An Introduction to the Bardo

By Dudjom Rinpoche
A Talk Given on the Occasion of the Empowerment of the thousand Buddhas Associated with the Sadhana of the Noble Compassionate One, the Lord of Space It has been said that the whole of the Buddha’s doctrine could be summarized in the teaching on the six bardos.

The Buddhadharma is vast and profound, and the many approaches of the various vehicles and cycles of teaching comprise an inconceivable wealth of instruction.

For those who wish to attain the primordial citadel of Buddhahood in the course of a single human life, the practice of these teachings is presented within the framework of the six bardos.
What, therefore, is a bardo? A bardo is a state that is “neither here nor there”: by definition it is something that comes “in between,” an intermediate state. the six bardos are:

  1. the natural bardo of the present life
  2. the hallucinatory bardo of dreaming
  3. the bardo of meditative absorption
  4. the painful bardo of dying
  5. the luminous bardo of ultimate reality
  6. the karmic bardo of becoming

The natural bardo of the present life covers the period between birth and death. At this moment, therefore, we are all in the bardo of the present life. As it is said in the teachings, “Kyema! Now that I am in the bardo of my life, I will stop being lazy, for in this life, there is no time to spare!” This is our present condition.

We should think carefully and ask ourselves how many years have already gone by since we were born. How many years are still to go? Life is utterly impermanent; nothing and no one can escape death. It is impossible for any of us to stay forever.
While we are in this situation, we squander our existence meaninglessly, throwing away our time in laziness and distractions. Life runs its course, and its impetus is eventually exhausted. At that point

All activities are terminated, and nothing further can be done.
This is why it is said that we should not allow ourselves to fall under the power of indolence and distraction.

We should instead practice the Dharma, the one thing that will help us at the time of death. Although we are unable to practice everything, we should practice as much as we can, knowing that it is by the way we live now that we can exert a positive influence on the conditions of the life to come.

As much as possible, therefore, we should avoid even a single negative deed and never miss the opportunity of performing even the slightest positive action. For nothing is certain; and it is said that we should conduct ourselves so that we have nothing to regret, even if we were to die tomorrow. This, then, is the bardo, the bardo of the present life.

The bardo of the dream state covers the period from the moment we fall asleep till the moment we wake up the following morning. this period is similar to death; temporal duration is the only difference. During sleep, the five perceptions of form, sound, smell, taste, and contact are withdrawn into the alaya.

They faint into it, so to speak, and in fact, falling asleep is actually like dying. To begin with, no dreams appear; there is only a black darkness as the sleeping person sinks unconscious into the alaya.

Later, the patterns of clinging and perception reassert themselves, stimulated by the karmic energy of ignorance.As a result of this, the “sense-objects” (form, sound, smell, taste, and contact) manifest once again in the dream state. These appearances, these dream-objects, are not, of course, actually present inside oneself. On the other hand, the consciousness does not move outward external things.

It remains within and its perceptions are imaginary and deluded. This is why state is called the bardo of hallucination. In the nocturnal dream state, perception is subject to delusion, as it is during the day. The deluded consciousness wanders through forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and contact – all the perceptions experienced during the day, except that now they are even more hallucinatory. As the sleeper dreams, he or she sees only delusions and figments.

In fact, the teachings say that we are also like illusions and dreams ourselves. Of course, we think that a dream is something unreal when compared with waking life, which we regard as true. For buddhas, however, dreams and the perceptions of the waking state are on an equal footing. Neither corresponds to reality.
They are both false: fluctuating, impermanent, deceptive – and nothing else. If we look for all the things we have done and experienced from the time of our birth until the present, where are they? There is nothing to be found. Everything goes; everything is in constant flux.

This is obviously true and yet it is something that habitually escapes us. We constantly relate to our perceptions as if they were permanent realities, thinking, “This is me, this is mine.” But the teachings tell us that this is all a mistake, and is the very thing that causes us to wander in samsara.

Come what may, it is our hallucinatory (dream)perceptions that we have to work with. During the day, we should pray to the Lama and the Three Jewels, and at night we should to recognize our dream as the delusions they are.

We have to be able to transform our dreams; we must practice the dharma even while dreaming. We need to gain proficiency in this, because if we succeed, we will be able to mingle our daytime perceptions with our dream perceptions without drawing a distinction between them, and our practice will be greatly enhanced.
The teachings specify that this practice is an extremely effective way of dealing with the fact of impermanence, and with every other obstacle as well.

