Samye Institute’s Noble Living, Noble Caring and Noble Dying team continues the conversation about Noble Living and Care-giving. Here the team discusses the bardo, the intermediate period after death—and the importance and efficacy of prayers during this period.
Bardo Time Frame
Tulku Migmar explains that in the Vajrayana tradition, we believe that the 7 weeks—or 49 days, after death are particularly important. He notes that this time cycle is not unique to Tibetan Buddhism—other traditions also see this time as key for prayer and practice. But according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, in the case of 70-80% of beings, their bardo consciousness will decide within the third week—within 21 days—where in the six realms they will reborn. Of course during this period they may also become enlightened or be liberated as an arhat. However, eighty percent of beings will be reborn.
Remembering to Practice in This Life
When we understand this, that means that however much we pray or accumulate merit after this time period, it will not be so effective. Of course, the merit definitely helps a little bit while the being is in the bardo. Teachers say that being in the bardo is a second chance. The first chance we have is when we are alive. Then, at that time, we are most able to practice and we can be liberated within a lifetime because of the conditions that we have. So we should take advantage of the bardo of this life.
In our lifetime, we have so many conditions for practicing and so many freedoms. If we want to practice, we can go anywhere to find a teacher. We can go to Nepal or India and the teacher even comes here so that we can learn. With your practice, the most important condition is being alive and doing however much we can right now!
Don’t wait for the bardo and don’t wait for the next life! Our human life is so precious and fortunate. Most practitioners know what it means when we talk about this human life as being so precious and fortunate. It may take many, many kalpas before we get this kind of precious human life again. There are the five favorable conditions from our side and five favorable external conditions. And we may not get this again for many lifetimes or in the bardo.
Therefore, we don’t waste it when we have these good conditions. We talked about this earlier—don’t waste our good fortune. We are fortunate and so use this meaningfully, right now in this lifetime.
In the bardo of death, we actually have fewer chances. But if we prepare right now and practice well during this life, we won’t face a problem. It definitely is not a problem. The bardo depends on now—it is not that now depends on the bardo. The bardo depends on how much we are now distracted and whether we are lost or are not lost. If we are now very stable with a very stable mind and are very compassionate, very devoted and a wise meditator, then Tulku-la says that we need not fear. We will not be lost!
Reminder in the Bardo After Death
After that, once you have died, you have fewer conditions in the bardo after death. During that bardo, nobody teaches. And we don’t see temples—it has no reminders. The only possible reminder happens when the monks or, if you are lucky enough, the lama comes around and chants the liberation texts. And when they chant, they actually remind us to not be distracted, emotional or sad. Bardo texts explain what will help to save you from rebirth in the lower realms.
But the bardo of death will challenge us if we are not prepared. Think of it like being dropped into a forest by a helicopter. Then we won’t know what to do because we’ve never been there before. We won’t know on which side there is a snake, a lion or another animal—we won’t know where it is safe. The only way to know where it is safe would be to first find out. Then we would know that on the left side, there is a lion and so we must not go there. Or, we would know that on the right side there is a tiger. We would already know that and then we would not go there. This is a metaphor for the bardo of death.
We prepare beforehand—in this life so that in the bardo we will be safe—because we will already know what distractions can affect us. And we remember that we must not be attached, angry or jealous. We’re already prepared.
The bardo serves as a second chance. But, the best practitioners of this life don’t need to go through this experience. There are two kinds of beings who don’t go to the bardo. The first is a good practitioner. The other is someone who has created very strong negative karma—he directly goes to hell. The person who is a good practitioner does not need to go to the bardo—he goes straight up. For other people, they need to practice. If they don’t practice much in this life, then they have a second chance in the bardo.
When we help someone going through the bardo, it is almost like when we help someone who is falling off the bed. Then we hold onto him and he stays safely in bed—he never falls down and does not break his leg. The bardo is like this. We are able to save someone from falling into the lower realms. Prayers can help someone in the bardo. It definitely can help when you say prayers. Prayers save the person from falling into the lower realms–this is so for medium practitioners. In the case of the best practitioners, as soon as they die, their consciousness immediately is transformed and they become enlightened. Enlightenment has many levels—an arhat, bodhisattva or a Buddha –the person will achieve according to his or her own level of realization.