The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Exploring the Buddhist Journey Through Life and Death
Updated On: November 10, 2023
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice, intrigues scholars, spiritual seekers, and curious minds worldwide. Its profound insights into life and death have influenced not only religious perspectives but also artistic and literary realms. This article delves into the enigmatic pages of this ancient text, exploring its teachings, connections to the afterlife, relation to Buddhism, and the impact it has had on culture, art, and literature.
What is the Tibetan Book of the Dead?
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is formally known as the “Bardo Thodol,” which translates to “Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.” It is a text from a larger corpus of teachings called the “Nyingma” texts, which form part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The book is attributed to Padmasambhava, an 8th-century Buddhist master, who is said to have hidden it in Tibet to be discovered by a later tertön, or treasure revealer, Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century.
Who Wrote Bardo Thodol?
The text is said to have been composed in the 8th century, but it was concealed as a terma, a hidden treasure meant to be discovered when the world is ready to receive its wisdom. It was later revealed by a treasure discoverer or “terton,” Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century. Tertons have a special role in Tibetan Buddhism, with the unique ability to uncover termas hidden in the landscape, in bodies of water, in the sky, and even within the mind’s expanse.
While Guru Rinpoche is credited with the text’s authorship, it is understood in Tibetan culture that the work is not just the product of a historical figure but is also a divine revelation pertinent to the esoteric and mystical dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism. The reverence for the text thus intertwines with the veneration of Padmasambhava himself, who is regarded as a second Buddha in the Nyingma school.
The Journey Through Life and Death in the Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is intricately woven with the concept of the afterlife, a theme essential to understanding its purpose and teachings. The text postulates that death is not the end but a crucial juncture offering a profound opportunity for the soul to achieve liberation from the traditional cycle of birth, death, and rebirth — known in Buddhism as Samsara. The book acts as a guidebook and offers navigational advice for the soul to move towards a better rebirth.
The ultimate goal in the afterlife, as per the Bardo Thodol, is to either achieve Buddhahood — liberation from all cycles of existence — or to ensure a propitious rebirth. The afterlife journey described in the Bardo Thodol is divided into three main stages, collectively known as the “bardo”:
The Cycle of Life, Chikhai Bardo
The traditional cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. According to Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, this cycle is governed by karma, which sees our actions in one life influencing our circumstances in the next. The Tibetan Book of the Dead explores this cycle and provides guidance on how to navigate it with wisdom and compassion. It encourages us to embrace the impermanence of life and understand that death is not an end but a transition to another existence.
By recognizing this cycle, we can live more fully in each moment and prepare ourselves for a positive journey beyond death.
Preparation for Death, Chonyid Bardo
Preparing for death is an essential aspect of the Buddhist journey through life. It involves acknowledging the reality of death and embracing it as a natural part of existence. By understanding that death is inevitable, we can focus on living meaningful lives and cultivating positive qualities such as compassion and wisdom. This preparation includes engaging in spiritual practices like meditation, reflecting on one’s actions and intentions, and preparing oneself mentally and emotionally for the transition into the next life.
Reflection and Spiritual Growth, Sidpa Bardo
The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers valuable insights for reflection and spiritual growth. It encourages us to contemplate the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death, reminding us to live each day with purpose and gratitude. Its teachings on karma and rebirth invite us to consider how our actions in this life shape our future existence. We can cultivate inner peace, wisdom, and compassion by engaging in meditation practices and embracing Buddhist principles. This journey of self-discovery ultimately leads us towards enlightenment and a deeper connection with ourselves and the world around us.
What is the Egyptian Tibetan Book of the Dead?
The term “Egyptian Tibetan Book of the Dead” is indeed a misnomer that conflates two significant yet distinct cultural funerary texts: the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or “Bardo Thodol“, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or “Book of Coming Forth by Day.” Despite the similarities in their overarching themes, particularly the soul’s journey after death, these texts arise from very different traditions and times.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead presents a collection of spells, prayers, and incantations designed to assist the deceased in navigating the underworld, known as Duat, and securing a place in the afterlife. Composed around the beginning of the New Kingdom (around 1550 BCE) to around 50 BCE, the Egyptian Book of the Dead was usually written on papyrus and included in the tombs of the dead, often illustrated with vignettes depicting the journey of the deceased.
