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.

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