Sidpa Bardo: The Six Realms of Existence & The Place of Rebirth
The Sidpa Bardo is a hallucinatory state described in the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) wherein the consciousness of the dead person, influenced by karma and possessing a radiant body, is set to take a trip to the Six Realms of Existence as a preparation for Rebirth.
In the Sidpa Bardo, the consciousness of the dead person experiences karmically induced hallucinations from the 20th up to the 41st day, right before being driven to the next place of rebirth, a process that takes place from the 42nd up to the 49th day.
If the individual is able to achieve the body of spiritual bliss (Sambhogakaya) during the visions of the Chonyid Bardo, where consciousness is purified by the encounter with the peaceful and wrathful deities, it can stay in the plane of the bodhisattvas, a realm of bliss illuminated by the infinite shining light of the Buddha Amitabha. If it fails to do so, it will have to go down to the Sidpa Bardo to face another assembly of images forcing it to arrive at one of the Six Realms of Existence (discussed later).
Good and Bad Karma
It is said that people with too much negative karma may experience being pursued by a variety of horrifying beasts and demons during the journey through the Sidpa Bardo. They may also experience snow, rain, darkness, the fierce blasts of wind, and the sounds of mountains crumbling down, of angry overflowing seas, and of roaring fire. Even so, all hope is not lost because the likelihood of being liberated is still possible as long as they hear the teachings when it is recited to them during the death ritual.
One explanation given is that the consciousness of any individual, free from the constraints of the human body, acquires extra sensory perception and other kinds of abilities in the afterlife. It is then possible for the living to guide the dead person since it is much more capable of instantly picking up their voices and comprehending whatever messages they have for it.
On the other hand, it is said that those who have accumulated good karma and dedicated themselves to religious pursuits will experience various delightful pleasures and happiness. For those who have accumulated neither good nor bad karma, well, it will be pretty boring for them since they don’t fall into any category (this is a very good thing if you ask a Buddhist). Thus, they are just advised to meditate on their tutelary deity or to concentrate on the symbols given to them by their guru.
The Radiant Body
The "radiant body" is the form taken by the "awareness-body" of the dead person and is created by subtle energy. It is a body made, not of flesh, but of pure light. It resembles a union of the "former body" and the "next body" that will be produced.
The "former body" being referred to here is just like the one that the dead person had while still alive. It will appear in the after death state with such beauty comparable to beings who are in the state of perfection. The "next body" that will be produced refers to that one given at the time of rebirth. These definitions are all metaphors, of course. From a Buddhist's perspective, nothing is real yet everything is real at the same time.
It is said that the "radiant body" is equipped with all the sense-faculties and is not subject to the limits of time and space. Even if the dead person was blind or deaf when he was still alive, all the five senses will be fully functional in the afterlife and the ability of the body to move will be much more uninhibited and may even possess extraordinary powers.
At this stage, they say that you will be able to see other beings of similar attainments or level of knowledge, and if you are destined to be born in the realm of the gods, for example, you will see the beings that dwell in that place and they will see you.
The Bardo Thodol also talks about being able to travel instantaneously to any location, moving through objects, entering different bodies, seeing the future, shape-shifting, and so on. However, the book stresses that it is very important for the dead person not be distracted by any of these abilities since they are not spiritual attainments (powers acquired in higher states of meditation). Instead, these powers are just hallucinations and the products of one’s karmic material.
Receiving Judgment from Dharma-Raja
You may begin to think that the journey through the Sidpa Bardo is going to be a fun and exciting trip, but according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it’s not going to be anything like Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure. From the 20th up to the 41st day, the experience begins with the journey down to the world of hells, where the dead first receive judgment from the lord of death, Dharma-Raja.
Dharma-Raja stands in the center of the world of hells with a wrathful appearance surrounded by flames, a blazing hair, and a crown of skulls. He has a third eye, carries the flaming sword of knowledge, and a mirror that reflects all the good and bad deeds of dead people. He also has many assistants, some of which are animal-headed just like the wrathful deities of the Chonyid Bardo. His kingdom is an impenetrable place of torture and suffering with walls filled with many traps making it impossible for anyone to escape until every good and bad deed has been judged.
It is said that two spirits appear for every dead person who comes before Dharma-Raja, and these could be described as the psychic aspects representing good and bad spirits born simultaneously with the person. When it is time to receive judgment, they escort the dead person to face the lord of death. The good spirit is called the "simultaneously born white genius" and it carries a sack of white stones. The bad spirit is called the “simultaneously born black demon" and it carries a sack with black stones.
The Six Realms of Existence
As mentioned earlier, the search for the place of rebirth lasts 7 days. The six realms of existence can be found just below the divine realms that one visited during the Chonyid Bardo experience. The six realms are worlds of suffering governed by the Law of Karma and where the cycle of birth, life, and death is fully at work.
Since the consciousness of the dead person now possesses a "radiant body" and is equipped with the power of seeing the future, it can now perceive these realms one by one. The six realms of existence are the deva realm, the asura realm (jealous gods), the human realm, the animal realm, the preta realm (hungry ghosts), and the world of hells.
In Buddhism, the cause of rebirth is explained in the doctrine called Dependent Origination (Pratityasamutpada). They believe that as long as sentient beings are attached to the world of suffering due to ignorance, hatred, and greed, it is impossible to be free from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Because of this, Avalokitesvara appears in the six realms, in the form of the Six Buddhas described in the Chonyid Bardo, to teach the path of Wisdom and Enlightenment.