The bardo of meditative absorption may be described as the period of time we spend in meditative equipoise. It terminates when we arise from this state. It is called a bardo because it is not like our ordinary current of deluded thoughts, nor is it like phenomenal perception as experienced in the course of life.

It is a period of meditative stability, a state of concentration as fresh and untarnished as the sky. It is like a motionless ocean in which there are no waves, It is impossible to remain in this state when the mind is full of thoughts (appropriately likened to a gang of robbers), or even when it is occupied with more subtle mental undercurrents, mixed and matted together like threads. Stable meditation is impossible in such circumstances.

The teachings say that meditators must not fall under the power of their thoughts, which are like thieves. They should instead have undistracted mindfulness and powerful diligence with which they can prevent their concentration from disintegrating.

The dream bardo and the bardo of meditative absorption are subdivisions of the present life. The bardo of the present life naturally includes our practice. Even if it is intermittent, it is of necessity performed within the scope of our present existence. It is only here that we can meditate.

It is perfectly possible, from one day to the next, to discover that we are suffering from a fatal illness. When all the ceremonies and prayers for long life have proved ineffective, and the approach of death is certain, it will finally dawn on us that nothing we have done in our lives has been of any use.

We must leave it all behind. Even if we have a stack of wealth as high as Mount Meru, we cannot take it with us. We cannot take so much as a needle and thread! It is time for us to go; even this body that we love so much will have to be abandoned. What can we take with us? Only our positive and negative karma.

The actions that we have stored up will be our only companions. however, suppose we have put the instructions into practice and trained in the transference of consciousness, if we have gained proficiency in this, and if we can die without a trace of regret, we will certainly have done ourselves a very great favor.

A person who says, “I shall go to such and such a buddhafield,” and does in fact do so, is a perfect practitioner. Let’s face it: we practice the Dharma because we need it at the moment of our death. This is why the teachings stress the importance of understanding what happens when we die.

It is said that even for an ordinary person, the moment of death is crucial. It is a moment when we should pray to the Lama and the Three Jewels. We should cut through the strings that bind us to our possessions – our house and everything else.

For this is what pulls us into samsara. We should also make offerings of our wealth to the Three Jewels, praying that we will not have to go through a painful and difficult death and suffer in the lower realms afterward.

If we have successfully trained in the transference of consciousness, and if we are able to apply this technique when the moment of death arrives and thus transfer our consciousness successfully – this is surely the best situation of all. But if we can’t do this, the transference of consciousness can be done for us by a lama or one of our vajra brothers or sister who happens to be with us and knows how to do it.
The consciousness should be transferred to the buddhafield as soon as respiration stops.In any case,
it is important to plan for this and get ourselves up to scratch, so that when the crucial momentcomes, there is no need to be afraid. Needless to say, the preparation has to be done now, during the bardo of the present life.

What happens to us when we die? From the moment of physical conception, the moment of the union of our parents, our body begins to coalesce from the essence of the five elements. It is a gathering of the elements, of warmth, energy, the subtle channels, and so forth. When we die, these five elements gradually separate and dissolve into each other. When this dissolution is complete, outer respiration stops,

and the inner pulses are reabsorbed. The white essence, received from our father and located in the brain, and the red essence, received from our mother and located in the navel, meet in the heart center and mingle. Only then does the mind leave the body.

At this point, in the case of those who have no experience of the practice, the mind falls into a prolonged state of unconsciousness. But for those who are accomplished masters or experience meditators, the consciousness will, after two minutes or so, dissolve into space, and space will dissolve into luminosity.

What is the fruit of meditation for those of us who practice? It is precisely this so-called dissolution into luminosity, which is pure and untarnished like the sky. It occurs when the inner pulse stops.

If a person has achieved stability in the recognition of luminosity during meditation, then as soon as the experience of untarnished space arises there occurs the so-called meeting of the mother and child luminosities, space and awareness. This is liberation.

At root, this is what lamas and meditators who practice refer to as “resting in tuktam” or meditation, at the time of death. Thukham is nothing more than this. The mother and child luminosities mingle; stability in the phases of creation and perfection is gained. This is liberation.

If we have not practiced, we faint when the experience of blackness arises, only to reawaken almost immediately into the fearful perceptions of what is referred to as the fifth bardo, the bardo of ultimate reality. At this point, the peaceful and wrathful deities appear.

