Bardo Teachings: Between Lives

The second bardo is the suffering bardo of the time of death. It begins when the causes and conditions of death arise and lasts until one enters into the bardo of reality. A supreme being who faces death will mix the child and mother emptiness at the time of death, like the space inside and outside a vase merging when the vase is broken. They will merge inseparably with the dharmakaya. Other higher beings will die like burning wood becoming ashes. When the wood is exhausted the fire also ends. In this mode, one disappears into the nature of dharmakaya.. Another mode of dying is where space is filled with rainbow lights. Beings who die this way are known as vidyadharas. Other beings die without leaving their body behind, achieving the rainbow body. This is this known as way of the dakinis. These supreme beings do not die as ordinary beings.

Yogis of the medium level die in three ways. The first is death like a child. They have no plans or schemes. Another type is the death of a beggar. They have no fixed place to die. One other kind of death is death like a lion. They have no fixed abode and die in wild places. All these types of death are in full confidence and free from preparation or revision.

A person of the supreme type can attain enlightenment in this life without going through the bardo. A mid-level yogi can attain enlightenment at the time of death without special visualizations. The lowest yogis and ordinary beings must go through the dissolution of the elements and constituents at the time of death. Death is nothing other than the separation of the consciousness from the body at the time of death. When the elements become damaged one's consciousness must leave the body.

All living beings are conceived from the five elements and exist depending on the five elements. When they die, their elements dissolve and disappear. At the time of death all the subtle energies in the five chakras and three points are dissolved The detailed explanation of the process is contained in the Dzogchen teachings. This text depends on both the old and new traditions.

When the wind of equanimity dissolves, warmth disappears from one's extremities. This is the outer sign of the dissolution of the wind. The inner sign of the dissolution of the life force is that one's consciousness becomes unclear. The sign that the downward wind dissolves is that one is unable to expel one's feces and urine. When the upward wind dissolves one is unable to take food and drink. When the all pervasive wind dissolves one loses strength in one's limbs. This is the sign all the winds have dissolved.

The navel chakra dissolves first. At that time the earth element dissolves into water. Earth has the property of supporting things. The outer sign of dissolution is that one is unable to lift things or stand up. At the same time one's complexion changes. One's teeth become black and cannot retain mucus in the nose. The inner sign is that one's consciousness becomes dull and feels one is suffocating. One will make gestures asking for more pillows. The secret sign is that one experience the inner radiance of illusion. When the heart chakra dissolves, then water element dissolves into the fire element. The water element is responsible for one's complexion. The outer sign is that the nostrils close. The tip of the tongue becomes crooked. The inner sign is that the mind becomes frustrated. The secret sign is that appearances are clouded in smoke.

When the chakra at the throat dissolves, the fire element dissolves into the wind element. The outer sign of the dissolution is that one's respiration becomes cold. Sometimes there is a slight steam rising from the crown as the sign of the body losing its warmth. The inner sign is that the clarity of the mind fluctuates and outer objects become blurred. The secret sign is that one sees the five lights and red flames in the sky.

Next is the dissolution of the chakra at the secret point. The wind element dissolves into the consciousness element. The breath changes so that the exhalation is long and the inhalation short. Another sign is a rattling sound in the throat. And one's eyes may turn upwards. The inner sign is various hallucinations, the nature of which is determined by one's past karma. If one has heinous karma, one will see the Lord of Death and will make signs of great fear and frustration. If on has virtuous karma, one will be invited by the dakas and dakinis to the Pure Lands. So these are the signs when the winds and elements dissolve. When the five senses dissolve, one can no longer experience through the senses.

When consciousness dissolves into space, one's outer breath stops. At this time the winds in the body dissolves into veins of the heart and the life force channel. One exhales three times and this is the sign of losing one's life force. At the same time some warmth remains in the heart.

So this is the general process of dissolution. But in some special cases, this process is not irreversible and the person can come back to life. But when the extraordinary signs of death take place one can no longer come back to life. These are the experiences of the three radiances. When the mental constituents dissolve, these radiances appear.

