Bardo as the Intermediate State between Death and Rebirth

My grandmother passed away last Sunday night (Taiwan time) and since then, I have been reflecting upon her life and her wishes that her family and friends follow the Buddhist tradition of chanting and praying for a positive rebirth. I returned to my book collection on Buddhism, particularly The Tibetan Book of the Dead and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 

I wanted to delve into the transitional realities known as bardos. According to Sogyal Rinpoche, bardos are “occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.”

He continues: “The bardo teachings shows us precisely what will happen if we prepare for death and what will happen if we do not. The choice could not be clearer. If we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay dearly throughout our lives, at the moment of death, and thereafter. The effects of this refusal will ravage this life and all lives to come. We will not be able to live our lives fully; we will remain imprisoned in the very aspect of ourselves that has to die. The ignorance will rob us of the basis of the journey to enlightenment, and trap us endlessly in the realm of illusion, the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, that ocean of suffering that we Buddhists call samsara. Yet the fundamental message of the Buddhist teachings is that if we are prepared, there is tremendous hope, both in life an din death…For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life.”

In my reading of it, bardo is the chance to seize limitless freedom. Death in many cultures, including what my grandmother believed, was liberatory. One could finally be free from suffering, but only if he or she has cultivated a strong understanding of non-attachment to the body, to this life, to the people in this life, and to one’s thoughts. I watched a video with the Dalai Lama and he exclaimed that he could not wait to die, and he said this genuinely with happiness. His reason? So that he could finally put into practice all those years of non-attachment to his self, his body, any illusions associated with human life. Bardo is the state in which one has the chance to put the cultivated consciousness into practice in order to let go and leave one’s previous life behind.

I also ventured into the film What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams — a film that I did not especially like, but was ingrained in my mind when I contemplated on death. The notion of consciousness in the film struck me when I first watched it. For example, Robin William’s character dies and enters a bardo-like situation created by his own fantasies and projections. Similarly, when his wife commits suicide, she lives in a hell created by her troubled consciousness. She could not let go of him, of her sadness, of her pain in losing their two children, and of her previous life. I thought the movie did a good job of provoking more questions than answers — for example, what is the soul, spirit or consciousness and what transitional states occur after one dies?

Rinpoche talks about potential obstructions to liberation. He says that we tend to react to past fears, habits  and old reflexes. They are steeped in negative emotions and habits that are residues of lifetimes of suffering. Although our physical state of mind weakens in the process of dying, the fear and ignorance remain even after death. In sum, “the results of our negative karma, which have sprung from the darkness of ignorance, are stored in the ground of the ordinary mind.”

In Tibet, bodies of the deceased are kept in peaceful environments. Bodies are not moved for at least three days. In my grandmother’s case, it is seven days.This is supposed to encourages departure of the consciousness rather than attachment to the body during the bardo period.

What exactly happens during the bardo state? Rinpoche explains the process:

1) You take on a body of light. Space dissolves into luminosity.

2) The brilliant light is seductive. There are rays and colors al around. This is known as the luminosity dissolving into union. This occurs over several days. There is such intensity in the vision that if we are unable to recognize it, it can appear to be frightening.

3) This is the stage where you have the chance to gain stability. It is also called “union dissolving into wisdom.”

4) The final stage of the bardo is wisdom dissolving into spontaneous presence. The whole of reality is presented. Peaceful and wrathful deities make their appearances. You will be able to see everything clearly, your past and future lives, see into people’s minds and have knowledge of all six realms of existence. The key is to keep stabilized so that you are not drawn to these captivating illusions that appear all too real.

“Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me,  I will abandon all fear and terror, I will recognize whatever appears as the display of my own Rigpa, And know it to be the natural appearance of this bardo; Now that I have reached this crucial point, I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful deities, that arise from the nature of my very own mind.”

Liberation is achieved at the moment when consciousness realizes that its experiences are nothing other than the mind itself. The “energies” manifested as images are merely releases of the fettered mind. The key again is to remain stable and devoid of fear or hope.

In the bardo state, we go through all the experiences of our past lives and we revisit our our homes, our families, loved ones, trying to inhabit what was once our life. At this point, we are still attached to our bodies. We fall prey to old habits. If we generally worried a lot in our previous lives, we will do so in the bardo state. Bardo lasts for a total of 49 days. The first seven days are critical and in the first 21 days is when we have the strongest impress of our previous life. Some people wait for the full amount of time in bardo until their next rebirth; others are reborn immediately, depending on karma. The more negative and destructive the previous life, the longer the wait, resulting in a bad rebirth.

“The overwhelming power of thought, then is the key issue in the bardo of becoming.”

That is why family members and loved ones are encouraged to be happy for the deceased during the cremation and funeral. Expressions of sadness, such as wailing, can distract the consciousness of the deceased and cause undue suffering. Any negative occurrence can cause a negative reaction in the consciousness of the deceased and lead to a negative rebirth situation. A single posit thought in the bardo state can propel one to enlightenment  or a single negative reaction, even an irritation, can plunge one into depths of suffering. As Rinpoche recommends, “if in life, you have developed the natural reflex of praying whenever things become difficult or critical, or slip beyond your control, then instantly you will be able to invoke or call to mind an enlightened being, such as Buddha, Christ or the Virgin Mary. If you are able to invoke them fervently…your mind will be liberated into the space of their wisdom mind.” Training during previous lives will aid in process.

Because the bardo stage is a troubling time, there are powerful spiritual practices that can help the deceased during the 49 days. First, prayer is exceptionally powerful. The intensity of our love and depth of our connection felt in our prayers will assist the deceased. Another thing to do is to say Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Buddha of Compassion which extinguishes any negative emotion, when the deceased person emerges in one’s mind. Directing good thoughts towards the deceased will help. Second, sponsoring retreats by good spiritual practitioners is also vital. Offering light of the deceased person, or saving lives of animals or freeing people from suffering inspired by the deceased will facilitate a better rebirth. Third, it is important that loved ones of the deceased are in harmony and peace during the bardo stage, so as not to disturb the peace of the deceased. For example, family members quarreling over inheritance matters may incur negative thoughts in the deceased and propel them towards a bad rebirth. The deceased is omniscient during this time so every thought we have is recognizable and felt by the consciousness of the deceased. Finally, loved ones can use their spiritual practices with the deceased in mind and invoking their name to help. Chants and prayers, rituals at church or deeds of service done with compassion and with the deceased in mind can be immensely beneficial.

Tibetan practices include these beneficial rituals, among many. One of the rituals is a weekly practice that occurs every seventh day after death. Prayers and lights are offered and alms are given to the poor in the name of the deceased weekly. In Tibet, the whole community of friends and relatives take part during the 49 days and provide support for each other. Grieving is not a solo process and this helps mitigate the pain of losing a loved one. There is so much we can learn from these two books and from the process of dying practiced in other cultures. I am finding that going to the temple weekly and sending my grandmother loving light and prayers has made losing her tolerable.

As Rinpoche concludes, “above all, look into your life to find ways of sharing your love more deeply with others now.” This is how my grandmother lived her life, full of compassion and love and the best way I can honor her life and help her consciousness during the bardo process is to extend love and compassion to others.

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