before the rise of the Mahāyāna. Some traditions, like the Theravāda, do not accept a middle state and believe instead that rebirth occurs immediately after death. If you explore this idea further, it is important to know that even among those who support the notion of a bardo, there are variations in the ways that they understand and describe bardos and the related practices.

The bardo is a concept that draws us into the Tibetan technologies of death and dreaming that came to our world through the so-called “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Its real name is Bardo Thos grol, meaning Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo. The name itself tells us that it offers techniques for achieving liberation through listening during the middle state between births. It is normal practice throughout the Buddhist world to receive teachings on one’s deathbed and to employ monks to recite sacred texts during and after death. This is connected to the idea that our dying thought, maraṇa-citta, is crucial in determining the outcome of the rebirth process. There are tales of people holding lotuses in front of a dying person, but they focus on a bee in the flower instead and are reborn as an insect. Even a frog, who dies while listening to the Buddha teach, may be reborn in a heaven realm. But the Bardo Thos grol goes beyond simply assuring that your last moments of consciousness are focused on auspicious Buddhist teachings, and actually instructs the dying person in how to understand and navigate the processes they are going through in the middle state, so that they can achieve liberation or at least a positive rebirth. Buddhist cosmology includes an incredible array of possible realms of rebirth, including exquisite heavens and hell realms that rival the Abrahamic ones for their horrors.

The text is part of the hidden treasure, gter ma, tradition. Padmasambhava, the legendary tantric wizard, who subdued the indigenous demons of Tibet and introduced Buddhism, concealed hidden treasures in mountains, rivers, and mind-streams of his disciples such that they could be discovered in future generations. In this case, his consort Yeshe Sogyal, a powerful yoginī, hid the Bardo Thos grol in the Gampo Hills of Southern Tibet. Every such secret treasure must have its discoverer and here it was Karma Lingpa in the 14th century. Karma Lingpa’s tragic and cautionary tale illustrates the kinds of powers and possibilities we are concerned with. His treacherous consort conspired with one of his disciples to poison him and burn his body. Realizing what was happening, Karma Lingpa used the power of phowa to project his consciousness into a bird and flew away to find a medicinal herb to save his body before it was burned. But on his return to the scene, the consort recognized his attempt to drop the herb into his own corpse’s mouth and drove him away as his body burned.

Even today, particularly in Nepal, people seek initiation into phowa training as an emergency practice in case of sudden death in which there is no time for prayers and ceremonies. Consciousness is ejected from the fontanelle and directed toward the pure land of Padmasambhava’s copper colored mountain. In another tale, two wizards with this power, one ugly and one handsome, came upon a dead elephant that was polluting a village’s stream. Out of compassion, the handsome wizard asked the other to guard his body while he projected himself into the elephant and caused it to rise and walk out of the stream. But the ugly wizard took advantage of the situation and stole his comrade’s body and left the handsome to live out his days in the body of the man who stole his own. We can see why the possibilities of zombies, demonic possession, and near-death experiences are important to Tibetans. The very possibility of projecting one’s consciousness in this way shows that, contrary to misunderstandings of the doctrine of no-self, Buddhists have a very strong sense of the continuity of identity. We are a complex mass of diverse, dynamic, and incessantly self-renewing processes. Although there is no static or eternal unchanging self, like the ātman in Advaita Vedānta, there is an extremely strong karmic continuity. It is the relentless power of this continuity, santana, that constitutes bondage. This is why the Buddha left us hundreds of accounts of his past lives, clearly identifying himself with those past persons, and why we can have reincarnated lamas, tulkus, such as the Karmapa and Dalai Lamas. Descriptions of the entity that transmigrates refer to it either as a gandharva body, which are subtle entities that eat smells, or as an “evolving consciousness” as it enters the womb. This ghostly bardo being can see, but cannot be seen, and has the ability to pass through solid matter. The one reborn is neither identical with nor entirely different from the previous one, just as we are neither the same nor different from a fetus to an adolescent to a corpse, or from moment to moment in our daily inner narrative.

So how can we take advantage of the bardo state to achieve liberation? The dynamics of normal mental activity eclipse the true nature of mind, as if we can’t see a mirror because we are enchanted by the images, or a movie screen because we are lost in the story. Like a movie, the stream of consciousness, citta-santana, is actually a flow of momentary transitions too fast for us to notice. In a sense every moment is a bardo, a moment between the past and future, but as in a movie we usually only perceive the seamless flow of our experiential narrative. Yet sometimes there are natural breaks, bardos, in this activity and these are moments when the clear light of consciousness naturally breaks through. Tibetan teachers describe these as like the sun breaking through a gap, bardo, in the clouds. They use orgasm or the moment we have to pee badly as examples similar to yogic experiences, in the sense that distracting mental functions momentarily cease. The bardo between the dream state and waking is another. In dream yoga, we can use the experience of thoroughly compelling dream realities to learn the dream-like nature of the waking state. But the real goal is to recognize the clear light during the bardo between dreaming and waking.

Death is another such natural moment that is especially powerful. Death has three basic bardo phases, which last for forty-nine days, a period agreed on by many early sources. The first is the moment of death. Here the dying are confronted with the pure luminosity of the clear light. Although this light seems to harshly dissolve everything to which we are attached, it is actually an opportunity to achieve liberation by recognizing that light as our own basic nature. But most enter an extended phase where they encounter benign and frightening apparitions, characterized as peaceful and wrathful divinities. In each case there are soft lights that seductively offer relief from our fear of dissolution, but are actually doorways into rebirth, and terrifying bright lights that represent the fundamental nature of mind and the possibility of liberation. Based on our karma, we may be drawn toward hellish, animalistic or heavenly states. The third phase is the bardo of becoming. Here the gandharva body is drawn toward the mother and father in the act of intercourse. If we are to be born female, we are drawn toward the father and resent the mother. If we are to be male, we are jealous of the father and plunge into the mixture of blood, which the ancients believed women contributed to procreation, and semen.

Just as a meditator can shut down distracting functions so the “clear light” of consciousness shines forth, the process of dying entails a gradual withdrawal of senses and cessation of normal mental functions, so more basic levels of consciousness come to the forefront of awareness. As in yogic regression and the “fall” into deep dreamless sleep, the senses drop off, ego disappears, thoughts quieten. A dying person may feel that they are falling apart, but a skilled meditator is familiar with such processes. Rather than panicking, they can take advantage of the process of dying to achieve spiritual liberation by recognizing the clear light of consciousness as their own fundamental nature.

Featured Image Credit: Peaceful and Wrathful Deities. ca 1700–1799, Nyingma Lineage.