The spells and rituals contained in this work were intended to protect the soul from dangers, guide it through challenges, and help it overcome the judgement of Osiris, the Lord of the Afterlife. The most famous spell is perhaps the “Weighing of the Heart” ceremony, where the deceased’s heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the Goddess of Truth and Justice. A heart as light as a feather would lead to a blissful afterlife; a heart heavy with sin would be devoured by Ammit, the Soul-eating Monster.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
On the other hand, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a much later text, emerging from the 8th-century Tibetan Buddhist tradition and becoming widely known after being discovered in the 14th century. While it similarly addresses the soul’s journey after death, its approach is markedly different, reflecting the Buddhist beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, and the possibility of liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
Rather than focusing on spells for protection, the Bardo Thodol guides the consciousness (or soul) in recognising the true nature of the mind and reality, offering wisdom to attain enlightenment or a favourable rebirth. It does not deal with moral judgements in the same way as the Egyptian text. Instead, it encourages the deceased to understand the illusory nature of the experiences during the bardo and to awaken to their own Buddha nature.
Cultural and Historical Distinctions
These texts mirror their respective cultures’ beliefs and traditions concerning death and the afterlife. The Egyptian text reflects a polytheistic worldview and focuses on the soul’s journey relative to the gods and their judgements. In contrast, the Bardo Thodol reflects Buddhist philosophy with its monistic view of the universe and focuses on the internal experiences of the mind as it transitions between death and rebirth.
Shared Thematic Elements
Despite their differences, it is understandable why one might draw parallels between the two. Both are concerned with guiding the soul after death, both are used ritually, and both have a profound impact on the living by providing a sense of continuity and hope beyond mortal life. They each offer a roadmap for the afterlife journey and seek to ensure the best possible outcome for the deceased.
Tibetan Book of the Dead in Buddhism
Bardo Thodol is a profound expression of the core principles that underpin the Buddhist view of existence. Its teachings are deeply interwoven with the fabric of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, particularly the tenets of the Nyingma school, the oldest of the four primary schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
At the heart of the Bardo Thodol is the Buddhist concept of “Anicca,” or impermanence. The text vividly illustrates how all phenomena, including life, are transient and in constant flux. This notion is pivotal in Buddhism, as attachment to the impermanent is seen as a root cause of suffering. By meditating on the transient nature of reality, as detailed in the Bardo Thodol, practitioners can develop detachment from the material world and focus on spiritual development.
Another significant Buddhist concept echoed in the Bardo Thodol is “Maya,” often translated as illusion or deceit. The material world, and indeed the experiences of the bardo itself, are described as dream-like and illusory. In the intermediate state, the deceased faces various visions and apparitions, manifestations of their mind. The text teaches that recognising these phenomena as illusions is crucial for liberation.
Central to the Bardo Thodol is the Buddhist belief in the inherent potential for enlightenment within every sentient being. This potential, or “Buddha-nature,” is an innate capacity for wisdom and compassion that can be realised through practice and insight. The Bardo Thodol is essentially a guide to help the deceased realise this potential when conventional distractions of the physical world have fallen away, and the consciousness is believed to be more susceptible to spiritual insight.
Samsara and Rebirth
Finally, the Bardo Thodol addresses the cycle of samsara or the traditional cycle of birth, death, and rebirth driven by karma. The text offers wisdom on how to break free from this cycle, known as “moksha” or liberation, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. By recognising the true nature of the experiences in the bardo and following the path of Dharma, it is believed that one can escape the cycle of rebirth and reach Nirvana.
