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Buddhism Religion

The Tibetan Book of the Dead and NDEs

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whose actual title is The Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State or “Bardo Thodol“, is traditionally believed to be the work of the legendary Padmasambhava in the 8th century A.D. The book acts as a guide for the dead during the state that intervenes death and the next rebirth. He is considered to be one of the first persons to bring Buddhism to Tibet. The Bardo Thodol is a guide that is read aloud to the dead while they are in the state between death and reincarnation in order for them to recognize the nature of their mind and attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

The Bardo Thodol teaches that once awareness is freed from the body, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream. This dream occurs in various phases (bardos) in ways both wonderful and terrifying. Overwhelming peaceful and wrathful visions and deities appear. Since the deceased’s awareness is in confusion of no longer being connected to a physical body, it needs help and guidance in order that enlightenment and liberation occurs. The Bardo Thodol teaches how we can attain Nirvana by recognizing the heavenly realms instead of entering into the lower realms where the cycle of birth and rebirth continue. The following is a description of the bardo realms that one travels through after death.

Table of Contents

  1. The First Bardo Afterlife Realm
  2. The Second Bardo Afterlife Realm
  3. The Third Bardo Afterlife Realm

1. The First Bardo Afterlife Realm

The first bardo comes at the very moment of death, when there dawns the Clear Light of the Ultimate Reality. This is the very content and substance of the state of liberation, if only the soul can recognize it and act in a way to remain in that state. The instructions intended to be read at the moment of the person’s death are designed to help him do this. He is told, first of all, to embrace this supreme experience not in a selfish and egoistic way but rather with love and compassion for all sentient beings. This will aid him in the second step, which is to realize that his own mind and self is identical with the Clear Light, implying that he himself IS the Ultimate Reality, “the All-good Buddha”, transcending time, eternity, and all creation. If he can recognize this while in this supreme state at the moment of death, he will attain liberation — that is, he will remain in the Clear Light forever. This condition is called the “Dharmakaya“, the highest spiritual body of the Buddha.

Most souls, however, will fail to do this. They will be pulled down by the weight of their karma into the second stage of the first bardo, called the Secondary Clear Light seen immediately after death. At this point, there are separate instructions to be read according to the spiritual condition of the person while in life. For an individual advanced in meditation and other spiritual practices, there is repeated over and over the same instructions as at the moment of death, enjoining him to recognize himself as the Dharmakaya. For a person who was still at a student-level on the spiritual path, there is the injunction for him to meditate on his “tutelary deity“, that is, the particular god for whom he performed devotional practices while alive. Finally, “if the deceased be of the common folk”, unpracticed in any spiritual disciplines, the instruction is to “meditate upon the Great Compassionate Lord“, which is to say an “Avatar” worshiped by the multitude, equivalent to Jesus as conceived by the average Christian.

2. The Second Bardo Afterlife Realm

If the soul is still not liberated at this stage, it will descend into the second bardo, which is said to last for two weeks. The second bardo is also divided into two parts; in the first, the soul of the deceased encounters what are referred to as “the Peaceful Deities.” On each of the seven days, a particular Buddha-being will appear in radiance and glory, with a bevy of angelic attendants. At the same time, on each day in turn there will shine a light from one of the six worlds of the Buddhist universe, called “Lokas” (the basic meaning is “place”; our English words “location” and “locale” are derived from the same Sanskrit root).

On the first day of the second bardo, there appears to the soul the divine Father-Mother – that is, the supreme deity of the universe, transcending all dualities, including the division into sexes. The next step in the destiny of the soul is determined by his reaction to this God. If his life on Earth was well lived, he will now be in a state of purity and grace, and he will enter into the joy of the God and attain liberation. If on the other hand he has lived an ignoble and impious life, the effects of his bad karma will cause the intense radiant presence of the God to strike fear and terror in his heart, and he will be drawn instead to the softer light of the Deva-Loka, which has dawned along with this deity. This is still a fairly attractive fate, for the Devas are the Gods (or angels), and their Loka is equivalent to the Christian heaven; however, the Buddhist teaching is that even heaven is not the highest spiritual objective, because it is still only a temporary state in the manifest universe. Liberation is believed to be the only final and permanent resting-place for the soul, an un-manifest state beyond all existence.