They are implicit and present in our awareness, from Samatabhadra to the buddhas of the five families and the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. Their appearance is accompanied by startling sound and lights. At this point, people who are unfamiliar with the practice are terrified. As soon as their fear overwhelms them, these manifestations of awareness dissolve and melt away.

I would now like to say a few words about the bardo of dying and the bardo of ultimate reality together. After the five elements separate and dissolve, the consciousness dissolves into space, fainting into the state of alaya. Following this, luminosity is seen. It is like pure, immaculate space.

If you have no experience of meditation, you will fail to recognize this luminosity. Being unrecognized, it will not stay for long. If you are used to concentration, however, the two luminosities, mother and child, will mingle.

Just before you start to die, before the gradual dissolution of the elements takes place, the most important thing is tobe perfectly aware that you are actually dying. You must sever all attachment to the things of this life.

When death arrives, you should pray to the Three Jewels, for there is no other hope than them. You should also invoke your root teacher, for he or she is somehow more accessible to you. When all is said and done, your root teacher is their embodiment. Pray to your teacher, your very yidam deity, on the dangerous pathways of the bardo.

Confess all the negative actions you have committed during your life and pray to your teacher one-pointedly, asking to be led to a buddhafield immediately after death. It is said that this kind of undistracted prayer, with this aspiration constantly present before the mind, is actually a precondition for being led to a pure field.

Furthermore, when a sick person is dying, his teacher or his Dharma kindred (whose samaya is unspoiled and with whom he has a harmonious relationship) should remind him that the elements are dissolving as it is actually happening.

They should pray and chant, invoking the teacher. These aspirations – to be delivered from danger on the pathways of the bardo – will be of great help. When in invalid falls down, other people pick him up. In the same way, Dharma Friends can be of help; they can guide the dying person and pray for him. This is very beneficial.

It is said that the buddhas are endowed with great compassion, and if one invokes them by name (immaculate Ratnashikhin, protector Amitabha, the Buddha Shakyamuni, and so forth), the sufferings
of the lower realms are dispelled even as their names are spoken.

In the same way, if the dying person is able to pray well, the buddhas prevent him from entering the path to the lower realms simply owing to the fact that their names are uttered. This therefore is most useful. Prayer is like our helper and protective escort at the time of death. It is of great importance and benefit.

First of all, the dying person faints into a blank, unconscious state. Then consciousness re-manifests, the luminosity appears and if it is not recognized, vanishes, and the visions of the bardo of ultimate reality begin to dawn. This is when the manifestations of the peaceful and wrathful deities occur, with frightening sounds and lights and the impressions of terrible chasmic precipices.

If one fails to recognize that these incredible sounds and rays of light are nothing but the projections of one’s own mind and nothing but the creative power of awareness, a feeling of terrible dread arises. The visions occur, fear arises, and then the visions fade away. The consciousness then leaves the body exiting by the appropriate opening.

At this point the separation of the mind and body occurs. Since the mind is now divided from the body, it is without a physical support. The gross material body is gone, and there is only a subtle body composed of light.

This subtle body lacks the essential substances received from the father and mother, and consequently the dead person has no further perception of the light of sun and moon. Nevertheless, there is a kind of luminescent glimmering, a mental energy, emitted from the light body. this creates the impression that one can see one’s way. In addition, all the beings who are wandering in the bardo of becoming are able to see and hear each other.

Another aspect of this bardo is that whenever the bardo consciousness wishes to be somewhere, it is instantaneously present in that very place. The only places it is barred from are the womb of its future mother and Vajrasana, the sacred place where all the buddhas attain enlightenment.

The bardo body is a “mental body,” which is why it is present in a place as soon as that place is thought of. the mind of a dead person also possesses a certain clairvoyance, albeit tinged with defilement. It knows what other people are thinking.

A recently dead person can perceive how others are using the possessions he had accumulated in the course of his life, what they are thinking about, and how they are performing the meritorious practices for his sake.

The living do not see the dead, but the dead can perceive the living. Bardo beings congregate together and suffer from the sensations of hunger and thirst, heat and cold. They experience intense suffering as they wander in the intermediate state.

Those who actually wander in the bardo are those who have failed to practice much virtue in their lives, but at the same time, have not accumulated too much evil. Beings who have committed great evil will not experience the bardo of becoming at all.

As soon as they close their eyes in death, they instantly arrive in the lower realms. On the other hand, those who have accumulated great merit arrive at once in a buddhafield.

