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THE BARDO An Oral Teaching by The Venerable Dezhung Rinpoche Translated by J. Douglas Rhoton Copyright . 1982 by Jetsun Sakya Center for Buddhist Studies andMeditator, Inc. All rights reserved. I’ve been asked to speak today on the doctrine of the after deathexperience which is known in Tibetan as the Bardo. I realize thatthis is considered to be something of a special Buddhist doctrine.First of all I would like to put it in its perspective. Lord Buddha, in
his effort to communicate the teachings of Enlightenment tobeings, taught countless doctrines. It is said that there are 84,000articles of doctrine expounded by Lord Buddha and that all 84,000can be assumed into the first teachings he ever gave. That teachingis known as the Four Noble Truths. These four truths are: the truthof suffering, of the causes of suffering, of the cessation ofsuffering, and of the path. These four truths are the quintessence ofall the manifold teachings, doctrines and expositions of Dharmaever given by Lord Buddha. To review them briefly ... the first, the truth of suffering, refersto the pervasivesness of dissatisfaction, of unrest, of mental andphysical ‘die-case’, all of which is due to the erroneous belief in aself. When unenlightened minds fall into the error of a belief in aself and go to act on that belief, the mind becomes governed bymental defilements such as desire, aversion, and delusion. Throughthese mental poisons, as they are called, beings take action. Theseactions compel them to take rebirth in one or another state ofexistence upon the round of existence. Briefly this describes boththe fact of suffering that beings generate and experience as well asthe cause of that unhappiness which is rooted in a mistaken belie fin a self when, in fact, there is nothing... no object of knowledge...that corresponds to that erroneous belief. Lord Buddha thentaught the path which leads to liberation. The path consists intraining the body, the speech, and the mind in wholesome ac tionsthat lead to eventual liberation from not only the experience ofpain but also the causes of pain. This path leads to the truth of thecessation of suffering or Nirvana. this is liberation f rom allsuffering and its causes. The teachings on the Bardo also can be correlated to the FourNoble Truths expounded by Lord Buddha. The various fears, thefrightening appearances, the illusory experience that consciousnessencounters in the after death state can be said to correspond to thefirst of the Four Noble Truths, the truth of suffering. Theseappearances and the reactions to them that one subjectivelyundergoes can be said to have originated in the mental defilementssuch as the passions of desire, hatred, delusion, pride and the rest Page 1 of 7
as well as from one’s own karmic actions, be they good bad orindifferent. In this way they correspond to the second truth, the truth of thecause of suffering. To repeat that, the suffering of the experiencesof the Bardo also arise from karma and karmic activity and mentaldefilements. Thus they correspond to the truth of the cause ofsuffering. If one has been fortunate enough to have received theright instructions for meditation, preparation and practice for theafter death experiences, those instructions and that meditativepreparation and practice can be equated with the third truth, thetruth of the path. Finally, if one is also able to practice effectivelyduring the Bardo, recognize those experiences and appearances forwhat they are, put them on the path and win (through therealization of oneself) that consciousness corresponding to theSambhogakaya, one can attain Buddhahood right through thatBardo experience. That realization of Buddhahood during theBardo state corresponds to the fourth and final Noble Truth, thetruth of cessation or liberation from suffering. Now we should try to ascertain the historical source of thosespecial teachings which are known as Bardo doctrine. We knowthat there are references to the Bardo state, the antarabhave as it isknown in Sanskrit, in various Indian texts. We find these primarilyin the Abhidharma itself and its commentary, theAbhidharmasamuccaya, as well as in certain of the tantras whichbelong to the later propagation, the sarma propagation, such asChakrasamvara, the Hevajra Tantra and several others. Butgenerally speaking we can say that teachings on the Bardo can bedivided into two distinct Tibetan traditions : those of the ea rlypropagation or Nyingma, and those of the later propagation. Theseteachings on the Bardo also vary in that while some of them speakof six Bardo states, others speak of four or even three Bardos. Forexample, Jetsun Milarepa spoke of six Bardo states. Tlis is alsotrue of the Book of the Dead, well known to Westerners. I realize that the Tibetan Book of the Dead has achieved acertain amount of fame among Western Buddhists. It follows theNyingma tradition and is similar to another Kagyu tradition bas ed Page 2 of 7
