The Characteristics Of Tibetan Buddhism (Part Four): What does the Bardo Thodol say

Posted On: 17 May, 2017


The day before I left Switzerland for the United States two weeks ago, I was staying at my elder brother’s home in Zurich. Around 10 o’clock that night, just when I was about to go to bed, in a fit of dizziness, I suddenly passed out. For a second I thought it was my time to go; so, I calmed down, and started to observe the process of dying. My eyes were wide open yet my body was unmovable, and I could feel the increasing heaviness of my body. It was just like the disintegration process of the five elements described in the Bardo Thodol— the body gets heavier and heavier, as if it is drowning in water. Upon closer scrutiny, I found that earth had submerged in water; after a while, I felt extremely dry after the evaporation of my body fluids; later it is as if the energy of water has transformed into that of fire, and my body felt completely icy cold, as if the energy of fire had yet again changed into that of air.

During the whole process, I stayed fully conscious and witnessed everything—the death of the body. Just before the air energy was about to turn into void, I started to visualize Yidam; and suddenly there appeared a white light; so I entered Samadhi surrounded by the light. Without notice of the passage of time, I woke up the next morning. I was at a loss when I opened my eyes, not knowing where I was. Gradually I realized it was my brother’s home after careful examination.


The Bardo Thodol says that there are three channels in the human body, the middle channel being the root of our life. We are alive because we have life. How come one’s life lies in the middle channel then? That is due to the existence of the left channel and the right channel. How do they support life? The right channel is connected to the right nostril; the left channel the left nostril, hence the breath, which sustains our life.

If someday one stops breathing, one loses his life, which means death. We have two kinds of breathings. They are internal breathing and external breathing, respectively. The internal breathing is very subtle. The stop of both breathings constitutes death in its fullest sense. The cease of the external breathing is the process of the transformation of the five elements; the process becomes complete only when the internal breathing stops. And then the soul departs the body permanently. The same is true in medicine—death is not death until the internal breathing stops.

Each and every one of us will eventually depart this world. Don’t worry or panic in the face of that final moment. During the disintegration of the five elements you will see a white light. It is our heart/mind in its purest form, or Buddha nature. If you are a Buddhist practitioner, just calm down to visualize the Yidam or your guru, and then enter deep Samadhi. If you are not a Buddhist practitioner, that is fine too; just think about Avalokiteśvara or a tranquil place in order to let the heart/mind settle down. This not only helps us to go through bardo, but also enables us to reach the pure land of the bodhisattvas or to attain better rebirth.


I just finished writing a book at Harvard University and now I am working with a publishing house. I went to Chicago to pay a visit to my uncle last week, and stayed there while doing some editorial work on the book draft. Two students of the Repa meditation program came to my aid, spending five days on editing the draft together with me.

During those five days, I busied myself with working on the book draft in the day and studying dreams at night. I would wake myself up every 90 minutes, trying to remember what I had just dreamt so as to study the dreams and the sub-consciousness. In the afternoon of the fifth day, I did not feel well and lay down on the bed. All of a sudden, I was breathing with great difficulty and felt my body becoming heavy. Then my breathing stopped, meanwhile my consciousness remained crystal clear. My consciousness looked downward, there was nothing but an overwhelming darkness; looking upward, colorful brightness evocative of a rainbow. So, I walked into the brightness. Before long I started to visualize Amitayus and chant the mantra of Amitayus. After a few times of mantra-chanting, my consciousness returned to my body and my breathing resumed.


The Bardo Thodol describes three stages between death and rebirth, the total of which lasts 49 days. The first stage is called Chikhai bardo, the second Chonyid bardo, and the third Sidpa bardo.

Unconsciously, the soul departs from the body after the cessation of both the internal breathing and the external breathing. This stage lasts for three and half days and is termed Chikhai bardo. After this period, the soul begins to resume his consciousness and recall his identity, name, gender, and family. The soul starts to suspect the death of himself upon seeing wailing people surrounding his body, or upon hearing others discussing his death. The soul would then try desperately to get back into his dead body. The futile attempts would make the soul eventually realize and grieve over his own death. This marks the beginning of the Chonyid bardo. The duration of Chonyid bardo is two weeks. During the first week, the soul will come across 42 peaceful Yidams; and the second, 58 wrathful Yidams. Trained Buddhist practitioners would recognize the wrathful Yidams as Bodhisattvas and thus attain liberation. Untrained souls would instead live in fear and terror.

Those untrained souls would be startled to return to the initial unconscious state after the two weeks of Chonyid bardo. Thereafter, it is the three-week-Sidpa bardo. The soul suffers vagrancy, pain, anxiety, and loneliness in his search for rebirth.

The 49-days’ bardo is the longest. Those who have accumulated much bad karma would meet the karmic retribution by going straight to hell, with little chance to experience bardo of such length. Those who have accumulated many karmic merits would ascend directly to their desired bodhisattva’s pure land, thus leaving bardo after dwelling there for some seven days at the most. The experience with bardo entirely depends on each individual’s karma.

I share this with you today because all of us will have to depart this world in the end. As such, we should cherish the time we have and devote it to practice. I also hope that you all can read the Bardo Thodol if possible. It is written by Padmasambhava in the eighth century and you will derive wisdom from reading it. Also, if someone close to us is dying, with the wisdom, we can be truly helpful and supportive to them.