The Luminous Pathway
Sojourning the Bardo Realms
The Bardo Thodol, commonly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, is a profound text from Tibetan Buddhism that serves as a guide for the soul during the intermediate state (bardo) between death and rebirth.
The historical origins of the Bardo Thodol are attributed to the 8th-century figure Padmasambhava, who is revered in Tibetan tradition for subduing malevolent spirits and establishing Buddhism in Tibet. The text itself, however, is believed to have been composed in the 14th century and was discovered by Karma Lingpa, a terton or “revealer” of spiritual treasures.
Philosophically, the Bardo Thodol is rooted in the concept of bardo, which refers to a transitional state—a gap or interval of suspension. This concept is not limited to the post-death experience but is also a part of our psychological makeup, occurring throughout life during times of change or uncertainty. The text outlines the experiences of the soul through three primary bardos:
the bardo of the moment of death (Chikhai bardo),
the bardo of the experience of reality (Chonyid bardo), and
the bardo of becoming (Sidpa bardo).
The purpose of the Bardo Thodol is to provide guidance to the deceased, to guide them through the bardos, helping the departed soul to recognize the absolute nature of the mind and the illusory aspects of the experiences encountered in the bardos. By doing so, the soul can achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth or at least engineer a favorable rebirth. The text is traditionally read aloud to the deceased (hence, the “Liberation through Hearing”), with the belief that the consciousness remains aware and can benefit from the instructions and prayers.
The Bardo Thodol is a significant spiritual text with deep historical and philosophical roots in Tibetan Buddhism. It emphasizes the opportunity for liberation that arises during the bardo states, as transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality. However, it also warns of the dangers posed by karmically created hallucinations that can lead to less favorable rebirths. The text is a reminder of the impermanence of life and the potential for enlightenment inherent in every being, as all possess a fundamental nature no different from the Buddha.
The Chikhai Bardo: The Bardo of the Moment of Death
The Chikhai Bardo, experienced at the moment of death, is a critical juncture in the soul’s journey, presenting the most profound opportunity for liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
This bardo begins when the physical body undergoes the dissolution of the elements—earth, water, fire, and air. As these elements dissolve, the consciousness encounters the “clear light of reality,” a fundamental, luminous consciousness that is the ground of all experience. This pure state of consciousness, free from dualistic perception, offers the potential for the soul to recognize its true nature and achieve enlightenment, bypassing the cycle of rebirth. However, this recognition depends on the spiritual preparedness of the individual.
During this process, visions and auditory experiences may occur, reflecting the mind's liberation from the physical form.
In addition to these experiences, the soul in the Chikhai Bardo may encounter Yama, the Lord of Death. This figure is not an external judge but a projection of the soul’s own consciousness, symbolizing the ultimate confrontation with one’s own life and actions. Yama’s presence serves as a reminder of the impermanence of life and the importance of living in accordance with spiritual principles. The encounter with Yama can be seen as a final opportunity for the soul to acknowledge the consequences of its actions and to embrace the possibility of liberation before moving on to the subsequent bardos.
The Chonyid Bardo: The Bardo of the Experiencing of Reality
In the Chonyid Bardo, the soul embarks on a profound journey through the intermediate state after the Chikhai Bardo of the moment of death. This stage is marked by a series of encounters that reflect the soul’s karma and mental imprints, which can influence its path towards liberation or rebirth. Initially, the soul meets the wisdom Buddhas, or tathagatas, each representing a specific enlightened wisdom and associated with a distinct color, symbolizing the soul’s potential to recognize its immanent Buddha-nature.
The five Buddhas, Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi, are known as the Five Wisdom Buddhas or the Five Dhyani (meditation) Buddhas. Each of them symbolizes a different aspect of enlightened consciousness and is associated with a specific color.
Vairocana, also known as the Radiant Buddha, is associated with the color white. Vairocana represents the wisdom of the Dharmadhatu, the realm of truth, where all things exist as they really are. His wisdom is the wisdom of universal law and he helps individuals to see the interconnectedness of all beings.
Akshobhya, whose name means “Immovable One,” is associated with the color blue, symbolizing the clear, unperturbed nature of the sky or the depths of the ocean. Akshobhya embodies the Mirror-Like Wisdom that distinguishes between reality and illusion. This Buddha is often depicted with a vajra, a symbol of diamond-like clarity and indestructibility.
Ratnasambhava, whose name translates to “Jewel Born,” is associated with the color yellow or gold, symbolizing richness and fertility of the earth. He embodies the Wisdom of Equality, recognizing the sameness of all experiences and phenomena. Ratnasambhava is often depicted in the mudra of giving, symbolizing his boundless generosity. His symbol is the tripartite jewel.
