By Narayan Choyin Dorje
Between birth and death, there exist intermediate states or bardo in which, according to Tibetan Vajrayana, there exists an opportunity for nirvana. If we have practised well, we will be able to recognise the moment of opportunity and make the correct choice
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is part of an extensive body of literature that deals with the subject of death precisely and comprehensively. It describes the dissolution process that precedes death and gives advice regarding the way we can assist the dying in their difficult transition. It also illustrates in minute detail the different in-between stages, which begin with the complete withdrawal of consciousness and end in the search by the intermediate being for rebirth. The text is filled with meditation instructions. The living can use it as a spiritual practice manual. It can also be read to the dead to help them on their journey and give them the direction they need to avoid being trapped in the pitfalls of samsara.
Related scriptures from the same cycle of teachings give detailed instructions on how a practitioner can make his prana (subtle life force energy) enter the avadhuti (central nadi or energy channel), to attain increasingly profound realisations of emptiness combined with intense sensations of bliss. Thus this body of knowledge offers both an elaborate and proven path of caring for the dying and the dead, and simultaneously a yogic path to the full realisation of the luminosity and conjoined bliss and emptiness of the mind for the living.
Seed of enlightenment
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the first original text of substance and practical meaning from Vajrayana Buddhism ever to be translated and made available to a worldwide readership. It came to my attention at the beginning of my own attraction to the Tantric Buddhist path more than 30 years ago. In the 1970s little original material on the subject was available in western languages, and this translation provided one of the first real insights into the spiritual precision of this ancient tradition.
Having read it many times since, it has kept me in awe of the incredible wealth of multi-faceted approaches to enlightenment contained in the Vajrayana writings and practices. Each approach has one common goal—to help the individual recognise liberation from suffering as a presence that has always existed within each of us. We don’t have to struggle and acquire it from some source outside ourselves, and it is not something that will happen in some distant imaginary future.
In fact, although used in ritual readings for the dying and the dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is just as much a book for the living. Its main subject is our inherent Buddha-nature. Its main purpose is to help us transcend our ordinary existence with the help of our own limitless and unconditionally free nature. Thus, the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches us to use the luminosity of our mind to recognise the mind’s own omnipresence, and go beyond its deceiving projections. We are taught to always defer to the heart of the mind as the totally open and centreless seer, neither bound by any concept of its own, nor by what is seen. This power to become aware is best cultivated while we are alive, when we can fan its fires and strengthen it through meditation. This prepares us for the moment of death, which provides an opportunity for enlightenment, if it has not already occurred.
In the Tibetan original, there is no ‘book of the dead’. The first editor of the text in English, W.Y. Evens-Wentz, came up with the now famous catchy title and thus secured it a place in the list of everlasting spiritual bestsellers. Several more English language versions have been published since, which carry the same title, and are as successful as the first one.
Death as mirror
The question is, why is death such a popular subject? Is it because we all wish to know what happens when we leave this body? Do we need reassurance that something of us will survive, or perhaps even be released from misery for eternity? Are we simply curious? Or do we, for a fleeting moment, feel the genuine call to do something that would sufficiently prepare us for the inevitable?
Death, indeed, is the only certainty since the moment we are born into this human incarnation. Everything else in this life is uncertain. Any other event may come to pass, or it may not. Every other circumstance depends on myriad contributing and causal factors. Death is the one occurrence that we know with absolute certainty will eventually occur to us, as its cause is already established by the very fact that we are alive. As one of my teachers succinctly often states, and with great mirth: “The purpose of being alive is to eventually die.”
All authentic spiritual traditions suggest that we contemplate the fact of our certain death, if we want to live well and if we truly wish to realise our potential, while alive. Our appreciation for life and our respect for the many gifts and opportunities it grants us greatly increases when we recognise how fragile and impermanent it all is. Any sensitive oncologist will tell you how the diagnosis of a seemingly terminal cancer will affect most patients. All of a sudden, we become acutely aware of time and how precious it is. The knowledge of its impending completion heightens our experience of life. Which is why the recognition of death’s reality is important to us in every phase of our lives.
