The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Tour

Originally printed in the May - June 2003 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bakula, Joann S. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Tour." Quest  91.3 (MAY - JUNE 2003):

By Joann S. Bakula

Theosophical Society - Joann S. Bakula is the author of Esoteric Psychology: A Model for the Development of Human Consciousness and many articles. She teaches philosophy and the Tibetan Book of the Dead at Southern Oregon University and transpersonal psychology for the on-line graduate program of Greenwich University.THE BARDO THODROL, OR TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, is the most famous and mysterious book of Tibet, widely known and often begun but seldom read all the way through. Like a high mountain peak, it is widely admired but hard to climb. The intention here is to make the heights more accessible. The Bardo Thodrol is one of the treasures or "termas" that Padmasambhava, the Indian teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century, hid in caves and also in the minds of future disciples. In it he taught about three of the six bardos or states of samsara, the round of life and death. All six are transitional states, one leading naturally and inevitably to the next unless an occurrence of enlightenment intervenes.

Three of the six bardos are of states of life: the waking state, the sleep and dream state, and the meditative state (Karma-glin-pa 169). These three begin with birth and end with death. The three bardos addressed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, however, begin with death and end with rebirth. These three bardos of death are called the bardo of clear light or luminosity, the bardo of radiant truth or realizing Reality, and the bardo of becoming.

The most likely time for spontaneous enlightenment to occur, ending the process of transition from one bardo to another, is during the "natural liberation" of death. So Padmasambhava wrote this guidebook for the recently deceased, to be read aloud to them for forty-nine days. But it is meant to instruct the reader as well. Each part begins something like, "O you of privileged birth, make good use of your opportunity and turn your educated mental powers to achieve real freedom!" The text for the first bardo is read for three to four days, the second for two weeks, and the third for thirty-one days adding up to the forty-nine days that the book should be pondered upon and read by the living to the dead. The actual length of time a person spends in each bardo differs widely, it is said, depending upon the individual.

The First Bardo: Ground Reality or Luminosity

The experience of the first bardo, the chikhai bardo, immediately at death is described as Clear Light, experiencing the primordial state that has never been born and never dies. "The nature of everything is open, empty and naked like the sky. Luminous emptiness without center or circumference . . . dawns" (Sogyal 259). This state comes as a total and unexpected surprise to most people, who pass through its light in a swoon, unconscious that the clear light is their innermost essence and the Ground of their Being and contains nothing in it that could cause it to die. The Dalai Lama, in his book Dzogchen, writes about Clear Light, Ati Yoga (Adi in the Theosophical tradition, the first or divine plane), and the Great Perfection.

Cultivating openness to this state in a meditative practice makes it much more likely that, at the moment of extreme truth and ultimate opportunity, we will be able to see and recognize the light and to identify with it, realizing that we are That. The Tibetan Book of the Dead advises us to seize the moment by thinking, "I have arrived at the time of death, so now, by means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, friendliness, and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings as limitless as space" (Fremantle and Trungpa 84—5).

To prepare for this once-every-lifetime opportunity, it is wise constantly to remember and reinforce the idea that the essence of spirit is as vast and empty as the night sky without stars or galaxies; it is without limit or locality, without points of light. "But this state of mind is not just blank emptiness, it is unobstructed, sparkling, pure and vibrant . . . Immortal Light" (Fremantle and Trungpa 86—7). The dramatic and traumatic stripping bare of what we think we are—all the thoughts, emotions, interests, relationships, accomplishments, likes and dislikes—leaves us with our pure, naked essence. As the Buddha achieved enlightenment, it brought nearly total recall of the thousands of lifetimes he had lived and deaths he had experienced. The sky, day or night, is a great teacher of ultimate reality, a reality in which we are gestalted in life, in which the sun lives, a perfect representation of our own inner essence. "Space is an Entity," H. P. Blavatsky said, and this is experienced first hand at death, an equal-opportunity event.

This first bardo of the Ground has two phases. The first is called the dawning of the primary clear white light, the nature of Ground Reality, also called the Mother Luminosity or Mother Reality, seen at the moment of death. The second is the Secondary Luminosity, or the Child Luminosity, seen immediately after death, which Robert Thurman (130) describes as the "semblant clear light, transparency still filtered through conceptuality." The Dalai Lama (Varela 208) has said it is quite feasible that the bright light of the near-death experience is a facsimile of the clear light.

