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Tibetan Book of the Dead
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The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first translated into English in 1927. Its title was coined by its translator, the American scholar W. Y. Evans-Wentz, in imitation of the famous (and equally mistitled) Egyptian Book of the Dead.
- Bardo teachings are extremely ancient, and found in what are called the Dzogchen Tantras. These teachings have a lineage stretching back beyond human masters to the Primordial Buddha (Skt. Samantabhadra, Tib. Kuntuzangpo), who represents the absolute, naked, sky-like primordial purity of the nature of our mind.
But the Bardo Tödrol Chenmo itself is part of one large cycle of teachings [i.e. the Zabchö Shitro Gongpa Rangdrol] handed down by the master Padmasambhava and revealed in the fourteenth century by the Tibetan visionary Karma Lingpa.
- The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo is a unique book of knowledge. It is a kind of guidebook or a travelogue of the after-death states, which is designed to be read by a master or spiritual friend to a person as the person dies, and after death.
In Tibet there are said to be "Five Methods for Attaining Enlightenment without Meditation": on seeing a great master or sacred object; on wearing specially blessed drawings of mandalas with sacred mantras (Tib. takdrol);
on tasting sacred nectars, consecrated by the masters through special intensive practice; on remembering the transference of consciousness, the phowa, at the moment of death; and on hearing certain profound teachings, such as the Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo.
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead is destined for a practitioner or someone who is familiar with its teachings.
This is especially the case since the book cannot be fully understood and used without knowing the unwritten oral instructions that a master transmits to a disciple, and which are the key to its practice.
- In this book [The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying], then, I am setting the teachings, which the West has become familiar with through the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in a very much larger and more comprehensive context.
- W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Oxford University Press, first edition 1927)
- Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa, Tibetan Book of the Dead (Boston: Shambhala, first edition 1975)
- Gyurme Dorje and Edited by Graham Coleman with Thubten Jinpa, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin: 1993)
- Robert Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bantam Books, Inc.: 1994)
- The first ever complete and unabridged translation, by Gyurme Dorje and edited by Graham Coleman with Thubten Jinpa, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin: 2006)
- Bryan Cuevas, The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Donald S. Lopez Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La—Tibetan Buddhism and the West, (The University of Chicago Press, 1998), Ch. 2 'The Book'.
- Padmasambhava, Le Livre des morts tibétain , complete and unabridged translation by Philippe Cornu (ed. & transl.) (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 2009).
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (HarpersSanFrancisco: 1992).
- W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Oxford University Press, first edition 1927, Foreword)
The book has reappeared in several English-language versions since then, some based only loosely on the original.
The text has thus lived several lives in English alone, appearing to be reborn time and again before new audiences, often with varying titles and content. Yet these recent lives are part of a much older cycle of rebirths.
The text was rediscovered six centuries later by Karma Lingpa, believed by some to be an incarnation of Padma Sambhava himself. Since the fourteenth century C.E. the text has occupied a central place in Tibetan Buddhism, giving birth to a large number of parallel, supplementary, and derivative texts.
W. Y. Evans-Wentz coined the English title for the 1927 edition on the basis of analogies he perceived with the Egyptian funerary text The Book of Coming Forth By Day, known in the West as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Both the Tibetan and Egyptian Books discuss death and its aftermath. Yet their views of death are sufficiently different from the Judeo-Christian tradition that the English titles are quite misleading.
Hence the work's Tibetan title (which might be translated more literally as Liberation through Understanding the Between ) alludes to bardo states that may be experienced at any point over the cycle of life, death and rebirth,
The mind or soul continues to live after death, undergoing a series of experiences before rebirth. Human beings are believed to be able to guide themselves through the entire cycle by creating a more focused self-awareness through their powers of concentration, ideally, by means of meditation.
Six main bardo experiences are distinguished in Tibetan Buddhism: Three are encountered during life and three are encountered after death. A single life span is itself a bardo state, a transitional zone in a larger cycle of rebirths.
Dreams are bardo states that occur within the daily round, in the interval between falling asleep and waking; feelings of uncertainty, paranoia, and delusion are sometimes grouped with dreams on a looser interpretation of this second bardo state.
Death involves bardo states as well. On the Tibetan view, death is not an instantaneous event but a process taking several days, involving a successive dissociation of mind from body, which is manifested in characteristic outward signs.
In the second state, called the Chonyid Bardo, the soul has visions involving a succession of deities: a series of beatific Buddhas in the first seven days, a series of terrifying deities in the next seven.
Many of these visions are merely aspects of the Buddhas encountered in the first seven days, now made terrifying by the mind's own weakness. Liberation is still possible here simply by recognizing these beings for who they are.
A mind that has failed to free itself by this point enters the Sidpa Bardo, the third, most desperate stage. Here the mind faces a host of hallucinations, including visions of pursuit by demons and furies, of being devoured and hacked to pieces.
Because the weaknesses attributed to the dead are all experienced by the living as well, a person learning to traverse the bardo states of death will learn to navigate better the bardo experiences of life as well.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or he After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup's English Rendering. 1927. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Fremantle, Francesca, and Chögyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa. Berkeley, CA: Shambala Press, 1975.