upon a text written by Tashi Tseringma, a great yogi. Both textsspeak of six Bardo states. However the six states that both discusscan also be subsumed into the more standard four Bardo statesdescribed in sarma tantric literature. These four are: the birth placeBardo, the Bardo of the death experience, the reality Bardo, and theBardo of becoming which is also called the Bardo of Karmicpropensities. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead which has beentranslated into English and the other text by Tashi Ts eringma thereare two other Bardos which are called the dream Bardo and theBardo of meditative absorption, the samten Bardo. These two can,as we said, be subsumed into the first four. Etymologically the word Bardo means the interval between twopoints. Generally when we say the word Bardo, we think of it asreferring to that state in which consciousness finds itself betweendeath and rebirth. Really we are, right now, in this present life alsoinvolved in the Bardo. We are undergoing the Bardo of experie nceor the interval between our last birth and our future death. This isthe birth place Bardo. Many of us might not have known that.... itisn’t a very popular way of looking at our present life. It’s not surprising that we don’t recognize the present l ife as aBardo... after all, we are the ones in the habit of believing veryfirmly in a self when actually no self exists and in seeing things assubstantial and real when they aren’t. So it is hardly surprising thatwe do not recognize our present human life as being part of theBardo cycle. Now, understanding that this is the case, we shouldconsider what to do about it. What would be appropriate practice atthis stage of the Bardo? First we should be diligent in making themost of the opportunity. We ca do this by learning the Dharma,through receiving instructions from qualified teachers, seekingtantric empowerments and guidance and instructions in meditation(also under qualified teachers), and constantly exercising ourminds in mindfulness and recollection that “These are the teachingsof Buddhism which I have heard. These are the instructions that myguru has given me for meditation. This is my trusted preceptor.These are his teachings. This is my Yidam (my chosen deity) onwhom I am meditating.” Further we should develop ourselves inconstantly reminding ourselves that all sounds should be heard as Page 3 of 7
the deity’s mantra, all thoughts that arise (good, bad andindifferent) should be seen as manifestations of his transcendentwisdom, and all forms should be viewed as the deity’s form. If wetrain ourselves in these practices in this lifetime, our chances ofbeing prepared for the Bardo of becoming, the post-deathexperience,a re very good. Also our chances of recognizing and ofknowing what should be done in that Bardo preceding and thenimmediately following death, wherein the Bardo of the clear lightof reality shines forth, are much better. Further, even if one shouldfind oneself in the Bardo of becoming, one’s chances ofrecognizing the situation and dealing with it appropriately aremuch enhanced. The second Bardo is that of the death experience. It is alsocalled the unhappy Bardo because, at the time death occurs and oneis wrenched away from the affairs of this world into a veryuncertain insecure state of consciousness, great fear as well asuncertainty, anxiety and apprehension arises for those persons whoin their lives had unfortunately committed many unwholesomeactions. For those beings, however, who had devoted themselves towholesome ways of conduct, the process is not so terrifying.Whereas a sinful mind would be greeted, for instance, by wrathfuldeities and terrifying apparitions, a virtuous mind would find itselfwelcomed by the benign experience of the person’s own Yidam orprotector deities in their benign aspect. It would be a time of greatjoy....even enthusiasm...for such a person. But the process of deathitself comes about when a person’s life force separates from thephysical body. There are four elements from which the humanorganism has arisen. At the time of death the elements of earth,water, fire and air begin to become absorbed one into the other, orso it appears to the subjective consciousness undergoing theexperience of death. Death itself is usually accompanied by physical debility, painand helplessness to check the process by medicine or prayers orany other means. It is also accompanied by great mental anxiety,confusion and remorse. For these reasons the subjective experienceseems to be accompanied by terrifying apparitions and frightfulsounds, a din so noisy in fact that the consciousness finally just Page 4 of 7
swoons away and becomes unconscious for a brief time. Generallythis is the way it happens for unprepared beings. Again, as we said, those who are prepared for the Bardo knowhow to recognize these possesses as they occur and are more or lessready. Here we can see the great value of such preparations asmeditation and instruction for practice in the preceding birth placeBardo in helping one’s consciousness with each experience as itarises. However the process of death might appear subjectively, from atantric point of view, what is happening is the red element and thewhite element which are contained within one’s body are mergingor coming together. The red element is to have been acquired fromone’s mother and the white form one’ father. The red element issaid to reside in the region of the navel while the white is found atthe crown of one’s head. During the process of death, when themind is separating from the body, the red element begins to rise upfrom the navel toward the heart. When that happens, one perceiveseverything as if it were roseate or as if the sun were shining. Onebecomes aware of the colour red and everything seems tinged withred. As the white element begins to descend from the crown of thehead toward the heart, one similarly perceives everything as beingwhite or as if the moon were shining. These two processes arecalled the red path and the white path. When these two meet in theheart region, they are called the blackout because here the two havemet and merged and one has lost consciousness and entered into aswoon. At that instant of their merging all thought constructs, allattachment and aversion and delusion, all desire anger andignorance, are checked for a while. Then one enters the next Bardo,the Bardo of the clear light of reality. Here one subjectivelyperceives the clear light of reality which may also be calledultimate reality. Beings who are unprepared and fail to recognize itfor what it is immediately fall unconscious. For a good meditatorwho has spent a long time in right meditation, however, thisexperience is a very propitious one. If he does recognize the clearlight of reality for what it is, he at once awakens into B uddhahood.But if a being, either through ignorance or for want of sufficientpreparation for the clear light experience, falls to recognize this Page 5 of 7
