Notes Week 9
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide to dying and through the in between time
between death and rebirth.
The actual name of the text is “The Great Liberation Through hearing in the Bardo”-- the
key words are Bardo thos grol (Thodol)
Bardo = between, intermediate
Thos grol = liberation through hearing and understanding
Read to a dead or dying person
This text belongs to that literature called the Tantras – specifically a text called the Tantra
of Peaceful and Wrathful Deities – a section of that is the Bardo Thodol.
To understand this text then we have to understand what is death in this system – not
cessation of breath and heartbeat – but the moment when the subtle energy-mind
completely separates from the gross body mind.
6 bardos or in-between states – of life, of dream, of meditation states,
of the dying process culminating in the moment of death chikai bardo (process of death)
bardo of the in between state after death – chonyid bardo
of the rebirth process – sipai bardo
Buddhist tradition in general emphasizes meditation on death for the following 3 reasons
1. Death is inevitable -- to recognize and contemplate the inevitability -- to overcome denial –
note the story of Kisa Gotami – also to overcome forgetfulness.
2. The time and occasion of death is uncertain – to recognize and contemplate impermanence
and uncertainty of life
3. Spiritual practice or one’s own virtuous mind is the only protection at the time of death
– to develop the kind of mind that can actually be of help at the time of death and beyond –
Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes knowledge and investigation of the moment of death
because it is believed that this moment is a powerful opportunity for liberation if the mind is
prepared and undistracted.
The dying process:
Laid out in great detail – based on the ancient understanding of phenomena as consisting of the 4
great elements earth, water, fire, air -- we can understand it in terms of solidity, liquidity, heat
and breath. 1. the earth element dissolves – all the physical aspects of the person, body becomes wasted,
shrunken, powerless, sight becomes dim – external sign
*internal sign is mind is filled with mirage-like images, wavy
2. water element dissolves – all liquids of the body dry up. Saliva, sweat, urine, hearing
becomes dim, sensation is going * internal sign – smoke-like images fill the mind
3. fire element dissolves – heat, all the digestive processes failing, memory fails, person doesn’t
know what’s happening in the family, doesn’t care – *internal sign – sparks, fire-flies
4. air element dissolves – gross inhalation and exhalation stop – person can no longer perform
any physical activity and is not conscious of external things. *Internal sign mind filled with a
flickering light like a sputtering candle flame
all the gross physical factors of the person are now gone – but the person is not
considered dead – consciousness is still associated with the body – there is still internal
subtle energy present that supports consciousness.
Now the mind begins to dissolve and this process is not really dissolution it is more that
the grosser levels of mind like conceptual thought and emotion fade away and
successively subtle levels of mind begin to manifest.
5. when conceptual thought ceases, mind is taken over by a field of white light – the kind of
visual space that you find on a bright moonlit night and empty space sky
6. when this mind dissolves then the mind is filled with red light – the visual space of a sunlit
autumn sky – golden-red
7. empty black light
8. then finally as though the darkness becomes completely transparent and the mind becomes
filled with completely clear empty radiance. This is considered the subtlest level of mind and
is called the clear light of death – this is the experience of the absolute true nature of mind
and phenomena and if it is recognized then one attains liberation. But for most of us it is
completely transparent, nothing to see, nothing to be aware of and so awareness itself goes
unrecognized – this is the natural state of the mind which is present in every moment of
individual awareness and is unrecognized. It is a state of non-duality and can last for an
instant or as long as 3 days or more.
This mind does not only arise at death – it also arises when we pass from one
intermediate state to another, so when we pass from waking to dreaming or from waking
to meditation state, from waking to dying. Death is understood to have taken place when there are signs that the subtlest energy-
consciousness has separated from the body – usually blood or pus oozing from the eyes,
nose, mouth or crown of the head – and now the body can be cremated
When consciousness is separated from the gross body mind distractions, the person can
hear and understand with much greater clarity than in life.
The person has been falling asleep into unconsciousness – if the clear light of one’s own
true nature of mind is not recognized, then the person wakes up into the next bardo state,
the bardo of Reality-as-it-is. Like falling asleep and waking up into a dream, where once
again you can see and talk and have emotions etc.
The person can be aware of people crying/corpse – can be very confusing time, because
just like in a dream, you have no idea that