The Tibetan word bardo has begun to enter common usage in the West. Bardo means “gap,” “in between” or “intermediate state.” In Buddhism, bardo generally refers to the time following death and preceding rebirth, a time of disembodied passage and vivid encounter with both one’s enlightened nature and one’s karmic accumulations and psychological projections, some blissful, others disturbing if not terrifying.
Buddhist practitioners often use the term bardo to describe any period of groundlessness and potential confusion: an illness, a relationship breakup, a lost job, even single moments of unsettledness, anxiety or depression. These usages are actually quite apt, since the bardo after death is not considered fundamentally different that these bardos of waking, human experience. In fact, as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and many other teachers have pointed out, it is precisely through awareness and training in unconditionally opening ourselves to these uncomfortable moments that we prepare ourselves for the more demanding journey of bardo after death.
So pervasive is the experience of bardo – the in between state – that every second of our life can be considered a bardo, a moment of nowness sandwiched between the past and future. This state of existence is what is meant when Buddhist teachers speak of the world as dreamlike, merely apparent, without the solidity we impute upon it. That the world is only apparent is a phenomenology found not only in Buddhism but also Sufi teachings (and other systems of spiritual wisdom). The great 12th Century Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi wrote about “existence” this way:
“For the world’s existence is the instance of its nonexistence. Thus the Manifest imposes manifestation upon the first hiddenness, and the world is produced. Next the Hidden imposes hiddenness upon the first manifestation, and the world vanishes. Then the authority returns to the Manifest – and so forth, ad infinitum. This is what is called “renewed creation”. The imaginary prolongation which seems to result from this flowing of similitudes is Time and motion is its measure.” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power)
Historically, there are a number of different bardos; the bardo of our human life, from birth until the dying process begins is called the kyenay bardo. Contrasting to this is the chikhai bardo or the process of dying itself, the generally uncharted “undiscovered country.” In Tibetan Buddhism, as in all systems of Buddhism, the process of death is seen as a dissolving of the elements—not to be taken literally—beginning with the gross and ending with the most subtle: the body loses the earth element and becomes weak and immobile; it loses the water element and circulation becomes labored; it loses the fire element and begins to become cold; finally it loses the air element when one takes one’s last breath.
In all but the most advanced practitioners, the most awake individuals, death comes as a shock, something confusing, bewildering, overwhelming. Not only that, but as Trungpa Rinpoche once told some of his students, “Death is not a big deal… except it is so painful.” Physical pain mixes with the psychological pain of realizing everything we’ve known is about to be irretrievably gone. A significant part of Buddhist practice is to invite awareness of the reality of death; the major vehicles for this are the “four reminders,” including the reminder of the reality of death:
“When death comes, I will be helpless. Because I create karma, I must abandon evil deeds and always devote myself to virtuous actions. Thinking this, every day I will examine myself.”
A little know aspect of the Vajrayana phenomenology of death is the existence of the “bardo body.” In fact, according to this view, we have three bodies: the gross physical body composed of the elements discussed above, the subtle body consisting of prana or life force and the nadis or channels that the life force runs along (and are the basis of esoteric healing systems such an acupuncture and qigong), and the bardo body. When we die, the first two bodies die; the first during the “outer dissolution” and the second during the “inner” one. The bardo body, however… does not die! As Lama Yeshe says:
“Understanding the subtle body and the very subtle body helps us to recognize that we have other bodies within us in addition to our physical body – so we don’t have to worry too much when our gross body is degenerating or being uncooperative.” (Preparing to Die, by Andrew Holecek, Snow Lion, pg. 69.)
This advice makes it sound easy, but from a Buddhist perspective it is unlikely that we can take comfort in our more subtle bodies unless we have encountered awareness of them in waking life though the practice of meditation.
Resuming our discussion of the dying process, as the elements dissolve, “Our consciousness starts to withdraw, becoming increasingly fuzzy and unclear,” as Traleg Rinpoche puts it, “until we are eventually rendered unconscious. We black out” (Karma, Shambhala Publications pg. 66). But this black out is only temporary, for in the next moment we enter, from the point of view of enlightenment, the most important bardo of all, the chonyi bardo. This is the moment of the famous “clear light” or the “light of consciousness” of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The clear light is the pure emptiness, without content of location but still luminous, knowing and awake. This is the moment all meditation practitioners practice for, for at the moment one can realize and merge with one’s true nature. But again, through meditative practice we can encounter these moments throughout our life, as Ibn ‘Arabi put it, “Every month, every week, every day, every hour, every minute or even – which is the goal – with every breath.”
The phenomenology of Vajrayana Buddhism states that the clear light is usually a brief moment and typically goes unrecognized. At the same time, the light of awareness is considered easy to recognize for those who have trained to recognize it. In any case, the chonyi bardo offers a chance for liberation, but so do the upcoming passages of the sidpa bardo, the journey through one’s psychological progressions that ultimately leads to rebirth.
(The sidpa bardo will be the topic of “What is the Bardo? – Part II.)
Bill Scheffel is a writer, creative writing teacher and videographer who has directed Shambhala Training since 1980. Bill was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and taught classes in meditation, creative writing and poetry at Naropa University for thirteen years. Currently, Bill teaches online classes in creative writing and the I Ching. For more on Bill see Vertical Time Yoga.