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The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Traveler’s Guide to Other Worlds

Article by Mark Mirabello, Ph.D.

In fabled Tibet, the land of Diamond Vehicle Buddhism, the trek of the deceased is described in a religious classic called the Bardo Thodol or Liberation by Hearing in the After-Death Plane. In the words of British Orientalist Sir John Woodroffe (1865–1936), the book is a “traveler’s guide to other worlds.”

Bardo Thodol
Written in the eighth century CE by a sage named Padma Sambhava (or Rinpoche), the Bardo Thodol was hidden in a cave on the mountain called Gampo Dar. It was found in the fourteenth century by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386). (The Bardo Thodol is also known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title attributed to it by editor Walter Evans-Wentz.)

The Bardo Thodol belongs to a special class of writings called termas. Considered treasures, these books are secreted away until the human race is ready for them.820 Alexandra David-Neel (1868–1969), one of the greatest explorers of the inner and outer worlds of Tibet of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wrote that fifty termas have been found. Others still remain hidden. The Bardo Thodol—the most famous of the termas—is NOT based on tradition or faith. Allegedly, it is based on testimony of master adepts who have died and reentered the human womb consciously. Unlike ordinary people, who wander in the post-death state without a fixed purpose, and whose personalities will disintegrate, these adepts have mastered the art of what Professor Robert Thurman calls “lucid dying.”

After death their psychic energy remains coherent, and they are reborn with memories in mothers that they have selected. Their experience is NOT a near-death experience. It is a death and conscious rebirth experience.

The Trek of Souls

Art by Nicholas Roerich
These great individuals—called tulkus—return to help others. Since the fourteenth century, all Tibetan sects have adopted the practice of identifying the rebirths of these great teachers. The most famous is the Dalai Lama, but there are three thousand other lines of incarnation in Tibet. Unlike some of the other narratives in this chapter, the Bardo Thodol is more than a description of the death trek. As part of Diamond Vehicle Buddhism, it belongs to a tradition called the “short path,” and by using the methods in the book, one can modify one’s post-mortem fate in a positive way. Ordinary beings are controlled by karma, but the Diamond Vehicle Buddhist is not. Because Diamond Vehicle Buddhism maintains that “all is only mind,” “mental acts are the only acts that have any effects at all.” Thus, by changing one’s conscious thoughts, and by mental purification and concentration, the chain of rebirth and the effects of karma can be broken or abridged.

In other words, one may cause oneself to be reborn in the most agreeable conditions possible.208 According to Lama Lodru, a Tibetan sage, “These methods are so easy that many people will not believe them, and so deep that most people cannot understand them.” The methods must therefore be given only to the properly prepared.

In the First Bardo

Art by Alex Grey
According to the Bardo Thodal, the death trek may last as long as forty-nine days. The entire process is divided into three periods. Each period is called a bardo and each is important. In the first bardo, the dying person will have these experiences in succession:

1. Mirage vision: vision becomes blurred, and dark images appear. The body becomes weak and powerless, and there is a feeling of falling.2. Smoke vision: next, the sense of hearing dissolves. Feelings of pleasantness or unpleasantness cease. There is a feeling of being absorbed into smoke.3. Fireflies: the sense of smell dissolves. Memories of friends and enemies fade away. There is a feeling of being surrounded by sparks or fireflies.4. Butter-lamp: the sense of taste dissolves and the person can no longer move his body. He no longer thinks of worldly activities. There is the appearance of a dying flame. Now, breathing ceases. A Western physician would consider the person dead, but in reality the death process continues. At this point, the “empiric consciousness”—the “consciousness of objects”—is lost.In other words, wherever the person is dying—the hospital room, the battlefield, or the burning automobile—will seem to disappear. Then the person will experience—from all sides—the “Clear Light of the Void.” The subject will experience a colorless light that cannot be described with words. But, it will be as bright as a thousand suns and as loud as a “thousand thunders simultaneously sounding.”During the experience, the deceased will be conscious without any form of body. Even in dreams, we have dream bodies. Here, however, the individual is consciousness alone in the light. The deceased will have—like a streak of lightning—an intuition of supreme reality. If he can seize the light, he can escape from the round of births and deaths and achieve nirvana.
What is Nirvana?

For he who embraces the Clear Light, personal consciousness is no more and time is no more.70 Described in the Buddha’s own words, nirvana is “where there is neither death nor birth, there neither is this world nor that, nor in between—it is the ending of sorrow.”

