Concept Encyclopedia Analysis - The Bardo

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The Bardo

by Katarina Turpeinen

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The Bardo - Beyond the Gates of Death

The bardo is usually translated as an intermediate state, although, as some have suggested, a better translation would be an intermediate process, due to the changing, flowing nature of the bardos. The main meaning of the bardo is the intermediate process between death and rebirth, although this meaning was eventually extended to cover all processes of existence. I shall first address the history and characteristics of the bardo, and then speculate on the psychological implications and philosophical significance of the concept.

The Evolution of The Bardo

The Tibetan word bardo is a translation of the Sanskrit term antarābhava , which means “existence in the interval”, referring to the period between death and rebirth. It is hard to ascertain the first occurrence of this concept, but what we do know is that the early schools of Indian Buddhism had debates concerning this issue already well before the common era. For example, Mogaliputta Tissa’s Kathāvatthu (2nd century B.C.E.), records divergent interpretations of the term antarābhavūpagaṃ, “completed existence in the intermediate process”. Generally, Theravādins argued against the idea of antarābhava based on the fact that the Buddha never explicitly taught it, while Sarvāstivādins and Saurāntrikas defended its existence.

The other early references to the term antarābhava, include such sūtras as the Sūtra in Stability in Contemplation on the Nature of the True Reality (Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna-sūtra) and Sūtra on Entering the Womb (Garbhāvakrānti-nirdeśa-sūtra). The descriptions of the intermediate process in these sūtras are terse, but it is interesting that they, nevertheless, contain many of the key elements of the later formulations, such as references to the indications of elemental dissolution, perplexity when facing the clear light of death, dream-like appearances and the sight of one’s future parents making love.

The first detailed doctrinal exposition on the intermediate process occurs, not in Vasubandhu’s famous Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, but, surprisingly, in the Mahāvibhāṣā (Great Commentary), which is a second century Abhidharma commentary on the Sarvāstivādin Jñānaprasthāna-śāstra (Treatise on the Establishment of Knowledge). Apparently, Mahāvibhāsa was a major source for Vasubandhu’s fifth century exposition, for it contains elaborate proofs and descriptions of the intermediate process that are conspicuously similar to those of the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya (although there are differences too). These include depictions of people who obtain nirvāṇa in the intermediate process (antarāparinirvāyin), the general mechanism of rebirth and the characteristics of beings in the intermediate process. Vasubandhu describes the body of a being in the intermediate process as being of mental origin, and says that it resembles the body of the beings in the realm one is destined to be reborn in. A being in the intermediate process eats odor, and can move swiftly through air and unobstructedly through solid objects. He can be seen only by other beings in the intermediate process, or by beings who have the divine eye (devacakṣus), i.e. perception refined by contemplative practice.

The next development in the concept of the intermediate process was the expansion of its meaning to include diverse intermediate processes covering the entirety of a sentient beings life cycle, and the innovation of connecting it to tantric yoga of the completion stage practices. For example, the Six Yogas of Nāropa outlines three intermediate processes: the intermediate process of birth-to-death (skye shi bar do), the intermediate process of dreams (rmi lam bar do) and the intermediate process of becoming (srid pa bar do). The first one refers to our ordinary waking life, and last one is equivalent to the earlier intermediate process between death and rebirth. The bardo of dreams provided a powerful metaphor for the bardo between death and rebirth due to the similar characteristics of these two processes, such as their volatile nature and the mentally generated body capable of miraculous performance.

