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The Bon religion of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism both maintain that crucial moments of transition are charged with great spiritual potential, especially the intervening moments between death and rebirth.


This intermediate period, called bardo, is a state of suspended reality in which the deceased are presented with a series of opportunities for recognition of the true nature of Reality. If the deceased persons are capable of recognizing the confusing and often frightening bardo visions as simply their own mental projections reflective of the previous life's thoughts and deeds (karma), the ongoing cycle of birth and death will be overcome.


Failure to recognize these appearances, on the other hand, leads eventually to rebirth and further suffering in cyclic existence (samsara).


To help the deceased travelers gain insight into their ambiguous situation, a spiritual teacher or lama recites inspirational prayers and instructions from special funeral texts - the first stage in the ritual of the Tibetan Books of the Dead.






The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is more correctly referred to by its actual title, The Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State (bar do thos grol chen mo), is traditionally regarded as the work of Padmasambhava, the eighth century founder of the Nyingma-pa Buddhist order and one of the first to bring Buddhism to Tibet.


Padmasambhava is believed to have hidden many of his esoteric teachings as literary "treasures" or terma (gter ma) in unusual and remote locations so that they would later be recovered at a time when their spiritual message would have the most beneficial impact. The remarkable people who discovered these sacred terma texts were identified as "treasure revealers" or tertöns (gter ston). Among the most famous of these discoverers of hidden teachings was Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa,, who is said to be the revealer of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.


According to his biography, Karma Lingpa was born in southeast Tibet as the eldest son of the great Tantric practitioner Nyida Sangye (Nyi zla sangs rgyas). At an early age, he engaged in esoteric practices and was said to have achieved numerous yogic powers.


When he turned fifteen, Karma Lingpa discovered several hidden texts (terma) on top of Mount Gampodar.


From among these texts he found a collection of teachings entitled The Self-Emergence of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities from Enlightened Awareness (zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol), which included the texts of the now famous Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo.



The Great Liberation upon Hearing:

The Signs and Omens of Death  
Tibetan: Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol las thos grol chen moi skor: Chi ltas mtshan ma rang grol   
Paro, Bhutan, 1976. I(Bhu)-Tib-82; 76-905033. [folios 131-155]

According to the literature associated with Karma Lingpa's Great Liberation upon Hearing, death occurs as a result of one of three causes: reaching the end of one's lifespan, exhausting one's meritorious energy, or meeting with an untimely event, such as a sudden accident.


Each of these three causes has its own specific antidote, which means that in many cases death can be avoided by applying the appropriate method.


Before applying such an antidote, however, it is necessary to know precisely when the death will occur. Knowledge of this sort requires skill in reading the signs indicating that death is near.


The small work entitled The Signs and Omens of Death is used for this very purpose. The text describes the variety of death omens in extensive detail, organizing them into three categories: external, internal, and secret signs.

The external omens are read by observing the condition of the body; the internal signs, by observing the breath and the individual's dreams; and the secret signs, by examining his or her bodily (and especially sexual) fluids.


To gain some idea of the nature of these often peculiar signs, we should mention just a few examples.


According to Karma Lingpa, if the discharge from a person's genitals is blackish or reversed, that is if blood comes from a man and semen from a woman, death will occur in one month.


If a person presses a finger against his or her eye and does not see light, cups his or her hand over the ears and does not hear a 'whirring' sound, or holds his or her arms out in front and they seem to disappear, these are all signs that the individual will die in less than four weeks.


Other such signs include suddenly encountering creatures with terrifying forms, experiencing bodily shivers, seeing stars during the day and sunlight at night, or seeing red flowers while riding backwards on a donkey in one's dreams.


The Great Liberation upon Hearing:

The Bardo of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities  
Tibetan: Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol las thos grol chen moi skor: Chos nyid bar doi gsal debs thos grol chen mo   
Paro, Bhutan, 1977. I(Bhu)-Tib-149; 79-902879. [text 2, 36 folios]

According to The Bardo of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, which is included in Karma Lingpa's Great Liberation upon Hearing, the final moment of the dying process is marked by the sudden and dramatic appearance of the radiant clear light.