Note that nirvana is not technically a place, but “an absence.” In the words of one eminent scholar, nirvana is the “absence of suffering in the present and the absence of any possibility of suffering in the future.”

Generally, however, the deceased will be dazzled by the Clear Light of the Void and will shrink from it. He will be pulled backward by “false conception,” “attachment to individual existence,” and the “pleasure of the senses.” Or, because of his ignorance, the meaning of the Clear Light will escape him. If he draws back from the Clear Light of the Void, he will then see a secondary Clear Light, dimmed by illusion. If the mind does not find release by this point, the first bardo comes to an end. The first bardo may last several days or “for the time it takes to snap a finger.”

In the Second Bardo

Next begins the second stage or the second bardo. Trained adepts will pass directly into higher states with no loss of consciousness, but the ordinary person will not. The ordinary person will pass out, as if in a swoon. After the ordinary person has been dead for a period—about three and a half days for most individuals—he will regain consciousness. Puzzled, he will wonder what happened.

No one will see or hear him. He will see his dead body and will try to enter it, but he cannot. If he is unwise—if he is attached to his physical body—his consciousness may linger near the body for weeks or even years. (If he is very foolish, when his body is cremated or buried, he may try to enter someone else’s body.)

When the dead person’s consciousness moves out-of-doors into the sun, he will have no shadow. In a mirror, he will see no reflection. When he walks, he will leave no footprints. In most cases, he will now realize that he is dead. Sorrowful and afraid, he will realize that he cannot take anything accumulated over his lifetime: his friends, his family, his wealth, even his own body.

The Mental Body of the Second Bardo

Now he has a “mental body,” a kind of a “shining illusionary-body.” It seems physical to him, but it is like the body one has in dreams. By virtue of this mental body, the deceased will have wonderful abilities. He must not indulge in his newly found powers, however. Doing that will only provide more substance to the illusion. This mental body is indestructible. It feeds on odors and fragrances. (Interestingly, the Greeks believed “In Hades psyches perceive each other by smell alone.”)

It can go anywhere unimpeded. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, “It is enough to think of a place to find yourself there immediately, even if it is at the other end of the world.” The deceased must not use his power to wander in places that he has frequented in life or to find people he knows. Instead, he must place himself in the “empty state of nonattraction and nonaversion.” He must place himself in “the state of perfect immobility.” The deceased must love nothing and hate nothing. He must embrace nothing and flee from nothing.

Apparent Pilgrimage in the Second Bardo

While still in the second bardo, the deceased will begin what appears to be a strange pilgrimage. Most will believe that a real journey is really taking place through lands that really exist and are peopled with real beings. But the journey is not a journey to places. Instead, the deceased will have visions based on the ideas in his own mind. In the words of the Bardo Thodol, “What you see is only a reflection of the contents of your mind sent back to you by the mirror of the void.” Now, when a skeptic reads that the bardo experience is like a dream, he dismisses it as a meaningless hallucination.

What he does not understand, however, is that the Tibetans say that the world of the living— the world we are in now—is also a dream. Our experiences here are equally illusionary.

In the eloquent words of Alexandra David-Neel, this world is “the dream, rich in suffering, in which we live,” and here we are the “prisoners of the creations of our own imaginations.” Because the visions are from our own minds, the visions will be perceived according to the dead person’s cultural and religious beliefs. The Tibetans are clear that a Christian will believe that he sees the Christ, a Muslim will believe that he sees an angel or Muhammad, and an atheist, who is a nihilist, will have “visions passing before him as mere forms and colors that may frighten and confuse him.”

David-Neel specifically asked a lama (a venerated teacher) what happens to a Christian after death, and the lama made this statement:

“They will enter the bardo, but what they will see is Issou [Jesus], the angels, demons, paradise, and hell. In their mind they will go back to all the things that they have been taught and in which they believed. . . . The images that populate the dream of this journey and its imaginary vicissitudes will be different from the experiences of a Tibetan, but it will be based on the same reality. . . . Every discarnate soul, whether Tibetan or Christian, will have a tendency to mistake for real events the episodes that supplant one another only in the mind.”
Phases of the Death Trek in the Second Bardo

For the first seven days in the second bardo state, the dead person will see visions and colors, and beautiful radiant beings. He will experience a feeling of intense tranquility and perfect knowledge. Since these first visions are happy and glorious, they will awe the unwise and the uninitiated. In reality, the lovely visions are only projections of his own mind. Soon afterward, however, the lights will grow fainter and fainter and the visions will become more terrifying. For the next eight to twelve days, he will see ghastly visions, hideous forms, and repugnant horrors. Fiendish monsters—surrounded by flames— will try to capture the deceased and drink his blood from cups made from human skulls. The deceased will be bewildered and frightened. Think of the second bardo as initial bliss followed by a relentless plunge into terror. Or, to use the bland words of Walter EvansWentz (1878–1965), “The first experiences are happier than the later experiences.”

