Bardo can have many implications, depending on how one looks at it. It is an interval, a hiatus, a gap. It can act as a boundary that divides and separates, marking the end of one thing and the beginning of another; but it can also be a link between the two: it can serve as a bridge or a meeting place, which brings together and unites. It is a crossing, a stepping-stone, a transition. It is a crossroads, where one must choose which path to take, and it is a no-man’s-land, belonging neither to one side nor to the other. It is a highlight or peak point of experience, and at the same time a situation of extreme tension, caught between two opposites. It is an open space, filled with an atmosphere of suspension and uncertainty, neither this nor that. In such a state one may feel confused and frightened, or one may feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen.
Such moments as these occur continuously in our life, unrecognized, and this is the inner significance of the bardo states as Trungpa Rinpoche taught. He spoke of them as periods of uncertainty between sanity and insanity, or between the confusion of samsara and the transformation of confusion into wisdom. “They are the heightened qualities of different types of ego and the possibility of getting off ego. That’s where bardo starts—the peak experience in which there is the possibility of losing the grip of ego and the possibility of being swallowed up in it.”
Wherever there is the death of one state of mind there is the birth of another, and linking the two there is bardo. The past has gone and the future has not yet come: we cannot catch that in-between moment, yet it is really all there is. “In other words,” Trungpa Rinpoche said, “it is present experience, the immediate experience of nowness—where you are, where you’re at.”
The six bardos are the bardo of this life (or birth), the bardo of dream, the bardo of meditation, the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata (or reality), and the bardo of existence (or becoming). The bardos are distinguished from each other in this way because they indicate different modes of consciousness, just as the waking consciousness differs from the dreaming consciousness. These states can last for a short or long period of time, as long as a whole lifetime in the case of the first one, yet they all share the mysterious and immensely powerful quality of “in-between-ness.” Or we could say that, by learning to see these stages of our life as bardos, we can gain access to that power, which is always present, unnoticed, in every moment of existence itself.
The experiences of the six bardos do not exist of themselves, they arise from the open space of the primordial nature of mind. Luminosity is the aspect of mind that gives rise to all these appearances: it is the environment that surrounds them, out of which they emerge and into which they dissolve. It is always present, like the sun in the sky, hidden behind clouds. At the moment, because of ignorance of our real nature, we experience everything as the confused manifestations of samsara. The sense of self creates a feeling of solidity, like the apparent solidity of the clouds veiling the face of the sun, but at certain moments a gap is opened up, through which we may receive a glimpse of the light of reality.
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