The Bardo of Death and Rebirth

by Lama Ole Nydahl

When people speak of bardo they usually think of the time after death. The term, however, reaches further. It refers to any "intermediate state." All beings experience such intermediate states their entire lives until enlightenment, when mind recognizes its own timeless clear light. Right now at this lecture for instance, we are in the bardo of being awake - at least I hope so. We communicate with symbols and words, and perceive the world through our senses. At nighttime the bardo is that of sleep, of darkness and a lack of consciousness. To those lucky ones who know the clear light meditation very well, the experience is that of lying in an ocean of light.
There are also periods when stored impressions come up in different ways, such as in dreams. This is called the bardo of dreaming, and it probably includes most drug-induced conditions. Then we wake up again and resume waking consciousness. Evidently, everything mentioned so far is conditioned and changing and can be of no lasting help to beings. If we meditate, however, a state comes forth which is in essence timeless clear light, an awareness which is not dependent on anything. It is beyond birth and death, without coming or going. All Diamond Way practices aim to make radiant awareness always present. While alive, beings, both humans and animals, move between the three above bardos, waking, sleeping, or dreaming. At death, three further bardos appear.
First, comes the process of dying itself. Whether death is quick or slow there is a transformation. Afterwards, a period follows wherein mind continues its habitual flow from the previous life. After recognizing that one is actually dead, a process of restructuring takes place and, depending on the dominant state, mind enters a new realm among the six levels of existence. This has always been so. In the same way that space is without beginning, mind also has no starting point. Outside as inside it has constantly been playing, expressing and experiencing its richness in countless ways. These six bardos have always alternated; the three daily ones and the three which follow when non-liberated beings move into their next life.
You came here this evening in order to know the latter. In order to understand what happens at death, we need to first look at mind. In its essence mind is space. It has neither color, weight, smell nor size. It is not made of anything; it was not born; it will not die. It has not come from anywhere, so it will not go away. This space, however, is not a black hole. It neither implies disappearance, nor non-existence. Its nature is rich. It plays, expresses itself, dreams, lets things happen and then dissolves them again. It has great power and is at the same time unlimited. Wherever we look, there is no ending to it - always more things can happen. As this recognition dawns, no conditioned feeling can match it, and fearlessness, spontaneous joy and active, unsentimental and far-reaching compassion come naturally. If that were beings' constant state, if we were always aware of mind itself, everything would be easy. Then dying and being reborn would be like changing clothes. The clear light of mind, its radiant awareness, and the joy and power of its activity would never stop. Without any breach of consciousness, and seeing our bodies and speech ever more as tools, we would freely choose rebirth at places of maximum usefulness to others.
Of course, this is far from most beings' daily experience. Whoever does not meditate rarely glimpses mind's essence. Then it happens only by chance, such as in lovemaking or during the free fall before the parachute opens. Whether its eternal freshness manifests through a continuous process or accidentally, it is the total certainty and deep joy which appears when one forgets to hope, fear or to expect. It expresses itself as a love that has few concepts. Instead of mind's bright light or its more impermanent insights, however, unenlightened beings identify with its stream of impressions. They seek a lasting essence in the changing flow produced through their bodies and mental activities.
Though considered to be real, such situations and feelings cannot last. Their nature is like a river - though new water runs by constantly, there is still continuity, and people identify with it as a stream of awareness. There is a causality between a child of seven and the later adult of seventy. Without the former, there could be no latter, though every particle, every molecule is new.