The consciousness of the deceased will try to flee from the horrors, but he cannot. They will follow him wherever he goes because they are inseparable from him. They are from his own mind. The demonic monsters—called “wrathful deities” by the Tibetans— will have animal heads with human bodies. It is interesting that they resemble the animal-headed gods of ancient Egypt. The deceased must not surrender to fear. He must resist the delusion. Nothing he sees has any reality.

These monsters are projections from his own mind. His thoughts of hate and jealousy—his lusts and his delight in ignorance—the suffering that his malice has caused to others—these things are producing the monsters that he sees.

In the Third Bardo

After many days in the second bardo state, if liberation has not been achieved, the deceased person’s past desires and his “thirst for sensations” will become overwhelming. But his lack of “flesh organs” will prevent him from satisfying his cravings.

Now, the desire for embodiment—the desire for rebirth—will become an intolerable torment. The deceased is now moving toward rebirth. He is now in the third bardo. As he approaches rebirth, he will have four experiences in the third bardo unlike anything in life: a giant rainstorm, a tremendous wind, total darkness, and a noise so loud that it causes terror.

In this bardo, he will also encounter Yama. This experience will be ghastly. In the words of the Bardo Thodol, Tying a rope around your neck, Yama will drag you forward. He will sever [your head] at the neck, extract your heart, pull out your entrails, lick your brains, drink your blood, eat your flesh and suck your bones. Despite this, you will not die. Even as your body is repeatedly cut into pieces, it will be continuously revived. Experiencing being cut into pieces in this way, time after time, will cause enormous suffering. The deceased must not be afraid, however. He has a mental body that cannot die, and Yama does not exist outside his own bewildering perceptions.

As the time in the third bardo draws to a close, the deceased will be drawn toward certain lights and experiences. These will determine his next birth.

The Realms of Rebirth

The Buddhists say that there are six possible realms of rebirth in “the world of desire”: a hellish being, a hungry being, an animal, a human, a demi-god (titan), or a god. Unlike nirvana, no one stays in any of the six realms forever. One may stay there millions of years, but one will eventually die again and be reborn.

In the words of David-Neel:

“One dies in hell just as one dies in paradise. One will die in the six classes of being.”
If the deceased is going to be born in a hellish realm—a realm produced primarily by hate—he will take pleasure in a smoky light. He will see a black and red house. He will hear beautiful music that he can barely resist. He must not go there. The Buddhist hell is temporary, but it can last millions of years. If he is going to be born in the hungry ghost realm (the “Pretan” realm)—a realm produced by greed—he will be attracted to a yellow light and he will feel that he is entering a heap of burnt wood. He must not go there.

Although Pretans are sometimes called “hungry ghosts,” they are not ghosts. They are living beings caught in a realm of extreme frustration—hunger, thirst, and craving torment them—but their food is hard to gather, difficult to swallow, and burns when they eat. If he is going to be reborn as an animal—a subhuman being—he will be drawn to a green light and he will experience passing into a cave. He must not go there. The animal realm is a product of ignorance, folly, and stupidity, and animals suffer from their lack of intelligence and their limited ability to communicate. If he is going to be born as a human, he will be drawn to a blue light and he will see erotic images of humans copulating. If he is attracted to the woman and is repulsed by the man, he will be born a human male. If he is attracted to the man and has an aversion to the woman, he will be born a human female. The moment that he has these feelings about the copulating humans, he will enter the woman’s womb. The copulating couple will become his human parents.

If the deceased can be born as a human, he should. Like all Eastern religions, Buddhists regard being human as a precious treasure: it is achieved only after hundreds of thousands or millions of lifetimes and is a magnificent achievement. (Likewise, one Hindu sage said it requires eight million lives to achieve the human state.)

