Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Bardo Thodol: Liberation by Hearing on the After Death Plane
- The Chikhai Bardo: The Primary & Secondary Clear Lights
- Chonyid Bardo: To Follow the Bright Light & Avoid the Dim
- The Sidpa Bardo: Rebirth & the 6 Lokas
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a most unusual book in the annals of recorded thought. It instructs one in the art of dying. The Buddhist sect responsible for this manuscript holds that with death man passes into what they call the Bardo world. One remains in this world for forty-nine days and then reenters the womb and is born again. This book deals with those forty-nine days. It tells the dead what to expect in this after-death state. Like boot camp in the military it gives you a best behavior for every situation. But while the army trains one to escape the snares of death the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches one how best to avoid the snares of life.
This Tibetan Buddhist sect holds that the purpose of existence is to escape life on this plane. The only constant in Life is change, which is painful for humans. While this painful life ends with death it is immediately followed by rebirth filled with more change and inevitable suffering. They maintain that we are trapped within the circle of birth and rebirth — caught on a treadmill, always moving — never getting anywhere. The purpose of this book then is to help the individual get off the treadmill as quickly as possible. While most won’t escape the cycle of death and rebirth through death, (only the saint attains liberation then,) this Book of the Dead teaches one to attain rebirth on a higher plane so that one will at least be closer to liberation.
Like many religious texts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead has an esoteric as well as a literal meaning. This book in its deeper levels of meaning deals with problems common to the state of life. So it deals with the top of the treadmill as well as the bottom of it. It deals with the art of living as well as the art of dying. The purpose of this paper will be to expand the understanding of this book to encompass virtually all of existence, rather than just the after death plane, hence the title of this paper, ‘An Expanded View’. Further these words are not just grinding wheat by explaining what the Tibetan Buddhists supposedly think about this book. Instead we will make some bread by illuminating the meaning of this classic for those who are ripe. Each age and culture must reinterpret classics for their own spot on the space/time continuum. We are looking for meaning not knowledge — relevance not cultural history.
Bardo Thodol, which means ‘Liberation by hearing on the After Death Plane’, is the Tibetan name for the Book of the Dead. On the surface it is an instruction manual for the Living on what to whisper into the ear of someone who has just died. These verbal instructions are suggestions on how to be reborn into a higher plane.
The underlying assumption behind the book is that Being continually goes thru the cycle of Birth, Life, Death, After Death Plane or Bardo, and then Rebirth, Life, Death, Bardo, Rebirth, … over and over again. Rebirth and Death are the two transition points, between Life and the Bardos of the After Death Plane. This book addresses the Bardo states.
Timothy Leary writes a book called The Psychedelic Experience in which he uses the Bardo Thodol to guide a psychedelic drug experience. Leary connects this experience to the life cycle. ‘Life -> Death -> Bardo -> Rebirth’ becomes ‘Coming on -> Peak-realization -> Come-down -> Rebirth’. Leary maintains that:
“The esoteric meaning (of the Bardo Thodol), as it has been interpreted in this manual, is that it is death and rebirth of the ego that is described, not the body.”
Ego death is here linked with the self-realization that comes thru psychedelics, meditation, or simply life experience.
There are at least three types of ego loss:
• 1) the loss of body, physical death. Externally this is the ego loss that the Bardo Thodol speaks of.
• 2) identification with the universe, transcendence of self. This is the ego death of which Leary speaks in Psychedelic Experience (the ego-death which might occur from a psychedelic experience or from meditation).
• 3) the death of a single ego or a few egos within the multi-self of normal life. This loss of the individual ego occurs with realization. One comes to understand something a little more deeply. All the selves that had previously arisen from ignorance, from lack of understanding, must inevitably die to be replaced by selves based on a higher understanding, but who must inevitably die themselves. This is the type of ego death I speak of. It is most prevalent, as it seems to underlie all experience.
The Bardo Thodol in its symbol-layers includes instruction to those who have undergone any of those ego-losses before. It is a guidebook for anyone then.
Let us examine the specific instructions from the Bardo Thodol.
With physical death one is set face-to-face with the Clear Light.
“O nobly-born, the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience it in its Reality in the Bardo, where in all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or center. At this moment, know thou thyself and abide in that state.”
