Tibetan Book of the Dead

From New World Encyclopedia

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the western name for a collection of funerary texts that are used, especially by Tibetan Buddhists, to prepare for death and the expectation of subsequent rebirth. These texts are intended to guide the reader through the alleged interval between death and a new rebirth known as the bardo (literally: "Liminality"). The texts are often classified Bardo Thödol, meaning Liberation Through Hearing. However, there is no single Tibetan title corresponding to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which consists of two comparatively long texts on the bardo of dying and the bardo of existence. They are called Great Liberation through Hearing: The Supplication of the Bardo of Dharmata and Great liberation through Hearing: The Supplication Pointing Out the Bardo of Existence. Included in its chapters are guidance on the signs of death, and rituals to undertake when death is closing in, or has taken place in order to ensure a better rebirth. The Bardo Thödol is recited by Tibetan Buddhist lamas over a dying or recently deceased person, or sometimes over an effigy of the deceased.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the most famous and widespread work of Nyingma literature, which has become popular among Western audiences and has produced a number of English translations. This work continues to find resonance among modern audiences because it addresses one of the most profound questions facing peoples of all cultures: What happens when we die? The Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests that "the "art of dying" is nothing less than the art of living" since each moment is simultaneously a new opportunity and a type of death.


According to Tibetan tradition, the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State was composed by Padmasambhava, written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal, buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa.[1]

A distinctive characteristic of Tibetan Buddhism is its rituals surrounding death. In particular, "Death yoga" (or "death practice") is an important aspect of Tantra techniques. Although it is called Death yoga, most of the practice actually happens during life. It is the accumulation of meditative practice that helps to prepare the practitioner for what they need to do at the time of death. At the time of death the mind is in a state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment, when used very skillfully. It is said that masters like Lama Tsong Khapa used these techniques to achieve enlightenment during the death process.

Actually, it is said that there are three stages at which it is possible to do this; at the end of the death process, during the bardo (or "in between period") and during the process of rebirth. During these stages, the mind is in a very subtle state, and an advanced practitioner can use these natural states to make significant progress on the spiritual path. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an important commentary for this kind of traditional practice.

This Death yoga should not be confused with normal meditation on death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions. In most non-tantra traditions it is done to reduce attachment and desire, and not to use the death process itself as a means to practice.

Six Bardos

The Tibetan word Bardo means literally "intermediate state"—also translated as "transitional state" or "in-between state" or "liminal state." The text differentiates the intermediate state between lives into three bardos:

  1. The chikhai bardo or "bardo of the moment of death," which features the experience of the "clear light of reality," or at least the nearest approximation of which one is spiritually capable.
  2. The chonyid bardo or "bardo of the experiencing of reality," which features the experience of visions of various Buddha forms (or, again, the nearest approximations of which one is capable).
  3. The sidpa bardo or "bardo of rebirth," which features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth. (Typically, imagery of men and women passionately entwined.)

The Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State also mentions three other bardos: Those of "life" (or ordinary waking consciousness), of "dhyana" (meditation), and of "dream" (the dream state during normal sleep).

Together these "six bardos" form a classification of states of consciousness into six broad types. Any state of consciousness can form a type of "intermediate state," intermediate between other states of consciousness. Indeed, one can consider any momentary state of consciousness a bardo, since it lies between our past and future existences; it provides humans with the opportunity to experience reality, which is always present but obscured by the projections and confusions that are due to previous unskillful actions.

These Six Bardos are further explained as follows:

