Bardo:
Dying Days

When breath is about to stop:

Now the time has come for you to seek a path. As soon as your breath stops, the basic luminosity of the first bardo which your guru has already shown you will appear to you. This is the dharmata, open and empty like space, luminous void, pure naked mind without center or circumference. Recognize then, and rest in that state, and I too will show you at the same time.

When breath has ceased but pulsation has not yet ceased:

That which is called death has now arrived, so you should adopt this attitude: "I have arrived at the time of death, so now, by means of this death, I will adopt only the attitude of the enlightened state of mind, friendliness and compassion, and attain perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings as limitless as space. With this attitude, at this special time for the sake of all sentient beings, I will recognize the luminosity of death as the dharmakaya, and attaining in that state the supreme realization of the Great Symbol, I will act for the good of all beings. If I do not attain this, I will recognize the bardo state as it is, and attaining the indivisible Great Symbol form in the bardo, I will act for the good of all beings as limitless as space in whatever way will influence them."

When pulsation has ceased (1st bardo):

Now the pure luminosity of the dharmata is shining before you; recognize it. At this moment, your state of mind is by nature pure emptiness. It does not possess any nature whatever, neither substance nor quality such as color, but it is pure emptiness; this is the dharmata, the female buddha Samantabhadri. But this state of mind is not just blank emptiness, it is unobstructed, sparkling, pure and vibrant; this mind is the male buddha Samantabhadra. These two, your mind whose nature is emptiness without any substance whatever, and your mind which is vibrant and luminous, are inseparable; this is the dharmakaya of the buddha. This mind of yours is inseparable luminosity and emptiness in the form of a great mass of light; it has no birth or death, therefore it is the buddha of Immortal Light. To recognize this is all that is necessary. When you recognize this pure nature of your mind as the buddha, looking into your own mind is resting in the buddha-mind.

After pulsation has ceased (2nd bardo):

Listen carefully without distraction. There are six bardo states: the bardo of birth, the bardo of dreams, the bardo of samadhi-meditation, the bardo of the moment before death, the bardo of dharmata, and the bardo of becoming. You will experience three bardo states: the bardo of the moment before death, the bardo of dharmata, and the bardo of becoming. Of these three, the luminosity of dharmata in the bardo of the moment before death shone until yesterday, but you did not recognize it, and so you had to wander here. Now you will experience the bardo of dharmata and the bardo of becoming, so recognize what I will show you without distraction.

Now what is called death has arrived. You are not alone in leaving this world; it happens to everyone, so do not feel desire and yearning for this life. Even if you feel desire and yearning, you cannot stay; you can only wander in samsara. Do not desire, do not yearn. Remember the Three Jewels. Whatever terrifying projections appear in the bardo of dharmata, do not forget these words, but go forward remembering their meaning; the essential point is to recognize with them:

Now when the bardo of dharmata dawns upon me, I will abandon all thoughts of fear and terror, I will recognize whatever appears as my projection and know it to be a vision of the bardo; now that I have reached this crucial point I will not fear the peaceful and wrathful ones, my own projections.

Go forward, saying these words clearly and distinctly, and remembering their meaning. Do not forget them, for the essential point is to recognize with certainty that whatever appears, however terrifying, is your own projection.

When your body and mind separate, the dharmata will appear, pure and clear yet hard to discern, luminous and brilliant, with terrifying brightness, shimmering like a mirage on a plain in spring. Do not be afraid of it, do not be bewildered. This is the natural radiance of your own dharmata, therefore recognize it.

A great roar of thunder will come from within the light, the natural sound of dharmata, like a thousand thunderclaps simultaneously. This is the natural sound of your own dharmata, so do not be afraid or bewildered. You have what is called a mental body of unconscious tendencies, you have no physical body of flesh and blood, so whatever sounds, colors, and rays of light occur, they cannot hurt you and you cannot die. It is enough simply to recognize them as your projections. Know this to be the bardo state.

