Each faith tradition or religion in the world has its dedicated seekers of truth – that is, those pursuing to understand the nature of reality. And, each group comes to understand precious aspects of the truth of life and the existence of the cosmos.
When the interdependency of life is considered, one can more appreciate the facets of truth presented within each faith tradition – and that to have a fuller, richer understanding of reality, the contributions of each tradition ought to be considered with respect.
The parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant, which originated in the ancient Indian subcontinent, attests to this understanding – that the blind men (each representing a faith tradition) correctly understood a part of the truth or nature of reality (represented by the elephant)
Briefly, the story of the Blind Men and an Elephant involves a group of blind men who have never encountered an elephant. By touching the elephant, they learn from direct experience and then they conceptualize what the elephant must be like. In the parable, each of the blind men feels a different part of the elephant’s body, for example, the side or the tusk. Later, they describe the elephant based on their experience, which of course was limited. Naturally, they all differed in their descriptions of the elephant – but they were each correct.
From my own detailed explorations and study of both Christianity and Buddhism, I have seen how these two traditions complement each other in certain areas. For example, in my early Christian Protestant upbringing, the practice of meditation was never considered. Years later, it was in Buddhism where I greatly benefitted from a rich understanding of meditation practice.
When it comes to the subject of dying and death, I have found that the Buddhist tradition offers a satisfying perspective through the bardo teachings. These teachings describe how death is experienced, what we can do, and what will help us.
Presently, I am taking an online course through Tergar E-Learning (www.tergar.org) entitled Dying and Awakening. One of my instructors, Antonia Sumbundu, has stated the following:
“One of the most burning questions for us human beings is what happens when we die.
It is a question that we live with in different ways throughout our lives.
Some try never to think of it. Some think of dying in ways that trigger fear and anxiety—fear for the physical pain and suffering, fear of not being able to be there for our loved ones, fear of the unknown, fear of the imagined loneliness after death, fear of the sadness of missing out, and so forth.
Others hold on to different beliefs about death and what follows.
For most of us, it is really remarkable when we discover that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition offers teachings that go beyond all of this—teachings that describe how death is experienced, what we can do, and what will help us.
With the bardo teachings, we come to understand that there is more to death than dying. That death is a transition and that it is a skill to die, just like it is a skill to live.
And that there is a set of methods that we can familiarise ourselves with that show us how a genuinely satisfying life and a peaceful death are two sides of the same coin.
The best time to receive the teachings and to practice preparing to die is before we have to face it. But sometimes, we do not have a choice.”
One of the books used on the course is entitled Mind Beyond Death by Dzogchen Ponlop (Snow Lion, 2007). He describes the bardos, or intermediate states – which are considered to be the realms between death and rebirth. An understanding of all six bardos provides a guide for the present as well as for the hereafter. Through his writing, Dzogchen Ponlop helps to demystify the teachings on the six bardos.
To give a brief introduction to the bardos, I will present the opening paragraphs for each of the six bardos described in Mind Beyond Death as follows:
The Natural Bardo of This Life
The teachings on the natural bardo of this life are concerned with how to make our life meaningful and transform its circumstances into the path of awakening.
This life lasts for only so long—then the unborn mind, not recognizing itself, must continue its journey.
Whatever mental stability and insights we develop in this life will unfailingly guide and support us through the bardos of death.
Likewise, those habitual negative tendencies that we have not overcome will condition our experiences at that time and become reliable supports for the continuation of our suffering.
From the Buddhist point of view, whenever any being takes birth, what is taking birth is the mind—our individual consciousness.
The relationship of our mind to our body is that of a traveller to a temporary abode. We are like a guest who stops for a while in an apartment or a hotel.
Our stay is indefinite, but we can reside there only for as long as our lease allows. We do not know the length of our lease because we signed it in our past life.
Sooner or later, as soon as our contract is up, we will either leave voluntarily or else the merciless landlords will kick us out. …
Leaving does not necessarily mean that we will be going to a bad place. It might be that we will be moving from a hotel to a palace – or to the street. It is totally up to us – to our own actions and effort.
The first of the six bardos is the natural bardo of this life; it is also known variously as the bardo between birth and death, the natural interval, or the bardo of birth and dwelling.
When we cross the threshold into this bardo, it means that we have ceased our existence in the last bardo, the bardo of becoming.
The natural bardo of this life starts at birth, when we leave our mother’s womb and enter this life. It continues until the time we meet the condition that will cause our death—that is, the condition that becomes the fundamental cause for leaving this body.
This bardo encompasses all of the appearances that we go through from birth, through childhood and adulthood, until we face a terminal condition.
