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.
This gap is brought about by the intensity of emotional experience, which is always accompanied by an equal and opposite reaction, so that we are thrown into a situation of conflict and uncertainty. Two contrasting extremes are present simultaneously. Trungpa Rinpoche described it as being drenched with boiling hot and freezing cold water at the same time. At that very moment there is nothing to do but let go: give up trying to hold on to one extreme or the other, abandon the battle between life and death, good and bad, hope and fear. Then, in that instant of relaxation, there comes a sudden flash of realization. There is always the possibility that, in the midst of an everyday situation or at the height of some emotion, we may suddenly catch a glimpse of its essential emptiness and luminosity: a moment of sacred vision.
Entering the awakened state of mind, even for a moment, is always preceded by an experience, however fleeting, of extreme contrast and conflict. Even on the highest and most subtle levels of attainment, negative and positive continue together side by side, until one makes the leap beyond them both. Deliberately inducing paradoxical situations or being confronted by paradoxical statements, which the rational mind is unable to reconcile, can sometimes shock a person who is ready for it into a breakthrough. Great teachers have been known to precipitate an awakening in their students by a sudden outburst of anger or some other totally unexpected action. There are many stories of this kind in tantric literature, such as when the great siddha Tilopa hit his disciple Naropa in the face with his shoe.
Related: Tilopa’s Six Nails
Even in ordinary life gaps of this kind can occur. It might happen when we are in a state of complete exhaustion, feeling that we cannot stand it any longer and are just about to tip over the edge into madness. Or it might come at the height of extreme emotion, when our emotional energy reaches its peak and we are suddenly no longer sure what we are doing or what caused it. Suddenly time seems to stop and we feel calm and detached, suspended in a state of absolute stillness. For a moment we enter a different dimension of being, but without training it is impossible to stabilize these experiences and take advantage of the opportunity they represent. To be able to recognize and use such moments of heightened intensity requires the firm foundation of a calm and steady mind, and confidence in the basic sanity and goodness of our own nature.
All the instructions concerning the six bardos are basically to do with allowing that gap to open, by undermining our belief in the ordinary world that we take for granted, and then letting go into the space beyond. The bardo experience is a doorway to awakening, which is always present. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s words, “bardo is a very practical way of looking at our life.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.