As we saw in Section 2 above, the fundamental mind of clear light is said to exist beginninglessly and continuously in each individual through each lifetime and into Buddhahood itself.


For those Buddhist practitioners who became accomplished in the esoteric methods of yoga and meditation previously in their lifetimes, the true nature of the radiant clear light will be immediately recognized and the wisdom necessary for full liberation from the cycle of birth and death (samsara) will be achieved.


On the other hand, those who have not practiced during their lives will fail to recognize the clear light at death and will digress into the intermediate state known as the "Bardo of Reality" or Chö-nyi Bardo (chos nyid bar do), wherein the deceased experiences the visions of the one hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.


In our text it is stated that seven days after the initial appearance of the radiant clear light of death, the deceased awakens in the bardo, confused and bewildered by a stunning array of lights and visions.


These colorful visions transform into the forty-two Peaceful Deities, who manifest in a circular pattern known as a mandala.


A mandala represents a perfectly contained sacred space, a celestial realm in which reside a great pantheon of enlightened spiritual beings. On the fourteenth day, this peaceful mandala dissolves into the mandala of the fifty-eight Wrathful Deities.

These Deities manifest also in the same circular pattern of their peaceful counterparts, only now each Deity appears in its terrifying form.


As blood-drinking, flesh-eating demons, the Wrathful Deities symbolize the intensity or "violence," if you will, of liberation, understood here as the compassionate "murdering" of the neurotic and distorted thoughts and emotions that trap human beings in the ongoing cycle of rebirth.


Some more contemporary sources assert that the Deities, in both their quiescent and frightening forms, are not really gods in the traditional sense. They are actually symbolic manifestations of psychological states in the inner space of human awareness.


If the deceased is capable of properly identifying these Deities as projections of the mind and as manifest reflections of past karma, he or she will merge with the enlightened consciousness that these images represent.


Once again, however, if the visions are not recognized due to fear or ignorance, the deceased falls further into the bardo realms which lead eventually to a new existence.


Clearly, in the context of the Tibetan funeral rituals associated with this and other texts included in The Great Liberation upon Hearing, it is the prime responsibility of the religious specialist or 'lama' (bla ma) to gain the attention of the deceased and to make him or her aware of the visions encountered during the bardo experience.  


The Great Liberation upon Hearing:

Instructions to be Read Aloud on the Bardo of Becoming  
Tibetan: Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol las bar doi gsal debs thos grol chen mo bklag chog tu bkod pa khrul snang rang grol: Srid pa bar doi ngo sprod gsal debs thos grol chen mo  
1976. I(Bhu)-Tib-118; 77-902202. [folios 74a.4-94a.1]

Several days after the visions of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities have subsided, the deceased acquires a mental body complete with all five senses, enters the "Bardo of Becoming" or Sipa Bardo (srid pa bar do), and begins his or her descent to a new birth.


Our text here from The Great Liberation upon Hearing entitled Instructions to be Read Aloud on the Bardo of Becoming details this third and final bardo state, in which the visions that now appear become increasingly associated with physical rebirth and culminate with the onset of prenatal experience.


The text relates that just prior to entering the womb at the instant of conception the bardo-being perceives its future parents in sexual embrace.


Being desirous, it rushes toward this vision, grows angry at either the mother or father (depending on whether it is to be born female or male), and in this emotionally agitated state makes the connection to its new life.


While in the Bardo of Becoming leading to the event of rebirth, the bardo-being experiences the manifestations of the previous life's accumulated karma and undergoes a series of disturbing sensations that create intense fear and confusion.


At this late stage, full liberation from samsara is practically unattainable and thus the deceased must strive to achieve a suitable rebirth in one of the six realms of existence--that of the gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, or hell-beings.


