The Bardo Thodol -- "Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediate State," known commonly as "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" -- is among the most famous works of Buddhist literature. It is best known as a guide through the intermediate state, or bardo, between death and rebirth. However, the teachings in the book can be read and appreciated on many different, subtle levels.
The Indian master Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the late 8th century. He is remembered by Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche ("Precious Master"), and his influence on Tibetan Buddhism is incalculable. According to Tibetan tradition, Padmasambhava composed the Bardo Thodol as part of a larger work called the "Cycle of Peaceful and Wrathful Deities." This text was written by his wife and student, Yeshe Tsogyal, and then hidden in the Gampo Hills of central Tibet. The text was discovered in the 14th century by Karma Lingpa.
There's tradition, and then there are scholars. Historical scholarship suggests the work had several authors who wrote it over a period of many years. The current text dates from the 14th or 15th centuries.
In his commentary on the Bardo Thodol, the late Chogyam Trungpa explained that bardo means "gap," or interval of suspension, and that bardo is part of our psychological make-up. Bardo experiences happen to us all the time in life, not just after death. The Bardo Thodol can be read as a guide to life experiences as well as a guide to the time between death and rebirth.
Scholar and translator Francesca Fremantle said that "Originally bardo referred only to the period between one life and the next, and this is still its normal meaning when it is mentioned without any qualification." However, "By refining even further the understanding of the essence of bardo, it can then be applied to every moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a continual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future." (Fremantle, Luminous Emptiness, 2001, p. 20)
The Bardo Thodol in Tibetan Buddhism
The Bardo Thodol traditionally is read to a dying or dead person, so that he or she may be liberated from the cycle of samsara through hearing. The dead or dying person is guided through encounters in the bardo with wrathful and peaceful deities, beautiful and terrifying, which are to be understood as projections of mind.
Buddhist teachings on death and rebirth are not simple to understand. Most of the time when people speak of reincarnation, they mean a process by which a soul, or some essence of one's individual self, survives death and is reborn in a new body. But according to the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, there is no soul or "self" in the sense of a permanent, integral, autonomous being. That being so, how does rebirth function, and what is it that is reborn?
This question is answered somewhat differently by the several schools of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism teaches of a level of mind that is always with us but so subtle that few ever become aware of it. But in death, or in a state of deep meditation, this level of mind becomes manifest and flows across lives. Metaphorically, this deep mind is compared to light, or a flowing stream, or wind.
This is only the barest of explanations; fully understanding these teachings takes years of study and practice.
Through the Bardo
There are bardos within within the bardo that correspond to the three bodies of the Trikaya. The Bardo Thodol describes these three bardos between death and rebirth:
- The bardo of the moment of death
- The bardo of supreme reality
- The bardo of becoming
Taking these one at a time:
The bardo of the moment of death. The Bardo Thodol describes a dissolution of the self created by the skandhas and a falling away of external reality. The consciousness that remains experiences the true nature of mind as a dazzling light or luminosity. This is the bardo of dharmakaya, all phenomena unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions
The bardo of supreme reality. The Bardo Thodol describes lights of many colors and visions of wrathful and peaceful deities. Those in the bardo are challenged to not be afraid of these visions, which are projections of mind. This is the bardo of sambhogakaya, the reward of spiritual practice.
The bardo of becoming. If the second bardo is experienced with fear, confusion and nonrealization, the bardo of becoming begins. Projections of karma appear that will cause rebirth in one of the Six Realms. This is the bardo of nirmanakaya, the physical body that appears in the world.
There are several translations of the Bardo Thodol in print. Here are just a few.
W. Y. Evans-Wentz (editor) Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (translator), Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1927, 1960. This was among the first English translations and is often cited, although some of the newer ones are more readable.
Chogyam Trungpa and Francesca Fremantle, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1975. Chogyam Trungpa's commentary makes this edition a good choice.
Robert A. Thurman (translator), foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1993. Professor Thurman's translations are always readable and engaging.
Graham Coleman (Editor), Thupten Jinpa (Editor), Gyurme Dorje (Translator), foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation, 2007. The entire "Cycle of Peaceful and Wrathful Deities," some of which did not appear in earlier translations.