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The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Summary, Translation & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Sipper

Dr. Sipper holds a PhD in Education, a Master's of Education, and a Bachelor's in English. Most of his experience is in adult and post secondary education.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a Buddhist text written as a guide for those who have passed from this life. It is considered one of the most unusual texts of its type and is still studied by eastern religious philosophers today

Tibetan Book of the Dead: Origins

Have you ever wondered what life after death, or in this case life between death and rebirth, is like? What type of existence must it be? What would you do and learn? While these questions have been asked by billions of human beings, some cultures have gone the extra mile and written books to assist those who are in between.

One of these intermediate state manuals is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book was originally written in the eighth century CE, ostensibly by an ancient Buddhist teacher named Padma Sambhava. The book's original title is Bardo Thodol, which is translated to 'liberation by hearing on the after death plane.' The purpose of the book is to help those who are in the intermediate state to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. This is accomplished by reading aloud the text of the book, thereby assisting the dead individual in their escape from the cycle.

In this lesson, we will examine a summary of the Bardo Thodol, give some details on the translation of the book, and discuss a few quotes in an attempt to more completely understand the text.

A representation of the Serene Deities encountered by souls in the First Bardo.
Serene Deities

Tibetan Book of the Dead: Summary

The Bardo Thodol is primarily concerned with helping those who have entered the intermediate state to elevate themselves into a new reality, thereby escaping the life, death, bardo, and rebirth cycle. This is accomplished through the reading of instructions to help the confused, disembodied soul find its way through the bardos, or levels, of the dream state the dead enter into following separation from their physical forms. There are three bardos encapsulating various aspects of the afterlife realm, in which the living whisper instructions of comfort, peace, and guidance to the deceased.

First Bardo

The First Bardo is the stage of the afterlife that occurs immediately after death. At the beginning of the First Bardo, instructions are read in an attempt to help the dead accept what is called the Clear Light, which helps the soul understand death as the ultimate existence. If the soul can embrace this truth, it will remain in the Clear Light forever, thus escaping the cycle. If not, the soul will sink into the Secondary Clear Light and then move into the Second Bardo.

Second Bardo

The Second Bardo is a two week period divided in half, in which the soul is met by numerous spiritual beings. In the first week, the Peaceful Deities appear to the soul. Seven deities appear, one for each day of the week, bringing their magnificent glory before the soul. If the soul is able to stand before the first deity, it will reach Nirvana, the aforementioned ultimate existence. If not, the soul descends from one day to the next, passing or failing the tests of each deity. In each case, the soul will be reborn into gradually decreasing states of existence, with the final state being reborn as an animal.

During the second week, the soul is met by seven legions of Wrathful Deities, which are actually just the Peaceful Deities in disguise. The instructions to the soul are to be still and unafraid in their presence. If the soul runs away, it will pass down to the Third Bardo, but if it stands its ground it will be liberated.

Third Bardo

The dreaded Lord of Death awaits the soul in the Third Bardo. He judges the soul using a mirror that shows all the good and evil deeds of the soul. If the soul can realize through the instructions being read that the Lord of Death and all his minions are merely imaginations of its own mind, the soul can still be liberated. However, if the soul gives way to fear, it will be reborn once more, trapped again in the cycle.

The Yama demon. One of the demons of the First Bardo that tortures souls.
Yama demon

Translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The initial Tibetan writing of the Bardo Thodol and its subsequent translation has an interesting history. The book was originally written in Sanskrit, the language of Tibet. However, after writing the Bardo Thodol, legend holds that Padma Sambhava decided the writings would be too spiritually advanced for the Tibetans of the time. Therefore, he hid the writings in the hope one day they would be discovered and interpreted judiciously.

Around 1365 CE, a young man named Karma Lingpa discovered many of the texts hidden on a mountaintop. After his discovery, more texts were found, eventually fulfilling Padma Sambhava's wish for them to be received with openness.

In modern times, the first English translation, by Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz, was published in 1927 by Oxford University Press. Dr. Evans-Wentz named the book The Tibetan Book of the Dead after the Egyptian book of the same name since he saw several parallels between the two. Commentaries were written by others, the most famous of which was produced by psychiatrist Carl Jung. His insights have helped many to have a more complete understanding of the often difficult texts.

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