If you do not recognize them in this way as your projections, whatever mediation practice you have done during your life, if you have not met with this teaching, the colored lights will frighten you, the sounds will bewilder you, and the rays of light will terrify you. If you do not understand this essential point of the teaching, you will not recognize the sounds, lights, and rays, and so you will wander in samsara.


Bardo means gap; it is not only the interval of suspension after we die but also suspension in the living situation; death happens in the living situation as well. The bardo experience is part of our basic psychological make-up. There are all kinds of bardo experiences happening to us all the time, experiences of paranoia and uncertainty in everyday life; it is like not being sure of our ground, not knowing quite what we have asked for or what we are getting into. So this book is not only a message for those who are going to die and those who are already dead, but it is also a message for those who are already born; birth and death apply to everybody constantly, at this very moment.

The bardo experience can be seen in terms of the six realms of existence that we go through, the six realms of our psychological states....In other words, the whole thing is based on another way of looking at the psychological picture of ourselves in terms of a practical meditative situation. Nobody is going to save us, everything is left purely to the individual, the commitment to who we are. Gurus or spiritual friends might instigate that possibility, but fundamentally they have no function....

The Bardo of the Moment Before Death

The first basic bardo experience is the experience of uncertainty about whether one is actually going to die, in the sense of losing contact with the solid world, or whether one could continue to go on living. This uncertainty is not seen in terms of leaving the body, but purely in terms of losing one's ground; the possibility of stepping out from the real world into an unreal world....

The book describes the death experience in terms of the different elements of the body, going deeper and deeper. Physically you feel heavy when the earth element dissolves into water; and when water dissolves into fire you find that the circulation begins to cease functioning. When fire dissolves into air, any feeling of warmth or growth begins to dissolve; and when air dissolves into space you lose the last feeling of contact with the physical world. Finally, when space or consciousness dissolves into the central nadl, there is a sense of internal luminosity, an inner glow, when everything has become completely introverted....

The next experience is the luminosity. You are willing to give in because you cannot struggle any more, and a kind of carelessness arises at that moment. It is as though pain and pleasure are occurring at the same time, or a powerful shower of icy cold water and boiling hot water is pouring simultaneously over your body. It is an intense experience, very powerful and full, the experience of oneness where both pain and pleasure are the same. The dualistic struggle of trying to be something is completely confused by the two extreme forces of hope for enlightenment and fear of becoming insane. The two extremes are so concentrated that it allows a certain relaxation; and when you do not struggle any more the luminosity presents itself naturally.

The next step is the experience of luminosity in terms of daily life. The luminosity is neutral ground or background, a gap when the intensity slackens. Then some intelligence begins to connect it to the awakened state of mind, leading to a sudden glimpse of meditative experience or buddha nature, which could also be called the dharmakaya. But if we have no means of connecting with the basic intelligence, and confused energy still dominates our process of mind, then the energy builds up blindly and finally falls down into different levels of diluted energy, so to speak, from the absolute energy of the luminosity. Some basic tendency of grasping begins to develop in the state of luminosity, and from that the experience of the six realms of the world develops according to its intensity. But that tenseness or tightness cannot just function by itself without an activator of energy; in other words, energy is being used in order to grasp. We can now look at the six realms of the world from the point of view of different types of instinct....

These six realms of the world are the source of the whole theme of living in samsara, and also of stepping into the dharmakaya realm. This will help us to understand the significance of the visions described in the book of the bardo of becoming, which is another kind of world. There is a confrontation of these two worlds: the experience of the six realms from the point of view of ego, and from the point of view of transcending ego. These visions could be seen as expressions of neutral energy, rather than as gods to save you from samsara or demons to haunt you.

The Bardo of Dharmata

Along with the six realms, we should have some understanding of the basic idea of bardo: 'bar' means in between, and 'do' means island or mark; a sort of landmark which stands between two things. It is rather like an island in the midst of a lake. The concept of bardo is based on the period between sanity and insanity, or the period between confusion and the confusion just about to be transformed into wisdom; and of course it could be said of the experience which stands between death and birth. The past situation has just occurred and the future situation has not yet manifested itself so there is a gap between the two. This is basically the bardo experience.

