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On the Bardo Realm

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Now the third instruction on the Illusoriness of Bardo:

This topic will be discussed in two aspects; a general introduction to the subject of the Bardo88 state, and instructions on the successive practices.

The former: In the process of dying and in the process of the coming into Bardo at time of death, one's feeling is very changeable and fluctuating, like the scale and arrow. The sentient being of Bardo [hereafter termed "Bardoist"] has the body-form, with all limbs complete, of the Loka wherein the Bardoist is destined to have his birth. The Bardoist is endowed with supernatural power and is capable of performing miraculous feats such as passing through solid matter without difficulty or hindrances; he can travel to any places except the place wherein he will be reborn. The lifetime of the Bardoist usually lasts seven days; in some cases it is even shorter than this. After this period, if the Bardoist can not reincarnate (for some reason) he will return to the Bardo state again. This may happen as many as seven times, making forty-nine days, if conditions necessary for his new reincarnation are not ready.

Within this period, when the time for reincarnating ripens, the Bardoist, if so destined by Karma, will have his consciousness drawn into the place of the Metamorphosis-Born. If the Bardoist is to have a birth of Warmth-Born, his consciousness will merge with smell and taste and reincarnate in the place of the Warmth-Born. If the Bardoist is to have a birth of the Egg-Born or Womb-Born, his lust and hate will be inflamed when he beholds the scene of his parents having intercourse. If destined to be born male, he will hate his father and lust after his mother; if destined to be female, he will hate his mother and lust after his father (at first sight) [Here is penetrating pre-natal psychoanalysis long before the advent of Freud. Ed.] In some cases, the Bardoist dies and reincarnates in a place because of his aversion to. In other cases, the Bardoist who has committed many evil deeds (in his previous life) sees his surroundings as dark as the twilight sky, while the virtuous Bardoist sees his surroundings bright as moonlight or white as woolen cloth. The Hell-destined Bardoist sees the burning tree-stump. The Animal-destined Bardoist sees the smoke. The Hungry Ghost (Preta)-destined Bardoist sees a color like that of water. Both the Human-destined and Desire-Heaven-destined Bardoists behold the gold color. The one destined for the Heaven-of-Form sees the white womb and enters into it.


The sentient being of the Heaven of Non-Form also experiences Bardo if he is destined to fall down into the lower Kingdoms. If sentient beings in the two lower Kingdoms are destined to reincarnate in the Heaven-without-Form, they will not experience Bardo after their death. Instead, a body for them will come into being (made) of the Skandha of the Heaven-of-Non-Form.

Some declare that the Beings of Non-Intermission both of lower and upper, will not experience Bardo at all. This kind of statement shows ignorance. The Abhidharma-Ghosa says:

"In the previous time, the reincarnate (beings)
 Who possess the face of flesh, etc."

This stanza refers to the beings possessing the body-form of their existence previous to the Bardo stage… [Gap in text, probably copyists’ errors, occur here.] to the time before their future death. Those who do not understand this point claim that the Bardoist has a body-form like that of his previous existence. Some say that all those in Bardo have the same body-form and face as their previous existence. Some say that their body-form, visions, and perceptions are like those of their companions in Bardo. Some put various conceptions together, saying: "The face and body are like that of the face and body that will be born." On this saying is based the claim that the Bardoist possesses both the face and body of his next existence and those of his companions in Bardo.

Some say that the Bardoist has both the body and form of his previous life and of his future life. Thus they claim that in the seven-day period—the lifetime of Bardo—the bodily face, form, and visions of the first three-and-a-half days are like those of the previous life, and that the face, form and visions of the next three-and-a half days are like those of the future life. Some state that the Bardoist dies at the expiration of the three-and-a-half days that the so-called "Bardo" refers to this time. These statements have no basis at all.