  1. Shinay bardo (Tibetan): The first bardo of birth and life. This bardo commences from conception until the last breath, when the mindstream withdraws from the body.
  2. Milam bardo (Tibetan): The second bardo of the dream state. The Milam Bardo is a subset of the first Bardo. Dream Yoga develops practices to integrate the dream state into Buddhist sadhana.
  3. Samten bardo (Tibetan) is the third bardo of meditation. This bardo is generally only experienced by meditators, though individuals may have spontaneous experience of it. Samten Bardo is a subset of the Shinay Bardo.
  4. Chikkhai bardo (Tibetan): The fourth bardo of the moment of death. According to tradition, this bardo is held to commence when the outer and inner signs presage that the onset of death is nigh, and continues through the dissolution or transmutation of the Mahabhuta until the external and internal breath has completed.
  5. Chönyid bardo (Tibetan): The fifth bardo of the luminosity of the true nature which commences after the final "inner breath" (Sanskrit: Prana, vayu; Tibetan: rlung). It is within this Bardo that visions and auditory phenomena occur. In the Dzogchen teachings, these are known as the spontaneously manifesting Thödgal (Tibetan: Thod-rgyal) visions. Concomitant to these visions, there is a welling of profound peace and pristine awareness. Sentient beings who have not practiced during their lived experience and/or who do not recognize the clear light (Tibetan: Od gsal) at the moment of death are usually deluded throughout the fifth bardo of luminosity.
  6. Sidpai bardo (Tibetan): The sixth bardo of becoming or transmigration. This bardo endures until the inner-breath commences in the new transmigrating form determined by the "karmic seeds" within the storehouse consciousness.

Shugchang, et al. (2000: p.5) discuss the Zhitro (Tibetan: Zhi-khro) teachings which subsume the Bardo Thodol and mention Karma Lingpa, terma and Padmasambhava and list the Six Bardo:

In the terma discovered by Karma Lingpa, Guru Padmasambhava introduces six different bardos. The first bardo begins when we take birth and endures as long as we live. The second is the bardo of dreams. The third is the bardo of concentration or meditation. The fourth occurs at the moment of death. The fifth is known as the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature. The sixth is called the bardo of transmigration or karmic becoming.[2]

Fremantle charts the development of the bardo concept through the Himalayan tradition:

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. There was considerable dispute over this theory during the early centuries of Buddhism, with one side arguing that rebirth (or conception) follows immediately after death, and the other saying that there must be an interval between the two. With the rise of mahayana, belief in a transitional period prevailed. Later Buddhism expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states, covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that lies between two other states. Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, is the prototype of the bardo experience, while the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods. 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.[3]

Used somewhat loosely, the term "bardo" may refer to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, to, later on, terrifying hallucinations arising from the impulses of one's previous unskillful actions. For the spiritually advanced the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth.

In the West, the term bardo may also refer to times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, when we are on retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress, as external constraints diminish, although they offer challenges because human unskillful impulses can come to the fore, just as in the sidpa bardo.

Comparison with the Western experience of death

One can perhaps attempt to compare the descriptions of the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State with accounts of certain "out of the body" near-death experiences described by people who have nearly died in accidents or on the operating table. These accounts sometimes mention a "white light," and helpful figures corresponding to that person's religious tradition.


  1. Evans-Wentz (1960), p. liv.
  2. Shugchang, Padma (editor); Sherab, Khenchen Palden & Dongyal, Khenpo Tse Wang, A Modern Commentary on Karma Lingpa's Zhi-Khro: Teachings on the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities (Padma Gochen Ling, 2003).
  3. Fremantle, Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead (2001), 53-54.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Coleman, Graham, and Thupten Jinpa (ed.). The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN 0-7139-9414-2.
  • Dorje, Gyurme. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A Brief Literary History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Translated by Gyurme Dorje. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2007. ISBN 978-0-14-310494-0.
  • Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (ed.) Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup (trans.). Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane. Oxford, 1927, 1960. ISBN 0-19-500223-7.
  • Fremantle, Francesca, and Chögyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa. Shambhala, 1975, 2003. ISBN 0-394-73064-X.
  • Fremantle, Francesca. Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2001. ISBN 1-57062-450-X.
  • Mullin, Glenn H. Death and Dying: The Tibetan Tradition. Penguin-Arkana, 1986. ISBN 0-14-019013-9.
  • Sögyal Rinpoche, with Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey (eds.). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Harper San Francisco, 1992, ISBN 0-06-250793-1.
  • Thurman, Robert. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as popularly known in the West. Known in Tibet as The Great Book of Natural Liberation Through Understanding in the Between, Composed By Padmasambhava Discovered by Karma Lingpa. Harper Collins, 1994. ISBN 1-85538-412-4.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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