Amitabha, also known as “Infinite Light,” is associated with the color red, symbolizing the life force. Amitabha embodies the Wisdom of Discernment and the ability to see the deep interconnectedness of all phenomena. He is often depicted in a meditative posture, representing his unwavering focus on the ultimate truth. His symbol is the lotus flower, as the seat of meditation.
Amoghasiddhi, whose name means “Infallible Success,” is associated with the color green, symbolizing the relentless perseverance of nature. He embodies the Wisdom of All-Accomplishing Karma-Free Action, the awareness that all actions have consequences. His symbol is the double vajra, representing absolute stability and unshakeable resolve.
Each of these Buddhas offers a path to enlightenment by transforming negative traits into positive ones and revealing the inherent Buddha-nature of all beings. They are not individual beings who have reached enlightenment, rather they are aspects of our being which we recognize through practice.
As meditation Buddhas in life practice, they are representatives of what are termed the “skandhas”, our five “aggregates of consciousness” being:
Consciousness – in its totality of physical and non-physical existence;
Form – our physical beings;
Feeling – both inner and outer sensation;
Cognition – the processing of experience; and,
Volition – intentional activity;
these five together comprising an individual’s total life experience. In the after-death state these skandhas are no longer grounded in the material realm, so one deals with their pure, absolute form.
Here is a video I did which covers these wisdom Buddhas in the symbolism of the Dorje, or Vajra:
If one’s soul does not attain liberation through the recognition of the wisdom Buddhas, it then encounters the “Peaceful Deities” associated with one’s life experiences of people and events through the heart chakra.
These Peaceful Deities emphasize the importance of compassion and loving-kindness towards oneself and others. These qualities are seen as essential for spiritual growth and liberation. They teach the interconnectedness and interdependence of all beings and phenomena, which provides teachings on the law of karma, emphasizing the relationship between actions and their consequences.
The teachings of the Peaceful Deities in the Chonyid Bardo aim to awaken the soul to its inherent wisdom and potential for liberation. These teachings serve as a beacon of light amidst the visions and challenges of the intermediate state, guiding the soul towards the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Should one’s soul fail to recognize liberation through the Peaceful Deities, it will face the Wrathful Deities associated with experiences of people and events through the the crown chakra (aka ‘the wheel of sharp weapons’). These deities, experienced as terrifying figures, represent the fierce aspects of wisdom and compassion. They are not external entities, but self-projections challenging the soul to confront the illusions and delusions that obscure its true nature. Through their fierce appearance and actions, they help the soul break free from attachment to ego and recognize the emptiness of self-grasping.
They inspire courage and resilience in the soul, encouraging it to face challenges and obstacles with strength and determination, emphasizing the importance of perseverance on the spiritual path. Through their wrathful manifestations, they assist in the transformation of negative tendencies into sources of wisdom and virtue. In this way they ultimately serve as protectors and guides for the soul, offering guidance and support in navigating the complexities of the intermediate state, facilitating the soul’s focus on the path to liberation.
The Chonyid Bardo sequence of encounters, first with the wisdom Buddhas, followed by the peaceful deities, and then the wrathful deities, each offer the soul an opportunity for liberation. These encounters are not with external entities but are manifestations of the soul's own experience-principal.
The Sidpa Bardo: The Bardo of Rebirth
The Sidpa Bardo, the final bardo, is characterized by karmically influenced hallucinations that guide the soul towards its next incarnation. These visions, a direct result of the soul’s past actions, can lead to rebirth in any of the six realms of existence, depending on the accumulated karma. The soul is urged to maintain mindfulness and detachment, recognizing the illusory nature of these experiences. By not clinging to any vision or manifestation and avoiding being swayed by desires or fears, the soul can navigate towards a favorable rebirth or still the potential for attainment of enlightenment.
Attaining enlightenment in the Sidpa bardo would involve recognizing the true nature of reality and one’s own mind amidst the various karmic illusions and experiences encountered. The key lies in maintaining awareness, clarity, and wisdom in the face of these illusions. Otherwise, and more commonly, one’s soul gets drawn to rebirth due to its unresolved attachments, desires, and karmic imprints from past actions, which influence its next destination in the cycle of birth and death.
The Bardo Thodol provides guidance for the soul to remember its spiritual teachings and to focus on the Clear Light, the Luminous Void, which can lead to instantaneous liberation from the cycle of rebirth. While the focus of the Bardo Thodol is often on the guidance from the Lord of Death in the Chikhai Bardo, and the encounters with deities in the Chonyid Bardo, the Sidpa Bardo is generally characterized by the individual's review of their own karmic imprints, the consequences of their past actions, and the potential for rebirth.
The Pathway of Liberation
One’s journey through the bardos is a manifestation of their soul’s own mind, a tapestry of visions and experiences that reflect its karma and spiritual preparation. At each stage, the soul encounters opportunities for liberation—if it can recognize the immanent nature of its experiences as projections of its own consciousness.