Ideally, the most favorable realm would be that of human beings, but actually to achieve this world is no easy task. In the bewildering state of the bardo, most beings usually have very little control over their behavior.

Therefore, it is absolutely essential that the deceased gain outside assistance from a ritual expert or lama in order to receive the guidance necessary for insuring an auspicious rebirth within the six realms.  


In addition to providing a descriptive map of the bardo experience, the Instructions to be Read Aloud on the Bardo of Becoming also outlines the ritual methods that the lama should employ during the latter half of the funeral ceremony.


According to these instructions, the lama must read the text out loud, correctly and distinctly, near the dead body. If for some reason the corpse is not present, the deceased's consciousness should be summoned by using a picture of him or her in the form of a blockprint or drawing on white paper.


This ritual image, called a jangbu (sbyang bu), must then be attached to a stick and placed on an altar in front of the lama.


During the ceremony, it is necessary that the deceased at all times be informed of, and guided through, the events of the Bardo of Becoming just as before, only now, the details of the lama's instructions emphasize the nature of the six realms of existence and are addressed directly to the blockprinted image sitting on the altar.


At the end of the ritual recitation, the lama takes the jangbu between his fingers, holds it over the flame of a butter lamp, and just as the fire consumes the image pronounces that the sins of the deceased have been absolved.


The consciousness of the deceased then departs from the flames on its way to the next life.


The Great Liberation upon Hearing: The Bardo Prayers  
Tibetan: Zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol: Bar doi smon lam   
Kalimpong: Mani Dorji, 1979. 2 volumes. I-Tib-1990; 79-905078 [v2, folios 387-395]

The four devotional prayers and verses that constitute The Bardo Prayers express the very heart of the entire Great Liberation upon Hearing.


They are meant to be memorized by the lama and then recited as needed at certain keys points during the longer guidance ceremony.


The first, "Prayer Requesting Assistance from the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas," is a humble petition to all enlightened beings of compassion to reach out and comfort those who are dying or who are suffering in the intermediate state.

The "Prayer for Deliverance from the Narrow Paths of the Bardo" traces the series of experiences in the Bardo of Reality, requesting that the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities help the deceased to recognize the true nature of the bardo visions.


The "Prayer for Protection from Fear in the Bardo" is a general appeal to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas for compassionate refuge from the fear and anxiety of death and transition.


Finally, "The Root Verses of the Six Bardos" encapsulates the essential instructions on the bardos which are included in the actual body of the bardo texts as poetic verses to be read by the lama to the dying person.


The Mirror of Mindfulness:

A Clarification of the General Aspects of the Bardo Experience  
Tibetan: Bar do spyii don thams cad rnam par gsal bar byed pa dran pai me long  
Author: rTse le sNa tshogs rang grol (b.1608)  
Solu, Nepal, 1983. N-Tib-4294; 84-901065.

The Mirror of Mindfulness is a classic Tibetan text on bardo by Tse-le Natsok Rangdröl (rTse le sna tshogs rang grol, b.1608), a famous Tantric master of the Kagyu-pa order who was believed to be the incarnation of the eighth century translator Vairochana.


The notion of incarnation or tulku (sprul sku) is a distinctively Tibetan idea that after death an advanced spiritual personality will reincarnate in a form that is of special benefit to the people of a particular area.


Renowned as a tulku at an early age, Tse-le Natsok Rangdröl was favored by the people of his day as a religious virtuoso, and thus, was permitted to study with some of Tibet's most famous scholar-practitioners of the Kagyu and Nyingma sects.


In his amazingly lucid and concise text, The Mirror of Mindfulness, Tse-le Natsok Rangdröl combines the wisdom of his own profound insight with that of the spiritual masters from whom he had learned so much to produce an instructional manual that anyone can utilize.


His commentary on the bardo states--together covering the whole cycle of living, dying, the after-death state, and rebirth - relates meditation and religious practice to the bardos in a way that can be easily applied to each practitioner's individual level of meditative skill.


