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Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Sangharakshita

Sangharakshita in Seminar

Chögyam Trungpa’s Commentary on
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo
[The Tibetan Book of the Dead; The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo
translated with commentary by Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa
Published by Shambhala, Berkeley, USA, 1975 ]
[Second ‘Transcriptions’ Edition: May 2001]
Held At: Padmaloka, Norfolk.
Date: September 1979Those present: The Venerable Sangharakshita, Virabhadra, Subhuti, Buddhadasa, Sagaramati,
Kuladeva, Anandajyoti, Devamitra, Tony Doubleday, Ranjit Singh, Tony Wharton, John Wakeman
[Numbers in square brackets refer to the page numbers of the first edition. These original page numbers are still used
in the ‘Unedited Seminar Index’, available separately from Transcriptions]
Sangharakshita: In the course of these ten days we’re going to be going through Trungpa’s Commentary on
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, because this elucidates in a quite vivid way the two main sets of symbols
involved, that is to say the six spheres of sentient existence and also the five Buddha families. And it is mainly
those that we shall be concerned with; that is to say the five or six spheres of conditioned existence, or sentient
existence rather, and the five Buddha families, rather than with The Tibetan Book of the Dead as such. We are
going to be trying to familiarise ourselves with these two groups of symbols, and in the case of the first set,
especially, try to see what meaning they have for our ordinary lives and what light they throw upon it. So we
are going to be doing what we usually do, that is to say going round the circle, each person reading a paragraph
in turn and we then discuss that paragraph, or any ideas arising out of or associated with it.
I have counted up: in this commentary there are nineteen sections, we have ten days, so we should try to do one
section before the coffee break and one section after. That keeps still a semi-period in hand which perhaps we
can use at the very end just for clearing up miscellaneous loose ends.
So we will start off this morning with message of the book and then after the coffee break go on to the Bardo
of the moment before death. So could we start reading that first paragraph?
THE MESSAGE OF THE BOOK
There seems to be a fundamental problem when we refer to the subject of The Tibetan Book
of the Dead. The approach of comparing it with The Egyptian Book of the Dead in terms of
mythology and lore of the dead person seems to miss the point, which is the fundamental
principle of birth and death recurring constantly in this life. One could refer to this book as
“The Tibetan Book of Birth”. The book is not based on death as such, but on a completely
different concept of death. It is a “Book of Space”. Space contains birth and death; space
creates the environment in which to behave, breathe and act, it is the fundamental environment
which provides the inspiration for this book. [2]
S: Yes, there are one or two points which arise here. You know of course that The Tibetan Book of the Dead
is, so to speak, at least implicitly, compared with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. You may remember that it
was the original editor of the English translation of the Bardo Thödol, as it is actually called in Tibetan, which
gave it this title of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the editor being Doctor Evans-Wentz, so clearly there was
implied there a comparison with the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But Trungpa is saying that the approach of
comparing it with the Egyptian Book of the Dead in terms of mythology and lore of the dead person seems to
miss the point. So what is that point, according to him, ‘which is the fundamental principle of birth and death
recurring constantly in this life’? Do you think this is altogether correct?
I take it that at some time or other you have all read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, either in this translation or
in the Evans-Wentz translation. The point is ‘the fundamental principle of birth and death recurring constantly
in this life’. Do you think that is the fundamental point of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead?

Subhuti: Only by inference, it’s not written into it, as it were.
S: On the face of it, it is a book of what happens to you after death. So why do you think Trungpa is saying that
‘the approach of comparing it with the Egyptian Book of the Dead in terms of mythology and lore of the dead
person seems to miss the point, which is the fundamental principle of birth and death recurring constantly in
this life’?
Anandajyoti: He is trying to get away from the implication that if it’s just to do with what is happening after
you’re dead, it has got no relevance for this life.
S: Yes, but even if it does all literally happen after death - if it is in fact a book of death and the after-death
experiences - in view of the nature of those experiences and the law of karma surely that is highly relevant so
far as this life is concerned? So what do you think is really happening here? Do birth and death recur constantly
in this life?
Sagaramati: Not in terms of experience.
S: They do in a broad sense, don’t they? There are sort of minor births and minor deaths. What am I trying to
get at actually? I am approaching some thing, some point - I was going to say of my own but really of the
Buddhist tradition - or put it another way, what do you think Trungpa, actually, is trying to do here, or what
is he doing?
Subhuti: He is trying to make it relevant to immediate experience.
S: That’s fair enough, but I think there is a little more to it than that. [3]
Virabhadra: Perhaps death as it actually occurs is a sort of death par excellence, whereas perhaps we could
look at the minor births and deaths we undergo, experiences, as being involved with the same principles.
S: Yes, we can certainly do that. But he is saying that that is the point, ‘the fundamental principle of birth and
death recurring constantly in this life’. In other words his approach seems to exclude altogether any
consideration of the content of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, so called, as referring to after-death experiences.
So why do you think he does that, or what does that enable him to do? What issue, what Buddhist doctrine does
that avoid? Rebirth. Do you see what I mean, do you see what I am getting at?
Subhuti: It’s even an evasion.
S: It’s an evasion. This I think is what is happening here. He is of course addressing an American audience,
an American audience which perhaps does not believe in karma and rebirth. So in a sense he is evading the
issue by saying that it doesn’t apply, in fact, to one’s experiences after death, it is not a book of the dead. The
point of the book is ‘the fundamental principle of birth and death recurring constantly in this life’.
Now you find much the same sort of thing with regard to some interpretations of the pratitya-samutpada. The
pratitya samutpada is usually explained as extending over three lifetimes - the previous life, the present life,
the future life. It is also explained in the Buddhist texts themselves as referring to what goes on within this
lifetime itself. So the one does not exclude the other. It is not as though the ancient Buddhist tradition was so
limited or so unenlightened that it didn’t realise that that teaching could be applied to just this life; it certainly
did. So it wasn’t a question of either/or, it was a question of this and that. The traditional interpretation of the
pratitya-samutpada applies to the series of one’s lives, past, present, future, it also applies within the context
of this present life. The one does not exclude the other. But some modern interpreters, fighting shy of this
whole issue of rebirth, say that it really applies only to this life. The same with regard to the six spheres of
conditioned existence. People evade or shirk the issue of whether those realms as such in some sense actually
exist, and they interpret it all psychologically as referring to mental states experienced, or experienceable, in
the course of this one lifetime itself.
So Trungpa seems to be doing this sort of thing. It is not that the teachings of The Tibetan Book of the Dead
cannot be applied to birth and death recurring constantly in this life; certainly they can. But the fact that they
can be so applied doesn’t mean that the application of them, or the relevance of them, to what happens after
physical death is excluded. So we get a situation in which when a traditional doctrine has several spheres of
application, when certain of those applications conflict with what people nowadays usually believe, those
applications are excluded and we are told that those applications which do not conflict with modern attitudes
are what it is really all about. In this way, at least a diminution, or even a falsification or distortion of the
teaching takes place. You are free to disagree [4] with the Buddhist teaching but you are not free to
misrepresent it, or to evade or shirk the issue. So this statement of Trungpa’s ...

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