The Bardo of Dream
Within the natural bardo of this life, we experience a rhythm of waking and sleeping. Each day, our mind slips from the state of waking consciousness into the state of sleep, and from sleep into dream.
While we are in this intermediate state, we are either completely unconscious or only dimly aware of floating through visionary worlds where we have little or no control.
Then the process reverses and our waking consciousness re-emerges and connects us back to the “real” world.
We are alternately delighted, mystified and terrified by these experiences.
The transitions from waking to dreaming and back are not always so clear and definite. We may have had dreams where we recognize that we are dreaming and wake up; but then we realize that our waking up was also a dream. We were not really awake; we were just dreaming that we were awake.
Right now, we believe we are awake, but we are not thinking, “Yes, I am awake.” We are rarely conscious of it.
When we look carefully at our experience, we can see that we often function as though we were half-asleep; we simply react to whatever is in front of us, just as we do in dreams.
From the absolute, or enlightened, point of view, our experience of this life is definitely not the awakened state. It is a dream—a longer dream—that we call samsara.
What we usually refer to as a dream is actually a “double illusion” or a “double dream,” and our everyday, waking life is the primary illusion.
The teachings of Padmasambhava provide us with instructions for working with the intermediate state of dream, which is the second bardo; these practices teach us how to recognize and transform our dream state into the experience of genuine wakefulness.
The bardo of dream is the time in between the dissolving of the appearances of one’s present waking state and the arising of the appearances of the next occurrence of the waking state.
In other words, we fall asleep today and, in a sense, we “leave this world” and enter the bardo of dream. Tomorrow, when we wake up, the appearances of the world manifest for us once again.
Between falling asleep and reawakening, we experience the state in which dreams occur. Sometimes, we can also enter this state when we are daydreaming.
The Bardo of Meditation
When we recognize the true nature of mind, we see not only its empty essence, but also its quality of wakefulness, of lucid awareness that is fully and vividly present.
That awareness is the naturally abiding wisdom and compassion of the enlightened state. It is primordially present within the nature of mind.
It was not created in the past by a divine being or act; it is beginningless and endless, beyond concept and philosophy. It is the nature of our mind and of the universe.
Whatever state of mind we have, whatever thoughts or emotions we experience, all of these are in the nature of this wisdom.
The whole experience of the samsaric world is simply the expression, or play, of this all-pervasive and uninterrupted wisdom.
Fundamentally, there is nothing to fear; there is nothing that is not in the state of liberation.
All forms, sounds, thoughts and emotions are appearance-emptiness, like the moon’s reflection on water. In this utterly pure space, there is a sense of joy, freshness and total freedom, which naturally radiates outward. We accept and appreciate who we are and whatever arises in our experience. We are not bound by grasping at or rejecting appearances. Therefore, there is a state of genuine peace, of cessation of struggle.
The bardo of meditation refers to the meditative state of our mind. It begins whenever we are resting our mind in the present, the state of nowness, in a clear, aware and undistracted manner. It ends whenever we are distracted from that state. Therefore, the length of time we spend in this bardo is very individual; it depends on how long we are able to remain focused and relaxed, aware and at rest.
The Painful Bardo of Dying
In the bardo of this life, we may be very earnest in our contemplation of mind’s ultimate nature, and try with great effort to gain some experience of it through meditation.
At the time of death, however, this very experience arises effortlessly. When we finally reach the point of the dissolution of all dualistic appearances, we experience a moment of complete awareness, a moment of vivid clarity.
It is like a shift in the weather, when the sky clears up; the dense covering of clouds is gone, and suddenly we see the vast sky.
At this moment, mind arrives directly at its own ground. It is just like coming home. We are usually so distracted by the appearances of the outside world that we never notice mind itself. Now all that remains is mind. We may feel trapped, in a sense, as there is nothing to carry us away into perceptions of past and future.
However, if we can relax and appreciate the peace and freedom of the present moment, it is a great experience.
There is a teaching in the Mahayana tradition: if you can change a situation, then why worry? If you cannot change a situation, then why worry? Just relax.
When mind returns home to its original state, our experience is completely natural.
In contrast, in our ordinary life, we often feel somewhat constrained and artificial in our behavior. When we go out to a social event, we choose our clothes carefully. We do not simply wear whatever we please. When we arrive at the home of our host or hostess and remove our shoes at the door, we do not simply throw them anywhere. We take them off and carefully put them in a certain place. When we sit in that person’s house, we do not sit in too casual a way; we sit carefully and properly.
However, when we return home, we feel more at ease. We throw our shoes and clothes wherever we please. We sit down and relax.