The Mirror of Mindfulness, therefore, serves as a practical guidebook on how human beings, whatever their religious background, can best transform their lives and prepare for death by taking advantage of the opportunities that each bardo presents.




Before the arrival of Buddhism from India sometime in the seventh century A.D., Tibetan religious practice was focused largely on the person of the king. Since it was held that the welfare of Tibet depended upon the welfare of its ruler, special rituals were performed to protect and prolong the king's life, and when dead, to guarantee his safe passage to the heavenly mountains.


According to some of the early historical sources, the priests that performed such rituals were identified by the name "bon- po" and their beliefs by the term "bon." Although it is commonly claimed that this ancient pre-Buddhist class of Tibetan priests became the Bon religion of modern times, historical evidence indicates that Bon developed into an organized and distinctive religious tradition only in deliberate opposition to Buddhism as late as the tenth century. Thus, more than likely, a genuine pre-Buddhist Bon religion never truly existed.


In other words, the development of Buddhism and Bon were separate but simultaneous processes within the whole range of Tibetan religion. Over the centuries the mixture of indigenous Tibetan beliefs and practices with those of Buddhism (and Bon) has succeeded in almost completely obscuring any distinctions between the two.


What appears to be certain is that early Tibetan religion revolved essentially around ideas about the creative and destructive powers of the earth and the nature and persistence of the soul or la (bla) after death.


Certain elements of these ideas have survived and can be discerned in Bon-po (or, as the case may be, in Buddhist) literature, but such ideas themselves are fundamentally different from the basic doctrines of the Bon religion that originally had been instituted only after the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet (and that continue to be practiced today).


The Bon texts in this section of the exhibit reflect the creative tension between the two opposing traditions of Buddhism and Bon, and reveal a number of Tibetan ideas on death and the hereafter that have more or less survived from ancient times.


The Lamp that Illuminates the Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo State:

The Oral Tradition  
Tibetan: sNyan brgyud bar do thos grol gsal sgron chen mo  
Author: Dam pa rang grol ye shes rgyal mtshan (b.1149)  
In Zhi khro sgrub skor glegs bam gyi dbui rdul len thar lam dren byed. Delhi, c.1970.I-Tib-761; 76-924678.

The Great Freedom from the Narrow Path of the Bardo: The Oral Tradition  
Tibetan: sNyan brgyud thos grol bar do phrang sgrol chen po  
Author: Dam pa rang grol ye shes rgyal mtshan (b.1149)  
Dolanji, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Center, 1974. I-Tib-1240; 74-900987. 

Given certain significant differences in age (the Bon text being nearly two centuries older than its Buddhist counterpart), symbolism, and iconographic personality (the many Bon-po deities, of course, have different names), The Lamp that Illuminates the Liberation upon Hearing is more or less parallel in content to that of the more familiar Tibetan Book of the Dead.


Both versions are classified as a type of literature known in Tibetan as tö-dröl or "that which liberates through hearing alone" (thos grol), an expression that appears prominently in the titles of the texts themselves.


As we have seen above, the teachings contained in the tö-dröl texts are intended to awaken in the consciousness of the deceased the understanding and recognition of the many visions encountered in the bardo state.


Ideally, these instructions are directed toward individuals who have dedicated themselves to mystical training in yoga and meditation.


On the other hand, for those ordinary individuals who are not as familiar with advanced meditative techniques, the instructions of the Liberation upon Hearing are meant to be read out loud by a teacher, after a person has died, to help guide him or her through the bewildering sensations of the bardo experience.


The instructions on the bardo from the oral tradition of Zhangzhung Valley, which is traced back to the master Tönpa Shenrap, founder of the Bon religion (see Introduction), are among the oldest recorded concerning knowledge of the intermediate state in Tibet.


The best known collection of Bon teachings on the bardo is The Lamp that Illuminates the Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo State:

The Oral Tradition, which is also known by its alternate title The Great Freedom from the Narrow Path of the Bardo.