At a certain point, this process can not be accommodated in the body anymore. When it can no longer hold the mind, that is death. Death looks very different whether one dies slowly, like from AIDS or cancer, or if one's body disintegrates due to stepping on a landmine, or having a high-speed accident. The process that takes place, however, is the same. Whether it happens in a flash or over a longer time, the energy which used to be spread over the whole body always moves towards its central axis. In the great religions of experience, the body brings forth varying energy systems. They depend on the goal sought, whether it is formless god states, a balanced long life, or mind's clear light. In Hinduism it works in the spine, in Taoism in an ellipse through the body, and in Buddhism the central energy channel lies between a point eight fingers behind the original hairline on the top of one's head and finishes four fingers below the navel. From this main energy tube in the center of one's body five different wheels spread out which branch into 72,000 channels. Being feminine, they are essentially intuition and space. Inside them lie potential male energies, which are only fully awakened at enlightenment. Their nature is compassion and joy. During the process of dying the connection to the outer senses first pulls back toward the center of one's body and then the five wheels collapse into the central energy channel. During this process one first loses power. A pressure is felt on the body and sense impressions become unclear. Then, one's control of the fluid element goes. One feels as if one is floating in water and drools from the mouth and nose. Following this one becomes dry, and cold enters from the extremities. Now, close to death, one's breathing is shallow and harsh and non-meditators lose the last ability to focus their mind. Depending on one's karma, the impressions absorbed during one's life, anything may appear, from the wonderful feeling of joyful meaning experienced after Phowa to states of great loss with fear and frustration. Here karma may already become very visible. In the end one takes three very long exhalations - and that is it. Though at this point people are pronounced dead, during the next 20 to 30 minutes an energy process continues inside the magnetic axis of the body.
This energy channel appeared when our consciousness from the last life met with the sperm and egg of our parents. The two cells, whose genetic information supplied the basis for our present bodies, additionally each carried an energy charge. In meditation the male essence is experienced as white and the female as red. As billions of cells formed into our human bodies, the white energy moved upwards and is now centered around eight fingers behind our original hairline on the crown of our heads. At the same time the red energy moved down and now rests four fingers below the navel in the middle of the body. Between these two poles lies an axis with the above-mentioned wheels and channels. After one stops breathing, during the following ten to fifteen minutes the white energy loosens its hold at the top of one's head and moves down towards the heart. On its way down, a beautiful clear light is experienced, like from the moon, while thirty three feelings, which have their basis in anger, disappear. Many hear the sound of a drawn-out HANG syllable and memory is so intense that one frequently sees beings who have died before one.
After that, a red light rises from the point four fingers below one's navel. The feeling is very powerful and the light is like a deep sunset. While it moves up to the heart, also taking ten to fifteen minutes, many hear the deep vibration AH. Forty feelings of attachment disappear at this point and an indescribable joy is felt. Twenty to thirty minutes after death these two energies have thus fused in the center of one's chest and everything becomes black. While this happens, seven veils deriving from ignorance dissolve.
Then appears a radiant light, totally beyond-personal awareness. If we can hold that state the meditation is called thugdam. It means that mind is bound at the heart in a condition which does not separate truth inside and out. Here, its open, clear and limitless essence pervades all times and directions; this is the awareness of lamas like Karmapa. It is compared to the meeting of a child and its mother and, if it can be held, there is real enlightenment. Every separation between space and energy, as between past, present, and future then falls away.
Whoever cannot hold that state blacks out. The Tibetan Book of the Dead mentions a period of three to four days of unconsciousness after death. In the case when dead people have come to me, however, transparent but otherwise looking as they normally did, it has always been after sixty eight hours. I think it is because they were all city people and very well educated. Thus their mental processes were very quick.
When one wakes up after death, there is the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong. However, even if one's body is preserved, one will avoid looking at it and instead try to get away. This state is highly confusing because, having no body, whichever place one thinks of one automatically is there. Also one's intelligence is so much sharper than when alive and though one can read the thoughts of the living, one cannot communicate with them. When one sits on a chair, people sit down on one and when one talks to them, they simply go away. In spite of so many signs beings do not want to know that they are dead. After the three days of unconsciousness, a week follows during which people continue inside the habit-world of their past life. Then, no one can any longer avoid the realization that they have no physical body. This recognition may solidify when one stands in front of a mirror and finds no reflection. Some discover themselves walking on fine sand without leaving any foot prints and others may put their hands in boiling water and not get burnt. At that moment, mind knows: "I am now dead, I do not have a body anymore," and this is such a big shock that one falls unconscious for a second time.
When one wakes up again, mind has moved into a new state. Here, the shared flow of one's surface consciousness has stopped and one's individual subconscious impressions surface as very strong experiences. Though they can best be compared to highly individual dreams, one also holds them to be real and feels hope and dislike.
