The Bardo Realm of Grief
Back in my post entitled Dependent Origination - Past Life and the Twelvefold Chain (Part 3 of 5), I stated that “if you are inclined to think of ‘past life’ in terms of reincarnation [as opposed to previous moment of existence], you cannot find a more profoundly beautiful description of the process of its unfolding than in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” My reason for considering it so beautiful is primarily related to my thinking that it is an incredibly just system in that “[the] process results in the individual actually choosing a subsequent birth that is perfectly tuned to the spiritual progress that they have yet to make – a birth that is commensurate with the nature of their attachment, aversion, and delusion.” In other words, there is no harsh and judging God and there is no eternal damnation. There is always an opportunity for redemption depending upon how we conduct ourselves in subsequent lives and what effort we put forth toward purifying our karma.
The process of choosing the circumstances of one’s future birth unfolds in what are called the Bardo Realms – the “intermediate states” (Evans-Wentz, 1960) or “in-between states” (Schumacher & Woerner, 1994). The descriptions of what takes place in these states are, at once, fascinating and vivid, touching and evocative. I will attempt to provide a brief but suitably accurate synopsis of this process momentarily. First, however, I want to clarify what I mean by the Bardo Realm of Grief.
Grief, as I stated in my previous post, is a reaction to the precipitous, uncontrolled, and undesirable loss of self – as contrasted with the controlled and desirable loss of self that might take place within the context of spiritual practice, or the uncontrolled but desirable loss of self that results within the context of falling in love. The Bardo Realm of Grief is the in-between state wherein whatever yet remains of the self that has been lost as a result of the death of a loved one, injury, disease, divorce, trauma, etc. goes out in search of its next rebirth. (Of course, I am presently using the term ‘rebirth’ in a more figurative way.) Now, whether our rebirth is into a being of greater spiritual advancement or not depends entirely on how we conduct ourselves during the grieving process – the Bardo Realm of Grief. I’ll have more to say about that later. For now, though, let’s get further acquainted with what The Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The overarching message of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, The Bardo Thodol, is that one must prepare for death during life, for in death things will be experienced in the Bardo Realms that will not be easy to interpret without adequate training. Ideally, a guide or teacher will be at the bedside of the dying devotee, speaking into his or her ear as to what is happening and how one should conduct himself or herself. The first such event occurs at the precise moment of death as the Primary Clear Light dawns upon the departing individual. According to Evans-Wentz (1960), the guide or teacher speaks into the devotee’s ear just before the onset of death, saying:
O nobly-born (so and so by name), the time hath now come for thee to see the Path [in reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience it in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thyself; and abide in that state. (p. 91)
If you’ve had the opportunity prior to reading this post to consider the Heart Sutra series and the emptiness of shunyata described therein, then perhaps the nature of the Primary Clear Light will seem just a little bit more familiar. Unfortunately, it takes a very adept practitioner to be able to abide in that state of emptiness at the moment of death and thereby realize liberation forthwith. Further encouragement and guidance will usually be required. If the practitioner has gotten fairly advanced with respect to being able to visualize the Clear Light of Ultimate Reality, then the guide or teacher will keep repeating the instructions related to the “setting-face-to-face with the Clear Light.” If the devotee has been practicing meditations related to a particular deity, then the guide or teacher will remind him or her of this, saying:
O thou of noble-birth, meditate upon thine own tutelary deity – [Here the deity’s name is to be mentioned by the reader.] Do not be distracted. Earnestly concentrate thy mind upon the tutelary deity. Meditate upon him as if he were the reflection of the moon in water, apparent yet inexistent [in itself]. Meditate upon him as if he were a being with a physical body. (p. 99)
Unfortunately, few devotees are of such advanced practice that they can recognize “the secondary clear light seen immediately after death” – even with a teacher sitting by his or her bedside. Thus, the trials of the Chonyid Bardo begin. Apparitions resulting from the devotee’s own karmic accumulation (both good and bad) now begin to arise. At this point it is of utmost importance that these apparitions, whether they be terribly frightening or wonderfully sublime, be recognized by the deceased as merely the projections of his or her own mind. Without such realization the deceased continues slipping toward a lower and lower rebirth, perhaps into human circumstances far less suitable for spiritual practice and future redemption, perhaps into a being not even of human form. The guide or teacher encourages the devotee, saying:
O nobly-born, that which is called death hath now come. Thou are departing from this world, but thou art not the only one; [death] cometh to all. Do not cling, in fondness and weakness, to this life. Even though thou clingest out of weakness, thou hast not the power to remain here. Thou wilt gain nothing more than wandering in this Sangsara. Be not attached [to this world]; be not weak. Remember the Precious Trinity…. (p. 103)
The Precious Trinity is the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the Three Jewels.