On the second day, there appears the second-highest God in the Buddhist pantheon – in fact, he is actually the Second Person in the literal Buddhist Holy Trinity. At the same time, there dawns a smoky light from hell; and here we note that, just as the Buddhist heaven is not a permanent, eternal state, neither is its hell. Even the most wretched souls will eventually work their way out of even the deepest pit of hell, just as even the highest and purest souls will eventually lose their footing in heaven and descend again into the cycle of death and rebirth. Liberation is the only way out.

Once again, if the soul responds to the “dazzling white light”of the second God with the joy of a pure heart, he will be liberated thereby; but if he specifically reacts with ANGER from having indulged in this vice on Earth, he will recoil from the light in fear and be drawn into hell.

The pattern is repeated on the third day; this time it is the fault if egotism that will cause the soul to react to the God with fear, and he will be drawn to the human world, where his next incarnation will thereby take place. On the fourth day dawns the God of Eternal Life; if the soul has a negative reaction to him because of miserliness and attachment, he will be drawn toward rebirth in the Preta-Loka, a world of “hungry ghosts” who have huge stomachs and throats the size of pinholes, and so they wander about in a constant state of unsatisfied ravenous desire. On the fifth day comes God in the form of an Almighty Conqueror; this time it’s jealousy that will unseat the soul, and he will be born into the Asura-Loka, a world of fierce warrior-deities (or demons). On the sixth day all the deities return and dawn together, along with the lights from all six Lokas. On the seventh day there appear the Knowledge-Holding Deities, who are more fierce and demonic-looking than those that have previously dawned; and in fact they are sort of a transitional element to the next stage of the second bardo, where the soul encounters the wrathful deities. Meanwhile, if because of stupidity the soul cannot face the Knowledge-Holding Deities, he is drawn toward the Brute-Loka – that is, he will be reborn on Earth as an animal.

In the second week of the second bardo, the soul meets seven legions of Wrathful Deities: hideous, terrifying demons who advance upon him with flame and sword, drinking blood from human skulls, threatening to wreak unmerciful torture upon him, to maim, disembowel, decapitate and slay him. The natural tendency, of course, is for the soul to attempt to flee from these beings in stark, screaming, blood-curdled terror; but if he does, all is lost. The instructions at this stage of the Bardo are for the soul to have no fear, but rather to recognize that the Wrathful Deities are really the Peaceful Deities in disguise, their dark side manifesting as a result of his own evil karma. The soul is told to calmly face each demon in turn and visualize it as the deity it truly is, or else as his own tutelary deity; if he can do this, he will merge with the being and attain the second degree of Liberation, that lesser aspect of it which is now the best he can hope for here in the second bardo.

Furthermore, he is told to awaken to the fact that all these fearsome creatures are not real, but are merely illusions emanating from his own mind. If he can recognize this, they will vanish and he will be liberated. If he can’t, he eventually wanders down to the third bardo.

3. The Third Bardo Afterlife Realm

In the third bardo the soul encounters the Lord of Death, a fearsome demonic deity who appears in smoke and fire, and subjects the soul to a Judgment. If the dead person protests that he has done no evil, the Lord of Death holds up before him the Mirror of Karma, “wherein every good and evil act is vividly reflected.” Now demons approach and begin to inflict torments and punishments upon the soul for his evil deeds. The instructions in the Bardo Thodol are for him to attempt to recognize the Voidness of all these beings, including the Lord of Death himself; the dead person is told that this entire scene unfolding around him is a projection from his own mind. Even here he can attain liberation by recognizing this.

The soul who is still not liberated after the Judgment will now be drawn remorselessly toward rebirth.

The lights of the six Lokas will dawn again; into one of these worlds the soul must be born, and the light of the one he is destined for will shine more brightly than the others. The soul is still experiencing the frightening apparitions and sufferings of the third bardo, and he feels that he will do anything to escape from this condition. He will seek shelter in what appear to be caves or hiding-places, but which are actually the entrances to wombs. He is warned of this by the text of the Bardo Thodol, and urged not to enter them, but to meditate upon the Clear Light instead; for it is still possible for him to achieve the third degree of liberation and avoid rebirth.

Finally there comes a point where it is no longer possible to attain liberation, and after this the soul is given instructions on how to choose the best womb for a favorable incarnation. The basic method is non-attachment: to try to rise above both attraction to worldly pleasures and repulsion from worldly ills.

The final words of the Bardo Thodol are: “Let virtue and goodness be perfected in every way.”