The knowledge of our own and everyone else’s impermanence helps us become more mature as human beings. If we lived forever, we could happily continue to make the same mistakes. We could continue to remain ignorant of the consequences of our actions. We could stay asleep to the awesomeness of our true nature, always shining through, but also always clouded over by our patterns that in general are not so appealing and nice.
The fact of our mortality changes the picture. Because we are mortal, we have to ask ourselves who we are, and also eventually face who we are and who we have become through our accumulated actions. The teachings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead take this inquiry to levels of sublime realisation.
The text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead belongs to a class of scriptures known as termas or ‘hidden treasure’ teachings. The name given to the entire cycle of hidden treasure teachings dealing with the subject of death, dying and transition is ‘The Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones’. What is available in most English language translations is only an excerpt, consisting of two main sections: ‘Great Liberation through Hearing—The Supplication of the Bardo of Dharmata’, and ‘Great Liberation through Hearing—The Supplication Pointing Out the Bardo of Existence’, abbreviated in Tibetan to Bardo Thodol, or in English: ‘Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State’. These titles may seem irrelevant to the average reader, but they convey some of the essence of what the text attempts to communicate as they introduce key terms that can help us gain a clearer understanding of both the process of living and of dying.
One term probably unknown to the average reader is bardo—‘in-between’ or ‘intermediate’ state. Because it implies an opening or a gap in a seemingly solid situation, the word bardo is greatly relevant to our understanding of the process of existence. Living and dying are actually always taking place simultaneously. Birth is becoming, and thus transition. Life is becoming and thus transition. Death is becoming and thus transition. Every state of existence is a transition leading into another state, which is as transitional as the one preceding it. Thus every state of existence is an intermediate state or bardo.
This basic teaching of the intermediate state can pertain to the space between two lives as much as to the space between two thoughts or emotions. Any opening suggests the potential for new possibilities. To quote from one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in, that’s how the light gets in.” In other words, it is not so much our achievements that help us mature spiritually. The chinks and cracks in the armour of ego serve the purpose far better. There are six bardo states: the bardo of this life, the bardo of dream, the bardo of meditation, the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata (or reality as luminosity and emptiness conjoined), and the bardo of becoming or existence. At first, hearing these states introduced as ‘in-between states’ may sound a little strange, as we commonly regard all of them, and particularly our own life, as static entities. We don’t have the habit of looking at them from the vantage of their inherent transience. However, the switch in perspective from static and solid to that of fluidity and changeability changes the way we experience them. It liberates us from their grasp, and also from our grasping at them. As one western bardo expert said: “By learning to see these stages of our life as bardos (or intermediate states), we can gain access to that power, which is always present, unnoticed, in every moment of existence.”
Dying, afterlife and rebirth
The Tibetan Book of the Dead provides a detailed description of what happens before the death process sets in and then throughout its continuation until dissolution is complete and the mortal body left behind. It is equally adept in presenting the time of visionary experiences in-between lives, before rebirth is sought and the mindstream, due to the forces of karma, is again locked into a particular existence in samsara.
The main English version of the book does not elaborate on the process of dissolution. It only states that dying unfolds in the course of a progressing decomposition, beginning with the densest and most material, and ending with the finest and innermost aspects of our being. Dying means that all of our life force energy of jivan and prana gradually returns to its source. The life force begins to slowly withdraw from the physical body long before the first signs of death become apparent. The frailties of old age are a part of this process, which culminates in the dissolution of the five elements that compose our physical bodies. After the dissolution of earth into water, water into fire, and fire into air, air finally dissolves into space. At that time, respiration ceases. According to modern physiology, death soon follows.
