As I read the newsfeeds, headlines and reports these days, all I see are religious groups struggling for power…either over themselves or each other. Nothing new to humans… we’ve been doing this since the beginning. Ebola, Israel/Gaza, ISIS, Religious Freedom/Persecution used as a shield for questionable ethics and ignorance…it is enough to make one long for a better world. And there are, but like many other ideologies and mythologies we know it is beyond this mundane realm and, for some, only accessible through the process of Death. This is no argument in favor of suicide, although I believe in each individual’s right to live or die (more on that later). As a matter of fact, in order to properly navigate the Otherworld(s) we need to stay alive and accumulate the necessary tools. At least, this is what the Tibetan Buddhists believe.
Similar to the Egyptian Book of the Dead (“The Book of Coming Forth By Day” or rw nw prt m hrw), the ‘Bardo Thodol‘ is a guide through the afterlife, translated as “The Great Liberation through Hearing of the Bardo”. The “book” is actually a series of sutras and texts compiled over a long period of time, but is believed to have first been initially composed by legendary master magician Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche ). The process of dying and death is taken very seriously in Tibetan culture, and in some ways it’s a welcome transition in general Buddhism. Unlike the Christian belief of resurrection, the laws of reincarnation and karma play a much more significant role in the recently departed. There is no waiting around for some Bodhisattva to come and liberate them; the work of the Buddhist consists of preparing for this final “test” so an individual can free themselves. Customarily, if one can afford it, holy men come to the deathbed and chant these sutras, giving directions and encouragement for the soul to reach it’s final destination, whether through an incarnating physical body or settling into one of the many other realms of existence. The instructions are read over a 49-day period, the time it generally takes a soul to reach it’s destination; depending on spiritual pursuits and meditation they did in life, some souls will take less time than others to move through the bardos. It is much more complicated than this simple explanation, but is essentially how I have come to understand it.
The term Bardo is essentially the combining of ‘bar’ (in between) and ‘do’ (island or mark)…it is a “place” between the various realms of existence, a crossroads of the soul. Whilst there is only three Bardos described in the Book of the Dead, there are multiple layers within each. Each is a threshold and opportunity for the departed to reconcile their karmic debt, and can be quite frightening to the unprepared. The first bardo is entered upon right before the MOMENT physical death occurs. Hovering between life and death, the individual realizes they are about to disappear into the next world. In the Shambhala Dragon Edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, there is a great passage in the commentary section which describes this process as an elementary releasing:“Physically, you feel heavy when the earth element dissolves into water; and when water dissolves into fire you find that the circulation begins to cease functioning. When fire dissolves into air, any feeling of warmth or growth begins to dissolve; and when air dissolves into space you last the last feeling of contact with the physical world. Finally, when space or consciousness dissolves into the central nadi, there is a sense of internal luminousity, an inner glow, when everything has become completely introverted” (p.4).
Once death hastens the process and allows the ‘self’ to release the body, so does the biggest journey begin. The series of bardos that follow are opportunities for the soul to receive enlightenment, to get final chances at realizations the individual may not have practiced or pursued in life. This happens through a series of visions and travels through the different realms. If there had been a true connection made with deities or Buddhas, this is the time when they appear as guides for us to move forward. If this does not occur, the soul moves on into the next phase.
The Six Realms of Existence are states of Samsara (cycles of rebirth) which become available in the second bardo. The realms resonate a bright guiding light and unless focused on the task at hand, the soul is like a moth blindly following illusion. Now, pay attention because this part is kinda important: Our mundane human existence is located somewhere in the middle of this hierarchy, our karma was pretty good if we are now humans. And really, this is a very advantageous place to be because we can go either way: ascending into the realms of the demigods and Gods, or descending into the hellish realms of hungry ghosts and animals.
At the very lowest realm of hell, all intensity is expressed. Anger and loneliness are the dominating tortures in this world, which very much resembles Dante’s Inferno: areas of complete freezing cold, rivers of magma, and the skies a fiery blaze. For those who escape or serve out time, the next realm is not much more pleasant as it is inhabited by the pretas, or Hungry Ghosts: beings who experience over and over the desires they attached themselves to in previous lifetimes. “Want” is the big theme here, feelings of greed are prevalent. In classical art they are portrayed as beings with very large bellies, but tiny necks and mouths, sitting before large plates of food they cannot manage to get at. This is an illusion, as they cannot see the food is spoiled and filled with the ravenous poisons they cultivated.