In general, though, people like ourselves, who are neither great sinners nor great saints, will have to experience the bardo of becoming, and this is nothing but suffering. On the other hand, the deceased may be protected from the horrors of the bardo and attain liberation. This will happen if a person has

accomplished many meritorious actions, has made offerings to the Three Jewels, has given charity to the poor, and so forth; and if others have constructed the mandala of the peaceful and wrathful deities and performed the ritual in a piece of paper with the name of the deceased person written on it has been burned, and if empowerment has been conferred (leading the consciousness of the dead person to higher destinies).

It is rather like when a crowd of people rushestogether to catch and save someone from falling over a precipice. This is why it is said that we should perform many virtuous actions for the sake of the dead.
During the first twenty-one days after death, the deceased have the same sort of perceptions they had during life.

They have the impression of possessing the same body and mind as before, and they perceive the same surroundings they experienced during their life. Later on, they begin to have perceptions related to the place where they will take rebirth in the next life. This is why it is said that the period of

forty-nine days – particularly the first three weeks – is extremely important. During that time, if a lot of merit is accumulated by others for the sake of the dead, it is said that even if the people in question should be on their way to the lower realms, the compassion of the Three Jewels can lead them to a higher destiny until their negative karma has been exhausted.

This, then, is why it is important to accumulate a great deal of merit for the sake of the dead. Dharma people, who are used to the practice, recognize, when they are in the bardo of becoming, that they have died. They realize where they are, and they remember their teacher and their yidam deity.

By praying one-pointedly to them, they are able to gain rebirth in pure lands like Sukhavati, Abhirati, or the Glorious Copper-Colored Mountain. It is also possible for an accomplished lama to summon the bardo consciousness of the deceased into their written names and then reveal the true path to them.

By giving teachings and empowerment, he can show them the way to the buddhafields, or at least bring the bardo consciousness to the attainment of a human birth. Everything depends on the karma, aspiration, and devotion of the deceased. Of all the bardos,

the most crucial one is the bardo of the present life. For it is now, in the bardo of the present life, that we must act and practice well, so that we will not have to wander in the other bardos.

The sadhana of the Great Compassionate One is the very essence of all the sutras and the tantras. Guru Rinpoche distilled it as a method whereby disciples who have connections with it will be able to take birth in Sukhavati. He subsequently concealed it as a terma, and it was the Vidyahara Dudul Dorje, the previous Dudjom, who revealed it.

We may say that the sire and forefather of the teaching of all the buddhas is the Buddha Samantabhadra or Amitabha (who are in fact identical). Never stirring from the peaceful expanse of his mind, the Buddha Amitabha looks with unceasing compassion on all the beings of the six realms.

From the radiance of his love, Avalokiteshvara, the Great Compassionate One, arises. Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezig, is the spontaneous embodiment of the compassionate speech of all the buddhas. In the presence of Amitabha, he made the promise that until the three worlds were emptied of beings, he would refrain from entering enlightenment, and would remain a bodhisattva.

He promised, in other words, that he would remain until the very depths of samsara were churned and emptied of beings. from that moment on, with great compassion he has led the beings of the three realms to Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha.

there is a legend that once there was a moment when he thought he had completed his task and that samsara had been emptied. But he turned around and in that instant saw that there was exactly the same number of beings – no more, no less – as there was before.

Perceiving that the number of beings in samsara had not diminished, he was downcast and reflected to himself, “The time will never come when I shall have led all beings to the pure lands.” Thus his pledge of bodhichitta faltered. His head burst asunder in eleven pieces and his body shattered into a thousand fragments. At that very moment, the Buddha Amitabha appeared and said:

“Son of my lineage, can it be that you have spoiled your vow of bodhichitta? Cultivate it once again and strive for the good of beings as in the past” So saying, he blessedAvalokiteshvara’s fractured head and the thousand fragments of his body. Avalokiteshvara rose again with eleven heads and a body endowed with a thousand arms; on the hand of each arm appeared an eye.

This is how Avalokita was blessed with eleven heads and a thousand arms and eyes with which to work for the sake of beings. Thanks to his enlightened aspiration, his thousand armsemanated a thousand

Chakravartin kings, and from his thousand eyes appeared the thousand buddhas of this fortunate kalpa. All of these thousand buddhas will manifest entirely through the compassion of Avalokiteshvara.
Source: H.H.Dudjom Rinpoche. Counsels from My Heart. 2003. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 2001. 59-75. Print.

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