Bardo is a Tibetan word meaning “intermediate” or “between”. When used in general conversation, it refers to the process between dying and rebirth. However, the word can be applied to many different stages between states of being.
Throughout the long history of Buddhist schools, different interpretations of the dying process have been posited. The various schools all accepted the notion of rebirth as frequently mentioned by the Buddha. However, there are differences in whether this was believed to be immediate (as stated in one Pali Abhidhamma text) or whether rebirth unfolded after a process. It appears from remaining texts that some Mahāsaṅghika and early Mahīśāsaka schools did not affirm an interim period. On the other hand, the Puggalavādins, Sarvāstivādins, certain Mahāsaṅgika branches, later Mahīśāsakas, and Darstantikas accepted it.1Piya Tam, Is Rebirth Immediate? A study of canonical sources Essay and translation by Piya Tan ©2003; rev 2010 The orthodox Theravāda position of immediate rebirth is based upon primarily two texts, the Kathāvatthu, authored by the thera Moggalliputtatissa and the Milindapañha (The ‘Questions of Milinda’).
Modern Theravāda scholars working within the tradition have argued that the position is more nuanced and that these two texts may have been used to argue specifically against any reification of a self.2Ibid and Ajahn Sujato, “Rebirth and the intermediate state in early Buddhism.” Paper: “Closer to Reality” Conference, 2008, KL, Malaysia. These scholars also note that within the Theravāda practice communities, there are differences of opinion. Ajahn Sujato points out that many masters within the Thai forest tradition, for example, believe in an intermediate process.
Bardo and the Dying Process
As a dying person begins to show the signs that their physical constituents are collapsing, Buddhist scholars and practitioners assert that an interim process begins to unfold. This intermediate process between life and death is explained as a period of crucial importance for directing one’s consciousness. Preeminent practitioners are said to be able to become fully awakened and liberated in this state by entering into the bardo of dharmata, or unconditioned suchness.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition emphasizes the point that even ordinary practitioners who can recall basic points and who have sincere faith and devotion can use this period skillfully. The 20th-century master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche reminded listeners that trust or faith in the instructions and previous practice during one’s lifetime was essential. He commented, “When practicing these teachings one must have confidence and trust and be free from doubt. This teaching is like a guide leading the blind in the right direction. To take the hand of such a guide, one needs trust. Without trust, one might lose one’s way.”3Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Introductory Discourse, Tsele Ngatsok Rangrol, The Mirror of Mindfulness, trans. By Erik Pema Kunzang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1987.
Bardo Practice: How to Skilfully Utilize Opportunities at the Time of Death
Many Tibetan masters have written texts of advice on how to direct one’s mind at the time of death. An example of such clear instruction from the 19th-century scholar-practitioner, Patrul Rinpoche included the following points:
At these times, the crucial points of practice are as follows:
At first, when you are certain that you are going to die, you must cut all ties and attachment to this life. Confess from the depths of your heart any downfalls and breakages of samaya, harmful actions and so on. Devote not even so much as a single moment to feeling guilty about your own negative actions, fearing death, or being attached to this life. Instead, feel happiness and joy, and say to yourself: “Now I shall recognize the clear light at death. Or, if that is not possible, since I shall certainly use the bardo as an opportunity to travel to a pure realm such as Akaniṣṭha, Zangdokpalri or Sukhāvatī, I shall be joyful.” Maintain, without ever letting it slip away, the strong intention and thought “I shall travel to the pure realms!”
Gently, in a relaxed way, as you settle into an experience of whichever practice is the clearest and most vivid for you, let go of the constituents of this life. Since you will be unable to practise any unfamiliar pith instructions, rely only on those practices which are clearest for you at the moment. These two points—settling into a practice in this way, and aspiring to travel to a pure land such as Zangdokpalri—are unsurpassable. In particular, it is absolutely crucial that you repeatedly form the intention to travel to the pure land of your choosing. It is exceptionally important to understand that even now, both day and night, you must never let go of this thought.Patrul Rinpoche, A Brief Introduction to the Bardos, translated by Adam Pearcey.
Four or Six Bardo States
In his text, The Mirror of Mindfulness the 17th-century master Tsele Natsok Rangdröl described four primary bardos.
- The Natural Bardo of this Life lasts from the moment of birth until one enters the dying process
- The Painful Bardo of Dying
- The Luminous Bardo of Dharmata is the unconditioned nature
- The Karmic Bardo of Becoming
Other sources list two additional bardos:
- The Bardo of Meditation
- The Bardo of Dream
Tsele Natsok Rangdröl mentions that “the two additional bardos, the bardo of the meditation state and the bardo of dream, are included within the bardo of this life.”4Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, The Bardo Guidebook, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1991, p. 33.
These processes are all experienced differently depending upon the karma of the individual. For example, most people experience the bardo of this life as a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant appearances. Tsele Natsok Rangdröl states that for those who are most fortunate, that is not the case. For those individuals, “the world and its inhabitants are spontaneously perfect like a mandala. This is because the fortunate ones recognize sights and sounds as being deities and mantras.”5Tsele Ngatsok Rangrol, The Mirror of Mindfulness, trans. By Erik Pema Kunzang, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1987, p. 19.
Contemporary Teachings on the Bardo
Phakchok Rinpoche, the founder and spiritual director of Samye Institute gave extensive teachings on the Liberation Upon Hearing, (bardo thödrol) in May 2023. In these teachings, he reviews the instructions that are given to those on the brink of death and for those who have already breathed their last external breath.
Under the guidance of Phakchok Rinpoche, Samye Institute has organized a system to request prayers and practices for the deceased. Click here to request Bardo prayers and specific pujas for the passing of a family member, loved one, or friend, after the person has died.