As for the meaning of the "Bardo," the Abhidharma-Ghosa says: "Died from here. Gone to be born. (Between these two stages) the Bardo." This stanza explains that "Bardo" means the stage between death and the next life. Besides the Sg’ye-she-bardo (Bardo of Death and Birth) there is no other Bardo. But this Sg’ye-she-bardo is the Sridb’a-bardo itself.

However, in the teaching of the Six Yogas the classification or arrangement is somewhat different. It states that the period from the time of birth till the time of death is called the Sg’ye-she-bardo. The period from the sleeping state to the waking state is called the Dream Bardo. The period from the time of death till the time of the next birth is called the Sridb’a-bardo. If people ask how I would explain these two conflicting views, I answer that this problem can be clarified through the study of Gsan Hdus, according to the teaching of Gsan Hdus given by the Paoba School, the successive emergence of the Four Emptinesses manifesting as light finds illustration in the process of dying. The illusory Sambhogakaya corresponds to the manifestation of Bardo. The subtle Sambhogakaya, which transforms the coarse Nirmanakayas, finds correspondence in the process of taking a new birth.

Those who do not have the pith-instructions mistakenly interpret the esoteric teachings as referring to the vulgar Sg’ye-she-bardo and the other two (Bardos). But the yogis who possess the pith-instructions understand the Trikaya at the end with a clear understanding of the corresponding nature of the two, knowing how and why names of the Trikaya of the Path and Fruit are used to denote the Three Dharmas of the Foundation. They understand that it is merely the names of the Trikaya and not the real Trikaya being used to explain the Three Dharmas of Foundation. This background is found in many other sources.90

From this view, the so-called practice of the Illusory Body Bardo in the waking state is merely a name, not the real Bardo. Likewise the so-called Illusory Body Bardo of Dream which manifests in the period after the appearance of the Light-of-Sleep stage is also a name (for explaining the Bardo-like nature of the dream). The name of Bardo is also given to that period in which advanced yogis realize the Sambhogakaya after the emergence of the Death-Light. For the ordinary sentient beings, however, the same period is merely Bardo.


For these reasons the "so-called" three Bardos are avowed; however, such statements do not make much sense and are superfluous.91 The basic principle is to interpret and associate the Three Dharmas of the Foundation with the Trikaya of the Path (in order) to establish a system. Only after this first consideration can the Birth-Death Bardo and the other two Bardos be considered acceptable. The yogi should acquaint himself with the fact that the three Illusory Body teachings—Illusory-Body of the Waking State, Illusory-Body of the Dream State, and the corresponding Illusory-Body of Bardo State—are all based on the fundamental principle of Bardo. He should also know that by means of the practice of Heat Yoga in the daytime, through the process of Prana entering, remaining, and dissolving in the Central Channel, the Four Blisses or Four Emptinesses will successively appear. He should know that this process is in correspondence with the principle of the (Subsiding) Process of Mind Prana at time of death, so that the Light of Death will also appear.

Likewise, he should know that the teaching and practice of the Light-of-Waking State, Light-of-Sleeping State, and Light of Death correspond to the principle of the (Subsiding) Process of Mind Prana at time of death; because in both cases the Four Emptinesses will appear. With this interpretation of the three (above) conformities in mind, the yogi should know that at the end of the emergence of the Illusory Body of Waking State the crude Nirmanakaya will be transformed (literal text: "…Nirmanakaya will be seized"). At the end of a dream, close to the waking state, the [paragraph continues] Subtle Sambhogakaya appears by which the Nirmanakaya will be transformed (seized). At the end of the emergence of the Light of Death the corresponding Sambhogakaya of Bardo arises, by which the crude Nirmanakaya will be transformed (seized).

The yogi should be well-acquainted with this basic principle so that he will be clear from all doubt (in his mind) and acquire a definite understanding. If he grasps the foregoing principle, he will then understand the correspondence of the Dharmakaya with death, the Sambhogakaya with Bardo, and the Nirmanakaya with rebirth. These three correspondences can also be subdivided into nine; one should know that this is the highest teaching.

