There is one question that I have been asking myself my whole life. That question is, “What’s going to happen to me after I die?” It’s a pretty simple question if you don’t give it a second thought, but once you start to look deep into the subject matter, that’s the time more questions arise: Who is this “me” that’s going to die? Am I just my body? Am I my soul? What is a soul? Do I really have a soul? At some point I said to myself, “Surely, there must be a lot of people who thought about these questions before and had found some kind of answer.” So I tried to search here and there for these people who “know” particularly about dying, and true enough, I came across the Tibetan Buddhists and a book that is very significant to them called the Bardo Thodol or what is commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The Bardo Thodol was originally written in the Tibetan language and is widely known by its Western title as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was coined by Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. Bardo Thodol means, “liberation by hearing on the after death plane." The word bardo means “after death state” and thodol means “liberation by hearing.”
The journey through the afterlife is said to involve three stages:
- The Chikhai Bardo or “the experience of the primordial or primary clear light."
- The Chonyid Bardo or “the experience of the peaceful and wrathful deities.”
- The Sidpa Bardo or “the bardo of rebirth.”
The Bardo Thodol is supplemented by ritual instructions for death-rites, initiations, blessings, sacrifices, and supplications. Because of the intricacy of the rituals and symbolic elements of the Bardo Thodol, I am forced to provide only the descriptions of the various states and the basic processes involved therein (I’m not writing a book, you see). Those who are interested in learning the details may check the list of English translations found at the lower section of the Wikipedia entry for the Bardo Thodol.
According to Tibetan Buddhists, consciousness accumulates and becomes burdened by impurities or karma during one's lifetime. The purpose of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is to transform this consciousness after death into a pure and knowing awareness. Since the journey through the Bardo is determined by the karmic deeds from a person's previous life, much depends on one's ability to achieve an expanded state of consciousness and a steady awareness.
Basically, this means that if you spend a great deal of time practicing consciousness expansion during your lifetime and become an expert at it, you can be guaranteed that you will have a safe and secure trip after you die. Otherwise, your karma will hold you back and you will not have much power over the forces you will encounter in the afterlife. In that case, you will need someone to assist you in your journey through the Bardo. (More on this later.)
However, Buddhists deny the existence of a permanent or static entity that remains constant behind the changing bodily and non-bodily components of a living being. In other words, they don’t believe in the existence of a soul. What they do believe is that karmic energies are only transmitted from one being to the next. It is a series that continues, but without a permanent personality.
A common analogy is that of a candle flame. The fire burns from one candle to the next if you use the flame of one to light another. The flame appears to be the same, but actually it’s not. If you use the flame of one candle to light a second one just as the flame from the first dies out, the flame appears to be continuing its existence, but it is just an appearance.
Like a flame, an entity may inhabit a new body after it leaves the old one, but it's not the same entity as the one before, it is simply a continuation of the series. Just as the flame exists because it is fueled by a new candle, so does a living being because it possesses a new body with new properties of existence or karma.
Before we go on to the Bardo states, allow me to say something about the Trikaya doctrine first. For some this may be difficult to conceptualize, but if you finish the series and come back to this part, you might be able to have a better understanding of this concept. People who practice meditation or have taken psychedelic drugs can relate to this much easier. Additionally, I’ll be using the words “consciousness” and “awareness” interchangeably all throughout this series so please don’t get confused.
It is believed in the Tibetan tradition that after you die your consciousness wanders through the Bardo wherein it forms an awareness-body capable of experiencing the after death states. This body then undergoes several stages of catharsis (cleansing) that are experienced as apparitions.
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Trikaya or the "Three Bodies of the Buddha" is closely linked to the three Bardo states.
In the Chikhai Bardo, consciousness experiences the form of the dharmakaya. The dharmakaya or “truth body” is symbolized by the unclothed deep blue Adibuddha. Deep blue is the color of intensive pure awareness when consciousness is absorbed in meditation or samadhi. This state can be reached by highly advanced spiritual practitioners. In the dharmakaya, pure awareness is in the sphere of the primordial beginning. It exists in an undividable condition of potentiality that precedes all creation of the contents of consciousness. In other words, this is where it all begins and where it all ends, an absolute state of formlessness.
In the Chonyid Bardo, consciousness experiences the form of the sambhogakaya or the "body of spiritual bliss" and confronts the manifestations of the mind. From our ordinary point of view, the sambhogakaya is an ecstatic projection experienced psychically. This is the visionary realm of transcendent figures or the plane of heavenly and divine visions. You will experience polarity here in the positive form as the peaceful deities and in the negative form as the wrathful/demonic deities.
At the end of the journey through the Sidpa Bardo, consciousness enters into a new mortal shell ― the nirmanakaya or “the emanation body” ― after it has found the appropriate place of rebirth. This is what you are experiencing now. In Buddhist thought, this body is in the state of suffering since everything that awareness experiences here is impermanent. In the nirmanakaya, the psyche is attached to impermanent form. Therefore, it suffers from the continuous conflict of mind and matter.
The contents of the mind belong to the nirmanakaya, the realm of manifest form. The pulse of the stream of consciousness belongs to the sambhogakaya (the realm of energy flow) where it fluctuates between movement and stillness. The boundless state of awareness, which can be reached in perfect stillness, is the dharmakaya, the realm of pure being. All of us have the Buddha nature within us, so we experience being in these three bodies all the time and simultaneously. However, if awareness is not pure, it is unable to perceive the states higher than the nirmanakaya.