The dharmata bardo is the experience of luminosity. Dharmata means the essence of things as they are, the is-ness quality. So the dharmata bardo is basic, open, neutral ground, and the perception of that ground is dharmakaya, the body of truth or law.

When the perceiver or activator begins to dissolve into basic space, then that basic space contains the dharma, contains the truth, but that truth is transmitted in terms of samsara. So the space between samsara and the truth, the space the dharma comes through, provides the basic ground for the details of the five tathagatas and the peaceful and wrathful visions.

These expressions of the dharmata are manifested not in physical or visual terms but in terms of energy, energy which has the quality of the elements, earth, water, fire, air, and space. We are not talking about ordinary substances, the gross level of the elements, but of subtle elements....

The Nature of the Visions

The visions that develop in the bardo state, and the brilliant colours and sounds that come along with the visions, are not made out of any kind of substance which needs maintenance from the point of view of the perceiver, but they just happen, as expression of silence and expression of emptiness. In order to perceive them properly, the perceiver of these visions cannot have fundamental, centralised ego. Fundamental ego in this case is that which causes one to meditate or perceive something....

The first vision that appears is the vision of the peaceful divinities; not peacefulness in the sense of the love and light experience we have just been talking about, but of completely encompassing peace, immovable, invincible peace, the peaceful state that cannot be challenged, that has no age, no end, no beginning. The symbol of peace is represented in the shape of a circle; it has no entrance, it is eternal....

There is also the experience of the wrathful divinities. They are another expression of peacefulness, the ruthless, unyielding quality, not allowing side-tracks of any kind. If you approach them and try to re-shape the situation they throw you back....

Of course there is always the possibility of ignoring these reminders and continuing to believe the original idea. So the concept of leaving the body and entering the luminosity, then waking up from the luminosity and perceiving these visions in the third bardo state could be seen symbolically as being delivered into that open space space without even a body to relate to, such open space that you cannot have the notion of union because there is nothing to be united with or by. But there are flashes of energy floating, which could be either diverted or channelled in; that is the definition of mind in this case, the gullible energy which could be diverted into another situation or turned into a rightful one. The possibility of freeing oneself into the sambhogakaya level of the five tathagata realms depends on whether or not there is any attempt to go on playing the same game constantly.

At the same time as these vivid and colourful experiences, there is also the playing back of the six realms of the bardo experience. The perception of the six realms and the perception of the five tathagatas are one state, but they have different styles. It seems that the perceiver of the tathagatas, this kind of mind, has tremendous ability to keep the link between physical body and mind, very spontaneously. There is no division between the spirituality of the mind and the spirituality of the body; they are both the same, so there is no conflict.

The book says that the first time you awaken from the unconscious absorption in the body, you have a visual experience, minute and precise and clear, luminous and terrifying, rather like seeing a mirage in a spring field, and also you hear a sound which is like a thousand thunders roaring simultaneously. In the mental state there is a looseness and detached feeling, while at the same time overloaded with intelligence, as though the person had a head without a body, a gigantic head floating in space. So the actual visual experience of this bardo state, the preparation for perceiving the visions of the tathagatas, is clear and intelligent and luminous, but at the same time intangible, not knowing where you are exactly; and that sensual experience is also happening in the audible sphere, a deep sound roaring in the background, earthshaking, but at the same time there is nothing to vibrate. Similar experiences can also happen in life, although the absence of a physical body makes the bardo experience more clear and more hallucinatory. In a life situation there is not the extreme aspect of the mirage, but there is a basically desolate quality, loneliness and flickering, when the person begins to realize that there is no background area to relate to as ego. That sudden glimpse of egolessness brings a kind of shakiness. (pp. 1-5, 10-15)


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Last modified on January 30, 2005 by Kay Keys (kay@kaykeys.net)