The first is the white radiance. It occurs when the white drop from the father dissolves. One experience white radiance like a moonlit sky. Then the red radiance occurs. It happens when the red drop dissolves. But sometimes the order of these two radiances is reversed. The dissolution of the two drops occurs when the winds dissolve into the two side channels. The white drop is like the syllable HUNG in the forehead. When it dissolves the 33 mental constituents related to anger disappear. The clarity aspect of consciousness is also experienced vividly. The red drop is like the syllable AH at the level of the navel. The 40 mental constituents related to anger dissolve. The inner sign of this dissolution is the experience of bliss. This experience is called the red increase. Then the all pervasive wind moves the two drops into the heart where they merge. At this point one experiences blackness. The 7 mental constituents related to ignorance dissolve. One becomes unconscious and blacks out. This state is called near attainment. This is the space element dissolving into luminosity. This experience happens to all sentient beings.

The next chapter in the text describes how to actualize spiritual realization during this process. This refers to recognizing the nature of mind, the base luminosity. To achieve this one must have contemplated the contaminations of samsara and impermanence. during this life Only these and the pith instructions of the teacher can help here. Of all the bardos, the bardo of ordinary life is the most important. It is similar to a traveller who must make preparations before embarking on a journey. It's crucial to receive pith instructions from one's teacher. If one lacks the practical instructions on how to practice, one will only feel remorse at the time of death. Instructions on death and impermanence are extensively taught. But it is more important to have a core instruction one can perform at the time of death. If one is attached to wealth and possessions and is ambitious, one's life is passed in distraction and one is taken by death unawares. Preparations one can take include reducing one's cravings and having no regrets about leaving things behind. One should cultivate meritorious deeds. A supreme person can die like a wild animal without attachment to relations or possessions.

The process of dissolution explained here is the usual process, but sometimes beings experience dissolution in a different manner or order. But it is important to learn and remember these stages of dissolution to prepare for death.

When death approaches, one should sit if possible. If not, one should lie on one's right side in the posture of a lion, the same posture Shakyamuni took when he died. Whatever practice one has learned, such as Dzogchen or Mahamudra, should be applied at this point. When you have learned how to use a weapon you should use it when needed. It is important to remain in the natural state when one the stages of dissolution occur. When the base luminosity is experienced, if one remains in the natural state, one attains enlightenment effortlessly. If one is a realized practitioner, this experience is known as the meeting of mother and son. If one is not realized, one's mind should be focussed in faith and devotion on one's teacher. If one is not realized or trained when the earth element dissolves one should visualize one's root lama in one's heart as any Buddha and pray to them. When earth element dissolves into water, one should visualize one's teacher at the navel and pray with devotion. When the fire element dissolves into wind, one should visualize one's teacher at the forehead and pray to them. When the wind element dissolves, one should perform one's phowa practice.

If one is a realized yogi the practice of phowa is not necessary, as one can directly achieve the dharmakaya. But for the sake of disciples, sometimes teachers will perform phowa at death. For example Marpa called his disciples when he died and rose into a rainbow light the size of an egg. Another lama manifested a white light the size of a pot, which radiated into rainbow light, finally manifesting in the form of a buddha. Many masters and yogis of old have shown these experiences. If someone has broken the root samayas, the practice of phowa will not work, as it depends on the blessings of one's spiritual teacher. But even if one has performed the five heinous actions one can achieve liberation through phowa by keeping faith and the commitments of the vajra master. Phowa can be practiced for oneself or for another. When one tries to apply phowa for another before the time of the time of dissolution of the outer elements, the other person may become angry or one can incur the faults of killing a deity. The proper time to perform phowa for another is at the time of white increase. At the time of red radiance someone who is not spiritual will experience frustration and fears. But a spiritual person will see dakas and dakinis. So the time of white and red increase is the proper time to perform phowa for another. There are many types of phowa, those of the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. For ordinary practitioners the appropriate practice is the phowa of the three concepts. The dharmakaya phowa is called that of high view, that of sambhogakaya is called the phowa of generation and completion. The phowa of nirmanakaya is called the phowa of limitless compassion. The phowa of three concepts has three recognitions, the central channel as the path, the drop as the traveller, and the pure land of Amitabha as the destination. If you are a practitioner of phowa you should practice it regularly and if you are not, you should receive it. Enlightenment without meditation can only achieved through it.. But even if one practices phowa one should be diligent in the accumulation of meritorious deeds. Drikung phowa has a blessing and a unique lineage. The practice of phowa during life differs from that at the time of death. If you have questions, ask the resident lamas. You should be well trained and qualified before attempting phowa for others. If your friends are Buddhist it is helpful to perform phowa for them. If they do the practice of Chenrezig it helps them to perform the sadhana of Chenrezig for them. One should help the dying person to recollect whatever their regular practice is and by reciting the names of the Buddhas. It has been said that if one recites mantras such as "I pay homage to the Virtuous One," it has the same benefit as phowa.