Some (scholars), however, made a different interpretation. They aligned the Lust with the Third Initiation, the Blindness with Light, and the Hate with the Illusory Body. Although in the performance of the Third Initiation some aspect of lust is involved, there is little reason to align the Lust Initiation in this connection, because in the case of the Third Initiation many preparations and practices are required. (Since both the preparatory practices and the Arising and Perfecting Yoga are not aligned with the Bardo, there is little sense in connecting the Lust with the Third Initiation).


In view of the fact that the Bardoist always experiences the Lust and Hate when entering into the womb of the mother, some scholars mistakenly aligned the Illusory Body with the Hate. This view is erroneous,92 because it implied the abandonment of the practice of the Illusory Body of the Waking and Dream states. By holding these views they neglect the real basis of the Illusory Body teaching. Also they cannot possibly explain the fact of the emergence of the Light of Death and the manifestations of the Illusory Body of Bardo. Besides, a lust-desire will arise in the Bardoist when he sees the scene of his parents’ intercourse; if so, the Illusory Body should not only be aligned with the Hate but also with the Lust; therefore, this arrangement is not very sound.

Some declare that because the lust of the sentient beings of the Sg’ye-she-bardo is very great, it should be aligned with the Lust; the blindness of the dream is great, thus the dream should be aligned with the Blindness; the hate of the Sridb’a-bardo is great, this the Sridb’a-bardo should be aligned with the Hate. This saying is also incorrect, as explained before; furthermore the Tantra says:

"In between the Sleep and Dream state
 Is the Blindness, the nature of the Dharmakaya."

According to this irrefutable quotation, the time to realize the Light is in the sleeping state when the dream visions have not yet arisen; it is erroneous to align the Dream-state with Blindness (as it should be aligned with Sleeping-state and Light).

Some claim that Marpa said that the Lust should be aligned with the Non-Leakage (Zag-med), the Hate should be aligned with the Illusory Body, the Blindness with the Light. The two former statements are not a convincing theory at all.92

Some Lamas say that in correspondence with the Sg’ye-she-bardo certain aspects of the Two-Successive Step Practice (Arising Yoga and Perfecting Yoga) are taught and should be practiced: the Dream-Bardo, Light, and Blindness should be aligned together with the related aspects of the Two Yogas; the Sridb’a-bardo, the Hate, and the Dharma-essence should also be aligned together with the related aspects of the Two Yogas. This saying makes no sense at all.


The Three Bodies aligned with the three Barrios make together nine different groups and aligned with other arrangements make the system of fifteen groups, etc. Since this is easily understood, there is no need to detail them here.

The instructions on the successive practice include (1) the explanations of the different groups of Bardoists (i.e. Bardo dwellers) and (2) the manner in which these various classes of beings can apply the Bardo practice.

First, the explanations. All Bardo dwellers may be divided into three groups (or levels)—the most advanced beings, the fairly advanced beings, and the least advanced beings. Discussions of the advanced beings are found in the books of Zal-lun, Spyod-bsdus and Sgron-gsal.

At the end of the death process, the illusory [in the sense of a but transitory means that is nonetheless useful and even necessary under the Bardo conditions. This technical use of the word "illusory" will be noticed on several occasions.] Sambhogakaya will appear in the Bardo; rely on it and you will attain Buddhahood. In the past the scholars of Tibet regarded this teaching of attaining Buddhahood while in the Bardo state as "the lazy man's teaching."93 However, there are some yogis who are not lazy but nevertheless lack certain necessary conditions which are required (for the attainment of Buddhahood in this life), so that they cannot reach Buddhahood in one lifetime. Therefore the appellation "lazy man's practice" is merely valid from one particular viewpoint.

Someone may ask how much realization and practice are required in one's lifetime to enable one even to attain the Buddhahood in Bardo. The answer is, a perfect accomplishment of the First Successive Step (the Arising Yoga), the entering, remaining, and dissolving in the Central Channel, together with the successive arising of the Four Emptiness-Wisdoms and the actual accomplishment of attaining the Illusory Body. This is the best preparation—that found in the case of the most advanced beings.