While one continues holding on and pushing away as always, over the next not more than five and a half weeks (so that these three intermediate states are no longer than seven weeks in all), one's strongest tendency works its way through mind's other impressions. If no lama or habitual meditation practice is there to help, these tendencies decide the direction for one's next rebirth. Though the human realm provides a wide range of karmic possibilities, from the sufferings of Moslem women and people in Africa, to people in free and luxurious lifestyles in Western suburbs, also five distinct non-human levels of existence may appear from mind's stored tendencies.
Three kinds of god realms appear from the feeling of pride. If we have done good acts but with the feeling that "I am doing something to you," they are not liberating but, depending on one's intelligence, they will produce most pleasant levels of consciousness. Either desires are automatically fulfilled in the six "desire realms," or esthetic satisfaction in seventeen "form realms." Highest among gods are those in four conditions of intense abstraction. As the illusion of a separate self persists in all, however, once one's stock of positive impressions is exhausted the gods fall and another feeling surfaces with its corresponding environment. If jealousy manifests as the main feeling, beings discover themselves in weapon chambers. Formerly, they looked for swords, but today it would probably be machine guns. They are deeply disturbed by others enjoying more happiness than themselves. If confusion surfaces as the strongest disturbance mind may try to hide between rocks and bushes and, if animals go there to mate, one may run between them. Thus, beings end up with four paws and a beautiful fur coat both during summer and winter. It is also possible that greed becomes dominant and already during this life it makes beings visibly miserable. Though some people have everything, their possessions only imprison them. After death this general state condenses into a craving for food and drink. Some then think that their bellies are as big as San Francisco and their mouths like the eyes of needles. Others experience that any nourishment becomes fire or that unpleasant spooks take it away from them. Mind's worst pollution, however, consists of anger and ill will. These mature as the greatest pain. Today known as paranoia, one traditionally distinguishes eight levels of pain from heat and eight from cold. In addition, there exists a "neighboring" and a "sometimes" state.
As already mentioned, desires brought about this present human life and will continue doing so. But karma is sticky and has lingering effects. After deciding the realm of rebirth, it furthermore brings about the kind of body we get, into which environment we are born, and which kind of motivation we live by. As a human being, however, one has all controls in one's hands. Having a solid body and being able to know what is useful or brings harm, one may avoid sowing the seeds for eons of impermanent happiness or deep suffering in the four non-physical realms or for shorter periods of dullness as animals. Most important is the realization that this is no alternative to liberation and enlightenment. Gods fall down again. Half-gods are jealous and fight. Animals eat one another. Ghosts are always frustrated and hell beings always suffer. Even humans have the four basic problems of birth, old age, sickness and death. Also, the best years of one's life are not without the difficulties of getting what one wants, of avoiding what one doesn't want, of holding on to what one has, and of having to arrange oneself with what is unavoidable. As this has been going on since beginningless time it is imperative to find lasting values.
To cut the root of all suffering, Buddha advises us to focus on that which is beyond birth or death, which has never arisen and will never disappear. He points not to the pictures but to the mirror itself, shows us the ocean beneath the waves. No conditioned experience or outer situation can truly satisfy. Only mind's open, clear, and limitless light is totally blissful and absolute. His teachings, be it on life, rebirth, and what is in between, aim only to share this certitude. With the methods of the Diamond Way each of the above-mentioned after-death bardos become gates to enlightenment. They offer occasions for confronting mind with its true nature and setting it free.
During the last twelve years Lama Ole Nydahl has taught transference of consciousness, Phowa, to over 30,000 people around the world. He gave this lecture in San Francisco during autumn 1998 and later improved the English in Siberia in March 1999. As soon as his busy schedule permits, he expects to finish a book on the topic. It will include some methods which Diamond Way Buddhism utilizes to benefit mind during such momentous situations and also bring comparisons to some insights of western psychology. He will let us look over his shoulder and evaluate his reasons for being totally certain of the teachings given.

Copyright ©1999 Kamtsang Choling USA