The Second Bardo: Visions of Deities

If we do not recognize the primary or secondary clear light of our own essential mind in the first bardo, we wander down to the second bardo, the chonyid bardo, which is less abstract. It is binary: one week of visions of wonderful, beneficent deities and a second week of the same deities in their wrathful form, each occurring in five groups or families of resplendent color. This is the central mandala of Buddhist meditation, arranged as five circles appearing at the center, east, south, west, and north of the heart. Visualization of the primary circle of the heart is helpful in understanding what follows.

The appearance of the deities, the Dhyani Buddhas, in their positive aspects in seven days, is especially interesting to students of The Secret Doctrine and the theory of the seven rays. H. P. Blavatsky writes that the "Dhyani-Buddhas, or Dhyan-Chohans" are the same as the "Elohim or Sons of God, the Planetary Spirits of all nations" (8) and the Archangels (23). These are correlated to the "septenary hierarchy of conscious Divine Powers . . . the framers, shapers, and ultimately the creators of all the manifested Universe; . . . they inform and guide it; they are the intelligent Beings who adjust and control evolution. . . . Generically, they are known as the Dhyan Chohans" (15—6). They refer to the Biblical seven "Days" of creation, the "Seven Creations" of the Puranas, and the seven stanzas of the Book of Dzyan, which describe the "seven great stages of the evolutionary process" (15). Each family brings its entourage of bodhisattvas, whom H. P. Blavatsky defines as "the human correspondents of the Dhyani-Buddhas." The Dhyani Buddhas and their bodhisattvas all appear in both male and female forms, with their wisdom teachings and their divine attributes. Blavatsky also writes, "Esoterically, however, the Dhyani-Buddhas are seven, of whom five only have . . . manifested, . . . two are to come in the Sixth and Seventh Root Races" (55).

Sogyal Rinpoche's book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and his tradition are indispensable for a deeper study of this bardo, also called the dharmata or "Intrinsic Radiance" and defined as "the intrinsic nature of everything, the essence of things as they are . . . the naked, unconditioned truth, the nature of reality, or the true nature of phenomenal existence" (274). The Rinpoche writes that this bardo can "simply flash by like a bolt of lightning; you will not even know what has occurred," unless you are prepared. If you are, then luminosity appears as a "flowing vibrant world of sound, light, and color" like a mirage; this is the "spontaneous display of Rigpa, the simple rays and colors then begin to integrate and coalesce into points or balls of light" that unfurl from the heart, called tickles or bindus. From these points of light come the visions of unity with divinity, joining your heart with theirs. Countless luminous spheres appear in their rays, which increase and then "roll up," as the deities all dissolve into you. Then comes the display of the four wisdom teachings in a show of carpets, balls, and canopies of colored lights. Every possibility is presented, from wisdom and liberation, to confusion and rebirth. "The entire vision then dissolves back into its original essence, like a tent collapsing once its ropes are cut" (276—8).

As an example of the language used in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the first day of grand visions dawns with "the light-ray of Blessed Vairochana's compassion" emanating from the center of the heart, the Central Realm, the original manifestation from which all else arose. "The whole of space will shine with a blue light . . . luminous, brilliant, very sharp and clear blue light of supreme wisdom. . . . take refuge in it" (Fremantle and Trungpa 96—7).

The fivefold aggregate of which a human is composed, the skandas (five heaps), also has its roots here. Each of the skandas is associated with the appearance of one of the Dhyani Buddha families and wisdom teachings, and each contains a "poison," resulting from identification with separated existence. These poisons cause a human to run away from, instead of toward, each archetypal divinity, running again and again into rebirth instead of liberation. The five wisdoms and the five poisons, or obstructing human qualities, combine to reveal the relationship between the spark of divinity and the human animal in all of its pristine and terrible beauty—from animal to living God, as Blavatsky said.

The seven days of the heart may be summarized (Fremantle and Trungpa 92—133) briefly as follows:

Day 1: Central Seed Realm, limitless wisdom, poison of limitless ignorance, skanda or aggregate of consciousness, blue.