Required of the fairly advanced yogi is the arising of the Four Emptinesses through the prana's entering into the Central Channel, so that the yogi is able to merge himself with the Emptiness of Sleep—because merging with the Emptiness of Sleep is just like merging with the Light of Death through prana power. If one is able to merge with the Voidness in a state of deep sleep, this is the best method.

In the case of the least advanced, it is required that they obtain an initiation and strictly observe the Tantric disciplines, and also diligently practice the Arising Yoga and the Perfecting Yoga. Then at the time of death, when the subsidence of the earth, and other elements takes place, the yogi should notice the arising of the Light of Death and the successive emergence of the stages of Bardo. Thus he should now in this lifetime practise the pith-instructions of the Sleeping and Dream yogas. Since the sleeping and dream states are in many ways like the death and Bardo states, practising the Dream Yoga is a good preparation for death and the Bardo state. At the time of death, even if the yogi cannot hold the Light through the prana power, he will be able through these practices to recognize it.

One who has worked mainly on the Dhyana practice (but not the Tantric Path) and has accomplished Dhyana to a great extent is able to apply his Samadhi-power at the time when his death is approaching. By the Samadhi which he has stressed in his lifetime the yogi is able at time of death to bypass the death process and Bardo. However, one should know that this is merely a result depending on the ordinary Samadhi.

How do these yogis (the most advanced, fairly advanced, and least advanced) recognize the Bardo?

Those who attain Buddhahood in Bardo are those who are unable to attain Buddhahood in this lifetime; therefore, through the holding of the Light of Death, Buddhahood is attained.


The [sometimes heard] saying: "At the beginning stage of Bardo, one may attain Buddhahood," is erroneous. The teachings found in the recognized holy books, have never said any such thing—the attainment in Bardo may be accomplished before the completion of the death-birth process. Furthermore, the saying just quoted should be interpreted to mean the attainment of Buddhahood in the lifetime, not the actual Bardo stage. Also, the saying that, through holding the Light of Death, Buddhahood may be attained at that time, can never be found in any of the recognized holy books—it is erroneous. If not, how can one explain the fact that the body of a new procurer of Dharmakaya becomes a corpse without having the magnificent (thirty-two and eighty) signs of Buddha? (Lit.: "the body of either With-Learning or Without-Learning").

For these reasons, one should know that the Dharmakaya, with which there is the so-called merging of time of death, is by no means the real Dharmakaya but a similar one. Therefore, it is necessary to rely on a perfect body of Bardo after the emergence of the Light of Death. The perfect accomplishment cannot be attained without this body or through depending on another body.

In the case of the most advanced yogi, it is required for his accomplishment that he establish a Sambhogakaya of the Path through his mind-prana in the state of Bardo. This instruction is also found in some other sources. The fairly advanced or the least advanced yogi should alert his mind before death comes and offer all his belongings to the Fields of Merits, in complete abandonment, without the slightest attachment to any wordly belongings. He should also confess all his transgressions of the precepts made during his lifetime.

Through confession he will have peace of mind and no regret at time of death. A pith-instruction concerning the practice of death and Bardo is to take them as the favorable conditions to practice Dharma: "One should think that in dying one is going to one's beloved home." Then, he should visualize his body as the body of the Yidam, render his offerings, and pray to the gurus, Yidam, and deities in the Front Sky before him. With great earnestness, he should sincerely pray them to enable him to merge with the Light of Death and Illusory Body of Bardo.


The fairly advanced and the least advanced yogi should practice as much as possible the gathering of prana in the Central Channel, whatever method he uses, before the sign of death appears. He should also try to raise the Four Emptinesses and the (Three) Bodies of Buddha. In addition, he should try to hold the Light of Sleep and the Illusory Body of Dream. It is important to practice these teachings before death comes.