state for what it is, he passes on into the third Bardo: the Bardo ofbecoming, which is also called the Bardo of karmic propensities. Almost as if one were suddenly awakened, one next becomesaware of many apparitions as decide in the Book of the Dead.There appear apparitions of various deities, the herukas in theirwrathful aspect. Their wrathful forms are so terrifying that it isvery very difficult to be truly in possession of one’s senses and torecognize them for what they are, let alone to have the courage topray to them. They are extremely fierce and terrifying. Some are aslarge as mountains and those who are small are of human size.They are of such wrathful aspect that it is very hard for a being torecognize them as emanations or projections of his mind. It oftenhappens that beings pass on here also. If they can recognize theseapparitions of deities for what they are, they pass immediately intoone of the pure Buddha realms. If however this opportunity ismissed, one next becomes aware of the presence of the variousDhyani Buddhas, the Buddha Amitabha and others. These Buddhasappear to one with such tremendous luster that one has difficultygazing upon them in their radiance. Simultaneously, there appear to one other dimmer lights whichare much softer, more inviting, and easier to look at. Often a beingwill choose to turn toward the dimmer of the lights and away fromthe brilliant manifestation of the Dhyani Buddhas. If he does this,he will move towards rebirth in one of the realms of worldlyexistence. Here are examples. If he turns toward the dimmer whitelight, he will be reborn among the celestials. Moving toward theblack light results in rebirth in the hells and the red light, the realmof hungry ghosts. In the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the variousapparitions are said to appear to the consciousness on the first,second or seventh day. It speaks of different apparitions orphenomena as coming on successive days. But it should beunderstood that it is not speaking of human days of twenty -fourhours but rather of meditative days periods of time. They may be,for a good meditator, of considerable length of time and much timemight be spent in each of these various stages of the process. If a Page 6 of 7
person, however, is unprepared for the experience, they may be ofvery short duration..... so short, in fact, that one hardly knows whathas happened. From here we pass into the next Bardo state. In the fourth Bardo, the Bardo of becoming, one is now awarethat one is in the Bardo and one has separated from the formerphysical existence and identity. One is faced with the prospects ofrebirth. Those whose unfortunate minds are governed byunwholesome propensities and sinful inclinations now are filledwith great anxiety and apprehension about their lot in this state andabout where they are headed. they are now quite clear about what itwas they should have been doing. At this time great regret andgreat remorse for the bad karma they have accumulated arises.They feel themselves bereft of any hope and are quite helpless dueto what are known as the winds of karma which are now propellingthem along (due to the strength of their karmic inclinations) towardone rebirth or another. Now they begin to have visions of variousplaces of rebirth. If, for example, he feels himself drawn toward aniron house, then that being is on his way to rebirth i n the hells.Should he fancy himself entering a clump of grass, a thatched hutor some sort of foliage or vegetation, he is headed for animalrebirth. If his vision is one of soldiers marching and he moves tojoin them, he will be reborn among the titans. But if he seeshimself entering a very fine mansion, his rebirth will be among thegods or humans. This has been a very brief description of the four Bardo states. Itshould be stressed that the experience throughout this after deathstate is very intense because one is no longer encumbered by thefaculties of sense organs, by the distractions of this world, or bydeluded notions of the self in a worldly context. All of thesedistractions that diminish our awareness of our experience are goneand the Bardo appears very stark, intense and clear. One’s mind isalso, of course, highly concentrated and sensitive to the entireprocess. Because this is so, if one has the advantage of meditativeexperience in preparation for the Bardo, it is much easier torespond in a dharmic and meditative and concentrative way andthus to act upon the instructions that one has learned in preparationfor the Bardo. Page 7 of 7