The third bardo is the state of reality. When all the elements and constituents have dissolved and the white and red drops meet, one gives rise to the base luminosity. This is the wisdom of the six perfection and none other than the ultimate truth. it is the nonconceptual awareness of mahamudra and the natural awareness of dzogchen. This is known as the clear light of emptiness or the actual clear light.. After the three radiances and the two drops merge, the state which arises with the inner sign of a clear autumn sky is known as the actual clear light. The three radiances are sometimes known as the sign clear light. The white is the sign clear light because it is the sign of the dissolution of kleshas into the base consciousness. The red is the sign clear light because it is the dissolution of the kleshas into wisdom. The black is the sign clear light because it is the dissolution of the kleshas into the nature of things. One experiences the inner signs because of the dissolution of the sense minds into the base consciousness.

This process occurs because Buddha nature is present in all beings. As this wisdom is present in all beings from time without beginning, one has these experiences as death. They show one's nature is primordially pure and only temporarily obscured by afflictions. When they dissolve at the time of death, one's primordial wisdom manifests. Ordinary beings are unable to recognize the naked wisdom of mind, so one needs to be introduced to the nature of mind by a spiritual teacher. It is similar to recognizing a person after being introduced to them before. So one needs to get this introduction. For a realized practitioner it is possible to recognize the clear light like a son meeting his mother or a river meeting the ocean. But if one is ordinary, one gives rise further obscurations due to karma, and one will be reborn.

In the New Tradition this is termed as the union of the expanse and wisdom., Vajradhara in the palace in Akanishta. In the Old Tradition it is known as the meeting of the father Samantabhadra and the mother Samantabhadri in the great expanse. The father is the activity and the mother is phenomena. The core of the tantras is this base clear light. But this is difficult to grasp for those with small understanding. All yogis and tantric masters agree on this point, recognizing the base luminosity as the liberation into dharmakaya. To most beings the ground clear light appears, but they are unable to recognize it. It only appears for a short while. One needs to be able to prolong this experience and be able to remain in that state. There's no doubt that the ground clear light is the basis of realization, but one needs to be able to dwell in it. The root tantra of Kalachakra says that if one recognizes the base clear light, one is able to prevent all further rebirths.

Once the inner breath stops, a white drop appears at one's nostril and a red drop at one's secret place. Awareness disperses like sparks from a fire. Then the bardo of reality arises. This is the primordially pure dharmakaya, the body of truth. If one is unable to recognize it, space dissolves into clear light and one perceives the appearance of wrathful deities of various form filling the whole of space. One hears terrifying sounds like thunder which makes one frightened. As one is unable to recognize these deities, one becomes frightened and passes out. When one revives, one sees the peaceful deities surrounded by rainbow light. The male and female bodhisattvas fill all ten directions. Rays of light radiate from their hearts, drops of light radiate, all dissolving into oneself. Colored rays of light emanate from one's heart, filling space. Each of these rays give rise to colored drops, each of which makes smaller colored drops. This is known as the fourfold wisdom path. This is the five colors minus green, as green represents the wisdom of all accomplishing activity and one's activity has not yet been accomplished.

Then one experiences a clear sky above as an indication of the dharmakaya, at the mid level one experiences the peaceful and wrathful deities as an indication of rupakaya and below one experiences the appearance of all sentient beings of the six realms as if in a mirror. At this time one will have clairvoyant experiences, and remembrances of previous lives. If one can recollect one's instruction and practice from this life, there is a possibility of liberation at this time. If one has limited experience in practice one will momentarily be reborn in this bardo as if in a dream and then one will attain liberation.

