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
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
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.
BUDDHIST BOOKS OF THE
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, b.ca.1350), 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
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 moâi skor: ÎChi 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
Each of these three causes has its own specific antidote,
which means that in many cases death can be avoided by applying the appropriate
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 moâi skor: Chos nyid bar doâi gsal Îdebs 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
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.
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.
manifest also in the same circular pattern of their peaceful counterparts,
only now each Deity appears in its terrifying form.
flesh-eating demons, the Wrathful Deities symbolize the intensity or
if you will, of liberation, understood here as the compassionate
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.
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
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 doâi gsal Îdebs thos grol chen mo bklag chog tu bkod
pa Îkhrul snang rang grol: Srid pa bar doâi ngo sprod gsal Îdebs thos grol
1976. I(Bhu)-Tib-118; 77-902202. [folios
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
instructions emphasize the nature of the six realms of existence and are
addressed directly to the blockprinted image sitting on the altar.
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.
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 doâi 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
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
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.
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 spyiâi don thams cad
rnam par gsal bar byed pa dran paâi me long
Author: rTse le sNa tshogs rang grol
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,
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
BON-PO BOOKS OF THE DEAD
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
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
In Zhi khro sgrub skor glegs bam gyi
dbuâi rdul len thar lam Îdren 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 Îphrang sgrol chen po
Author: Dam pa rang grol ye shes rgyal
Dolanji, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Center,
1974. I-Tib-1240; 74-900987.
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.
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
The best known collection of Bon teachings on the bardo is The
Lamp that Illuminates the Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo State:
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 Îdus
Author: Rig Îdzin Kun grol grags pa
Dehra Dun, U.P., Trinley Jamtsho, 1985.
In the early eighteenth century, the great
Bon-po treasure revealer (tertön) Rikdzin Kundröl Drakpa (Rig
Îdzin 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
Then, the doctrine is mystically revealed in the mind of that discipleâs
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: ÎDur chog
Author: Khu tsha zla Îod (b.1024)
Dolanji, H.P., Tshultrim Tashi: Tibetan
Bonpo Monastic Center, 1983. I-Tib- 2531; 85-900439.
Bonpo Funeral Rites Eliminating All
Tibetan: Kun rig cho gaâi 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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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.