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Buddhism Religion

A Commentary on Tibetan Buddhism and NDEs

This commentary is based on the video, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (DVD), narrated by Leonard Cohen.

Although everything on Earth seems stable and solid, nothing here is permanent. Like water, snow and ice, life is always shifting and changing form. All existence is one kind of state or another. This means always living in a world of uncertainty – moving without a permanent place to rest.

In this world, we pass through the spiritual state of physical existence. Here, we want to make something lasting and secure, but no one has been able to accomplish this. Our life is always in the hands of death. At death, our experience is completely out of our control. Our experience is completely naked.

What is the best path through this spiritual state? It is a question of waking up right now, looking at our own mind. Look at it when it is calm and still and when it is running wild. This is what Buddha did and what he taught. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

Soon we all will die. All our hopes and fears will be irrelevant.

Out of luminous continuity of existence, which has no origin and which has never died, human beings project all the images of life and death, terror and joy, demons and gods. These images become our complete reality. We submit without thinking to their dance. In all the movements to this dance, we project our greatest fears on death and we make every effort to ignore it.

Illusions are as various as the moon reflecting on a rippling sea. Beings become easily caught in the net of confused pain. We must develop compassion as boundless as the sky so that all may rest in the clear light of our own awareness.

At death, we lose everything we thought was real. Unless we can let go of all the things we cherished in our life we are terrified. We cannot stop struggling to hold on to our old life. All our fear and yearning will drag us into yet another painful reality.

We are always wandering through transitional spiritual states. Difficulty in leaving behind our old life can cause us to wander in painful uncertainty.

The spiritual state of dying lasts from the beginning of the body’s physical collapse until the body and consciousness separate.

While we are living, the elements of Earth, water, fire and air together support and condition our consciousness. Death occurs when this is no longer the case. Now, without the screens and filters of daily life, at this time, mind itself can be seen directly. In the spiritual state of dying, it is important to recognize our own true nature.

At death, there is an experience of piercing luminosity, pure white light, the clear radiance that rises directly from our own basic nature. Now, there is no darkness, no separation, no direction and no shape, only brilliant light. This boundless sparkling radiance is mind, free from the shadows of birth and death – free from any boundaries of any kind.

Now all pervasive light engulfs us completely. All of space is dissolved into pure light. This radiance is the mind of Divinity, the mind of all the awakened ones. Recognizing this is all that is necessary for liberation from birth and rebirth. If we do not recognize our divine nature, a dreamless sleep will happen.

In three days time, all emotions will be vivid and intense. Though it seems we are entering into a new reality, it is still the reality of our own mind.

Wandering back to the familiar sites and people of our old life, our own mind will arise before us in unfamiliar ways. We may not know if we are alive or dead. Even so, we may see our family crying. We must leave our former life behind if we are to progress.

If we are unable to recognize the luminosity of mind itself, our experience now takes the shape of random imagery of our former life. We see our friends and relatives calling out to us and they cannot hear our replies. Death has cut us off from them and sorrow strikes our heart. We see our family and relatives crying. We can see our bed but we are no longer the one lying there. Instead, there is a corpse.

Soon we will experience the intense presence of our own emotional states as peaceful and raging light forms. Now, we will meet our mind in the form of projections which seem vivid and entirely real. Now we will see penetrating blue light shining all around us. This is the essence of consciousness. The wisdom of the Light is like a mirror reflecting everything. The Light is the form of consciousness in its complete purity. This wisdom is inseparable from our own heart. But also we will see a diffused white light which we must avoid if we are to achieve liberation. If we follow the allure of the soft white light, we will find ourselves ensnared in the temporary pleasures of being born as a god, living in lordly ignorance of the passage of time and subject to unexpected death.

If this path is taken, the wisdom of our very heart and mind takes the form of spiritual entities. There will be peaceful spiritual entities that emanate from our heart chakra and wrathful ones that emerge from our head chakra.

They will appear one by one and then all together. The peaceful spiritual entities are complete and immovable. If we cannot bear to enter their vast benevolent space, if we cannot let go of self-centeredness and fear, these deities will become terrifying wrathful ones. If we recognize them as an expression of our own mind, they are the unsparing face of wakefulness.

The wrathful forms emerging from the head appear before us actually and clearly as if they were real in their own right. The terror and anger we feel are our own efforts to evade from being completely awake. We wander uncertainly in the landscape of our own mind. If we recognize this as our own projections, liberation is instantaneous.