When dualistic appearances dissolve, it is just like that. The mind simply relaxes and lets go of everything.
In the same way, when we come to observe mind’s ultimate state, its empty-luminous nature, it is like relaxing in our own home—it is quite a pleasant experience.
Therefore, dying is not necessarily only a time of physical suffering and mental agony. We also meet with many powerful moments of clarity.
Consequently, if we have had some amount of practice in this life, then this will be a good time. It will be a time to celebrate, instead of a time of suffering.
On the other hand, for those who have had no practice, it will be time to pack up the party.
Therefore, yogis and yoginis are not afraid of death. For them, death is a time to recognize the guru’s pointing-out instructions on ordinary mind, or naked awareness. The experience of death is the same as the moment in which you received pointing-out instructions from the guru. The same!
When you are sitting in the presence of the guru receiving those instructions, it is a very enlightening, uplifting and joyous moment. The death experience is identical to that moment. On the basis of that moment, we can be liberated.
If we are not able to be liberated at the time of death, then it is necessary to have the instructions on the after-death bardos. But if we do achieve liberation, then those bardos do not arise.
The painful bardo of dying begins at the time when we are struck with some unfavorable condition that causes the dissolution of the appearances of this life, whether it is an accident, a terminal illness or any natural cause such as old age that results in the exhaustion of our body.
It ends with the cessation of our inner respiration, just before the dawning of the bardo of dharmata, which follows it.
For realized beings, such as Padmasambhava, the painful bardo of dying does not exist; consequently, the two subsequent bardos also do not exist.
However, when you are not a realized person—even though you may feel that you know enough, or just enough, to get by and escape those experiences—you must go through the interval called the painful bardo of dying.
It is said to be painful because, at the time of the dissolution of the elements when we begin to lose contact with the appearances of this life, we experience some degree of physical and psychological pain and suffering.
The Luminous Bardo of Dharmata
In whatever way we have met the moment of our death, the journey of mind continues. We leave behind our physical body and all the appearances of this life and move on to our next stopping place and our next set of experiences.
All that we have gone through up to this point, including the dissolution of the elements and of consciousness itself, belongs to the bardos of this life.
Now we enter the luminous bardo of dharmata, which is the beginning of reaching the destination known as our next life.
At this time, we have a perfect opportunity to achieve enlightenment and so we should look forward to these experiences.
Rather than feeling, “Oh no, I don’t want to be here,” we should be full of enthusiasm and curiosity. We should resolve to remain calm and to be courageous. It is like exploring any new place. While there is a sense of anticipation, there are also strong feelings of hope and fear.
The luminous bardo of dharmata begins when the element of space dissolves into luminosity, or dharmata.
It ends after the various appearances of this bardo are not recognized and one faints or goes unconscious.
According to the Dzogchen or Nyingma tradition of presenting these teachings, this bardo arises in two stages.
In the first stage we experience the “ground luminosity,” or the “luminosity of no appearance.”
In the second stage we experience the “spontaneously arising luminosity,” or the “luminosity of appearance.”
It is in the second stage that the various displays of forms, sounds and lights are experienced. These appearances are explained as unfolding in a series of three distinct phases.
The Karmic Bardo of Becoming
When we awaken from our anaesthetized state, we have a moment of clarity before confusion begins to cloud our mind.
The TV that was switched off has clicked on again, and we are viewing a different set of images.
We have no recollection of the luminous appearances of the bardo of dharmata. We are wondering what has happened to us and where we are.
What has happened is that we have somehow failed to recognize the nature of mind in any of the previous bardo states, the intervals of this life, dream, meditation, dying and dharmata.
If we had, then this sixth and final bardo experience would be unnecessary; it would be naturally transcended and transformed.
However, since we are here, we are like a child who cannot find its mother. Once again the child has to take this lonely journey. One more time, we have to wander in samsara.
The bardo of becoming begins when we regain consciousness after having fainted in the bardo of dharmata.
It ends when we enter the womb of our future mother, thus beginning another cycle in samsaric existence.
This bardo is known as the bardo of “becoming” or “existence” because at this time, there is a sense that anything is possible. It is taught that it is possible to take birth in any realm or state of existence.
There is the possibility of taking birth in an utterly sane environment—of leaping into a buddha field—or of taking rebirth as a bodhisattva on the bhumis—one of the ten stages on the path to enlightenment.
It is also possible to take birth as a human being or an animal, a god or a demon. Thus, this bardo is called the bardo of becoming since we can become anything—we can take birth in any form.
Source: Ponlop, Dzogchen. Mind Beyond Death. Shambhala Publications. Kindle Edition.