In actuality the process of dissolution is short and each stage lasts only a few moments. The length differs from person to person. In most the experiences of each of the three radiances only lasts a finger snap. Other remain in this stage for the time to take a meal. If a practitioner is accomplished in meditation they can remain in these states as long as they wish. At the end their consciousness leaves from the crown for the Pure Land. At the end a white drop appears at the crown or at the left nostril. One who performs phowa properly will also show these signs. Some scholars and yogis say that without these signs it is not clear whether phowa was successful. It is not desirable to move the body unless one has seen these signs. In other cases a person is strongly attached to their body and their consciousness has not left the corpse. In these cases it is also not advisable to move the body.

When a being is unable to recognize the signs during the intermediate state as a manifestation of one's nature, they become frightened and pass out. The best meditation to attain liberation when the base clear light appears is to make every effort to realize this nature while one is living. This nature is unfabricated and primordially ordinary. If one realizes it, it become easy to recognize it at the time of the arising of the clear light. This not only liberates you from the bardo, but one discovers the ultimate benefit, as stated in the sutras and tantras. As the essence of all 84,000 teachings are found in the realization of natural awareness, it is called the Great Perfection, Dzogchen. As no phenomena is beyond the three kayas, this is also called the Great Mahamudra. This means that all phenomena have the nature of the three kayas. As all phenomena are beyond mind, this is the Perfection of Wisdom. As it is free from the four extremes, this is the Madhyamika. As this is the supreme path the brings results it is known as Lamdre, Path and Fruit. As it pacifies all afflictions, it is known as the Pacifier. As it cuts grasping and attachment to self and things and brings one to Buddhahood, it is the Six Yogas. This refers to the different systems of tenets and practice. Although they have different terminologies, they all have the means of realizing awareness in its natural state. The essence of all these systems is realizing the primordial state of mind. One should have a core practice. If your mind is not focussed on a single practice, it is difficult to achieve a result, like it is difficult to sew with a two pointed needle.

Supreme yogis will not go through the last bardo. If they are of the middling level, they go through this bardo for a brief interval as if in a dream and are then are reborn in the Pure Lands to carry out their activities to benefit beings, or they enter immediately into the mother's womb. This last bardo is defined from the time the experiences arise to the time one takes rebirth. It is experienced by lower beings who have no experience in practice. They have difficulty recognizing these states and using them for liberation. They go through the dissolution of the elements and are unable to recognize the base clear light. Their consciousness transfers from one of their openings Such beings find the sound of true phenomena as terrifying and do not recognize the light rays as manifestation of the deities. They misperceive the wrathful deities as the lord of death and try to flee them. Although the reflections of the Buddha fields appear, ordinary beings cannot look at them and look downwards toward sentient beings instead. Although the 80 gross mental constituents dissolve, they are unable to bring this experience to the path.

Then the wind of ignorance generates the element of wind, and then the other four elements and rebirth begins. One regenerates the 80 gross mental constituents. The five elements and consciousness become united and one is born in a mental body with slight clairvoyance and with the power of travelling to any place. Such beings are perceived only by those with clairvoyance and those in a similar state. Although they can perceive their corpse, they do not realize they are dead. They feel possessiveness towards their past property and grow angry when they see others using it. As this body lacks the red and white drops, they do not experience the Sun and Moon. They cannot consume food and drink, only think of it. So they experience pain and suffering and wander about as if carried by the wind. They do not have any home or companions. They suffer from feelings of being burnt, being lost in a forest, of being buried under a collapsing building, and being carried off by waves. This period usually lasts from one week to seven weeks. But this is not certain and some can experience this state for months or years. Every week one goes through the experience of death. One takes rebirth in a form due to one's habitual tendencies. They meet the lord of death due to one's past karma and go through various pains and sufferings. Various lights appear due their karma indicating which realm one is going to be reborn in. Then one takes rebirth and enters the bardo of the living.

The Bardo of This Life

Ontrul Rinpoche
September 16, 2007
Tibetan Meditation Center