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Tibetan Book of the Dead

by Sangharakshita

... Trungpa’s is not really valid here. ‘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 dead recurring constantly in
this life’. No. The fundamental point is both.

The tradition itself said that there were six bardos, I have gone into this in my lecture in the Aspects of Buddhist
Psychology series. There is the bardo of life as well as the bardo of death; this is accepted by the tradition. But
one should not, as I said before, exclude those applications of the teaching which are inconsistent with one’s
present-day attitudes. At least, in presenting the Buddhist teaching one should not try to exclude those
applications.
‘So one could refer to this book as the Tibetan Book of Birth’. Well, that is also true, certainly one could, but
that does not exclude really it being The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetan title, the full Tibetan title, is
the Book of the Liberation by Hearing on the After-death Plane, or in the Bardo. So, ‘the book is not based on
death as such, but on a completely different concept of death.’ I think there is a bit of confusion here. ‘The book
is not based on death as such’ - well, it isn’t, no, it is based on death as an opportunity, an opportunity for the
extension of one’s experience. An opportunity for liberation. And that death, yes, certainly can also occur,
within inverted commas so to speak, within the context of the present life. But the one does not exclude the
other. So, ‘it is a book of space as space contains birth and death’. Yes, here we are on more solid ground, yes,
one could say it is a book of space, but space which opens up both after death, after physical death, and, from
time to time, in the course of this present life when we face death-like existential experiences in which space
opens up, and new possibilities of being emerge within that 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.’ That is quite good, yes, that is quite
true. But the context is death in the literal sense as well as death as it were in the metaphorical or existential
present life sense. Do you see this? So we must be very careful not to bend our interpretations of the Buddhist
teachings. Sometimes it’s quite easy to do this. One or two of you were present at Sukhavati when we went into
the whole issue of karma and rebirth fairly thoroughly, when we had a study morning with the LBC team, and
that was very useful. And I think it threw quite a bit of fresh light on the whole issue for a number of people.
It wasn’t an issue that we had to shirk, it could be faced up to in an intelligent sort of way.
Any point arising out of that paragraph? [Pause]
Sometimes in the course of this lifetime, yes, we come very near death. Sometimes it stares us in the face. We
don’t actually die but in a way there is a death-like experience. There is a sort of anticipation of death, and that
experience enlarges our perspective, it opens things up for us, and as things are opened up we see, within that
opening up, [5] possibilities, perspectives that we hadn’t thought of before. But according to the Tibetan
teaching this happens on a grand scale, so to speak, after death. Then things really do open up.
All right, go on then.
The pre-Buddhist Bön civilisation of Tibet contained very accurate indications of how to treat
the psychic force left behind by a dead person, the footprints or temperature, so to speak,
which is left behind when he is gone. It seems that both the Bön tradition and the Egyptian are
based on that particular type of experience, how to relate with the footprints, rather than
dealing with the person’s consciousness. But the basic principle I am trying to put across now
is that of the uncertainty of sanity and insanity, or confusion and enlightenment, and the
possibilities of all sorts of visionary discoveries that happen on the way to sanity or insanity.
S: There are several statements that are made here. What Trungpa says about the pre-Buddhist Bön civilisation
of Tibet may very well be true; that this civilisation ‘contained very accurate indications of how to treat the
psychic force left behind by a dead person, the footprints or temperature, so to speak, which is left behind when
he is gone.’ In other words how to deal with ghosts, this is what Trungpa is really trying to say but he is
shirking it a bit, I think, dealing with these sophisticated Americans. All primitive peoples believe that dead
people sometimes leave behind ghosts, whatever they are, and that these ghosts have to be dealt with by the
tribal sorcerer or witch-doctor or priest at a later stage of religious development. So the Bön people seemed to
have had methods of dealing with these ‘footprints’ or ‘temperatures’ [Laughter] that the dead person left
behind. Well, it may well be something like that, but it seems - universal experience of humanity speaks in
terms of ghosts and so on. But that is really what it is all about, so to speak.
As regards the Egyptian tradition also being based on that particular type of experience, how to relate with the
footprints, rather than dealing with the person’s consciousness, I think actually, as far as my knowledge goes,
the Egyptian tradition was rather more complex than the Bön tradition. In any case, we don’t really know very
much about the Bön tradition as it existed before Buddhism and independently of Buddhism, there has been
such an amalgamation later on. Evans-Wentz, I remember, in his introduction to the translation of The Tibetan
Book of the Dead has some quite questionable things to say about the Bön tradition having transmitted beliefs
about the after-death life from the Neolithic period, I think that is totally unproven.
So Trungpa might well be quite correct in saying that the pre-Buddhist Bön civilisation did have various
traditions with regard to the treatment of ghosts, as they are popularly called, but I doubt very much whether
the corresponding Egyptian traditions can be regarded as being simply on that level. I think they were more

subtle, complex, and eventually philosophical. But anyway this is a bit in passing, what he basically is [6]
coming to is this; ‘But the basic principle I am trying to put across now is that of the uncertainty of sanity and
insanity, or confusion and enlightenment, and the possibilities of all sorts of visionary discoveries that happen
on the way to sanity or insanity.’ What do you think he means by that? Are sanity and insanity, confusion and
enlightenment uncertain? [Pause] I think what he is trying to say is that there are all sorts of possibilities;
changes take place, changes within our experience, some of these are positive, some are negative, so to speak.
Some may be delightful, others may be terrifying. They may be of a visionary nature but they all open up - even
those which take place under very painful circumstances sometimes - they all open up fresh possibilities of
experience, existence, even enlightenment. And that the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead is concerned with
these sorts of possibilities, as I would say not simply within the context of the present life but also, taking the
traditional teaching quite literally, especially after death.
Virabhadra: So you are saying that this should be one’s attitude to all these varied sorts of experience, that
one should be looking at them as ...
S: He could be taken as saying that. Because sometimes quite painful experiences, quite traumatic experiences
provide one with an opening, so to speak, yes? So even those openings, perhaps, have a sort of visionary
content on occasions. It isn’t that you necessarily have the experience in a beautiful, paradisaical sort of way
in the context of a lovely meditation. No, it may be something much more dramatic and traumatic than that.
You may have a real penetrating insight, or even visionary experience within the context of a tremendous
upheaval, psychological, spiritual upheaval, which affects you really very painfully. So he seems to be taking
into consideration possibilities of that sort. This is why, perhaps, he speaks in terms of insanity and confusion,
also. Sometimes you get a wonderful glimpse of sanity, of utter sanity, in the midst, almost, of insanity. You
get a wonderful glimpse of clarity, even enlightenment, in the midst of confusion. It’s as though the one really
brings you up against the other.
People often have - well, sometimes have - this sort of experience within the context of their very tortured
relationships. For instance, supposing you are just waiting for somebody to turn up, someone that you are very
attached to, and supposing they promised to meet you at 2 o’clock, and they don’t turn up and they still haven’t
turned up at three, four, five. You go through all sorts of torments, agonies, you feel like killing that person,
committing suicide. [Laughter] You are never going to speak to them again. You go through all that and at the
same time you see perhaps, quite clearly within the context of all those very painful experiences, your own utter
dependence, your emotional dependence, the utter uselessness and ...

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