The next realm is that of Animals and whilst we, as humans, tend to like the idea of coming back as a housecat, this is just another illusion. Animals are sentient beings in their innocence…but really, that is just a nice way of describing their “dumbness”. Animals lack a sense of humor, are in a constant state of survival and have no time or intelligence to comprehend the dharma. They act solely on instinct, violence and death are not contemplations but ways of living. Some people are on the borderlands of this realm,I think, succumbing to bodily cravings and destruction for their own ‘survival’. Humans are just above this realm, as we have evolved from this primal state of action and turn to the research of potentiality.
As we progress through the realms, just above the humans are the Jealous Gods, or Asuras; envy and suspicion reign supreme here. The beings here are demi-gods… not really good enough to become a fully realized being because they have these attachments of intrigue to work through. They are so busy looking at the shiny pretty details they are missing the bigger picture. It is the distractions of mind, spirituality wrapped up in theories so the soul does not progress but rather becomes “stuck”.
The next realm is that of the Gods: those who have built whole worlds, within their physical bodies, working towards apotheosis as an elevated being of the cosmos. Really, it doesn’t sound so bad; a playground of the Devas in which pleasure is maintained and “rewarded” for all their hard work in previous lives. It is still illusion though, as Ego drives the motivation in this realm. The attainment of prideful worship and eternal pats on the back does not help to escape from the cycles of rebirth; which really is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. Even here, the impermanence of the Universe is Law and the heavenly realms are subject to the evolutionary progression of the soul.
Now, depending on how one acts and reacts through the second bardo will determine where they end up. Rejection, fear or attachment to other realms can become the cementing force slowing down the soul’s progress….which is why it is important to develop these skills now whilst we still have time, being that it’s relative. We can also pray for those who are still trapped in these realms. Making offerings and requests for karmic debt to be eliminated on their behalf, whilst also accepting that karma for ourselves, is a win-win. If all else has failed and the soul does not accept any of the options placed in front of them, the final bardo is crossed into and a “judgment” takes place. This is not unlike the “final boss” experienced in the afterlife of many other religions; the Egyptians face Ma’at where their heart is weighed against the feather of Truth. Facing this Truth is the most important part of the entire journey, facing what we truly ARE and not hiding behind all the falsities of our previous existences. If liberation is not achieved, rebirth is necessary. It is at this point potential parents or lifetimes are presented, with bright lights drawing the soul towards the most favorable womb. So, in essence, we chose this lifetime we are in now. We DID select our parents in this realm and gave ourselves another opportunity to achieve liberation.
All we can really do to avoid such suffering in the afterlife, is to try living a good life, be compassionate and kind-hearted. It seems, according to the Book of the Dead, even this is not enough as we should strive to become virtuous in spiritual pursuits. Our aim is to take advantage of opportunities and privileges for learning meditation, mantra and visualization; all skills we take with us after this lifetime.“There being several turning-points, liberation should be obtained at one or other of them through recognizing. But those of very weak karmic connexions, whose mass of obscuration is great [because of] evil actions, have to wander downwards and downwards to the Sidpa Bardo. Yet since there are, like the rungs of a ladder, many kinds of settings-face-to-face [or remindings], liberation should have been obtained at one or at another by recognizing. But those of the weakest karmic connexions, by not recognizing, fall under the influence of awe and terror. [For them] there are various graded teachings for closing the womb-door and for selecting the womb-door; and, at one or other of these, they should have apprehended the method of visualization and [applied] the illimitable virtues [thereof] for exalting one’s own condition. Even the lowest of them, resembling the brute order, will have been able — in virtue of the application of the Refuge — to turn from entering into misery; and, [obtaining] the great [boon] of a perfectly endowed and freed human body, will, in the next birth, meeting with a guru who is a virtuous friend, obtain the [saving] vows.”