These wrathful forms are the presence of our innate wisdom, the vivid form of our own wakefulness. We must recognize them as a reflection of our own mind. Recognition and liberation are simultaneous.

All of us feel sparks of anger, flickers of passion, and twinges of jealousy during brief moments. From these seeds, we grow to become the jealous person. We say “this is what I am” and we act accordingly. But these are just our masks and we forget that we are wearing them. We run from the masks that others wear. The wrathful spiritual entities are our own mind and it is impossible to run away from them. They are the sharpness of our own clarity. They are all in our mind.

Then altogether and all at once, the peaceful and wrathful spiritual entities come before us. If we do not recognize them as our own projections, then they transform into the terrifying image of the Lord of Death. This too is our own projection. But if we don’t accept that, our fear and turmoil force us to wander on in terror to the spiritual state of rebirth. We leave the spiritual state of the nature of mind. Again we are lost and wandering, so now we seek to end our suffering by being born into a solid and familiar place.

Now in the spiritual state of rebirth, all our senses have become extremely acute. Our consciousness is like a body without substance. In this body, we can, by a mere thought, travel to anywhere. As if we have miraculous powers, we can pass through mountains and circle the universe. We can enter anywhere but nowhere can we rest.

In the pain of our endless wandering, the thought of being born now promises great relief. We can still see our family, but we no longer know we are with them. We are driven on the winds of hope and fear like a leaf that is carried in the wind.

If we are still unable to recognize our own nature, our anger, lust and confusion become ever more intense, ever more solid. They at last appear to us as entire realms where we may stop and dwell. The image of our former body becomes faint and the image of our future body becomes clear. Any birth seems better than his current pain.

Since everyone is caught in these spiritual states of suffering, what can we do? People make hell realms out of their own anger. They make worlds out of passion. We project our emotional states and believe it is the real world. But no matter what, everyone longs for compassion. Everyone wishes to be awake. The best thing is to develop genuine compassion for all living things and for ourselves too. If we do not truly care for others we cannot know our own mind. We can have lofty insights and pure impulses, but then return to our old habits without even noticing it. We must work all the time to open our hearts and look for the truth. Otherwise there is neither understanding nor a purpose for understanding. Also, as life goes by, it is a good idea to keep your sense of humor.

We are now coming to the end of our journey. As we reach the end of the spiritual state of rebirth, the features of the world we are to enter will become very clear to us. If we pay attention now, we will find our way to a favorable rebirth.

We are now on the path to rebirth. We must choose carefully where we are to be born. In all the possibilities that are present before us, we must choose our new life. If we choose a good human birth in a good place, we can continue on the path of recognizing our own mind. Even though we are desperate for a home, a dark cave in a forest can lead to a birth in the animal realm. If we are consumed by yearning, the realm of hungry ghosts can become a never-ending realm of hunger and thirst for us. Rage, bitterness, and anger open all the images of hell. It is best to avoid the extremes of pleasure or pain when selecting a new birth. It is best to be born where we can still recognize the luminous essence of our own mind.

We will not remember much of our journey when we are born again. It will be like starting out new. Though death is always something to be mourned, being born is not something to be celebrated. There is an old saying:

“When we are born, we cry, but the whole world is overjoyed. When we die, the world cries and we can become overjoyed when we find the great liberation.”

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Buddhism Religion

Buddhist Afterlife Beliefs

Buddha accepted the basic Hindu doctrines of reincarnation and karma, as well as the notion that the ultimate goal of the religious life is to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Buddha asserted that what keeps us bound to the death/rebirth process is desire, desire in the sense of wanting or craving anything in the world. Hence, the goal of getting off the Ferris wheel of reincarnation necessarily involves freeing oneself from desire. Nirvana is the Buddhist term for liberation. Nirvana literally means extinction, and it refers to the extinction of all craving, an extinction that allows one to become liberated.

Where Buddha departed most radically from Hinduism was in his doctrine of “anatta“, the notion that individuals do not possess eternal souls. Instead of eternal souls, individuals consist of a “bundle” of habits, memories, sensations, desires, and so forth, which together delude one into thinking that he or she consists of a stable, lasting self. Despite its transitory nature, this false self hangs together as a unit, and even reincarnates in body after body. In Buddhism, as well as in Hinduism, life in a corporeal body is viewed negatively, as the source of all suffering. Hence, the goal is to obtain release. In Buddhism, this means abandoning the false sense of self so that the bundle of memories and impulses disintegrates, leaving nothing to reincarnate and hence nothing to experience pain.

