Twelve centuries ago, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was dictated by the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhava to his disciple Yeshe Tsogyal. However, upon going back and reading what he had described, Padmasambhava felt that the Tibetans were not yet ready for such knowledge. So, he went to the Gampodar Mountains and hid the book in a secret remote location. Then, Padmasambhava provided a prophecy and six hundred years later, to the day, the text was found by Karma Lingpa as decreed.
The title of the Bardo Thodol (“bar do thos grol”) is usually translated as Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State. This gives a clear indication of what the sacred text is really all about. Ultimately, the timeless classic is a universal algorithm for the afterlife, and it’s the best-known work of ancient “Nyingma” literature. The piece is actually part of a larger corpus of teachings, the Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones.
The Bardo Thodol traditionally consists of unbound pages held between two boards and is printed from hand-carved woodblocks. Furthermore, the presence of a handbook for the recently deceased has had a significant impact on Tibetan funerary customs. In believing in the transmigration of the soul, Tibetan Buddhists view a corpse as being worthless. To them, the only value a lifeless body has is as food for other animals or as nutrients for the soil.
That’s why monks will often take someone’s physical remains to a mountaintop to be feasted on by carrion birds. The locations of these sky burial ceremonies, such as the sacred site in Yerpa Valley, are known as charnel grounds. Sadly, few such places remain operational due to religious marginalization, industrial urbanization, and the decimation of vulture populations. Now, astrologers just determine cremation dates and bodies are reduced to a pile of ashes.
Either way, while the body is merely disposed of, the soul is treated with great care in traditional Tibetan Buddhist funerary rites. This is because they believe a ghost can sometimes remain attached to their former life and try to remain associated with the physical plane of existence. It’s also understood that a discarnate soul can easily get lost, leading to a whole other set of problems.
This is where a road map for the afterlife becomes necessary, hence the existence of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. When someone dies this is read every day for 49 days. According to the sacred text, the soul of a dead person lingers between one life and another for seven weeks. Since the devout believe that the recently deceased are capable of hearing, the text is read aloud to a corpse for a few days to encourage and guide the dead along the way.
The sacred text includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place. As part of this, the Bardo Thodol differentiates the afterlife into three separate states of consciousness. This consists of the “bardo of the moment of death”, the “bardo of the experiencing of reality”, and the “bardo of rebirth”.
Of these, the “bardo of the moment of death” features the experience of the clear light of reality, the luminous mind. The “bardo of the experiencing of reality” features the experience of discovering and continuing in the natural primordial state of being. The “bardo of rebirth” features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth, typically imagery of men and women passionately entwined.
Along with this, the Bardo Thodol also mentions three other states of consciousness, including waking awareness, meditating awareness, and dreaming awareness. Together these six states of consciousness form the various different classifications of fundamental metaphysical conditions. In this way, each and every moment is a “bardo” since it lies between past and future existences. Ultimately, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide for both the living and the dying.