Image: Yama King of the Law, a fearsome protector deity, may appear in the between. Seventeenth-century thangka, Central Tibet. Courtesy The Zimmerman Family Collection/Photo © John Bigelow Taylor.
Image: Yama King of the Law, a fearsome protector deity, may appear in the between. Seventeenth-century thangka, Central Tibet. Courtesy The Zimmerman Family Collection/Photo © John Bigelow Taylor.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo thos grol), written by the great master Padmasambhava, organizes the experiences of “the between”—(Tibetan, bar-do) usually referring to the state between death and rebirth. Padmasambhava hid the text for a later era, and it was discovered by the renowned treasure­finder Karma Lingpa in the fourteenth century.

In common parlance, “the between” refers to the whole process between death and rebirth. The words thos grol mean that this book’s teaching “liberates” just by being “learned” or “understood,” giving the person facing the between an understanding so naturally clear and deep that it does not require prolonged reflection or contemplation. The most common Tibetan title of the work is The Great Book of Natural Liberation through Understanding in the Between. — Robert A. F. Thurman

The following passages from The Great Book of Natural Liberation contain instructions intended to help the deceased navigate the between and confront all the visions that appear therein, over the course of forty-nine days after death—although the ”first” day begins four and a half days after death, according to the guidebook. These visions, it proclaims, are the various manifestations of the mind-wrathful and beautiful, terrifying and comforting—that appear more clearly in the consciousness after the last breath. —Eds.

THE FIRST DAY

“Hey, noble one! Having fainted for four and a half days, you are now proceeding. You have woken up with the worry, “What is happening to me?” Recognize that you are in the between! Now, since the life cycle is in suspension, all things dawn as lights and deities. All space dawns full of azure light…. At this time when your mind and body are parting ways, pure reality manifests in subtle, dazzling visions, vividly experienced, naturally frightening. Do not fear them. Do not be terrified! Do not panic! You have an ‘instinctual mental body’ not a material, flesh and blood body. Thus whatever sounds, lights, and rays may come at you, they cannot hurt you. You cannot die. It is enough just for you to recognize them as your own perceptions.”

THE THIRD DAY

“Hey, noble one! Listen without wavering! On this third day, the yellow light that is the purity of the element earth dawns. At this time, from the yellow southern Buddha-land of Shrimat, the yellow Lord Ratnasambhava appears seated on a fine horse, carrying a precious wish-granting gem… The yellow light of the Equalizing wisdom . . . shines from the heart of the Ratnasambhava couple before you, penetrating your heart center, unbearable to see with your eyes… At the same time, the soft blue light of the human realm shines before you, penetrating your heart in parallel with the wisdom light. At that time, under the influence of pride, you panic and are terrified by that brilliant, energetic yellow light, and you flee it. You feel a liking for that soft blue light of the human realms and you approach it. But at that time you must fearlessly recognize that brilliant yellow, piercing, dazzling clear light as wisdom. Upon it place your mind, relaxing your awareness in the experience of nothing more to do.”

THE FIFTH DAY

“Hey, noble one! Listen without wavering! On this fifth day, the green light that is the purity of the element wind dawns. At this time, from the green northern Buddha-land of Prakuta, the green Lord Amoghasiddhi appears seated on an eagle throne, carrying a vajra cross, in union with his consort Samayatara. . . . The green light of the All-accomplishing wisdom, purity of the creation aggregate, green, piercing, dazzling and clear, adorned with glistening drops and droplets, shines from the heart of the Amoghasiddhi couple, precisely penetrating your heart center, unbearable to see with your eye…. At the same time, a soft, envy­made red light of the titan realm shines upon you together with the wisdom light-ray. You enjoy and are attached to that soft red light of the titan realm and you approach it. . . . But at that time you must fearlessly recognize that brilliant green, piercing dazzling clear light as wisdom…. Don’t flee it! Don’t fear it! Don’t be enticed by that soft red light of the titan realms! It is the path of destruction from the negative evolutionary actions you have committed through your powerful jealousy!”

THE TWELFTH DAY

“Hey, noble one! Listen without wavering! Now on this the twelfth day, the Lord Karma Heruka of the Karma-clan will manifest before you, emerging from within your own brain. He is dark green, with three faces, six arms, and four legs stretched out. . . . His Consort Buddha Karma Krodhishvari enfolds his body, her right arm embracing his neck, her left hand offering him sips of blood from her skull bowl. Thus they arise manifestly before you, standing in sexual embrace, having emerged from the north of your own brain! Do not fear them! Do not be terrified! Do not hate them! Recognize them as an image of your own awareness! They are your own Archetype Deity, so do not panic! In fact, they are really Lord Amoghasiddhi Father and Mother, so have faith in them, feel deep reverence for them, you will be liberated!

“…O my child! What you see and perceive, whatever terrifying visions occur, recognize them as your own visions! Recognize the clear light as the natural energy of your own awareness! If you so recognize, there is no doubt you will become a Buddha right away!

“Except insofar as they arise from the natural creativity of your own awareness, you must firmly decide that all that you see—the mild and fierce deities, the Herukas, the animal-headed angels, the rainbow lights, and the Yama deities-none is substantially, objectively existent! Once you under—stand that, then all the fears and terrors become liberated on the spot, you dissolve into nonduality and become a Buddha!”

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