The guide or teacher continues:
O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it. (p. 104)
At this point, the teacher or guide attempts to prepare the deceased for the hallucinatory journey that is about to begin – a journey on which the devotee will first be visited by apparitions of peaceful deities and then by apparitions of those same deities in wrathful form. All are the product of the deceased person’s own mind and must be recognized as such sooner rather than later:
The body which thou hast now is called the thought-body of propensities. Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come, – sounds, lights, or rays, – are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms. Recognize this to be the Bardo.
O nobly-born, if thou dost not now recognize thine own thought-forms, whatever of meditation or of devotion thou mayst have performed while in the human world – if thou hast not met with this present teaching – the lights will daunt thee, the sounds will awe thee, and the rays will terrify thee. Shouldst thou not know this all-important key to the teachings, – not being able to recognize the sounds, lights, and rays, – thou wilt have to wander in the Sangsara. (p. 104)
There is no escape at this point, no liberation, the only way out of this nightmare is to choose another living form and begin again the process of cultivating good karma and purifying one’s existing bad karma. Perhaps, then, when death comes yet again the individual will be in a position to recognize the true nature of the dawning of the Primary Clear Light and thereby be liberated forthwith.
The Bardo Realm of Grief
Some moments will always seem as though they happened just yesterday, no matter how much time might pass. And so it is with those moments during which I came to the realization that my marriage was over. I’m sure there is enough fodder there for an entire post someday; suffice it to say for now, however, that this realization was precipitous, utterly unexpected, and absolutely unequivocal. In one fell swoop the self that I had known was obliterated. In one fell swoop I was thrust into the Bardo Realm of Grief.
Not knowing what else to do with myself at the time, I headed out for a long walk. I’d not yet gone even 100 meters when I began to experience what I’ll liken to (not equate with, mind you) the dawning of the Primary Clear Light of the Bardo Thodol described above. With crystal clarity I saw what had up until then been obscured: I saw the ramifications of the choices that I’d made over the years extending all the way back to my childhood. I saw the karmic cause and effect of ten-thousand stones cast here and there into the great lake of my life, their ripples still expanding outward – intersecting and converging with augmented effect. I saw how even our best intended actions can nevertheless come to naught, and how we can think that we know something with certainty when in actuality we know nothing at all. I saw that the universe can sweep aside in an instant all that we’ve been working for, and I saw that everything that I’d come to appropriate as ‘my’ self comprised but the flimsiest of dwellings that I could have possibly constructed given the ferocity of the storms that rage across these Plains. And as all of these realizations dawned on me, I recall looking up into the bright blue sky and almost laughing. What an elaborate setup for just such a punch line! But I get it. Yes, I really, really get it!
And so I walked long into the evening. Like a disembodied spirit, I walked. And as I walked the sky grew dark. And as the sky grew dark the lightness of mind that I’d somehow come to know began to fade and my clarity of vision began shifting further and further out of focus. How quickly the wisdom of that moment slipped away! How quickly did my karma pull me back! Ah, if only I’d had a guru walking beside me all the while, whispering in my ear: “O nobly-born, you have just seen the Primary Clear Light of Ultimate Reality; you have just seen that all things are like the void and cloudless sky. Know this to be thine own true nature. Abide in this state. Abide.” Alas, though, I returned to the home of a stranger whose door key had somehow found its way into my hand, and as the door closed behind me a cold, dark, emptiness suffused my entire being. The hour was late, and the house was as silent as a tomb, even as the wrathful deities began assembling outside my every door and window – waiting for their time.
