Venerable Alak Zenkar Rinpoche
In this life, you guide us with empowerments and key instructions.
In the next life, you lead us down the path of liberation.
In the bardo between those two, you free us from the chasms of fear.
Unequalled guru, bestow your blessing upon me.
The bardo, or intermediary state, has become a popular catchphrase in
Buddhist circles. The appearances of this life, we are told, fade away, and
for forty-nine days we experience awesome and terrifying visions in a disembodied
state. That is what the bardo has signified to most people. Let
us explore, however, the way in which the concept of the bardo has
evolved from the perspective of Buddhist literature.
Sutra-based Indian treatises that were translated into Tibetan, such as
Vasubhandu’s Treasury of Abhidharma, make reference to the bardo, yet
without employing the term per se:
There is a level of existence
Experienced in between death and birth.
The text goes on to discuss three levels of existence: the existence of
death, the existence of birth, and the existence of what lies in between
those two. It also briefly discusses the mental body of the intermediary
state, its distinctive traits, and its lifespan.
An Indian sutric text translated into Chinese, the Great Treasury of
Expositions, discusses the bardo in a general way and also devotes an entire
chapter to the unfolding of the forty-nine day journey.
The Tantra-based collection of bardo teachings in Tibetan literature is
richer still, with all four of Tibet’s main Buddhist lineages—Sakya, Geluk,
Kagyu, and Nyingma—contributing exegeses and quintessential instructions
of varying lengths. These writings discuss the names of the different
types of bardo and the classifications of each. Their styles of presentation
are for the most part similar, yet they also highlight the uniqueness of
each tradition’s inherited legacy.
Karma Lingpa, a great master of the Nyingma lineage, revealed a cycle
of profound texts, The Self-Liberated Wisdom of the Peaceful and the Wrathful
Deities, that were said to have been entrusted to him by the Indian
mahaguru Padmasambhava. One of the most famed writings from that
group of texts is The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, commonly
known as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a deep and extensive exposition
on the six bardos: birth, dreams, meditation, dying, dharmata (or
true reality), and becoming.
Another teacher renowned for his instructions on the bardo was Tsele
Natsok Rangdrol, who explained that, in terms of what is held in common
by the earlier and later schools, the above six bardos can be condensed into
four: the natural bardo of birth, the painful bardo of dying, the luminous
bardo of dharmata, and the karmic bardo of becoming. This fourfold
presentation, he says, cuts to the heart of the matter in a way that is easy
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