Other religions believe in an absolute resurrection of the dead person in the world beyond. In the Buddhist tradition, however, it is believed that a karmic transformation of awareness takes place through several births which are only interrupted by the death state. Basically, this means that, because of karma, death is not really the end as you know it. You only move from one kind of state to another. You have to be born again and again until you attain the ability to consciously and willfully hold on to any kind of state of awareness you may choose.
The path to the next incarnation in the Bardo Thodol is called the descending path because after you die, you will experience the highest state of awareness first. Then, in time, the power of your awareness sinks from the summit down into union with the material world… again. The smaller the karmic baggage, the less effect they have in the Bardo and the better the chances you have of being born in a life that is conducive for liberation, i.e., spiritual enlightenment.
To state it simply, when you die, you will see Buddha, Christ, Allah, Brahman, God, or whatever you want to call it, but if you cannot recognize it as yourself, you go back into being something else. Take note, I’m speaking figuratively here.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an exceptionally symbolic description of the process of dying (a process that takes 49 days) which gives Buddhists the ability to consciously influence the cycle of death and rebirth. The exceptionally detailed information contained in this book provides us an understanding of how the path through the threatening states of the afterlife can be crossed with the right frame of mind successfully. Here’s a summary of those states:
1. The Chikhai Bardo
The Primordial (Clear Light) and the Formation of the Awareness-Body
The first stage is the experience in the Chikhai Bardo which takes 3-4 days. In this stage, there is only pure awareness which we can only poorly describe as a complete transcendence accompanied by the euphoric independence from all involvements in the physical and non-physical worlds. The experience in the Chikhai Bardo is beyond vision, beyond the sense of self, beyond thought, and beyond words. This is analogous to the concept of non-duality as God (Christianity), Yehovah (Judaism), the Unspeakable (Chinese religions), Nirguna Brahman (Hinduism), Tawhid (Islam), and so on.
2. The Chonyid Bardo
The Vision Of The Peaceful Deities (4th to 11th day)
The Vision Of The Wrathful Deities (12th to 19th day)
In the Chonyid Bardo, the awareness-body is now fully formed and is bound to experience visions (karmic apparitions) with intense clarity. The visions involve various deities, which are the reflections of spiritual processes and experiences in this life. They are usually depicted in Tibetan artworks as symbols situated in different locations inside and outside a mandala. They work independently on the higher planes of consciousness, which means that even though they are just projections of the mind, you have no way of telling if they are real or not unless you were trained to recognize them through spiritual practice.
3. The Sidpa Bardo
The Six Realms & The Search For The Place Of Rebirth (20th to 49th day)
This final stage involves the return to the lower realms of existence. The journey through the Sidpa Bardo involves the experience of receiving judgment from Dharma-Raja (the Lord of Death) who is the ruler of the worlds of hell, an unfathomable place of suffering. This experience may last for 21 days. The last seven days are dedicated to the search for the place of rebirth, which happens as soon as the process is completed.
According to Tibetan Buddhists, there are six kinds of knowledge required for the path through the realms of the Bardo:
1. Knowledge of your past life and the realm of existence.
If your karmic pre-conditions are better than in your previous existence, it is possible to be reborn under better circumstances conducive to spiritual growth. That’s why the Buddha taught us to practice non-attachment and Christ told us to forgive those who sin against us. It keeps us from accumulating karma. Less karma means higher chances of rebirth into happier states of existence.
2. Knowledge of the process of death and rebirth.
Ignorance guarantees you a ticket to the torturous worlds of hell or the darkness of rebirth once you are in the Bardo states. Ignorance here means lack of insight into the true nature of reality. Jnana (wisdom or gnosis in other religions) empowers your consciousness, which may lead you towards enlightenment or to a heavenly state.
3. Knowledge of the perfect state of awareness.
The Tibetan texts say that a perfected and pure awareness (consciousness that is totally pervaded by light or the transcending spirit) is a precondition of the state of dharmakaya. If this perfect state of awareness is not attained, there will be parts that remain unconscious. These parts are the ones that cause consciousness to be pulled back down to the lower realms of existence.
4. Knowledge of all visions occurring in the unearthly realms.
If you can maintain the clearest presence of mind at the moment of death, you have all the power when you step into the world of the afterlife. A clear state of mind is necessary because you will encounter all kinds of unearthly visions in the after death states. Only those who are pure can go through these states without difficulty.
5. Knowledge of the six realms of existence, i.e., of rebirths.
In Buddhist cosmology, the “six realms” are just part of the lower realms of existence. Many other realms exist attainable only by highly evolved beings. The six realms are composed of the human realm, animal realm, hungry ghosts realm, asura realm, deva realm, and hell. The details are discussed in the Sidpa Bardo (last article).
6. Perfect knowledge of all liberating (purifying) capabilities.
Meditation on light is one of the most important exercises in the various schools of Tibetan Yoga. The more abilities you attain during life through spiritual practice, the stronger you become in penetrating and overcoming the visions in the Bardo. This website is actually filled with articles discussing various spiritual techniques, so please feel free to look around.
Remember what Yoda once said: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” It may sound funny, but I think the guy has a point. The only thing he forgot to mention is that ignorance is the root of all fear.
In the spiritual traditions of the ancient world, light and darkness are the symbols used for wisdom and ignorance. This representation of polar opposites gives us several indications that the ultimate goal of consciousness is to move towards the light or wisdom to become free of death and rebirth and virtually all forms of suffering.
Many people are afraid to die because they don’t know what’s going to happen to them. Hence, they cling to this world and all of the things that could be found here without knowing that this is not the real deal. The teachings from the Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, can eliminate the fear of the unknown. All you have to do is to reflect on the teachings. In the next article, I will discuss the first after death state, the Chikhai Bardo and the three-fold process of dying. For now, rest in peace, err, I mean, peace out!
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