The Instruction on Recognizing the Signs of Death

One should know the explanations on the subsidence of the Crude Twenty Lights; that can be found in other books. In brief, the signs of death are as follows: When the earth-element subsides into the water-element, the outer phenomenon is that one cannot move or hold his body—as if the body is collapsing and sinking so that the dying person feels like exclaiming "Hold me up!" The inner phenomenon is the experience of seeing a mirage. When the water-element subsides into the fire-element, the outer phenomenon is that one feels thirst, a burning in the mouth and nose, and that the tongue shrivels; the inner phenomenon is seeing smoke. When the fire-element subsides into the air-element, the outer phenomenon is the experience of decrease in the warmness of the body; the bodily warmth will gather at the end of the body. The inner phenomenon is seeing a tiny light like that of a glow-worm.

When the subsidence of the delusory mind-prana takes place, the outer phenomenon is the long exhaling of the breath. The dying person feels his breath to be hard and rough, and finds it impossible to stop the exhalation even if he wills to do so. The inner phenomenon is the seeing of a steady (unwavering) lamplight. Thereupon, the so-called "First" Voidness or first perception appears, which is like seeing the moonlight shining in a cloudless sky. After the emergence of the "First" Voidness, comes the so-called "Second" Voidness or the Extreme Voidness. The dying one sees an augmenting Voidness, bright and glaring like the sunlight blazing from a clear sky; this is called the Stage of Augmentation. After the subsidence of this stage, comes the stage called the "Attainment," in which the dying one feels his consciousness becoming dim and sluggish; this experience is like seeing a dark sky. Then comes the complete cessation of all thoughts, and the dying one experiences complete darkness.

Thereafter, his consciousness awakes from darkness, and the "Universal Voidness" appears; this experience is like seeing a clear and unobscured sky under the radiant sunlight at dawn. This light is the real Fundamental Light.


In short, the successive emergence of the three Voidnesses and the Light are experienced as outer phenomenon through seeing the smoke, the light of the glow-worm, the lamplight, and the cloudless sky; as inner phenomena they are experienced through seeing the white, the red, the black, and the dawn-like visions. Although there are two different explanations—that of the With-Form-Action and that of the Without-Form-Action—the latter one is better; for in many holy books is found the saying that the smoke, etc., precedes the emergence of the Four Emptinesses (Voidnesses), and that all the Four Emptinesses cannot be literally described as having color and form. The closest description of the appearance of the Voidness is to say it is like the clear and cloudless sky.

At the time of the emergence of the Death-Light, the Three Steps (Appearance, Augmentation, and Attainment) successively come to pass and subside, one after another. Eventually, all the pranas dissolve in the Heart Center; the white Thig-le drops down from the Head-Center, the red Thig-le rises up from the Navel Center, and they join together at the Heart Center. * In the case of the sentient beings who do not possess all the six elements, such as devas, etc., these Lights will still appear, but not in the same manner.

Since the yogi has experienced these signs of subsidence before in his lifetime, he is able to recognize them clearly. When the first sign appears, he should apply the particular method of gathering the prana into the Central Channel that he has mastered, is most skilled in, or has practised most in his lifetime, and watch for the emergence of the signs. With such mindfulness and recollection, he may grasp these opportunities and accomplish the realization. When the First Emptiness emerges, the yogi should meditate on the view and try to recognize it. When the Second Emptiness and (the Third Emptiness) the Attainment and the Light appear, the yogi should also concentrate as long as possible on the view and try to merge with the Lights.

At the time of death when the Light of Death emerges, the mind-pranas all gather in the Central Channel and dissolve into the Heart Center; the erroneous views and the dualistic conceptions of the crude form also subside. Thereupon, the "vision" of the cloudless sky will appear. Even if the yogi can concentrate upon this light, however, it will be of no avail if he has not practised and meditated on the Middle Way View in his lifetime and knows how to absorb his mind in that view. Otherwise, this yogi will not be able to see Reality. It is, therefore, necessary to have had the experiences of the deep contemplation on the Mādhyamika principle in one's lifetime and the practices of the Bliss-Void or the practice of Son-Light or Light of the Path. Said the Jetsün [i.e. venerated Ed.] Milarepa:

Bardo Thodol 11.jpg

"The light of Death is the Dharmakaya, itself; one should understand this point and thus identify it. In order to recognize it, the 'Pointing-Out-on-Mind-Essence' practice should be given by one's guru. Thus one will understand the view of reality and the practice of the expressive Light of the Path."

