The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa, Translated with a commentary by Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa, Boston: Shambhala, 1987

The Tibetan Book of the Dead


5-Stars, Highly Recommended Reading

An excellent translation and commentary that I found much better than the famed translation by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz. I have immensely profited from this book for understanding the psychic processes that take place during and after natural death. Some prayers in the book also helped me to assisting the dying, an activity that is commonly called ‘psychopomping.’ It is what in Buddhist countries is done by the ‘chanting monks.’

I will not, as usually, use my own words to paraphrase truth written in this book. I would not be competent enough doing so, anyway. But most importantly, in assisting you which version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead you want to buy for yourself, you need to know more of the actual content of the book.

To begin with, both the Foreword by Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, and the Introduction by Francesca Fremantle (Translator) are very useful which is why I quote them here in full. Then I will come up with some quotes selected from all over the book, marked by myself with the pen when reading it, and finally, some of the most important prayers.

Let me say one word about the meaning of ‘Bardo’ and the intrinsic truth about a possible soul liberation during the passage of the soul through this realm, also called ‘Life Between Lives’ by the American regression hypnotherapist Dr. Michael Newton (see here for my review of his main book). ‘Bardo’ simply means point of transition and is used by Tibetans to convey that we can change our rather dull and unconscious lives in moments of truth, and this also before we die. One way of doing this is the so-called ‘Dream Yoga’ which is a technique to render dreams conscious to a point that all dreaming becomes ‘lucid’ dreaming.

While it seems that Tibetan Buddhism is the only wisdom tradition that knows about ‘Bardo’ points in life and death, this would be untrue. The same truth is namely known in Sufism, see here, for example, the book on sufism by Idries Shah that I have reviewed.

The Sufis, especially the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, say the same truth in a very matter-of-fact manner: ‘You have to die before you die.’ This means that you have to get beyond your ego-state before you even enter death, by having done some work on yourself, awakening your doors of perception.


by Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

The ‘Bardo Thötröl’ is one of a series of instructions on six types of liberation: liberation through hearing, liberation through wearing, liberation through seeing, liberation through remembering, liberation through tasting, and liberation through touching. They were composed by Padmasambhava and written down by his wife, Yeshe Tsogyal, along with the sadhana of the two mandalas of forty-two peaceful and and fifty-eight wrathful deities.

Padmasambhava buried these texts in the Gampo hills in central Tibet, where later the great teacher Gampopa established his monastery. Many other texts and sacred objects were buried in this way in different places throughout Tibet, and are known as terma, ‘hidden treasures.’ Padmasambhava gave the transmission of power to discover the termas to his twenty-five chief disciples. The Bardo texts were later discovered by Karma Lingpa, who was an incarnation of one of his disciples.

Liberation, in this case, means that whoever comes into contact with this teaching—even in the form of doubt, or with an open mind—receives a sudden glimpse of enlightenment through the power of teh transmission contained in these treasures.

Karma Lingpa belonged to the Nyingma tradition but his students were all of the Kagyü tradition. He gave the first transmission of the six liberation teachings to Dödül-Dorje, the thirteenth Karmapa, who in turn gave it to Gyurme-Tenphel, the eighth Trungpa. This transmission was kept alive in the Surmang monasteries of the Trungpa lineage, and from there it spread back into the Nyingma tradition.

The student of this teaching practices the sadhana and studies the texts so as to become completely familiar with the two mandalas as part of his own experience.

I received this transmission at the age of eight, and was trained in this teaching by my tutors, who also guided me in dealing with dying people. Consequently I visited dying or dead people about four times a week from that time onwards. Such continual contact with the process of death, particularly watching one’s close friends and relatives, is considered extremely important for students of this tradition, so that the notion of impermanence becomes a living experience rather than a philosophical view.

This book is a further attempt to make this teaching applicable to students in the West. I hope that the sadhana may also be translated in the hear future, so that this tradition may be fully carried out.


by Francesca Fremantle

—It may seem inconsistent to introduce two Tibetan words, ‘bardo’ itself, and ‘yidam.’ One reason is simply that these are the easiest words to use, and they have become very familiar to students of Buddhism who will be the main readers of this book. /xv

—The concept of sin … is inevitably associated with original sin, guilt, and punishment, which have no place in most Eastern teachings. Instead, Buddhism looks for the basic cause of sin and suffering, and discovers this to be the belief in a self or ego as the centre of existence. This belief is caused not by innate evil, but as unconsciousness, or ignorance of the true nature of existence. /xvi

—The evolution of the ego-centred state of being is analyzed in the system of the five skandhas. Skandha is literally a heap or group, but its meaning may be better conveyed by ‘psychological component.’ /xvii

—The fundamental teaching of this book is the recognition of one’s projections and the dissolution of the sense of the self in the light of reality. As soon as this is done, these five psychological components of the confused or unenlightened state of mind become instead factors of enlightenment. They are transmuted into their transcendent and purified forms, which are presented during the first five days in the bardo of dharmata. /xvii

—So, although this book is ostensibly written for the dead, it is in fact about life. The Buddha himself would not discuss what happens after death, because such questions are not useful in the search for reality here and now. But the doctrine of reincarnation, the six kinds of existence, and the intermediate bardo state between them, refer very much to this life, whether or not they also apply after death. It is often emphasized that the purpose of reading the Bardo Thötröl to a dead person is to remind him of what he has practiced during his life. This ‘Book of the Dead’ can show us how to live. /ixx-xx

The Main Verses of the Six Bardos

(Prayer, pp. 98-99)

Now when the bardo of birth is dawning upon me,
I will abandon laziness for which life has no time,
enter the undistracted path of study, reflection and meditation,
making projections and mind the path, and realize the three kayas;
now that I have once attained a human body,
there is no time on the path for the mind to wander.

Now when the bardo of dreams is dawning upon me,
I will abandon the corpse-like sleep of careless ignorance,
and let my thoughts enter their natural state without distraction;
controlling and transforming dreams in luminosity,
I will not sleep like any animal
but unify completely sleep and practice.

Now when the bardo of samadhi-meditation dawns upon me,
I will abandon the crowd of distractions and confusions,
and rest in the boundless state without grasping or disturbance;
firm in the two practices: visualization and complete,
at this time of meditation, one-pointed, free from activity,
I will not fall into the power of confused emotions.

Now when the bardo of the moment before death dawns upon me,
I will abandon all grasping, yearning and attachment,
enter undistracted into clear awareness of the teaching,
and eject my consciousness into the space of unborn mind;
as I leave this compound body of flesh and blood
I will know it to be a transitory illusion.

Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me,
I will abandon all thoughts of fear and terror,
I will recognize whatever appears as my projection
and know it to be a vision of the bardo;
now that I have reached this crucial point,
I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful ones, my own projections.

Now when the bardo of becoming dawns upon me,
I will concentrate my mind one-pointedly,
and strive to prolong the results of good karma,
close the womb-entrance and think of resistance;
this is the time when perseverance and pure thought are needed,
abandon jealousy, and meditate on the guru with his consort.

With mind far off, not thinking death’s coming,
performing these meaningless activities,
returning empty-handed now would be complete confusion;
the need is recognition, holy dharma,
so why not practice dharma at this very moment?
From the mouths of siddhas come these words:
If you do not keep your guru’s teaching in your heart
will you not become your own deceiver?

Categories Life After Death, Psychopomping, Tibetan Book of the DeadTags ,

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