The Bardos: A Brief Presentation


Sukhavati, Baad Sarow, Germany, 31 July 2018

The Bardos: A Brief Presentation

Sukhavati, Baad Sarow, Germany, 31 July 2018

During his week-long visit to Sukhavati care centre in the summer of 2018, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche was requested to speak about the bardos (transitional states) which are a unique feature of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. The explanation that he shared was interspersed with instructions on the practice of Sur (burnt offering), which is particularly directed towards bardo beings. The actual Sur practice that Rinpoche makes reference to is that of Jigme Lingpa’s ‘White Sur Offering that Pervades all the Buddhafields’, which appears in quotes. Within the talk, Rinpoche raised some particularly interesting points that we can all benefit from.

I’ve been asked to talk today about the bardos. I believe everyone nowadays has heard something about this topic, but I don’t think I can talk about them in any great detail here.

In his famous work, the Abhidharmakosha, the Acharya Vasubandhu presented teachings that the Buddha himself gave on the bardos, contained within the sutras. In the Tibetan tradition, we also have a lot of information about the bardos from ‘déloks’, people who have returned from death and reported all the experiences that they have been through. There are also extensive teachings on the bardos found in the tradition of Dzogpachenpo. As it is said in those teachings, “Those of superior capacity are liberated in the bardo of this life, those of middling capacity are liberated in the bardo of the moment of death…” and so on. The different traditions of Dzogchen present the bardos in slightly different ways, for example some speak of four bardos, while others talk of six.

Our main source of knowledge about the bardos, however, comes from the Karling Shyitro tradition, the cycle of teachings on the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities revealed by Karma Lingpa. These teachings include the Bardo Tödrol, popularly known as ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, but more accurately translated as, ‘The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo’. Personally, I don’t know how to explain those teachings. As I’ve told you many times before, I don’t know how to teach Dzogchen. If you really want to hear more about them you need to ask a ‘Dzogchen master’. I am not a Dzogchen master! But still, to humour you, and since you’ve made this request to me, I feel I’d better say something about the bardos here.

Right now we are in the bardo of this life, which lasts from the moment we take birth to the moment we abandon our body at death. This is followed by the bardo of the moment of death which lasts from the moment we die—when all appearances associated with our past life dissolve—up until the appearances of the next bardo manifest. This is the time that we are told to practice phowa (transference), if we know how to. In the Dzogchen tradition, there are many instructions to guide a dying person during this bardo, especially to point out the nature of their mind. If you are able to actualize those instructions, if you can recognise the nature of mind when it is pointed out to you, you can be liberated.

During this bardo, the elements of your body dissolve one by one through different stages and the instructions that you are given follow this sequence. If, while you were alive, you practiced meditation and gained some familiarity with the nature of your mind, you can be liberated at this time.

At the moment of death, the appearances of the dharmakaya manifest naturally. If you can recognize the nature of your mind in that moment—the very nature of mind that was introduced to you by your master and that you familiarised yourself with and stabilised through practice—then that recognition will merge with the appearances of the dharmakaya and become one. In that moment, you can be liberated.

Here the example of a vase is given. The space inside the vase is likened to the recognition of your nature of mind. Outside the vase is vast, limitless space. In the bardo, this outer space is the unchanging wisdom expanse of the dharmadhatu which can be realized at the moment of death. Right now, the nature of mind that we recognize feels separate from that greater space because of the shell of our body and consciousness. At death it is like the breaking of the vase—the space inside the vase and the space outside merge and become one. The moment our consciousness separates from our body at death is like the vase being broken. The nature of our mind will then merge indivisibly with the expanse of the dharmadhatu. It’s like pouring water from this glass into the ocean—the water mixes and becomes one with the ocean.

