Bardo Thodol

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Manuscript of the Bardo Thodol.
Bardo Thodol
Tibetan name
Tibetan བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ

The Bardo Thodol (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལWylie: bar do thos grol), Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, is a text from a larger corpus of teachings, the Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones,[1][note 1] revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386). It is the best-known work of Nyingma literature,[3] and is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place.


Bardo thosgroll (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལWylie: bar do thos grol):

  • bar do, Sanskrit antarabhāva: "intermediate state", "transitional state", "in-between state", "liminal state". Valdez: "Used loosely, the term "bardo" refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth."[4] Valdez: "[The] concept arose soon after the Buddha's passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it."[4]
  • thos grol: "liberation", which is synonymous with the Sanskrit word bodhi, "awakening", "understanding", "enlightenment", and synonymous with the term nirvana, "blowing out", "extinction", "the extinction of illusion".[5]

Original text

Origins and dating

Centuries old Zhi-Khro mandala, a part of the Bardo Thodol's collection, a text known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which comprises part of a group of bardo teachings held in the Nyingma (Tibetan tradition) originated with guru Padmasambhava in the 8th Century.

According to Tibetan tradition, the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal, buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century.[6][7][8]

bar do thos grol

The Tibetan title is bar do thos grol,[9] Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State.[1] It consists of two comparatively long texts:[1]

  • "Great Liberation through Hearing: The Supplication of the Bardo of Dharmata" (chos nyid bar do'i gsol 'debs thos grol chen mo), the bardo of dharmata (including the bardo of dying);
  • "Great Liberation through Hearing: The Supplication Pointing Out the Bardo of Existence" (strid pa'i bar do ngo sprod gsol 'debs thos grol chen mo), the bardo of existence.

Within the texts themselves, the two combined are referred to as Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, Great Liberation through Hearing, or just Liberation through Hearing.[note 2]

kar-gling zhi-khro

It is part of a larger terma cycle, Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones,[1] (zab-chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol, also known as kar-gling zhi-khro,[2] popularly known as "Karma Lingpa's Peaceful and Wrathful Ones."[1]

The Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation is known in several versions, containing varying numbers of sections and subsections, and arranged in different orders, ranging from around ten to thirty-eight titles.[1] The individual texts cover a wide range of subjects, including meditation instructions, visualizations of deities, liturgies and prayers, lists of mantras, descriptions of the signs of death, indications of future rebirth, and texts such as the bar do thos grol that are concerned with the bardo-state.[1]

Three bardos

The Bardo Thodol differentiates the intermediate state between lives into three bardos:

  1. The chikhai bardo or "bardo of the moment of death", which features the experience of the "clear light of reality", or at least the nearest approximation of which one is spiritually capable;
  2. The chonyid bardo or "bardo of the experiencing of reality", which features the experience of visions of various Buddha forms, or the nearest approximations of which one is capable;
  3. The sidpa bardo or "bardo of rebirth", which features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth, typically yab-yum imagery of men and women passionately entwined.

The Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State also mentions three other bardos:[note 3]

  1. "Life", or ordinary waking consciousness;
  2. "Dhyana" (meditation);
  3. "Dream", the dream state during normal sleep.

Together these "six bardos" form a classification of states of consciousness into six broad types. Any state of consciousness can form a type of "intermediate state", intermediate between other states of consciousness. Indeed, one can consider any momentary state of consciousness a bardo, since it lies between our past and future existences; it provides us with the opportunity to experience reality, which is always present but obscured by the projections and confusions that are due to our previous unskillful actions.