Grief and the Self
Grief, as I stated above and in my previous post, is a reaction to the precipitous, uncontrolled, and undesirable loss of self. Now, I realize that some readers might be troubled somewhat by my focus here. You might be asking or wondering or declaring: “Why are you so focused on the self?” “What about those instances when you’re grieving for someone?” “You’re making grief sound so selfish – narcissistic even.” Fair enough. But I do hope you’ll read on anyway!
Whether we’ve lost a loved one, been diagnosed with a disease, or been the victim of disaster, accident, or trauma – the self is irreversibly changed. Familial relationships might be forever altered and social connections severed. Activities that were once our raison d'être might now be prohibited by circumstance. The anticipated timeline of our life might be foreshortened, plans derailed, dreams forsaken. Physical and mental abilities might be diminished, skills lost. Our financial well-being might lie in ruins, our life’s work curtailed. All of these involve a loss of our sense of self. But even as important as all of these aspects of life can be, they are still not necessarily central to who we think we are.
That which is most central to who we think we are is that which is most easily overlooked – until trauma brings it into glaring review, that is. Here are a few such aspects of the self that come to mind (please comment with any others that you think I’ve overlooked or that you think are otherwise worthy of inclusion):
Agency – The grieving self has lost its sense of agency. It cannot control external events nor can it control the emotions that now roil unchecked within. Perhaps it can’t even control its own body anymore. It feels helpless – completely and utterly helpless. In large part, the sense of agency that was lost was illusory or immensely overvalued, but that doesn’t make the sudden realization of its absence any easier to accept.
Meaning – Whatever meaning the self had contrived related to its existence has now been ripped from its heart by circumstances beyond its control. “Why did God do this to me?” the grieving self might wonder. “Did I bring this on myself because of my karma?” the grieving self might ask. “What does all of this mean?” “Is life really just an unholy mess of random chaos?” By investing our lives and feelings and activities with meaning we bring order to our existence; we live with the sense that we matter, that what we do matters, that this community that we are building matters. That meaning might now be seen as illusory, or at best a pleasant fairy tale by which we’ve come to live our lives.
Trust – The very deepest trust that the self might have developed is torn asunder: trust in the goodness of life and other people perhaps, trust in its fundamental safety, trust in the fairness of the universe, trust in the loving nature or even the existence of God, trust in its own ability to see things clearly, trust in its own ability to even survive perhaps (see agency). There may no longer remain anything for the grieving self to believe in, or to hold up as sacred or holy.
The grieving self then is cast adrift without landmark or guiding star, perhaps to find itself thrashing about trying to get somewhere else – anywhere else – because to remain in that place without agency, or meaning, or trust is just too excruciatingly painful. And if the grieving self can’t even muster the will or strength to thrash about, then surely the storms raging through this Bardo Realm of Grief will blow it somewhere.
In closing then, grief is the struggle to come to grips with this loss of self – to regain a sense of trust, if possible; to reconstruct a sense of meaning, if it is to be found; to arrive at a revised or renewed sense of agency; to rebuild social connections; to find new work and new life activities; to re-imagine new aspirations and so forth. And that is why I find the comparison of the grieving process to that of wandering the Bardo Realms to be so meaningful. Both are difficult periods during which we must determine who and what we will be in our ‘next life’. Both involve choosing our future rebirth. Will it be a higher one or a lower one? Will we transcend whatever suffering we’ve come to know in order to dwell on a higher spiritual plane, or will we descend into animosity and small-mindedness and bitterness? Clearly it is the case, then, that spiritual practitioners will find much opportunity in their grief – perhaps even liberation!
I am apparently not the first to have likened the grieving process to a bardo realm. Google “grief bardo” and you’ll find other such references. I have purposely not read any of those other sources, however, except to learn of their existence, for the express reason that I did not want to be influenced by them in the writing of this post. The interested reader can determine for himself or herself whether any of those other sources make for worthwhile reading.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1960). The Tibetan book of the dead – the after-death experiences on the bardo plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English rendering (ed. Evans-Wentz, W. Y.).
Press. Oxford University
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank