Editor's Picks / Snow Lion Articles

Intermediate States: Living and Dying from Ancient India to 21st Century New York

The term bardo, often translated as “intermediate state” is a term that entered the popular imagination in the West with the publication of W.Y. Evans-Wentz’s 1927 translation of The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States, which he rendered as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.  It is curious that such a specialized esoteric text packed with the imagery of Buddhist tantra and intended for practitioners who had undergone years of training and received the proper initiations, came to be so well-known.  But such was the attraction of the exotic then, and that attraction continues: new translations continue to appear, keeping Evans-Wentz’s title and presenting the visions of peaceful and wrathful deities to a wide audience.

But there is something more to its appeal than simply infatuation with the exotic as, if one looks closely, the teachings on intermediate states – made famous in this text – have an intuitive appeal and in fact are enmeshed with broader teachings of karma, suffering, and our possibility for transcendence.  So when we see an artist like Laurie Anderson whose new film Heart of the Dog explores death and letting go through the lens of the bardo teachings,  the very immediate and human experience of these teachings is laid bare in a contemporary context.

One of the most well-known versions of the The Tibetan Book of the Dead was translated by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Francesca Freemantle with a commentary by the former.  On one level, the teachings presented in this text are instructions on how an advanced practitioner can secure liberation within the actual process of death.  As they progress through these well-mapped stages of dying, opportunities present themselves for the practitioner to recognize what is happening and, with relative ease, free themselves from the cycle of rebirth, up to 49 days after the physical body is considered dead.  In popular practice, the text was often read to those in the process of dying, whether or not they had engaged in the training to achieve this goal.

While the concept of intermediate states was present in various schools of Buddhism in India, the teachings on these really flourished in the Tibetan traditions most of all.  It was here where the different states – and detailed descriptions of them – were mapped out in extraordinary detail by the texts as well as adepts who mastered them.  The particular text focused on here, a revelation of Karma Lingpa in the 14th century, is a continuation – or perhaps re-ignition – of a set of teachings rooted in a much older tradition of the Guhyagarbha tantra which was compiled from even older texts and oral instructions in India in the 6th century and came to Tibet with Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century.  So there is a long history to these teachings with death and dying where the rubber meets the road.

However, there is also a way of presenting them that emphasizes how they are applicable to the here and now.  As Trungpa Rinpoche explains in his Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos, “the experience of the six bardos is not concerned with the future alone; it also concerns the present moment.  Every step of experience, every step of life, is a bardo experience.

The great yogi Milarepa, beloved saint of the Himalayas, wrote a Vajra-song about the bardos, detailed in Opening the Treasure of the Profound, which conveys how sentient beings and Buddhas share the same nature, the implication being that anyone can become enlightened in the here and now as we continually pass through these intermediate states.

Francesca Freemantle in her Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead explores more deeply this idea that bardo teachings are as much for this present life as it is for the next life.

In Mind Beyond Death, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche gives a very comprehensive presentation of the bardos, providing a framework for directing our own story of living and dying.  That is a very powerful message.

For those interested in the emphasis of these teachings to prepare for death specifically, there is a wealth of material to support their practice.  It should be notes that this text and associated practices are meant to be done under the guidance of a qualified master with an unbroken lineage from the source.

One of the most readable treatments of the bardos is Tulku Thondup’s Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth: A Tibetan Buddhist Guidebook.  Tulku Rinpoche gives a wonderful overview of how death is not the end, why practice is important for both this life and the death process, and then gets into very specific teachings and practices which the reader can actually do.

A more distilled treatment can be found in Dudjom Rinpoche’s Counsels of My Heart where he briefly presents the six bardos and describes the state of a dying person as they progress through these states.

Preparing to Die is another excellent sourcebook for those who are facing death or working with those who are dying.  It is a spiritual toolkit that discusses the bardos that also includes very practical advice from contemporary masters.  It also covers more worldly matters from the medical to the legal.

Some other more traditional accounts of the bardos include Lama Lodu’s Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death & RebirthThis is a complement to Trungpa and Freemantle’s translation as it includes teachings on the Chikai bardo, the intermediate state that occurs at the moment of death which were not included in Trungpa Rinpoche’s volume.

While many of the above are presentations of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, all the other schools have very clear teachings on the bardos.  One example is Tsongkhapa’s presentation included in The Six Yogas of Naropa.

What all these have in common of course is that they present the very real possibility that any of us, with proper training in the preliminary and main practices, can live a life with fearlessness with the skills and ability to control our own trajectory when we die.

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