Today I got an email from a subscriber to the blog asking me to write something about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and how we can use meditation to prepare for death and what comes after it.
This is a MASSIVE topic, so I’ll probably write about different aspects of it in future posts. So this post will be an introduction.
Firstly, while I’ve read extracts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I haven’t read the whole thing. However, I’ve also read Sogyal Rinpoche’s excellent Tibetan Book of Living and Dying a few times, so I have a decent sense of how this is approached from the Tibetan perspective.
‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ is an extremely poor, though I admit highly catchy, translation of ‘Bardo Thodol’. This is also translated as ‘The Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State’.
‘Bardo’ means ‘intermediate state’. There are four. One of them is dying. That’s the bardo the book is referring to.
Essentially, the book is designed to be read to a recently dead person to help guide their consciousness towards liberation, or if that ain’t happening, towards the best rebirth possible.
The Tibetan view on this (and I can’t remember whether all Tibetan schools are in agreement on this so please feel free to drop me a line if you know more about it) is highly systematised.
They believe that death happens by the elements collapsing in on themselves, in a specific order, and then eventually the consciousness leaves the body – normally through the crown of the head.
The consciousness is then in the bardo for 49 days. For the first half of this time it associates most strongly with the life it has left. For the second half, with the life it is moving towards.
The time just after death is a time of great confusion, and often, great fear. The recitation of the book is a way to remind the recently deceased of what they’re about.
Death is seen as a huge opportunity. On the point of death we are, in fact, enlightened. However, this experience is so fleeting to the consciousness that isn’t accustomed to it through practice during their lifetime that it is usually missed. Not only missed, the complete lack of ‘self’ and lack of boundaries – the lack of anything that could be remotely described as ‘me’ – can be terrifying.
So not only do we not spot the opportunity, we actively flee from it. Our fear of the unknown and unfamiliar, and our craving for the known and familiar, propels us towards our rebirth.
That propulsion is fueled by our karma. We have shaped our consciousness and made it familiar and comfortable in certain states and not in others. And this means we are likely to move into one realm or another to take rebirth.
By reciting the verses in the Bardo Thodol, the lama tries to remind the disembodied consciousness that what it is experiencing is nothing to be afraid of. It is only mind afraid of itself. And what it really wants is not familiarity but Buddhahood. Or a rebirth that will make further practice as easy as possible.
I’ll leave it there for now. Next week I’ll flesh out some different aspects about this and give you my take on it. I mean, is this true? How does anyone know? How does it relate to reports from survivors of near death experiences? Or the Christian view of the afterlife? And how do you integrate it into your life so it becomes something other than just ‘something for later’?
[One of my good friends and a great Buddhist teacher is currently extremely ill in hospital. Although you don’t know him, if you fancied sparing him a thought and some kind wishes – and doing some chanting if that’s your bag – I know he would appreciate it. He’s particularly into Padmasambhava and Green Tara for those of you that means anything to. Chanting a few mantras and dedicating them to him certainly won’t do him any harm, and may do him some good. Many thanks.]