The Influence of the Tibetan Book of the Dead on Popular Culture
Artists and writers have drawn from the rich imagery and existential themes of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, using it to explore concepts of identity, consciousness, and the afterlife. The book has cast a wide net of influence across the global artistic and literary landscape, inspiring those grappling with the universal questions surrounding life, death, and what lies beyond.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s themes of transition and transformation have been particularly resonant. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley, incorporated Bardo Thodol’s concepts as a framework for the protagonist’s enlightenment and ultimate liberation in his final novel, Island. The novel tells the story of a society that uses the form of the book as a guide to understand and accept death in a spiritually holistic manner.
Huxley also famously took mescaline and later LSD, documenting his experiences in “The Doors of Perception” and “Heaven and Hell,” which echo the transcendental and transformative journey detailed in the Bardo Thodol, although not referencing it directly. His work has, in turn, influenced other writers to explore consciousness and the possibilities of human perception.
The Bardo Thodol’s metaphorical narrative has also appeared in the works of Jack Kerouac, whom Buddhism heavily influenced. His novel “The Dharma Bums” references the Tibetan Book of the Dead in the context of seeking enlightenment outside conventional social structures.
In the realm of visual arts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s vivid depictions of the afterlife journey have inspired artists to visualise the indescribable aspects of this voyage. The themes from the Bardo Thodol, notably the transition from one state of being to another, resonate with the transformative nature of the artistic process itself. Artists like Bill Viola have created works that evoke the intermediary states described in the Bardo Thodol, using video and sound installations to simulate transitions of consciousness akin to those experienced after death.
In cinema, filmmakers have borrowed from the rich tapestry of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The filmmakers craft narratives that explore the psyche, often blending reality with more ethereal and otherworldly elements. Gaspar Noé’s film “Enter the Void” is structured around Bardo Thodol’s after-death stages. The film takes the viewer on a psychedelic journey through the protagonist’s experiences immediately after death, reflecting the book’s descriptions of the bardo.
Composers have created pieces that attempt to interpret the experiences detailed in the Bardo Thodol sonically. Philip Glass’s opera “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” or “Bardo,” for instance, uses the book’s text as a libretto, translating its themes into a haunting musical experience.
Perhaps one of the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s significant incursions occurred during the 1960s and 70s, embodied in the counterculture movement. The movement began when Ram Dass or Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner wrote their “Psychedelic Experience” book and added that it was “A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Their book aimed to draw parallels between the stages of the bardo and the experiences one might have during a psychedelic trip. They suggested that, much like the Bardo Thodol, their guide could be used to navigate these experiences and achieve spiritual enlightenment or self-realisation.
The Book of the Dead has even found its way into psychology. Carl Jung, for example, discussed the Bardo Thodol in his work, viewing it as a symbolic representation of the unconscious mind. He interpreted the text’s imagery as reflecting the archetypal journey of individuation and the process of coming to terms with the Self.
Personal and Spiritual Development
The Tibetan Book of the Dead continues to be a source of interest for those on personal spiritual quests. It is often included in discussions around death and dying, providing a spiritual perspective on the end-of-life process. Its wisdom is sought by those looking for alternative approaches to understanding life’s final passage, and its teachings are integrated into various practices associated with death, such as hospice care and spiritual counselling.
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Exploring the Buddhist Journey Through Life and Death” is a profound text that offers insights into navigating the journey of life and death according to Tibetan Buddhism. It encourages us to face death with courage, prepare ourselves for a positive transition, and embrace the cycle of life. By understanding these teachings, we can find peace and spiritual growth in our own lives.”.
What Are the Internet’s FAQs About The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
What is “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”?
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” is a piece of Nyingma literature that guides one’s spiritual journey through life and death.
Is There Any Connection between the Dalai Lama and This Text?
Yes, Dalai Lama provided commentary on some parts of “The Tibetan Book Of The Dead”, enriching its meanings related to profound Dharma.
Are Terma Texts Like Karma Lingpa Related to “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”?
Yes! These special Terma texts, including Karma Lingpa, inspired many teachings within “The Tibetan Book of The Dead”.
Does Reading This Book Help Us Understand Self-Liberation?
Indeed! It contains valuable knowledge about Bardo’s stages, which can aid in understanding self-liberation as part of Eastern Philosophy.