This article is the first of fifteen articles inspired by the ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’, in which I shall be aiming to show meditators how each one of the ten deities of the Dharmadātu Mandala can be felt in the fields of the body as profound suprapersonal sources of somatic healing and wisdom. Those who read the whole series of articles – and it is intended that these articles should be read in sequence – will be able to incorporate these reflections into their meditation practice in a systematic way. Brief introductory summaries of all the articles in the series can be found here.
I would like to dedicate this series of articles to Dharmachari Subhuti, a Member of the Triratna Buddhist Order. It was Subhuti who set me on the five-fold track of the Five Wisdoms, when I attended a seminar on the Bardo Thodol with him in the early 1980s.
Padmasambhava – The Second Buddha
I have a great love of the Bardo Thodol, or ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’. It contains powerful truths about the nature of mind. I regard Padmasambhava, it’s author, as the second Buddha, as the Tibetan Buddhists do. I see the Bardo Thodol as a wonderful distillation of the essential elements of the Mahayana phase of Buddhism, at a crucial time when its Vajrayana phase was being born. While I love early Buddhism and the historical Buddha, my belief is that, if we are seeking radical transformation and self-realisation in this lifetime, our approach to meditation and insight practice benefits enormously from the incorporation of the key Mahayana and Vajrayana insights that can be found in the Bardo Thodol.
An important thing to understand about the Bardo Thodol is that we do not have to believe in it as a literal description of how rebirth takes place, to find it to be of the utmost value. The profound wisdom that it contains is in the form of archetypal psychology. It speaks to us, in the language of imagery and symbolism, of things that can only be pointed to, and felt as a resonance in the fields of the body – not known objectively and conceptually.
The fact that the Bardo Thodol came to be called the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ is probably unfortunate. That was the name, given to it by early Western students of Tibetan Buddhism, of the collection of Padmasambhava’s teachings that includes verses to be read over the body after a person has died. It is nothing like the ‘Egyptian Book of the Dead’ with which comparison was made at that time. Bardo, or more correctly the two words bar do, are Tibetan for ‘intermediate state’; and Thodol, is actually two Tibetan words – thos, which is Tibetan for ‘hearing’ as well as ‘philosophical studies’, and grol, which means ‘liberation’. Hence a better translation of Bardo Thodol would be Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediate State.
To understand the great value and importance to the Bardo Thodol, we need to understand that a bardo is more than just an intermediate state between lives – i.e. when we have died and are in the process of being reincarnated. Rather, a bardo is any moment of transition, any moment of choice – indeed any moment of Consciousness. To be truly conscious is to recognise that every moment of every life situation is a bardo – a moment of freedom and potentiality in which profound transformation is possible.