English translations

Evans-Wentz's The Tibetan Book of the Dead

Tibetan Thanka of Bardo. Vision of Serene Deities, 19th Century, Giumet Museum

The bar do thos grol is known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title popularized by Walter Evans-Wentz's edition,[9][10] but as such virtually unknown in Tibet.[11][1] The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first published in 1927 by Oxford University Press. Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title because of the parallels he found with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.[12]

According to John Myrdhin Reynolds, Evans-Wentz's edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead introduced a number of misunderstandings about Dzogchen.[13] In fact, Evans-Wentz' collected seven texts about visualization of the after-death experiences and he introduced this work collection as "The Tibetan Book of Death." Evans-Wentz was well acquainted with Theosophy and used this framework to interpret the translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was largely provided by two Tibetan lamas who spoke English, Lama Sumdhon Paul and Lama Lobzang Mingnur Dorje.[14] Evans-Wentz was not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism,[13] and his view of Tibetan Buddhism was "fundamentally neither Tibetan nor Buddhist, but Theosophical and Vedantist."[15] He introduced a terminology into the translation which was largely derived from Hinduism, as well as from his Theosophical beliefs.[13] Contrary to the general belief spread in the West by Evans-Wentz, in Tibetan Buddhist practice the Tibetan Book of Dead is not read to the people who are passing away, but it is rather used during life by those who want to learn to visualize what will come after death. [16]

C. G. Jung’s psychological commentary first appeared in an English translation by R. F. C. Hull in the third revised and expanded Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.[17] The commentary also appears in the Collected Works.[18] Jung applied his extensive knowledge of eastern religion to craft a commentary specifically aimed at a western audience unfamiliar with eastern religious tradition in general and Tibetan Buddhism specifically.[19] He does not attempt to directly correlate the content of the Bardo Thodol with rituals or dogma found in occidental religion, but rather highlights karmic phenomena described on the Bardo plane and shows how they parallel unconscious contents (both personal and collective) encountered in the west, particularly in the context of analytical psychology. Jung’s comments should be taken strictly within the ream of psychology, and not that of theology or metaphysics. Indeed, he warns repeatedly of the dangers for western man in the wholesale adoption of eastern religious traditions such as yoga.[20]

Other translations and summaries

Popular influence

The Psychedelic Experience

The Psychedelic Experience, published in 1964, is a guide for LSD-trips, written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, loosely based on Evan-Wentz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.[21][22] Aldous Huxley introduced the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Timothy Leary.[22] According to Leary, Metzer and Alpert, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is

... a key to the innermost recesses of the human mind, and a guide for initiates, and for those who are seeking the spiritual path of liberation.[23]

They construed the effect of LSD as a "stripping away" of ego-defenses, finding parallels between the stages of death and rebirth in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the stages of psychological "death" and "rebirth" which Leary had identified during his research.[24] According to Leary, Metzer and Albert it is....

... one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.[25]

Musical and cinematic works

  • Finnish composer Erik Bergman composed a work titled Bardo Thödol in 1974 for a speaker, mezzo-soprano, baritone, mixed choir and orchestra; the text was based on a German translation of the Book of the Dead[26]
  • "When I Was Done Dying", by American musician and composer Dan Deacon, is strongly inspired by the Bardo Thodol. The narrator's "story" begins at the very moment of his death, through multiple incarnations (a plant, a crab and, at the end, a human). The song. featured in an [adult swim] Off Air segment.
  • The late 1960s band The Third Bardo took their name from the western title of this text.
  • 1985 2-part documentary filmed in Ladakh and the States, first part entitled "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life"; the second part "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation" was a co-production between NHK (Japan), Mistral (France) and FBC (Canada). Narration in the English version is by Leonard Cohen. See links below.
  • Screenwriter and film producer Bruce Joel Rubin, who once lived in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, considered his film Jacob's Ladder a modern interpretation of the Bardo Thodol.[27][28]
  • In 2007, The History Channel released a documentary film, Tibetan Book of the Dead.[web 1][note 4]
  • Country musician Sturgill Simpson's song "Just Let Go" from his 2014 album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is about ego death and the transition between living and dying, and being reborn.
  • In 1994, the Modern Rock band Live had a second album, Throwing Copper. On which, track 9, a song titled "T.B.D." (4:28) stands for Tibetan Book of the Dead.[web 2]
  • In 1996, Delerium Records released the Liberation Thru' Hearing CD which contains spoken/chanted readings from the Bardo Thodol set to music.[web 3]
  • Enter the Void, a 2009 French film written and directed by Gaspar Noé, is loosely based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.[web 4]
  • The Beatles song Tomorrow Never Knows contains lyrics inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead. [29]
  • Electronic group Demdike Stare released an album in 2010, Liberation Through Hearing, featuring a track titled "Bardo Thodol".

