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[edit]

Origins and dating[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

Evans-Wentz's The Tibetan Book of the Dead[edit]

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]

Also Jung's introduction betrays a misunderstanding of Tibetan Buddhism, using the text to discuss his own theory of the unconsciousness.[17]

Other translations and summaries[edit]

Popular influence[edit]

The Psychedelic Experience[edit]

See also: Ego death

The Psychedelic Experience, published in 1964, is a guide for LSD-trips, written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, loosely based on Yvan-Wentz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.[18][19] Aldous Huxley introduced the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Timothy Leary.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

Musical and cinematic works[edit]

  • 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[23]
  • "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.[24][25]
  • 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]

See also[edit]


  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]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Fremantle 2001, p. 20.
  2. ^ a b Norbu 1989, p. ix.
  3. ^ Coleman 2005.
  4. ^ a b Valdez 2014, p. 166, note 122.
  5. ^ Fremantle 2001, p. 21.
  6. ^ Evans-Wentz 1960, p. liv.
  7. ^ Fremantle, Fremantle & Trungpa 2003, p. xi.
  8. ^ Forbes & Henley 2013.
  9. ^ a b Norbu 1989, p. xii.
  10. ^ Reynolds 1989, p. 71-115.
  11. ^ Lopez 2011, p. 127.
  12. ^ Evans-Wentz 1960.
  13. ^ a b c Reynolds 1989, p. 71.
  14. ^ Reynolds 1989, p. 72–73, 78.
  15. ^ Reynolds 1989, p. 78.
  16. ^ Paul van der Velde
  17. ^ Reynolds 1989, p. 110.
  18. ^ Merkur 2014, p. 221.
  19. ^ a b Gould 2007, p. 218.
  20. ^ Leary, Metzner & Alpert 1964, p. 11.
  21. ^ Gould 2007, p. 218-219.
  22. ^ Leary, Metzner & Albert 1964, p. 12.
  23. ^ "Information on Bardo Thödol in Finnish". 
  24. ^ Hartl, John (1990-11-01). "Adrian Lyne Met A Metaphysical Challenge". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 2010-02-06. 
  25. ^ Golden, Tim (1990-10-28). "FILM; Up 'Jacob's Ladder' And Into the Hell Of a Veteran's Psyche". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-10-22. 


Printed sources[edit]

  • 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 
  • 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 
  • 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 
  • 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. ^ a b The History Channel: Tibetan Book of the Dead Archived October 17, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  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[edit]

External links[edit]