Incorporating intermediate process into tantric yoga was remarkable in its ingenious simplicity and naturally fitting parallelism. On the level of vital, subtle, bodily energies, or winds (prāṇa, rlung), the process of successful completion stage yoga was said to correspond the process of dying. In both cases the winds dissolve into the axis of one’s subtle body, called the central channel (avadhūti, dbu ma). One perceives the signs of dissolution of various elemental and psycho-physical energies culminating in the vision of blinding luminosity, called the clear light (‘od gsal). If one was dying, one would emerge from this experience in the bardo body, in the intermediate process between death and rebirth, and if one was meditating, one would arise in the body similar to that of an enlightened deity, called the illusory body (sgyu lus), gained as a result of the successful dissolution of the energies. The ordinary rebirth instead, was compared to the illusory body re-entering the coarse body and the yogi returning to the ordinary level of perception and cognition as opposed to the subtle, realized awareness of the illusory body. The repeated practice of this yoga was said to result in the permanent presence of the realized awareness, i.e. buddhahood and the actualization of the three bodies of a Buddha, the ordinary bardo experience transforming into the divine experience of the Enjoyment Body (saṃbhogakāya, longs spyod sku).

In Tibet, death related practices and yogas were studied enthusiastically during the Renaissance period, which also entailed a keen interest in the concept of bardo. Thus, by the twelfth century we begin to see a proliferation of bardo categories and their relation to various practices, doctrines and types of individuals. The Kagyü (bka’ brgyud) and Géluk (dge’ lugs) commentators proceeded along the lines of the Six Yogas of Nāropa, but the Nyingma (rnying ma) and Bön (bon) authors contributed to the evolution of the bardo with striking innovations: they described a new type of bardo, called the bardo of reality (chos nyid bar do, or the bardo of the bön itself, bon nyid bar do, in Bön texts). This bardo was the first stage in the transition between death and rebirth, which I shall call the post-death intermediate process, beginning after the cessation of the clear light of death. It was initially conceived of as a manifestation of one’s inner subtle nature in the form of sounds, multicolored lights and rays. In the course of development, the maṇḍala of the peaceful and wrathful deities probably deriving from the influential Secret Nucleus Tantra (Guhyagarbhatantra) was combined with the bardo of reality, so that in addition to the display of light and sound, the deceased perceived a luminous manifestation of the peaceful and wrathful deities.

Thus, the process between death and rebirth contained the pure gnostic visions of the bardo of reality and the chaotic karmic manifestations of the bardo of becoming. In addition to the earlier parallelism with dreaming, the individual’s cycle of life and death was also an image of creation, for in the dzokchen (rdzogs chen, “Great Perfection”) cosmology, in the beginning of creation, when the cosmic energies are stirred, both the samsāric and nirvānic possibilities arise, and depending on recognition of one’s nature, one either strays into dualistic karmic existence or unites with the gnostic matrix of being. Similarly, in the post-death bardos, the recognition of any manifestation as a projection of one’s own nature results in liberation, while dualistic grasping or aversion results in rebirth. In addition to these two post-death bardos and the bardos of dreaming and from-birth-to-death, many Nyingma sources include the bardo of meditation and the bardo of the moment of death, which includes the dissolution process of winds.

The exact chronology of the gradual incorporation of the maṇḍala of the peaceful and wrathful deities in the bardo of reality remains obscure, but, as Blezer suggests, it seems to have occurred in multiple textual traditions. In one of the earliest sources, a Bön dzokchen text The Ornament of Sun Light That Elucidates Like a Lamp from the Oral Lineage of Zhang Zhung’s Great Perfection (rDzogs pa chen po zhang zhung snyan rgyud las sgron ma’i ‘grel pa nyi ‘od rgyan, pre 8th century?), the bardo of the bön itself is described as a state in which the universal ground consciousness (ālayavijñāna, kun gzhi rnam shes) manifests without covering obscurations due to the cessation of karma and afflictions (kleśa, nyon myongs) and one perceives manifestations of sounds, lights and rays. In a later Buddhist dzokchen text, The Tantra of the Intimate Union of the Sun and the Moon (Nyi zla kha sbyor), the bardo of reality includes manifestations of beautiful well-proportioned divine bodies in addition to the luminous display. The first Buddhist text, which has a complete description of the maṇḍala of the peaceful and wrathful deities appearing in the bardo of reality is the relatively late The Clear Exposition of the Intermediate Process of Reality (Chos nyid bar do’i gsal ‘debs, 14th century). The famous cycle of literature containing The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar do thos grol, “Liberation through hearing”) revealed by Karma Lingpa represents in many ways the culmination of this lengthy development. Its broad influence in Tibet is a testament to the practical success of the bardo doctrines. After the innovations of the Renaissance period were codified and established, the focus shifted increasingly to rituals for guiding the deceased in the post-death bardos.