Day 2: Eastern Realm of Complete Joy, mirror-like wisdom, poison of aggression and hatred, skanda of form, white.

Day 3: Southern Glorious Realm, wisdom of equality (equalizing wisdom), poison of pride, skanda of feeling, yellow.

Day 4: Western Blissful Realm, discriminating wisdom (knowing real from unreal), poison of desire or lust, skanda of perception, red.

Day 5: Northern Accumulated-actions Realm, action-accomplishing wisdom, poison of intense envy, skanda of concept, green.

Day 6: All five families together, with their wisdoms, aggregates and poisons, plus the gate guardians, such as Yamantaka, the Destroyer of Death, forty-two deities in all.

Day 7: Pure Realm of Space, dawning of the five families of the Adept Knowledge-holding Deities now moving to the throat center, with the lords and dakinis of the dance and many others, appearing as not quite peaceful, not quite horrific, leading to the first day of the dawning of the wrathful deities.

The second week of visions, those appearing in negative images, are described with severe and frightening adjectives. They appear not from the heart but from the brain. These deities are described frequently as "blood-drinking," a symbol of the thirst for life in samsara, the world of phenomena. Padmasambhava constantly reminds us that the Buddha Herukas (or wrathful forms) are the same energies we saw before, only in their negative states. This aspect of the enlightened families—giving a new meaning to the five families of Godfather fame—is well suited for overcoming all obstacles to bliss and enlightenment, whether ignorance, desire, obscurations, distortions, "veils," or any other thing opposing enlightenment. They are armed with "wisdom weapons" for defeating suffering, such as nooses, swords, and axes. There is, Samuel Johnson reminds us, nothing like a noose to concentrate the mind.

Evans-Wentz (133n) likens the wrathful figures to the "Dweller on the Threshold." One example will suffice: "Now on the eighth day the blood-drinking wrathful deities will appear. Recognize them without being distracted." The "Glorious Great Buddha-Heruka will emerge from within your own brain," the central part, "his nine eyes gaze into yours with a wrathful expression, his eyebrows are like flashes of lightning." He sends out "loud whistling noises. . . . his heads are crowned with dried skulls and the sun and the moon." His six hands hold a wheel, an axe, a sword, a bell, a ploughshare, and a skull-cup (Fremantle and Trungpa 140). After the two weeks of Buddhas and Buddha Herukas, the world of samsara is entered once again in the bardo of becoming.

The Third Bardo: the Bardo of Becoming

The experience of death for most people means simply passing into a state of oblivion during the first two bardos, and awakening again when "sky and earth are separating" and all of our habitual tendencies are activated and reawakened. We are now in the full complexity of phenomena, and encounter a myriad of solid-seeming forms and events. The third bardo spans the time between the reawakening of self-awareness and entering the womb of the next life. It arises as a result of our failure to recognize the two previous bardos of reality as the essential nature of mind. This third and longest bardo is called the sipa bardo, the bardo of becoming and existence—the existence of a mental or bardo body and the inner existence of the mind. It is in this bardo that the difference in emphasis between the Tibetan teaching and the Theosophical teachings becomes most evident; the first discourages comfort anywhere as part of its enlightenment message, and the second emphasizes the continuity of usefulness, discipleship growth, and service.

The Mental Body

The outstanding characteristic of the third bardo is that mind plays the predominant role; it once again has a body, a mental body, with much greater clarity than in life and unlimited mobility determined solely by past habitual tendencies. This stage is the opposite of dissolution. Here everything mental that had dissolved at death begins to reappear, such as the thought states of ignorance, desire, and anger. Memory of past karma is still fresh in mind, and a mental or bardo body emerges. This is your Brigette Bardot body, as it were.