According to Buddhism, only a human can attain nirvana. (Technically, a non-human can attain deliverance, but it is extremely difficult.) Hellish beings and hungry ghosts are too tormented to find enlightenment. Animals are too ignorant and stupid. Gods and demigods—the beings above humans—are too immersed in power, pleasure, and bliss. If he is to be reborn as a jealous god (a titan or demi-god), he will be attracted to a red light. He will feel that he is entering a lovely garden or a place of great natural beauty. If the deceased enters the realm of the asuras (titans or anti-gods), he will live in a heaven-like realm near the gods, and he will have risen to a state above human level.

The titans, however, love power. Jealousy drives them. They enjoy combat, and they constantly try to seize the heaven realms from the gods. Constant fighting and killing and dying habituate them to rage, and they tend to fall down eventually to hells. If the deceased is to be reborn as a god (deva), he will be attracted to a dull white light (the color of moonlight) and he will have the feeling that he is entering a great heavenly palace. Beings in the god realm have ascended from the human state through generosity, sensitivity, and tolerance.

According to Lama Lodru, to be born as a god is:

“a result of great merit, but not yet perfect merit.”
The gods, as great beings, have comforts, pleasure, power, and long lifetimes. Lower realms seem far away to them. But gods have so much comfort and power that they are dominated by pride and tend to fall back to the human level after millions of years.

In the words of Marco Pallis (1895–1989), an authority on Tibet: The gods here referred to are not immortal and self-sufficient deities, but simply beings of an order higher than ours, possessed of wider powers than man’s such as longevity, unfading beauty, and freedom from pain, except at last when they are about to cease from being gods, and turn into something lower, for then their charms begin to wither, and their fragrance turns to stench so foul that their goddess-wives flee from their presence.

In Tibet they do not worship these gods because these beings are on the wheel of rebirth. To Tibetans, true divinities are those in Buddhahood.

Beyond Bardo: Becoming Free of Illusion

To summarize the essential idea of the Bardo Thodol, Diamond Vehicle Buddhism teaches that illusions persist even after death. To be free to enjoy nirvana, we must free ourselves from all illusion. If we can recognize the illusions for what they are, we are liberated. Or, to use the words of Sir John Woodroffe:

“Man is in fact liberated, but does not know it. When he realizes it, he is freed.”

The following excerpt was from the book, A Traveler’s Guide to the Afterlife: Traditions and Beliefs on Death, Dying, and What Lies Beyond by Mark Mirabello, Ph.D., and was republished here with permission.

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A grand survey of the world’s death and afterlife traditions throughout history

• Examines beliefs from many different cultures on the soul, heaven, hell, and reincarnation; instructions for accessing the different worlds of the afterlife; how one may become a god; and how ethics and the afterlife may not be connected

• Explores techniques to communicate with the dead, including séance instructions

• Includes an extensive bibliography of more than 900 sources from around the world

Drawing on death and afterlife traditions from cultures around the world, Mark Mirabello explores the many forms of existence beyond death and each tradition’s instructions to access the afterlife. He examines beliefs on the soul, heaven, hell, and reincarnation and wisdom from Books of the Dead such as the Book of Going Forth by Day from Egypt, the Katha Upanishad from India, the Bardo Thodol from Tibet, the Golden Orphic Tablets from Greece, Lieh Tzu from China, and Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from Things Heard and Seen from 18th-century Europe.

Considering the question “What is Death?” Mirabello provides answers from a wide range of ancient and modern thinkers, including scientist Nicholas Maxwell, the seer Emanuel Swedenborg, 1st-century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, and Greek philosopher Euripides, who opined that we may already be dead and only dreaming we are alive. He explores the trek of the soul through life and death with firsthand accounts of the death journey and notes that what is perceived as death here may actually be life somewhere else. He reveals how, in many traditions, ethics and the afterlife are not connected and how an afterlife is possible even without a god or a soul. Sharing evidence that consciousness is not simply a product of the brain, he offers a strong rebuttal to nihilists, materialists, and the Lokayata philosophical school of India who believe in the “finality” of death. He explains how specters and ghosts are produced and offers techniques to communicate with the dead as well as instructions for an out-of-body experience and the complete procedure for a séance.

With an extensive bibliography of more than 900 sources, this guide offers comprehensive information on afterlife beliefs from the vast majority of cultures around the world and throughout history–a veritable “traveler’s guide” to the afterlife.