From the perspective of present-day, world-affirming Western society, the Buddhist vision cannot but appear distinctly unappealing: Not only is this life portrayed as unattractive, the prospect of nirvana, in which one dissolves into nothingness, seems even less desirable. A modern-day Buddha might respond, however, that our reaction to being confronted with the dark side of life merely shows how insulated we are from the pain and suffering that is so fundamental to human existence.

Following death, according to Tibetan Buddhism, the spirit of the departed goes through a process lasting forty-nine days that is divided into three stages called “bardos.” At the conclusion of the bardo, the person either enters nirvana or returns to Earth for rebirth.

It is imperative that the dying individual remain fully aware for as long as possible because the thoughts one has while passing over into death heavily influence the nature of both the after-death experience and, if one fails to achieve nirvana, the state of one’s next incarnation.

Stage one of the Bardo (called the “Chikai Bardo“), the bardo of dying, begins at death and extends from half a day to four days. This is the period of time necessary for the departed to realize that they have dropped the body. The consciousness of the departed has an ecstatic experience of the primary “Clear White Light” at the death moment. Everyone gets at least a fleeting glimpse of the light. The more spiritually developed see it longer, and are able to go beyond it to a higher level of reality. The average person, however, drops into the lesser state of the “secondary clear light.”

In stage two (called the “Chonyid Bardo“), the bardo of Luminous Mind, the departed encounters the hallucinations resulting from the karma created during life. Unless highly developed, the individual will feel that they are still in the body. The departed then encounters various apparitions, the “peaceful and wrathful deities,” that are actually personifications of human feelings and that, to successfully achieve nirvana, the deceased must encounter unflinchingly. Only the most evolved individuals can skip the bardo experience altogether and transit directly into a paradise realm. Stage three (called the “Sidpa Bardo“), the bardo of rebirth, is the process of reincarnation.

Buddhist and NDE Correlations

The Tibetan account of the first bardo after death shows striking parallels with the near-death experiences of people who have died, experienced themselves floating out of their bodies, having what appears to be real afterlife events, and then being revived.

The second bardo is an experience with divine entities which parallels near-death accounts where a person experiences visions of heaven, hell, and judgment. Scholars have also been interested in the parallels between the psychedelic and psychotic states, and experiences of “astral projection.”

The third bardo involving the reincarnation of a person’s karmic energy by choosing and entering a new body to be born agrees with many near-death accounts that affirm reincarnation.

The purpose behind the Buddhist bardo states after death is to provide the dying an opportunity to become enlightened and attain Buddhahood, or if enlightenment is not attained, to secure a favorable rebirth. As it is with Buddhism, the goal to be attained during near-death experiences is to become one with the Clear Light of Ultimate Reality. Experiencers have described this as a “merging” process and “becoming one with the Light.” This loss of ego and at-onement aspect involved in near-death experiences and the Buddhist bardo journey are identical.

The most remarkable correlation between Buddhism and near-death accounts is the encounter with a divine light. Buddhists refer to this light as the “Clear White Light” and the Tibetan Book of the Dead‘s description of it is remarkably similar to the Being of light in near-death experiences. Buddhists believe this light to be the light from all the enlightened ones which is indistinguishable from true essence of everyone. As it is with Buddhism, near-death experiences have described this light in the same way. For example, Mellen-Thomas Benedict saw the light change into various personalities such as Jesus and Buddha. Other experiencers affirm the light to be everyone and everything. Encounters with beings of light and darkness described in near-death experiences can be found in the “peaceful” and “wrathful” deities encountered in the Buddhist afterlife. At some point in the bardo states, many of the karmic essences of individuals feel a desire, a “pull”, to return to the physical world. This phenomenon also appears in many near-death accounts when the individual is given a choice to stay or return and this choice results in the individual returning from the near-death condition. Also, as it is with Buddhism, near-death experiences support the concept of reincarnation.

The number of days (forty-nine) given in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is likely symbolic, although the Tibetans themselves, like all people who are strict religionists, interpret it literally.

The comparison between the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead, Taoism, and Kabbalistic conceptions, also reveals similarities. All of them with the exception of Tibetan Buddhism view the soul as composition of elemental components that separates after death; each component entering into its own world. Tibetan Buddhism describes an aspect of the human personality passing through a number of different afterlife bardo experiences.