At the moment of death one experiences the ultimate ego-death. All of one’s conscious selves, which are in reality manifestations of the subconscious self cease to be; and one is alone with the subconscious self, the Clear Light. Most people, not having prepared themselves for this moment of death, lose consciousness at this point and thereby fail to recognize the Clear Light. Those, who have prepared, recognize the Clear Light as themselves — they become the Clear Light, and are liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Those who fail to recognize the Primary Clear Light are relegated to at least one more lifetime. From the moment that one fails to recognize the Light, the subconscious begins to manifest itself again in duality and ego. Once the subconscious begins manifesting itself again one is separated from the subconscious and becomes the manifestations — unity is lost — rebirth is imminent. From this point on one’s purpose is to attain rebirth in the state that will be most conducive to one’s liberation for the next time around.
“The person dying experiences the Clear Light in its primitive purity, the Dharma-Kaya unobscured; and, if unable to hold fast to that experience, next experiences the Secondary Clear Light, having fallen to a lower state of the Bardo, wherein the Dharma-Kaya is dimmed by karmic obscurations.”
The Dharma-Kaya is the subconscious. It is unobscured initially but then is ‘dimmed by karmic obscurations’ — the subconscious begins manifesting itself and thereby dims itself. When set face-to-face with the Secondary Clear Light, the obscured Dharma Kaya, one’s purpose again is to recognize it. With recognition of the Secondary Clear Light — Recognition in the sense of becoming it — one is immediately reborn again as a Divine Incarnation and is nearly assured liberation in the next life. The after-death plane that includes the Primary and Secondary Clear Lights is called the Chikhai Bardo.
Failing to recognize the Secondary Clear Light one slips further away from his subconscious and is wrapped up more in the manifestations. In this stage, called the Chonyid Bardo, one is presented with karmic illusions. On the first to seventh day one is presented with the peaceful deities: from the eighth to the fourteenth day one is presented with the wrathful deities. Carl Jung says in his commentary on the Bardo Thodol,
“The Gods are archetypal thought-forms belonging to the sambhogakaya. Their peaceful and wrathful aspects, which play a great role in the meditations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, symbolize the opposites. In the nirmanakaya they are the positive and negative principles united in one and the same figure.”
The dharma-kaya is the state of absolute nothingness, the subconscious unobscured. The sambhoga-kaya is the state of oneness, the point; the self has now entered in but to assume identity with the subconscious, but has in a sense limited the actual subconscious by identifying with it. The nirmana-kaya is the multitude — the many, duality. The self is now separated in a more full sense from the subconscious. The Chikhai Bardo could be said in some sense to correspond with the dharma-kaya — the Chonyid Bardo with the sambho-kaya — the last Bardo of rebirth, the Sidpa Bardo, with nirmana kaya.
In the Chikhai Bardo all is void.
“O nobly -born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regard characteristics or color, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good, the Dharma-Kaya.”
In the Chonyid Bardo all is one. Although the peaceful and wrathful deities are separated, it is recognized within this Bardo that all the deities are “as the reflections of consciousness.” They are united as reflections from the same source. Also further cementing the unity it says, “The Wrathful Deities are only the former Peaceful Deities in changed aspect.”
In the Chonyid Bardo as in the Chikhai Bardo one is merely to recognize the state as oneself. In the Chikhai Bardo one was to recognize the subconscious as the self; in the Chonyid Bardo one must recognize the illusions that one experiences as projections of the subconscious. Recognizing this in the fullest sense would mean again rebirth as a Divine Incarnation as would happen if one had recognized the Secondary Clear Light.
During this stage one in presented with some beautiful illusions and with some terrifying illusions. The suggestion throughout with both types of illusion is to desire them not, nor fear them as they come from one’s self. This suggestion is very applicable to life in this world as well. Neither desire happiness nor fear sadness or depression; merely accept them both as reactions of the subconscious to this world. Then as all distinctions are products of the subconscious mind one is neither disturbed nor pleased by anything that happens within this world. All is recognized as one.
Further within this Bardo, it is said that one will be presented with two lights, “a light so radiant that one wilt scarcely be able to look at it” and a dull light. The admonition at this point is to put thy faith in the radiant light and not be attracted to the dull light. The radiant light, emerging from the void, is frightening because it is so bright, while the dull light shines from the devas (the constant motion of the duality). Many times the dull light seems more attractive in that it is easier to see and follow. Again very applicable — in this world one mustn’t fear truth, but should be honest with themselves and those around them; one must embrace truth as the only reality. It is recognized that many times truth is very frightening, maybe almost painful, pushing one to escape it to the dull light of motion and self-ishness.
