The bardo is the “fourth state” of existence, after birth, life, and death, and is a time when, if your life wasn’t good enough for a rebirth in a higher realm or no rebirth at all you get another chance.
Though popular in the West today, the bardo is not universally accepted within Buddhism. Coming from pre-Buddhist Indian culture, bardo practice is primarily found in Tantric traditions. Bardo practice gained adherents in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism for devotees of the Guhyagarba Tantra and soon spread to the Kagyu and other schools. Karma Lingpa, a 14th-century Nyingmapa, is credited with introducing the Bardo Thodol, a manual for bardo practice and ritual. The popularity of the 1927 Evans-Wentz translation of this manual, with the inaccurate title The Tibetan Book of the Dead (more accurately, “liberation through hearing in the intermediate state”), brought the bardo to the attention of Buddhists across all traditions and the world beyond.
Bardo practice is done as a preparation for death and is often a funerary rite performed for the recently deceased. After death it’s thought that practitioners pass through the bardo in seven-day cycles, which can be repeated up to seven times, for a total of forty-nine days. The notion of forty-nine days was borrowed from the Kshitigarbha Sutra, which also deals with the afterlife.
There are several possible purposes for a painting like the one shown here. One is that it could be commissioned for personal practice. The second possibility is that it was done as a funerary work. It’s common in Tibet to have paintings made when people die. And the third possibility is that it’s done just for instructional purposes or general blessing.
In the upper portion of this composition, we see two large circles and a small circle, and then figures in the upper corners of the painting. The two large circles represent the one hundred peaceful and wrathful buddhas, or deities, of the bardo. The forty-two peaceful deities are in one circle, and the fifty-eight wrathful deities are in the other. Practitioners are taught to look on all lovely, peaceful, quiescent thoughts as peaceful deities and all troublesome, neurotic, anxious, terror-filled thoughts as wrathful deities. There’s a smaller circle above the one hundred deities that represents the five buddha families: Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. These five buddhas are familiar to Tantric practitioners and can be seen in many depictions. In the top left corner, you have Padmasambhava, whom Nyingmapas regard as the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, and in the top right corner, you have Yeshe Tsogyal, the preeminent woman in the Nyingma tradition, who transcribed many terma, texts hidden for future generations to discover. Her presence here indicates that this is a terma teaching.
Toward the bottom right, we have a vertical depiction of the wheel of life, but with the six realms of existence favored by the Nyingmapas rather than the five favored by other Buddhist traditions. We see six buddhas that represent the six realms, but they also represent the overcoming and transforming of the six realms, symbolically blocking the practitioner from being reborn in a lower realm. It’s important to remember that buddhas don’t live in these worlds. There are buddhas and the dharma only in the human realm. At the top is the realm of the gods, or devas, surrounded by fruit trees and living the good life. The devas are too busy enjoying themselves to practice the dharma, so eventually their karma will bring them back down to lower worlds. Below them are the asuras, the jealous demigods, and this is the realm that most other Buddhists include with the devas in the realm above. The third realm is the human realm, and we see a laborer here and dharma practitioners. Below the humans is the world of animals, then the realm of hungry ghosts, and finally hell, specifically a cold hell. It’s a snow-covered landscape, and there are heads buried in the snow and ice up to their necks.
Below that, at the bottom of the painting, is the hot hell, and we can see blue-skinned figures associated with Yama, the lord of death, torturing unfortunate people here. This section is connected to the actual bardo journey, above to the left, and is the destination for those beings weighed down with karma, who slide down on their bellies into this steamy molten hothouse.
Above this we see Yama, with blue skin and hair shooting upward. The practitioner has died, and this is the point when they’re asked, Are you going down? Are you going up? It’s when the mirror comes out and your deeds are reflected. We see a zigzagging white path going upward, while the lower half is black and looks like a waterslide. People are naked and upside down, falling and sliding down into hell. But some people have exhausted their karma in hell and they’re climbing upward. If we follow the path up to the top, we see Amitabha with Avalokiteshvara on one side and Vajrapani on the other, and people are being welcomed into Sukhavati, the pure land of Amitabha. There’s a lot of wishfulness and aspiration in this section of the painting.
At the center is Vajrasattva, the progenitor of all of the peaceful deities and wrathful deities in this painting. Vajrasattva is the lord of all the buddha families and is capable of clearing away all defilements and impurities. He can also be understood to be the practitioner, so this can be you or me but not our ignorant, greedy, samsaric mind. It’s our potential for enlightenment. It’s our wishing and bodhicitta and our buddhanature, represented as Vajrasattva. He is the lynchpin to the entire composition. Three rainbow lines emanate from his head to form the circles of deities above.
In early Buddhism, the in-between state, or the antarabhava in Sanskrit, is not very important, because once you get there, it’s game over and they’re setting up the board again. It’s only in Vajrayana Buddhism, with the proper training, that you have an opportunity in the bardo, but bardo instructions are a last chance. If you’re focused on bardo teachings, it actually means you’re doing remedial work. You’re not the sharpest kid in the class, because this is really your last opportunity to make good.
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