By Narayan Choyin Dorje July 2004 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 Powerful prayers Prayers are an important feature of the main section of ‘Liberation through Hearing’ to first help the dying person and later the intermediate being between death and rebirth to better cope with the fears and confusions that inevitably arise. Prayers such as the following two are not mere cries for help, beseeching an almighty god or goddess to come to rescue. Rather they are verses of inspiration. They are meant to call forth the power of awareness that is the fundamental aspect of our being. They are intended to help us save ourselves, through awareness, from our confusion and discover our own luminosity or Buddha-nature. Essentially, the entire text of ‘Liberation through Hearing’, including all the prayers and practices put forth in the text itself as well as in all the related scriptures have only one purpose—to help the living recognise their own Buddha-nature, and to remind the dying and the dead that they will always be safe if only they remember the energy of compassion inherent in their own true self. May the elements of space not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of the blue Buddha. May the elements of water not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of the white Buddha. May the elements of earth not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of the yellow Buddha. May the elements of fire not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of the red Buddha. May the elements of air not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of the green Buddha. May the rainbow of elements not rise up as enemies; May I see the realm of all the Buddhas. ~ ~ ~ Parted from beloved friends, wandering alone, Now when the empty forms of self-display appear May the Buddhas send out the powers of their compassion So that the bardo’s fear and terror do not arise. When I suffer through the power of evil karma May my chosen deity remove all suffering. When the natural sound of Dharmata roars like a thousand thunders May it all become the sound of the six syllables (Om Mani Padme Hum). When I follow my karma without a refuge May the Lord of Great Compassion be my refuge. When I suffer the results of karmic imprints May the samadhi of bliss and luminosity arise. 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 enlightenmentThe 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 mirrorThe 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. Bardo basicsThe 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 trans
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