How can you take advantage of this opportunity at the moment of death? You need to have been introduced to the nature of your mind by your teacher and to have practiced and gained some stability in that. If you haven’t practiced and stabilized that recognition, it won’t be possible for you to find liberation at this time. That’s why even though we first talk about recognition, we then emphasize training, so that we can develop some stability in the recognition. If you have recognized the nature of your mind and have trained at least to some extent in stabilizing that recognition, this will be sufficient for you to be liberated. It’s like there’s a crowd of a thousand people—if your mother is somewhere amongst them, you’ll immediately be able to recognize her. This is what we call, ‘liberation of the meeting of the mother and child luminosities’. As it is said, “May I be liberated, as naturally as a child running into its mother’s lap!”[1]From the Longchen Nyingtik Ngöndro.

This prayer continues,

In this great secret Mantrayana path of luminosity—Dzogpachenpo—the summit of all,
Enlightenment is to be sought nowhere but in the face of the dharmakaya.
If I'm not liberated into the primordial state by actualizing this…

This leads us to the next bardo, the bardo of dharmata. Generally we say that the bardo of the moment of death lasts three days. In the bardo of dharmata, all the peaceful and wrathful deities start to manifest. How they appear, and how long the appearances last, can vary a great deal. To gain liberation during this bardo you need to have practiced the generation phase (kyerim), otherwise it is very difficult. For some people, these appearances flash by just for a split second.

According to the Abhidharmakosha, in the following bardo, the bardo of becoming, we assume a mental body, similar to the body that we have in a dream.

“[A body] with all the sense organs yet immaterial…”

In the Sur practice this is described in these lines:

“…all the beings dwelling in the intermediate state,
Who have abandoned their previous bodies years, months, or days ago—yesterday, this morning, or last year—
And who have not found a physical support for their next lives…”

Since bardo beings only have a mental body, they are unable to settle in one place for any length of time and instead travel restlessly through all six realms of existence. According to the Yeshe Lama, there are only two places that bardo beings cannot travel to: the Vajra Seat, the place of Buddha’s enlightenment, and the mother’s womb. Some Sakyapas question this statement and ask, “What’s the problem with them going to the Vajra Seat? If you go to Bodhgaya these days, it’s full of tirthikas, so why can’t bardo beings go there too?” But the Vajra Seat that Jigme Lingpa was referring to is the ultimate vajra seat of the primordial purity of basic space. If you reach the vajra seat of the primordial purity of basic space it means that you’ve attained enlightenment, so of course you’re not a bardo being anymore! And if you enter the mother’s womb and take birth, then you’ve also ceased to be a bardo being.

Still, the Sakyapas maintain that bardo beings cannot travel to the actual Vajra Seat in India. They argue that the Vajra Seat lies some distance below the surface of Bodhgaya, in a place that is endowed with the seven qualities of a vajra[2]Uncuttable, indestructible, true, solid, stable, completely unobstructible, and completely invincible.. Consequently it is impenetrable, and even the subtle mental body of a bardo being cannot enter there. They give the example of an extremely hard stone—no matter how much water you might pour onto the stone, the water cannot penetrate inside.

These are just some of the debates that have sprung up around this topic. In any case, it is believed that bardo beings can travel unimpeded anywhere and everywhere except these two places.

The Sur text says that beings who wander in the bardo are,

“Without protector or defender,
Have not the backing of accumulated merit from the past,
And lack the friendship of virtue.”

I think these lines would be applicable to the vast majority of Western and Chinese people.

It is extremely important that we accumulate merit for people after they have passed away, especially at the specific times indicated in the texts, e.g. on the 3rd, 7th, 21st, etc. and the 49th day after death. In days of old, the family of the deceased would make a particular point of sponsoring practices on these dates.

From what I’ve seen, Chinese people sponsor as much practice as they can before someone dies, to prevent their death, but once they’re actually dead, they don’t do so much. It looks to me like they just have some sort of party. Westerners, on the other hand, just seem to fight over the money of the dead person! In Tibet, people used to observe the old traditions but nowadays they more seem to follow the Chinese approach. Everyone gathers together and drinks alcohol, just like they’re having a party. Maybe they’ll offer a sang, but that’s about all. It’s only in Kham that people still follow the old customs and accumulate merit for the dead person. It is actually extremely important for the people who are still alive to accumulate merit for their deceased friend or relative.

