Bardo Thoedrol (བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ་), popularly known as The Tibetan Book of Dead, translates as ‘liberation through hearing about the bardo’, wherein bardo refers to the post-mortem intermediate state between this and next life. When people die, the Bardo Thoedrol is commonly read near the deceased person’s body in order to help guide their spirit.
The Bardo Thoedrol is part of a larger ritual cycle called Karling Zhithro (ཀར་གླིང་ཞི་ཁྲོ་), drawn from the practice of one hundred peaceful and wrathful deities taught by 14th century Tertön Karma Lingpa. These teachings are believed to have been originally taught by Guru Rinpoche in the eighth century before he buried the text for later rediscovery. Later, Karma Lingpa rediscovered it from Gampodhar Mountain in southeastern Tibet. In the centuries since, Bardo Thoedrol has spread throughout the Himalayas, and was disseminated in Bhutan mainly through the Sungtrul and Thugse hierarchs of Lhalung monastery in southern Tibet. In addition to the volumes of Bardo Thoedrol brought from Tibet, the book was printed in at least three different places in Bhutan including Tharpaling, Domkhar and Paro Dzong. The versions printed in Bhutan include many supplications to the deities and lineage holders, aspirational prayers and chapters on seeking liberation through wearing, reading the signs of impending death, postponing death, and also on the judgement of good and bad actions in bardo state, an event that is staged as a cham dance in many Bhutanese festivals. However, the core part of Bardo Thoedrol are those chapters that contain instructions to the deceased on how to deal with their experiences at the time of and immediately following death. Essentially, the Bardo Thoedrol acts as a guidebook for the newly departed, and as such it is read at the person’s bedside in order to bring them the most benefit.
Generally speaking, the Bardo Thoedrol teachings focus on three bardos out of the six: chikha bardo (འཆི་ཁ་བར་དོ་) or bardo at the time of death, chonyi bardo (ཆོས་ཉིད་བར་དོ་) or the bardo of reality, and sridpa bardo (སྲིད་པ་བར་དོ་) or the bardo of becoming. There is little elaboration on the bardo-s of life, dreams and meditative states. The instructions in Bardo Thoedrol help a person navigate the stages of bardo and approach their experience of bardo as a platform for potential enlightenment. The book details the various experiences that await one in the in-between state, and exhorts one to adopt an open, calm and enlightened approach amidst the turmoil of bardo.
Following the instructions in Bardo Thoedrol is said to bring instantaneous enlightenment, or at least result in an excellent rebirth that will allow further advancement on the path to enlightenment. For this reason, it is usually a priest who loudly reads out the step by step instructions to the stages of bardo. When the Bardo Thoedrol is read during funeral services, one must remember this main purpose and try to make the reading as effective as possible. In the Bhutanese context, one must see Bardo Thoedrol as means of turning death into an opportunity for enlightenment. For the living left behind, the opportunity to hear and understand what awaits in the bardo will help them in the future at the time of their own death.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas