In one of his final teachings the Buddha introduced the idea of tathagatagarbha, the buddha essence within every sentient being. The teachings make it very clear that tathagatagarbha pervades all beings equally in quantity as well as quality. This primordial essence is never defiled, but it becomes obscured when an individual engages in negative activity and thus accumulates negative karma that prevents him or her from recognizing tathagatagarbha.

Such individuals are called sentient beings, while those who recognize buddha essence are called enlightened beings. That recognition is the only distinction between sentient and enlightened beings, for both have an equal quantity and quality of tathagatagarbha. The real purpose of practicing the dharma is to realize the manifestation of buddha essence that we now only glimpse.

To help us recognize buddha essence within ourselves, the Buddha gave an unimaginable number of teachings, and the bardo teaching is one of the most profound. This teaching is extraordinarily important for our present-day world, because today we live with widespread conditions of distraction that weaken our ability to concentrate fully upon whatever practice we are engaged in.

The bardo is the intermediate stage between the beginning and the end of anything. The “in-betweenness” is itself the bardo. Therefore we must also understand that there is nothing in all outer and inner phenomena that is not included within the bardo. For example, one bardo is from the moment you are conceived to the moment you are born. Another is from birth until you begin to crawl, and another until you are sent to school, and then another until you finish school. The period between falling asleep and awaking the next day is a bardo, and when you dream, the time from the beginning to the end of a nightmare is another bardo. The moment you start eating breakfast until you finish breakfast—that, too, is one bardo! All of these bardos are classified within the bardo of birth and death.

Everything is subject to the bardo—everything between the first and second moment, between one day and another. In short, there is nothing that is permanent or solid and concrete. Everything is subject to change. All inner and outer phenomena are within the bardo, and through knowledge of the intermediate state we can come to understand the non-substantiality and non-concreteness of both samsara and nirvana. Although there are many classifications of bardo, here we will be discussing the bardo state from the moment we separate our consciousness from the physical body until we experience rebirth. There are many further classifications within this experience.

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