The Sur text goes on to say,

“Who have only the four aggregates of name,
Whose feelings are by nature pain”

Bardo beings have aggregates and therefore experience suffering. They experience suffering of many different types. If you’re not aware that you have actually died, your suffering will be even greater. You return to your home, your family, your husband or wife, your sons or daughters, and try to talk to them, but they don’t respond, they completely ignore you. Nor do they share their food with you. This is what you experience and it’s a tremendous source of pain. Worst still, you see people taking away all your wealth and possessions—everything that you once owned becomes dissipated. That too is a great source of suffering. The pain that you experience is far greater than that of someone who knows that they have died.

On top of this, you experience a great deal of fear, and the pain related to desire, aversion and ignorance. As the text says:

“Who are tormented by terrifying hallucinations,
And suffer from cold, hunger, and thirst;
Whose lives are of unpredictable length.”

You have no idea how long you will remain in this condition and you have absolutely no freedom to choose where you go. As the text says, bardo beings are carried helplessly, “like feathers borne by the wind”. That is why we need to make offerings and pray:

“May they find a place to stay, with friends, and wealth, and food and drink, perfect and abundant, and be free of cares.”

By making sur offerings and practicing for bardo beings, we can greatly alleviate the suffering that they go through.

If you were to ask, “How many bardo beings are there?”, the answer would be that there are a far greater number of bardo beings than there are human beings. Why? Because it’s not so easy to be reborn in a human body. There are far more beings who take birth in the animal, hungry ghost and hell realms.

People who have done some good in their lives and who have not caused too much harm will spend a slightly longer period in the bardos.

As I said before, it is extremely important to make offerings to beings in the bardo. Furthermore, we should dedicate those offerings in their name. In Sur practice, for example, we are told to add the dead person’s name within the prayer that we recite. Karma Lingpa particularly stressed this point. He also said that it is better if the person practicing for the dead person was close to them. That depends of course on whether or not you know how to do the practice. If you don’t, then you need to request a lama to do it for you.

In any case, they are the main recipient of your sur offering, which is also offered to all bardo beings. You make the Sur offering so that,

“May they find a place to stay, with friends, and wealth, and food and drink, perfect and abundant, and be free of cares.”

Once they are free of worries and cares, you then pray, particularly if the person was a Buddhist,

“Immediately, may they behold Noble Avalokiteshvara
And the bodhisattva Sarvanivarana-vishkambhin, and recognizing the intermediate state as the intermediate state,
May they realize that it is deluded appearance.
Remembering the teacher, the Three Jewels, the yidam deity, and the view,
May they instantly purify the obscurations of their evil deeds and attain mastery over awareness.
May they be able to proceed directly to the Blissful Buddhafield, the Buddhafield of Lotus Light or some other extraordinary realm.”

In this current ‘age of degeneration’, to reach liberation, the ultimate state of the great union of Vajradhara, within a single lifetime is rather difficult. Our enthusiasm for the Dharma and diligence to practice it has become weak. We all like to think of ourselves as Dharma practitioners, but what this usually means is that we have an appreciation for the Dharma. We don’t actually practice it all that much. When you practice the dharma, it is your mind that needs to practice—your mind needs to truly absorb the Dharma teachings. But if we look carefully, we can see that the number of people who genuinely practice the Dharma, whose minds have truly absorbed the teachings, are very few.

In the basic approach of the Shravakas, you need to arouse a genuine sense of renunciation for samsara. In other words, you need to reduce your attachment to samsara to a very low level. It’s not enough just to think you have renunciation, your attachment to samsara has to be eradicated. On the path of the Bodhisattva, we need to reduce our self-cherishing and think only of benefitting others. We need to treasure others more dearly than ourselves. If you can do that, that’s really excellent! But it’s actually very difficult. You might have a little compassion, at times… that’s doable. After all, even a tigress will look after her own cubs. But if we’re really honest with ourselves, our compassion is quite limited. When we come to the Vajrayana, the path of pure perception, we need to see everything—the entire universe, all sentient beings, as well as ourselves, our body and our mind—as the infinite pure mandala of the deities. That’s not so easy, is it? As it says in the Narak Kong Shak, we need to free ourselves from all dualistic clinging to concepts of purity and impurity. That doesn’t happen just like that!