An interesting sidelight is that the Peaceful Deities of the Chikhai Bardo are said to issue from the heart while the Wrathful or Knowledge holding Deities issue from the brain.
If one can recognize any of the illusions as oneself one attains a secondary Liberation and is immediately reborn as a Divine Incarnation. One doesn’t recognize the illusions because of bad karmic connections, strong propensities built up in the previous life. These bad karmic connections becloud the brain and cause it to fail to recognize itself. One’s past actions determine to a certain degree what will happen to him in the present. If during life the individual had acquired a strong sense of selfhood then during the Bardo experiences he will have a harder time recognizing the illusions as himself for he will try to maintain identity with the self he has created during life. If however the individual had developed good karma during this life by recognizing all his selves as manifestation of the subconscious, then it will be easier for him to recognize the illusions as issuing from himself. While the individual’s previous selves are all dead, in some sense their habit patterns still affect the individual’s present state and how he reacts to stimuli. Again even in life one’s behavior in the present is determined primarily how that individual behaved in the past.
To escape karmic connections the Bardo Thodol suggests that we meditate on the emptiness of the intellect, the Void. If this proves too difficult, we are to meditate on the great godhead — Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, or whomever one’s particular God is. (Timothy Leary even suggests meditating on such men as Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, or Aldous Huxley.) The idea is to identify oneself with one of superior behavior patterns, one who is closer to the subconscious. By identification with one of superior karmic connection one might escape one’s own connections.
The final Bardo is the Sidpa Bardo, the Bardo of Rebirth. Here one is instructed in the methods of attaining rebirth on the highest plane possible.
There are six Lokas, six states of rebirth; (I shall use Leary’s descriptions of the Lokas.)
1) devas — the god-like state of state of sainthood,
2) asuras — titans or heroes, “people with a more than human degree of power and wisdom.”
3) human — “one with physical or psychological handicaps of various sorts”
4) animal — brute world, those who are tied helplessly to their needs and wants
5) pretas — the neurotic, having many needs and wants but unable to satisfy or understand them
6) hell — the psychotic, living in a world of such strong anxieties and fears that it causes a split with reality
Our purpose in the Sidpa Bardo is to gain rebirth in the highest possible Loka. The main suggestion here is to neither desire nor fear anything. At this stage we will be presented with various visions of future places of rebirth. If we desire rebirth before our time, the desire to be a person, we will be reborn in a lower plane. If we see a vision of a beautiful place and desire it we will also be reborn in a lower plane. If we have anger or low thoughts during this period we also descend into a lower Loka. During this period we are instructed to attain a state of thoughtlessness or at least a one-pointedness on the Godhead. This prevents us from having emotions or desires and will insure our rebirth on a higher plane.
Life is in a constant state of flux. At every instant some selves are dying, while others are being born. The Bardo Thodol’s suggestions about this Bardo assist us to be reborn into a higher Loka, as a more elevated self. We mustn’t desire birth before our time; nor become frustrated because we’re not as perfect or as good as we wish to be. Or, to be sure, we will be reborn in one of the lower lokas, perhaps in the brute, preta or, heaven forbid, hell realms, as one of our lower selves — prone to all the fears and anxieties that beset humanity. We must simply flow with the tide — accepting with great joy and understanding any advance or setback that befalls us. Further if we can remain in this state of no desire and no fear, the state where no thoughts are formed, we will be reborn into higher and higher states.
In summary, the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) deals with the process of life as well as the process of death. There are three stages. The Chikhai Bardo deals with the moment of peaking and immediately afterward. It teaches one to retain the peak experience as long as possible. The Chonyid Bardo deals with the period after the peak; the period when one is feeling powerful emotions and experiencing heavy (profound) thoughts. It teaches one to recognize all good and bad experiences of this period as projections of the self, the subconscious. It teaches one to accept truth as the one guiding principle of life. The Sidpa Bardo deals with the period of rebirth into new selves. It teaches one to have good thoughts in order to gain rebirth in the highest plane possible. The whole book can be thought of as a guidebook to physical death, a guidebook to a meditation or drug experience, or more all-embracing, a guidebook to the death of individual selves and how to avoid rebirth, or at least how to be reborn in a higher plane.