However, from the view of the teachings connected to ‘Liberation through Hearing’, death only occurs after the completion of several further inner dissolutions. According to the subtle physiology based on yogic science, we as individual beings are created from the male and female essences of our parents. At the moment of our conception, both a red and a white drop (bindu) were formed from these essences. Throughout our lives they remained with us upholding the subtle energy structure of our being from their position at either end of the central channel (avadhuti nadi). Only when they join and dissolve at the heart is the process of dying finally complete. In some cases, this can happen long after all signs of physical life have ebbed away.
There are several related texts from the same cycle of hidden treasure teachings that analyse the dissolution process in great detail. For example, ‘Self-Liberation through the Signs and Omens of Death’ describes methods of foretelling the moment of death in advance. It also helps us interpret the signs of the progressing decomposition of the elements correctly, thus enabling us to competently assist the dying person. Another scripture deals with methods of turning death away for some time through applying specific practices of purification and longevity, which will raise the level of awareness and help clear the mindstream of negative karmic imprints. All of these are important tools because they help us approach death in a conscious manner rather than the usual approach of denial and avoiding the inevitable.
After complete dissolution comes a period of 49 days of visionary experiences that the intermediate being undergoes. The visions range from the ungraspable splendour of the luminosity at the moment of death, through the sublime visions of the 42 peaceful deities to the terror that the 58 wrathful deities can evoke through their display of divine and all-consuming fury. All these deities are manifestations of a pristine and almost piercing light, which is blinding and overpowering. If liberation from rebirth in samsara is achieved at any point, the intermediate being recognises this light as the light rays of compassion issuing forth from the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as an expression of its own inherent luminosity. ‘Liberation through Hearing’ gives instructions to this effect and reminds the intermediate being of how it can turn any situation in the intermediate state into a gate leading to enlightenment.
After the peaceful and wrathful deities have appeared, and if the intermediate being still has not found liberation, it will automatically start searching for a womb, which will direct it to its next birth. This also can be a long and frightening process. The intermediate being, therefore, will need guidance. Even at this stage of the spiral back into samsara, at every moment, it still has the potential to recognise its own basic awakened state. If through the force of karma liberation is not possible, the text gives precise instructions about which womb to avoid and which womb to accept, in other words, which birth will only lead to further density and suffering, and which birth has the potential of deepening the being’s exposure to dharma.
‘Liberation through Hearing’
It is believed that listening to the manuscript ‘Liberation through Hearing’ will awaken the intermediate being’s memory of similar instruction it has received, heard or practised in the human realm. It will become familiar with what is happening to it in the intermediate state. It will lose its fear and confusion. Eventually, it will be able to recognise whatever appears as its own self-display. If due to the overpowering force of karma the intermediate being is unable to recognise its own nature and intrinsic freedom, listening to the text will at least assure that seeds are planted for the future. As the text itself points out, the sowing of seeds and creating of connections to teachings that liberate the mindstream is the secret of the great power of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
“If they recognise the luminosity during the bardo of dying, they will reach the dharmakaya, and if they recognise during the bardo of the Dharmata when the peaceful and wrathful deities appear, they will reach the sambhogakaya. If they recognise during the bardo of existence, they will be born in a better situation where they will meet with this teaching. Since the results of actions will continue into the next life, this ‘Great Liberation through Hearing’ is a teaching that enlightens without mediation, a teaching that liberates just by being heard, a teaching that leads great sinners on the secret path, a teaching that severs ignorance in a single moment, a profound teaching that gives perfect and instantaneous enlightenment, so sentient beings whom it has reached, cannot possibly go to lower existences. This ‘Liberation through Hearing’ should be read aloud, for it is like a golden mandala inlaid with precious stones.”
Narayan Choyin Dorje is a freelance editor, writer and translator who has practised the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism for over 30 years. He sometimes teaches simple forms of Vajrayana meditation and can be contacted through his wife’s website, www.paulahoran.com.
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