So my point is, to be a genuine practitioner of the Dharma these days is actually quite difficult. However, whilst it might be difficult for us to achieve liberation in this lifetime, if we have a true appreciation for the Dharma and have spent our life trying as much as possible to put it into practice, then we will have a good chance of attaining liberation in the bardo. In the bardo, we will no longer have a physical body made of flesh and blood.

As it is said, we will be “transferred instantly to higher realms or a lower rebirth based on a positive or negative mind.” When we are in the bardos, the blessing of all the buddhas, the aspirations of all the bodhisattvas, the power, strength and ability of all the deities of the three roots, and the activities of the protectors, will support us. So we have help. There’s no doubt about this. That’s why we have some hope to attain liberation in the bardos. When we are in the bardo of becoming we no longer have a physical body and this makes it even more possible for the deities to benefit us through their power and blessings.

In the Secret Mantra Vajrayana there’s a lot of talk about liberation. It says, just by meditating on the deity you will be liberated, just by reciting the mantra you will be liberated, or, in the Dzogpachenpo, just by recognizing the nature of mind you will be liberated. I think the liberation that they speak of is more likely to happen in the bardos. A great many practitioners have been liberated in the bardos by following these teachings.

In the Prayer of Aspiration to be Reborn in Zangdokpalri it says,

When death arrives with all its overpowering force,
Let the messengers of Padma, the dakinis, gracefully dancing,
Actually take us by the hand,
Just as they did Kharchen Za and Guna Natha,[3]Khandro Yeshé Tsogyal and Yuthok Yönten Gönpo
And lead us to the paradise of Lotus Light!

It is also said that if you think of the Protector Amitabha when you are in the bardos, then Amitabha himself, together with his entire retinue of bodhisattvas, will appear before you and guide your consciousness to the pure land of Sukhavati, where you will be reborn. This tradition of practice is particularly strong in Japan where apparently there are three different lineages that follow this approach of seeking rebirth in Sukhavati. Some just recite the White Lotus Sutra, as well as a few other prayers, while others simply recite ‘Namo Amitabha’. On the strength of those prayers the practitioner will be taken to the pure land of Amitabha when they die. There were three different masters who brought these lineages of practice to Japan and each had a slightly different approach, but they are all based on this same principle. Each master then began his own school. Apparently in Japan, every master begins his own school, which is why you find so many different traditions. For example, there are two types of Vajrayana teaching in Japan but they don’t seem to get along with each other, they don’t even enter each other’s temples!

In short, I think you should definitely aim to achieve liberation within this lifetime, and if that doesn’t work, then you can rely upon the possibility to be liberated in the bardo. To help make that happen, the accumulation of merit is extremely important. Even the smallest action can be of great benefit and is worthwhile. And of course, as much as possible, you should avoid committing negative actions. Try to surround yourself with good influences, friends to accompany you. To be ‘well-accompanied’ means to be supported by the buddhas, bodhisattvas, lamas and deities of the three roots, and the Vajrayana protectors. Jigme Lingpa said that if you have practiced Magön Chamdral regularly, you will go to Zangdokpalri when you die. Actually this doesn’t apply just to Magön Chamdral—whatever dharmapala practice you do, that protector will take you there. Here we are referring to the wisdom protectors, of course; they are the ones who can help you with this.

That’s why you need to prepare now. You need to think about this and plan well. If you prepare well, you won’t be utterly helpless when you die, like someone trying to grasp onto the sky. You will have some hope, something that you can rely upon when the moment of death arrives.

Translated by Gyurme Avertin
Edited by Philip Philippou

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