This is why I have in my own practice throughout my life triedto concentrate on and to teach the meditation of the Bodhisattva ofGreat Compassion, Avalokiteshvara. I teach it to all my studentsbecause it does provide the most excellent preparation for theBardo through its twin processes: the process of creation includingvisualization, and the process of completion or learning themeditation upon the nature of the mind. I also stress reinforcingthat daily practice of meditation with the non-sessional practice inwhich one tries to recollect all things as manifestations of thedeity’s body, voice and mind and diligently to turn all theexperiences of this life, however mundane they appear, into thepath of meditation of great compassion. I feel quite confident thatthis is the best way to prepare for those four states of the Bardo. Iam confident in the blessings of the Bodhisattva of GreatCompassion. I am very happy to have had this opportunity to sharewith you this brief outline of the Bardo doctrine. Question & AnswerQ1: What is the nature of the preparation for the Bardo and the clear light Bardo? Is it mainly a practice we do in this life or are there specific instructions which would be possible to remember as we are experiencing the Bardo?A1: Generally speaking, the practices described during the lecture, for example meditation upon one’s deity and other regular meditations are sufficient. There are particular practices such as the six yogas which are taught by the Sakya order and are also found in the teachings of the other Tibetan orders. They are the dream yoga, the yoga of transference of consciou sness, the heat yoga, and so on. These are also quite good and helpful. If you have received those instructions and the appropriate major initiations which accompany them, it is very good if you wish to practice them also. if you haven’t received those Page 8 of 7
instructions and their initiations and wish to do so, that is something you might consider.Q2: The Tibetan Book of the Dead gives very specific instructions for dealing with someone who has just died. The body is not to be moved, etc. This may not be possible in the settings where beings are not aware of the teachings such as modern hospitals. With that in mind how should one do for someone who is dying or has just died?A2: In accord with the beliefs about the after death state Tibetan Buddhists have the custom of not disposing of the body for a number of days...three to seven days at the most. The reason for this is that since Tibetans are loath to take the life of any living being, they want to be sure, first of all, that the consciousness will not return and the body revive. It is known that among meditators it sometimes happens that, at the time of what appears to others as his death, he enters into a state of deep meditative absorption from which he might possibly return. Or in any case he might not be fully dead. So until it is quite certain that he has absolutely parted with his body and entered into the Bardo, Tibetans want to be very careful in disposing of the body. For non-meditators however it usually happens that the consciousness parts from the body almost immediately, even with the last breath that is exhaled. Here there is a total separation of body and mind and that concern does not apply. but even then usually for three days the corpse is kept in the house. During that time blessings and pray ers are invoked to help the departed consciousness. the name of the Buddha is recited over and over in the presence of the corpse, prayers for his guidance and auspicious rebirth or liberation are recited again and again. In these ways efforts are made to help the being through the traumatic experiences in the Bardo states. Where it is possible among non-Buddhists or in a non-Buddhist environment to observe any of those, of course, it is desirable. At least from our point of view any or all should be practi ced.Q3: What happens to someone who dies abruptly without warning and with no chance to prepare for the Bardo? Page 9 of 7
A3: Any of us can be hit by a car suddenly but it still remains the case that a person who has prepared himself for the Bardo will not find himself at a loss, whenever and however the experience arises.Q4: Rinpoche mentioned that throughout the after death experience there is what you termed an intense texture to the phenomenological thing there. Would Rinpoche tell us if there is any way we could acquaint ourselves with this sensitive state before leaving our bodies at death? Are there any gaps or anything we could refer ourselves to? Would Rinpoche shed some light on this?A4: There too, meditation is the answer because it is still the mind whether it is an allegedly more intense or less intense experience in this life or in the post-death experience. It is still mind which undergoes the experience. So the more you meditate and learn right meditation in this life, the more you will be prepared for any eventuality in the Bardo. As we mentioned earlier, this present state is also a Bardo.Q5: What can we do to be able to recognize the clear light experience when it dawns ?A5: Again, you should meditate very diligently and should daily practice the stages of meditation, first concentration and then insight meditation. If you do these, you ill proceed with no problem and will be quite prepared for the dawning of the clear light.Q6: Does Rinpoche recognize psychedelic experiences as being analogus to or at least capable of producing Bardo experiences ? *** *** *** Page 10 of 7
This discourse was delivered by the Venerable Dezhung Rinpocheat the request of Jetsun Sakya Center on 19 November 1977 at theAmerican Buddhist Academy in New York City. It was translated byNgawang Sonam Tenzin, transcribed by the American BuddhistKunga Tendzin and prepared for publication by Dechen Zangmo. Page 11 of 7