Liberation a Tibetan view

Glenn H. Mullin and Thomas L. Kelly's The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is an expedition
into the mystical bardo art, is a priceless legacy, writes Amar Chandel 

THE concept of life, death, after-death state and transmigration of the soul is well delineated in many Asian cultures. It is particularly strong in Tibetan Buddhism. The text which is central to this belief is the Bardo Todol, or Tibetan Book of Liberation in the Bardo. But when it was translated into English by Kazi Samdup and Evans-Wentz in 1927, they gave it the title The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The name has stuck ever since in the West and most misunderstand its message.

Modern wall fresco depicting Buddha at the time of his death, surrounded by his principal disciples, Sarnath, 1990
Modern wall fresco depicting Buddha at the time of his death, surrounded by his principal disciples, Sarnath, 1990

Bardo has been translated into more than 100 languages worldwide and yet the full depth of this chimey yeshey or ‘the undying wisdom’ has not been fully grasped.

Now another illustrated edition of the timeless classic has been published by Roli Books, which re-contextualises this wisdom. The book is an expedition into the mystical land of the bardo art.

There is a whole visual world associated with the Bardo Todol, considering that frescos, paintings and motifs related to it can be found in virtually every monastery. Thomas L. Kelly, an internationally recognised photographer, who specialises in Hinduism and Buddhism, has been capturing them in all their glory for many years. This book is structured around those images with contextual analysis by Glenn H. Mullin, who has authored over two dozen books on Central Asian cultures.

This tantric scripture prescribes an elaborate procedure to be followed during one’s lifetime and also immediately after death so that there is a smooth liberation of the soul. Buddhists believe that the soul often stays in the body for a number of days after the outer signs of death are manifest, and so usually try not to have an unqualified person disturb it in any way for at least three days. Instead, there is a reading of the Bardo Todol text by the deceased’s lama, vajra brother, or close friend. If these are not available, then anyone who has achieved spiritual clarity and had a harmonious relationship with the deceased can perform it.

The term bardo means ‘in between’ in the sense of the gap or space between two experiences — that between death and rebirth. The phrases like ‘bardo vision’ and ‘bardo path’ refer to what is experienced during the period of a person’s unfolding after the moment of death and until the moment of rebirth, reveals Glenn.

In the first part of the book, he has given the background of the Tibetan tradition on death and dying, while the second contains an abbreviated translation of the Bardo Todol, minus the technical jargon.

What should be clearly understood is that this great classic is not just about the rituals to be followed after a person has died. Actually, it is about controlling brain chemistry and metabolism through Buddhist Kundalini yoga, so that the actual death state can be stimulated and fully experienced during meditation.

Buddha Shakyamuni considered a cultivated awareness of death and impermanence to be fundamental to a happy and healthy life. The Kadampa lamas of the 11th century Tibet, who based their contemplative tradition on the lineage of Bengali master Atisha, said if one did not contemplate death and impermanence thrice a day, that day was as good as lost.

However, there is a rider. Before this, one must meditate on the preciousness of one’s human life until one’s eyes fill with tears of joy. "Only then should one proceed to the contemplations of death and impermanence: on how death is inevitable, how its time is uncertain, and on how at the time of death the only possessions of value are the inner jewels of the spirit," wrote First Dalai Lama (1391-1475).

In the Buddhist tradition, meditation on death and impermanence is not only a useful technique for keeping the mind intensely focussed, says Glenn, it also sees it as a method for unlocking the deepest secrets of life. This is especially true in the Buddhist tantric legacy, which involves yoga for death simulation. The bodily processes are stilled, and the heartbeat and breathing slowed down to imperceptible levels. Consciousness is separated from its physical base, and the meditator is then able to enter directly into the after-death state in meditation for hours and even days at a time, returning to the body when the session is complete.

A Tibetan monk aims to live his life with an awareness of death in order to maintain the maximum intensity of spiritual presence. He also aims to understand or experience the after-death state in meditation during this lifetime by means of tantric application.

The book repeatedly mentions ‘The Six Realms of Existence’ and gives instructions on how to close the doors of these six realms. The realms can be spoken of on outer, inner and secret levels. On an outer level, these are the realms of rebirth; on an inner level these are six states of mind in which the nature of the self is misunderstood; and on a secret level these are subtle energy dynamics within our Chakra and nadi energy systems.

These six realms are often depicted in a painting known in Tibetan as Sipai Khorlo, or the ‘Wheel of Life’ in which a large globe is held in the mouth of Yama, the lord of death. Within the globe one notices various hell realms at the bottom, heavenly realms above and the realms of ghosts, animals and man in between.

The symbolism of the six realms being held in the jaws of Yama is that all six are subject to the laws of impermanence and change, and in the end, to death and rebirth. This way of looking at the six realms has been inherited from India. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is deeply influenced by the Three Ways of Enlightenment taught by the Buddha. Its main focus is on the 2nd century Indian master Nagarjuna’s tradition of speaking about five basic completion-stage applications: yogas for stilling bodily energies, yogas for stilling emotional and discursive energies, illusory body yogas, clear light yogas, and great union yogas.

The first five days of the bardo visions involve the appearances of the Buddhas of the five families: Vairochana, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi.

Each Buddha is also associated with a basic element — earth, water, fire, air or space — and with a basic colour: yellow, white, red, green or blue. These are linked to the five root delusions or poisons: ignorance, attachment, anger, pride and jealousy.

Seven-limbed worship is done for a deceased person: prostration, making offerings, acknowledging personal faults, rejoicing in goodness, asking the buddhas to turn the wheels of dharma, asking them to remain forever, and the dedication of merits.

This kind of detailed procedure followed after one has died may not appeal to those who have no belief in soul, but for a lover of the Tibetan religion and culture, it is a priceless legacy.