Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead

By Francesca Fremantle
Boston; MA: Shambhala, 2001. Hardback, 407 pages.

Francesca Fremantle transforms the Book of the Dead into a "Book of the Living." A more accurate translation of the Tibetan classic would be the "Great Liberation through Hearing during the Intermediate States," which Fremantle shortens to "Liberation through Hearing." She states that W. Y. Evans-Wentz chose the more popular title for the first English translation due to its apparent similarity to the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Fremantle sets the foundation of the after-death (or bardo) states very carefully, with emphasis on the Deity Yoga tradition of her Kagyu teacher Chogyam Trungpa. The bardos are the states between earthly existences. Pervading her discourse on dying is the Buddhist theme that nothing is permanent. Dying is a journey into another life, which is prepared for during life by awareness of this key principle. The author relates the world of symbolic imagery, such as the rainbow of elements, to our everyday mental and emotional states. A Theosophist can correlate her report that each element includes an aspect of the five other elements with our teaching about the tattvas. All the elements and everything composed of them exist on three levels: "the coarse, the subtle, and the secret”-a principle discussed in chapter 9 on "The Threefold Pattern of the Path."

According to Fremantle (367), the three kayas are more than subtle bodies; they are three conditions of our minds:

Everything that is not the awakened state is bardo; we are always in a bardo state, just as the three kayas are always present in our lives. As the past dissolves, the mind merges with the nonexistence of everything that exists, the omnipresent openness of space, the totality from which all phenomena arise and to which they return- the dharmakaya. In the gap between the disappearance of one thought and the arising of the next, the mind rests in n state of clarity, luminous awareness vibrant with the magical display of energy; the sambhogakaya. As each new moment of consciousness arises, it gives form to the mind's natural awakened qualities and brings them to life in this world as the continual manifestation of body, speech, and mind: the nirmanakaya.

Her description of the bardos through the six realms of Hell Beings, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Human Beings, Jealous Gods, and the Gods themselves can be pretty formidable. The attractive or fearful nature of the realms can sidetrack the pilgrim. Fremantle reminds us that by confronting these energies in daily life and with constant awareness of their impermanence, we are preparing for a safe passage through the after-death states. Is this disciple of the Kagyu tradition rushing the Western student through a. Buddhist practice for quick liberation from earthly rebirth, as if that is to be most dreaded? Perhaps not. She does focus on achieving the luminous mind at death, stating (237): "All the essential teachings of the Buddhist path, whatever one has practiced during one's life, become the means of transforming the mind at death." There are Buddhists of many traditions who believe that, when one is dying, a simple faith in Amitabha Buddha's presence will take them into his Pure Land.

In the Bhagavad Gita (ch. 6), Krishna states that "assimilation with the Supreme Spirit is on both sides of death." Chapter 8 has a similar focus: "Whoso in consequence of constant meditation on any particular form thinketh upon it when quitting his mortal shape, even to that doth he go." For some, this type of assimilation with the Supreme is a wiser path than cultivating the complex imagery presented by Fremantle in this hefty commentary. However, for those imbued with the Bodhisattva ideal of serving humanity, Fremantle (253) provides an optional practice:

Those who were not practicing Deity Yoga at all are instructed to meditate on Avalokiteshvara, the Lord of Great Compassion. .. Because of his vows to liberate all sentient beings, he is the natural, universal chosen deity available to everyone; no special empowerment" or teachings are needed to meditate upon him and aspire to enter his pure realm.


May/June 2003