See also


  1. zab-chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol, also known as kar-gling zhi-khro[2]
  2. In Tibetan, bar do thos grol, thos grol chen mo, and thos grol
  3. See also Trikaya, Kosha and Three Bodies Doctrine (Vedanta)
  4. "The Tibetan book of the Dead is an important document that has stood the test of time and attempts to provide answers to one of mankind's greatest questions: What happens when we die? Interviews with Tibetan Lamas, American scholars, and practicing Buddhists bring this powerful and mysterious text to life. State-of-the-art computer generated graphics will recreabinte this mysterious and exotic world. Follow the dramatized journey of a soul from re-birth. In Tibet, the "art of dying" is nothing less than the art of living."[web 1]



Printed sources

  • Coleman, Graham (2005), "Editor's introduction", in Coleman, Graham, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0143104940 
  • Conners, Peter (2013), White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, City Lights Books 
  • Coward, Howard (1985), Jung and Eastern Thought, Albany: State University of New York Press 
  • Cuevas, Bryan J. The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. (1960) [1927], The Tibetan Book of the Dead (PDF) (1957 1st (ebook translation) ed.), Oxford University Press 
  • Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. (1965) [1927], The Tibetan Book of the Dead, London: Oxford University Press 
  • Forbes, Andrew; Henley, David, eds. (2013), The Illustrated Tibetan Book of the Dead, Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Books 
  • Fremantle, Francesca; Trungpa, Chögyam, eds. (1975), The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa, Boulder: Shambhala, ISBN 1-59030-059-9 
  • Fremantle, Francesca (2001), Luminous Emptiness: understanding the Tibetan Book of the dead, Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, ISBN 1-57062-450-X 
  • Gould, Jonathan (2007), Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, Crown Publishing Group 
  • Jung, C. G. (1977) [1958], Psychology and Religion: West and East. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 11, Bollingen Series XX, Princeton: Princeton University Press 
  • Leary, Timothy; Metzner, Ralph; Alpert, Richard (1964), THE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE. A manual based on THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD (PDF) 
  • Lee, Martin A.; Shlain, Bruce (1992), Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD : the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, Grove Press 
  • Lopez, Donald S., Jr. (2011), The Tibetan book of the dead : a biography, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0691134352 
  • Merkur, Daniel (2014), The Formation of Hippie Spirituality: 1. Union with God. In: J. Harold Ellens (ed.), "Seeking the Sacred with Psychoactive Substances: Chemical Paths to Spirituality and to God", ABC-CLIO 
  • Miles, barry (1998), Many Years From Now, Vintage 
  • Norbu, Namkhai (1989), "Foreword", in Reynolds, John Myrdin, Self-liberation through seeing with naked awareness, Station Hill Press, Inc. 
  • Reynolds, John Myrdin (1989), "Appendix I: The views on Dzogchen of W.Y. Evans-Wentz and C.G. Jung", in Reynolds, John Myrdin, Self-liberation through seeing with naked awareness, Station Hill Press, Inc. 
  • Valdez, Juan (2014), The Snow Cone Diaries: A Philosopher's Guide to the Information Age, AuthorHouse 


  1. 1.0 1.1 The History Channel: Tibetan Book of the Dead Archived October 17, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  4. Stephenson, Hunter (2010-09-14). "Gaspar Noé's Big Trip". Interview. Archived from the original on 16 September 2010. Retrieved 2010-09-15. 

Further reading

External links

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