1. The Deva Realm (realm of the gods)
The deva or god realm is a world of enjoyment and pleasure. One can see delightful temples and mansions built of different kinds of precious metals upon entering this realm. Avalokitesvara appears in the god realm as the Buddha brGya-byin who carries a melodious lute in his hands. He teaches that it is improper for the beings to be proud of their joyful existence in this place because their stay here is based upon good karmic deeds and must at some point come to an end. However, if one is to be born as a deva, one is permitted to enter this realm.
2. The Asura Realm (realm of the jealous gods)
The asura realm is a world of fighting or strife. One can see either a charming forest or circles of fire revolving in opposite directions upon entering this realm. In the asura realm, there is great envy among the gods over the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Avalokitesvara appears here as the Buddha Thag-bzang-ris in a knight's armor while carrying a sword to settle the envy-inspired fighting. The Buddha teaches the titans the perfection of moral education, in order to overcome divisive envy. In the death ritual, one is not advised to enter this realm.
3. The Human Realm
The human realm is where you are now, unless if you believe you're in a different World of Existence. According to tradition, Avalokitesvara took the form of Buddha Sakyamuni by incarnating as Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha). His symbol is the alms bowl and a beggar’s staff.
4. The Animal Realm
The animal realm is a world that lacks reason. For those who are to be born amongst animals, rock caverns, deep holes in the earthd mists will be seen. One is not advised to enter this realm. In the world of animals who live in ignorance and stupidity, Avalokitesvara appears as Buddha Seng-ge rab-brtan who carries the book of wisdom. He teaches the animals to overcome ignorance by striving after the perfection of knowledge.
5. The Preta Realm (realm of hungry ghosts)
The preta realm is a world of avarice and greed inhabited by beings that experience an extreme degree of hunger and thirst. They are called pretas or hungry ghosts. One who is destined to be born as a preta will see desolate treeless plains, shallow caverns, jungle glades, and forest wastes. Avalokitesvara appears in the preta realm as the Buddha Kha-'bar-ma who teaches the perfection of generosity. The dead person is instructed to exert the greatest amount of energy to avoid entering this realm.
The world of hells is the realm of extreme suffering and the place of retribution for the vices of anger and hatred. One who is to fall into the world of hells may hear wailings of tormented people, black houses, and lands of gloom. It is also here where one suffers the intolerable pains of heat and cold. Avalokitesvara appears in the world of hells as the Buddha Dharma-Raja (described earlier) and carries water and fire to alleviate the sufferings of the beings tormented by heat and cold. In order that the denizens of hell may overcome the opposites of passionate hatred, the Dharma-Raja teaches them the perfection of equanimity. The dead person is also instructed to exert the greatest amount of energy to avoid entering this realm.
The Entry Into The Womb
The journey through the Sidpa Bardo ends as soon as one enters a womb. There are four kinds of birth according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead: birth by egg, birth by womb, supernormal birth, and birth by heat and moisture. It is said that if one is weak in devotion and lacks the ability to understand the illusions that one may encounter in the bardo, one will wander to the doors of the womb.
Additionally, because of the influence of karma, one will have the impression that one is either ascending, or moving along on a level, or going downwards. Those who carried too much negative karma will have the impression of fleeing into places of misery. Those who acquired good karma will have the impression of arriving in places of happiness.
If one is to be born as a male, one will feel an intense hatred towards the father and attraction towards the mother. If one is to become a female, one will feel an intense hatred towards the mother and attraction towards the father. After this, consciousness begins to enter the element of ether. This happens at the moment when the sperm and the egg cell are about to unite. Consciousness then begins to faint and after some time it finds itself in the womb in an embryonic state, waiting to be born in any of the six realms of existence.
It is often mentioned in various translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead that people who have attained spiritual perfection within their lifetime are no longer required to pass through the after death states. Instead, they can leave this world, the one we’re in right now, and stay in a supreme state of awareness or choose among the various realms that exist beyond the reach of average awareness. For those who are less trained in spiritual practices, on the other hand, liberation is still possible as long as they can recognize the Primordial Clear Light and the illusory nature of the visions of the after death state with the help of the teachings from the Bardo Thodol.
All of us have confronted the question of death at some point in our lives. For most people, death is something to be avoided because the thought of non-existence and leaving others behind is too unbearable, so they spend their entire lives trying to reject the idea of facing the inevitable. With the advancement of science, we also see how often people talk about the realization of physical immortality even if they cannot determine when the search for the ever elusive fountain of youth will end.
For others, death is not such a bad thing. Even the uber inquisitive Socrates, who was born several years after the Buddha and a few centuries before Christ, stated his attitude towards death during his trial as described by Plato in The Apology of Socrates: “Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is great reason to hope that death is a good; for one of two things—either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, with its philosophical and psychological content, is a very helpful guide for those who are ready to tackle the questions regarding the unknown. While serving as an instruction manual for the guidance of human consciousness after death, it also gives a detailed rendering of the psychic phenomena that happens to us in daily life. All the events described in the book are considered as psychic projections within an otherwordly dimension, which basically reflect the same type of reaction that we may have in this physical world. Therefore, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is not just a book about death, but also a book about life that I truly feel we should all treasure.