"We meet and converse for fleeting moments with many other travelers in the bardo world, those who have died before us," Sogyal writes (289). We have extrasensory powers like ghosts, and are said to retain the gender and cultural identity of our previous life. What was thought and done before continues. We are advised to give up attachment to people and possessions, to abandon yearning for a body, not to give in to desire, anger, hostility, or fear, but to cultivate kindness and compassion. After all, the bardo body cannot be killed. No matter what frightening things occur, the mental body has no physical brain and cannot be slain. As in a dream, you can experience terror and fear, but they soon dissolve, and you are as you were, the dreamer and creator of your own world. "All of these are nothing more than our own deluded projections, by nature empty and unsubstantial," like the bardo body itself. "Emptiness cannot harm emptiness" (Sogyal 294).

Life Review and Judgment

An intense life review occurs. Experiences are relived. Minute details long lost to memory are reviewed and places where life events occurred are revisited (Sogyal 290). Then a judgment takes place. "Your good conscience, a white guardian angel, acts as your defense counsel . . . while your bad conscience, a black demon, submits the case for the prosecution. The "Lord of Death," who presides, then consults the mirror of karma and makes his judgment. . . . Ultimately all judgment takes place within our own mind. We are the judge and the judged" (Sogyal 292). Sogyal quotes Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring, two pioneers in near-death studies, in regard to this process. "The "ife-review" seems to suggest that, after death, we can experience all the suffering for which we were both directly and indirectly responsible" (Sogyal 291). Near-death experiencers have reported that the ultimate question in that state is "Can we forgive ourselves?" The review process requires that we experience the effects on others of our every thought, word, and deed.


As the time for rebirth gets closer, craving for a material body increases. Addiction to past cravings reappears. Because the mental body has the presence of the five elements in it, it can hunger for food and pleasure, and goes where these are present. Once again there is longing for a physical body and the search for an opportunity to be reborn. The future life gradually begins to have more influence than the past life.

At this point, instructions for closing the entrance to the womb are given. "Think resistance," we are advised. "At this time projections of men and women making love will appear. When you see them do not enter between them, but remember, and meditate on the man and woman as the guru and his consort." Another method is turning away "passion and aggression." "If you are going to be born as a male, you will experience yourself as a male, and feel violent aggression toward the father and jealousy and desire for the mother. If you are going to be born as a female the opposite occurs. This will cause you to enter the path leading to the womb, and you will experience self-existing bliss in the midst of the meeting of sperm and ovum" (Fremantle and Trungpa 201—2). This similarity to the fate of King Oedipus is one of several correspondences with classical Greek thought.

What follows is anathema to most Westerners: "You will open your eyes, and you have turned into a puppy," an example of the Buddhist belief in the lokas, or six types of existence possible at this point: a god, a demigod, a human, an animal, a hungry ghost, or a hell-being. The widespread belief in such transmigration among Hinduists and Buddhists is not shared by most Westerners today, who, following the Theosophical tradition, combine the theory of karma and rebirth with evolution as their worldview.

Choosing a Womb

If the instructions for closing the entrance to the womb were tried with no success, then the time has come to accept birth, to "choose a human womb," on one of four continents, in only one of which the dharma flourishes. The Tibetan Book of the Dead concludes by advising us to "read the book aloud oneself and contemplate it," for it is a "profound instruction which liberates by being seen and heard and read."Carl Jung (in Evans-Wentz) suggests that we should read it in reverse order, which is how we return in consciousness to our source.


    Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna. An Abridgement of "The Secret Doctrine." Ed. ElizabethPreston and Christmas Humphreys. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1968.
   Dalai Lama XIV (Bstan-'dzin-rgya-mtsho). Dzogchen: the Heart Essence of the GreatPerfection. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2000.
          Evans- Wentz, W. Y., ed. The Tibetan Book of the Dead; or, The After-death Experiences on the Bardo Plane. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
    Fremantle, Francesca, and Chogyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The GreatLiberation through Hearing in the Bardo. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1992.
         Sogyal, Rinpoche The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
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      Thurman, Robert A. F., ed, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Book of NaturalLiberation through Understanding in the Between. New York: Bantam, 1993.
        Varela, Francisco J., ed. Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration ofConsciousness with the Dalai Lama. Boston: Wisdom, 1997.

Joann S. Bakula is the author of Esoteric Psychology: A Model for the Development of Human Consciousness and many articles. She teaches philosophy and the Tibetan Book of the Dead at Southern Oregon University and transpersonal psychology for the on-line graduate program of Greenwich University.