These were his words:

The Light of Death is the primordial Mother-Light. In order to merge the Son-Light with the Mother-Light, one should practice in the waking state the gathering of the pranas into the Central Channel and the entering, remaining, and dissolving exercises. One should also contemplate the Four Emptinesses, especially the "All Emptiness" (or the Fourth Emptiness). Only if a yogi is able to merge with the Light, even in the deep-sleeping state, will he be able to merge the Son-Light with the Mother-Light through his prana power at time of death.

If he can recognize the Light of Death and merge with it, he will be able to recognize the subsequent emergence of Bardo. The recognition of the Light of Death and the capability of merging with it, is the only right way of "holding" the Bardo; there is no other way to hold or recognize Bardo. If he exercises during his lifetime on the practice of pretending to go through the successive stages by reminding himself "Now, death has come… This is the such and such vision of Bardo…," he may to some extent hold or recognize the Bardo, but his power to do so will be extremely weak.

Likewise, if he keeps exercising on the practice of imitating the successive stages of death, he may at the time of the emergence of the Light of Death, be absorbed in (his) Samadhi for a long period. Nevertheless, because of his Saṃsaric Prana (literally, prana of this life) that never enables him to identify the Light of Death, it is very difficult to consider this kind of practice a practice of the unique Anuttara Tantra.

If he puts too much emphasis on this practice, it is like abandoning the basic teaching to put stress on the secondary teaching. Instead, he should practice the Heat Yoga and work hard on the gathering of pranas into the Central Channel. In his waking state, he should practice the entering, remaining, and dissolving process and the arising of the Four Emptinesses; if he is able to do so, he will be able to hold the Light of Sleep through his prana power.

If the yogi can raise the Illusory Body after the emergence the Light of Waking State and the Light of Sleep, only then will he be able to hold or recognize the Light of Death and Bardo. Then he will have attained a supreme and unprecedented confidence.

This is the reason that the practice of Heat Yoga is considered the peerless teaching. This one should always remember. From the state of recognizing and holding the Light of Death, the dying person comes to another stage, and, through his ability acquired from meditation in his lifetime, and through his understanding of the key-instructions and his faith toward Dharma, he is then able to raise the Buddha's Bodies in the delusory Bardo state. The Bardo Body, however, cannot be used as a qualified means to accomplish the Supreme Bodies of Buddha, though at the time of Bardo one should recognize the Bardo state and try to take up the perfect Buddha Bodies. Nevertheless, one still should visualize the self-Body becoming the Yidam's Body, contemplate on the View of Thatness, and identify all manifestations—cosmos and sentient beings

as illusory, dreamlike, and magic in nature. If the yogi practises these teachings in Bardo, he will procure superb benefits; therefore, he should realize the significance of these pith instructions and practise them.

The yogi who practices the Teachings of Path may not be womb-born in his next life. Very possibly he may take any of the other three forms of Birth94. Therefore the Bardoist should try all the more to practise the teaching of manifestation-as-Yidam, Yidam-as-delusion, delusion-as-Voidness, as instructed before. He should also identity his future parents as the father and mother Guru or the father and mother Yidam.

One may also apply the teaching of choosing the place of birth in the Bardo state—to vow earnestly to be born in the Pure Land of Buddha—as given in another part of Marpa's teachings. These teachings include the recognizing of Bardo and the longing for a birth in the Pure Land according to the pith-instructions of Apo-wa (the teaching of Transforming One's Consciousness).