The Unceasingly Present Bardo

As noted before, the goal of completion stage tantric yoga is to eradicate ordinary death and the post-death intermediate process by consciously inducing the very process while still alive. This raises interesting philosophical and psychological questions concerning the nature of the post-death intermediate process. If we can induce by will the dissolution of energies that occurs in death, can we visit the post-death bardos while alive? Are they subtle dimensions parallel to our level of reality? Or, are they a mental realm in our subconscious mind, a subliminal mechanism or process of our consciousness that we are not normally aware of? Could the concept of post-death bardos even explain some psychological disorders, hallucinations and states of madness? Is it possible that some people, who lose the stability of their ordinary mental continuum, enter the post-death bardo present in their subconscious mind, and lacking guidance or yogic preparation cannot deal with the chaos and terrifying visions they encountered, thus loosing their sanity?

It seems that these kinds of ideas are implicit the parallelism between the processes of death and tantric yoga, and as the bardo doctrines evolved in Tibet they became increasingly explicit. When a yogi induces at will the dissolution that occurs at death, he experiences more subtle aspects of existence that are unceasingly present, although he is normally unaware of them. The post-death bardos themselves are a special opportunity for practice for an advanced yogi due to the natural dissolution of the winds, while for an ordinary person it is described as a terrifying state, especially in later Tibetan literature, such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Thus, it seems to accord with the bardo doctrine that an ordinary person might be able to experience these more subtle bardo aspects of consciousness under unusual circumstances, such as severe shock, depression, starvation, fasting, heat, intense bliss, absorption in beauty or devotion, hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis or trance. Depending on the circumstances and the mental disposition of the person, this more subtle perception could manifest in numerous ways, ranging from spiritual experiences of bliss and awakening to loss of coherence, paranoia and madness. As Chökyam Trungpa describes it, “this very faint line between sanity and insanity is a very profound teaching in regard to the experience of bardo” . According to this view on the bardo, we could speculate that the bardo of reality represents the inner realms that accord with reality and awakened experiences, while the karmically oriented bardo of becoming is more related to confused experiences. It should be noted though that to equate the bardo-like subtle experiences with inner realms, psychological states, or especially with the subconscious mind with its Freudian associations, is somewhat misleading, because these more subtle states, especially the awakened experiences, involve a decrease or collapse of such boundaries as inner and outer.

Bardo and Gnosis

As noted before, during the Renaissance period, Tibetans witnessed a general proliferation of bardo categories and a keen focus on bardo related practices, as well as the major innovations of the bardo of reality with the absorption of the maṇḍala of the peaceful and wrathful deities among the Nyingma and Bön. Why were the Tibetans so interested in the bardos during this period? It seems that the answer lies in the connection between the bardo and knowledge, for what knowledge is more intriguing for Tibetans thirsty for the nectar of gnosis than the knowledge of the ultimate mystery of existence: death. In addition to elucidating this mystery that mankind has pondered since time immemorial, the bardo doctrines offered a solution: conquering death through contemplative practices, in other words, immortality. Or, if one was not capable of this, the masters of the secrets of death and bardo would aid one in this crucial period in one’s life cycle through rituals, which guided the consciousness of the deceased in the post-death bardos and accumulated merit on his behalf. Thus, from the social point of view, the post-death bardos continue to be an important factor in the authority of the lamas and in the relationship between Tibetan clergy and laity.