This so-called "Bon-po Book of the Dead" is a work similar in many respects to the Buddhist version.


The Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: A Collection of Visionary Revelations  
Tibetan: Zhi khro dgongs dus  
Author: Rig dzin Kun grol grags pa (b.1700)  
Dehra Dun, U.P., Trinley Jamtsho, 1985. I-Tib-2705; 85-902625.

In the early eighteenth century, the great Bon-po treasure revealer (tertön) Rikdzin Kundröl Drakpa (Rig dzin Kun grol grags pa, b.1700) had a series of mystical visions of Dampa Rangdröl (Dam pa rang grol, b.1149), the twelfth century author of the "Bon-po Book of the Dead."


In these visions, Dampa Rangdröl awakened in Kundröl Drakpa's mind the teachings contained in the scriptural treasure (terma) entitled The Peaceful and Wrathful Deities:

A Collection of Visionary Revelations.

This form of revelatory transmission is called a "mind treasure" or gongter (dgongs gter). In most cases of this type of revelation, the original holder of the doctrine (e.g., Dampa Rangdröl), through special esoteric powers, conceals the teaching in the mind of a chosen disciple, where it remains hidden until a later more appropriate time.


Then, the doctrine is mystically revealed in the mind of that disciples future reincarnation (e.g., Kundröl Drakpa), who either records it in writing or transmits it orally to his students.


This famous mind treasure of Kundröl Drakpa offers a detailed presentation of the standard Bon-po doctrines on death, intermediate state, and rebirth, with special emphasis on the symbolism of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities that appear in the Bardo of Reality.


Moreover, the text clearly demonstrates the close relationship that exists between Bon-po and Buddhist interpretations of the bardo state.


Death Rituals of the Tibetan Bonpos  
Tibetan: Dur chog  
Author: Khu tsha zla od (b.1024)  
Dolanji, H.P., Tshultrim Tashi: Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Center, 1983. I-Tib- 2531; 85-900439. 

Bonpo Funeral Rites Eliminating All Evil Rebirths  
Tibetan: Kun rig cho gai sgrub skor  
Dolanji, Ochghat, H.P., Patshang Lama Sonam Gyaltsen, 1985. I-Tib-2693; 85-902610. 

The Bon-po funeral ceremonies described in the two large collections of ritual literature entitled Death Rituals of the Tibetan Bonpos and Bonpo Funeral Rites Eliminating All Evil Rebirths consist primarily of three separate series of rites, each corresponding to a stage in the death process--dying, intermediate existence, and rebirth.


These individual rites are also identified by the particular religious method employed to insure an auspicious destiny for the deceased, whether that be final liberation from cyclic existence or rebirth in one of the three higher realms.

In this context, the methods referred to are the transference of consciousness at the moment of death (phowa), the reading of the "liberation through hearing" texts (tö-dröl), and the summoning of the deceased's consciousness using ceremonial illustration cards (jangbu).


Since these techniques have been discussed previously in various sections of our exhibit, we should mention briefly the Bon-po rites of exorcism, which are described in detail in our texts and form part of the precautionary rites performed just before the commencement of the larger funeral ceremony.


According to the ritual texts, the moment just after death marks the beginning of a critical period in which the corpse becomes vulnerable to attacks by demons.


These evil beings may enter the body and reanimate it, in some cases assuming the form of a zombie or ro-lang (ro langs, "a corpse that has risen").


To guard against such attacks the corpse is watched continuously as the exorcism is performed.


A small "ransom effigy" or lü (glud) is carefully crafted and decorated in a manner that will entice the demon and lure it away from the corpse.


By reciting certain magical spells from the exorcism texts, the officiating Bon-po lama tricks the demon into entering the lifeless effigy and traps it there, rendering it powerless.


This demon trap is then carted away in a carnival-like celebration that involves beating drums and shouting loudly to frighten the helpless demon out of the community.