The Bardo Thodol underscores the significance of comprehending these archetypal pathways prior to one’s inevitable moment of death. Familiarity with the nature of the bardos and the visions encountered therein empowers individuals to navigate these transitions with awareness and intention, both in life and in death.
This comprehension is not merely an intellectual exercise but rather a profound spiritual practice where the experiences of one’s life become the preparation for the ungrounded, after-death state. It involves cultivating qualities of compassion, mindfulness, and detachment, preparing the soul to recognize and seize the opportunities for liberation presented in the bardos.
One’s journey through the bardos, as outlined in the Bardo Thodol, is more than a powerful metaphor for the spiritual path, it is an archetypal map of our soul’s sojourn through our lives.
The Bardo Thodol provides us a profound spiritual roadmap for the soul's journey through the bardos—Chikhai, Chonyid, and Sidpa. These stages represent the immediate experience of death, the experiencing of reality, and the process of rebirth, respectively. Each stage offering opportunities for liberation, contingent on the soul’s ability to recognize its experiences as projections of its own consciousness.
The Bardo Thodol serves as a mirror to the living, revealing the intricate dance of liberation and bondage that characterizes our existence. It invites us to view our lives as a continuous series of transitions, each moment offering an opportunity for awakening and liberation, transcending the thralldom of our samsaric intertwining. Comprehending how to recognize and experience our projections in these bardos before death can lead to spiritual liberation at any point along one’s soul pathway, on whichever side of the veil you find yourself on.
There are also three bardos of life:
The Bardo of Becoming — The period between birth and death, encompassing the entirety of one’s life.
The Bardo of Dreams — Occurring during sleep when the mind experiences various dream states. It is considered a transitional state similar to the bardos experienced after death.
The Bardo of Meditation — The states of consciousness experienced during deep meditation, where the practitioner may encounter different levels of awareness and insight.
The Mirror-Like Wisdom
The utility of all this knowledge is not limited to the cultural milieu from which it has originated. Rather, it can become an archetypal “organ of consciousness” to be applied throughout the realms of experience. One may use the Goethean scientific approach as a worthy tool in gaining spiritual proprioceptivity in this realm.
I suggest the Mirror-Like Wisdom as a meditation practice one may begin now.
In my workshops I have discussed the relationship between the Mirror-Like Wisdom of of the skandha-buddha Akshobhya, as gateway to the Vajrayana mandala, and the Goethean scientific approach, as process for cognizing the archetypal nature of manifestation.
The consciousness of the Mirror-like Wisdom reflects the forms of all things without clinging to them, without being touched or moved by them.
The Mirror-like Wisdom is the pure and unbiased nature of the mind, symbolized by a mirror reflecting all things without attachment or bias.
Seeing all phenomena as reflections in the mirror of the mind, one cognizes the unity of subjective and objective realities, exposing the illusory nature of distinctions between self and other.
The Mirror-like Wisdom enables one to comprehend the interdependent and empty nature of all phenomena.
Cultivating the Mirror-like Wisdom, one transcends dualistic thinking, attaining realization of the irreducible wholeness of consciousness and objective reality.
It leads to the ultimate experience of non-duality and the perfection of awareness of the unity of all things.
Goethean Approach & Mirror-Like Wisdom
Share their comprehension of the interconnectedness of the world and individual experience within it as integral to comprehending experiential reality as a whole.
The Goethean participatory approach deepens awareness of the spiritual essence of Nature through direct, participatory observation and imaginative exploration.
The Mirror-like Wisdom cultivates a state of awareness reflecting reality exactly as it is, without bias, interpretation or judgment, leading to a profound comprehension of the true nature of reality and the attainment of enlightenment.
Both the Goethean process and the Mirror-Like Wisdom see the inner and outer worlds as one all-encompassing totality, an irreducible wholeness, engendering experience of the oneness of subject and object.
While both approaches aim to bring about cognition of the archetypal nature of reality and the oneness of all:
The Goethean approach begins with objective observation of the processes of nature, bringing them within,
Vajrayana meditations begin subjectively with the development of inner wisdom through meditation and visualization practices.
The principle of individual corporeality is converted into the universal body, in which the forms of all things are potentially present and are recognized, according to their true nature,
The Mirror-like Wisdom corresponds to the “consciousness-principle” in Western philosophy, which is responsible for the awareness of the waking consciousness and the ability to reflect upon itself.
It is the final realization of the ultimate truth of non-duality and the perfection of the awareness of the unity of all things.
Liberation is immanent in existence, available at any moment. Seek not to attain enlightenment, but rather to retain those moments of enlightenment we all experience on our pathways of awareness.
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