The orientation of knowledge in the Renaissance period is evident also in the very innovation of the bardo of reality, for this bardo is the gnostic aspect of the transition between death and rebirth. Furthermore, the gnostic appearances of luminosity and deities are the nothing less than projections of one’s own Buddha nature. Thus, this doctrine not only reflects the gnostic quest of the time, but also provides an elegant synthesis of the post-death bardo teachings with the Buddha nature and gnostic orientation of the Great Perfection. The Great Perfection tradition itself was also transformed in the process; as Germano notes, in the Renaissance period, the new visionary or “funerary” Great Perfection containing death related doctrines and practices eventually eclipsed the earlier pristine Great Perfection with its anti-practice orientation focused on naturalness and spontaneity.

References to the Bardo in The Blue Annals

The Blue Annals contains nine references to the bardo, which are listed below in chronological order. All nine refer to the bardo between death and rebirth, which is the primary meaning of the word bardo. The majority of these references are related to the significance of the post-death bardo as a special opportunity to attain enlightenment. Five references directly mention an attainment of realizations in the post-death bardo. Two of them refer to asking for instructions for bardo teachings that enable one to attain realization in the bardo. The bardo of reality is not mentioned anywhere, which is not surprising to the Kagyü author, Gö lotsawa (‘gos lo tsa ba). A very interesting reference (quoted in full below) relates the story of the second Karmapa’s death, who subsequently returned to life through projecting his consciousness into a recently deceased body, died again immediately, but obtained an initiation in a bardo body. In the next reference the third Karmapa tells stories about his experiences in the bardo.

11th century: Mitrayogin, a disciple of Tilopa, “uttered a prophecy to a king of Vārāṇasī, which said: Because of your doubt in me, you will not obtain spiritual realization in this life, but will obtain it in the Intermediate Stage.” (657)

11th century: Drokmi (‘brog mi) “attained the true realization of the Mahāmudrā (which he did not attain at the time of his death, as hoped for by him) in the "Intermediate" State”. (146)

12th century: Martön Tsültrim Jungné (mar ston tshul khrims ‘byung gnas), a disciple of Rechungpa (ras chung pa) “became expert in the understanding of the Ultimate Essence and in the practice of transforming the Intermediate Stage”. (291)

12th century: Malkabacenpa (mal ka ba can pa) “made the request for secret precepts on the Intermediate Stage (bar do) and (the Teacher) bestowed them on him”. (574)

12th century: “When rgwa lo was thinking of making him his disciple, he (chos gyung) a disciple of Gampopa exhibited the rite of entering into the (dead) body of a goose (grong 'jug), and rgwa lo was filled with faith, and begged to be instructed in the Teaching about the Intermediate stage.” (304)

13th century: The II Karmapa, “Dharmasvāmin kar ma pa shi passed away on the 3rd day of the third month of the year Water-Female-Sheep (chu mo lug 1283 A.D.). He performed the rite of transference of the conscious principle ('gron 'jug) at stod lungs 'phar tshan (into the body of a boy who had died). The boy's parents thought that the boy having died, it was improper to return him to life again, therefore the parents pierced the boy's eye with a needle, and so the omens did not agree (i.e. he did not succeed to incarnate in this body). Then the Dharmasvāmin in the form of a being of the Intermediate Stage (bar do ba) proceeded towards tsa'i phu gangs zhur mo, the birth place of the Venerable mid la, and was initiated into the Maṇḍala of the 62 deities of Śrī-Saṃvara. After that, he perceived the womb of (his future) mother as a crystal palace. Recollected and controlled he settled in it and thoughts of distress did not arise in him.” (313)

13th century: “When the Venerable scholar gser khang pa respectfully questioned him (the III Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje), he related to him many stories about the Intermediate Stage (bar do).” (314)

13th century: Khampa Lungpa (mkham pa lung pa) “is known to have attained the Mahāmudrā siddhi (Buddhahood) in the Intermediate Stage”. (205)

14th century: Drakpa Senge (grags pa seng ge) “also had a clear vision of the Intermediate Stage and was able to benefit the denizens of the Intermediate Stage”. (338)


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