The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Bardo Thodol

By: Jigme Duntak

The manuscript of the Bardo Thodol (“Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo”) was first discovered to western sources in early 1919 by British political officer Major W. L. Campbell.[1] Campbell discovered the manuscript upon his travels to Gyantse, a south western Tibetan town. Campbell then gave these books to American anthropologist Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz who had them translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup. In 1927 the literary work of the Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo was first published under the popular title of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book has been described by some as “a powerful symbol of highly organized spiritual attainments, an affirmation of a pure spiritual science.”[2] Evans-Wentz described the book from a scientific perspective in his introduction of his translated work:

“The Bardo Thodol seems to be based upon verifiable data of human physiological and psychological experiences; and it views the problem of the after-death state as being purely a psycho-physical problem; and is, therefore in the main, scientific.”[3]

The Bardo Thodol’s contents describe the realities and experience from the transitions between life and death. It is also, according to Robert Thurman (American Buddhist writer and academic),

“…a guidebook for spiritual practice on two levels: it helps the yogi and yogini develop the abilities they need to traverse the death crisis with skill and confidence; and it gives those who feel unable to prepare fully for death, and are not confident of their abilities, a religious sense of how to seek help from the enlightened and divine and angelic beings”.[4]

Famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s “Psychological Commentary” was published in Evan Wentz’s third edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1957), in which he commented that, “The Bardo Thodol is in the highest degree psychological in its outlook”.[5] The book’s origins can be traced back to the late eighth century, where Tibetan tradition attributes the book’s authorship to the exorcist Padmasambhava, the Lotus Guru (see right), who came from the western region of Orgyen. It is said that the Emperor Trhi Songdetsen (742 -797 CE) invited Padmasambhava to Tibet in order to subdue indigenous spirits that had been obstructing the spread of Buddhism into Tibet.[6] During Padmasambhava’s stay in Tibet, he is said to have concealed various “treasures” throughout Tibet in remote and unsuspecting locations in order for them to be discovered at appropriate times in the future. In the fourteenth century Karmalingpa, a mystic from south-eastern Dakpo, discovered one of Padmasambhava’s treasures. Within this discovered treasure was the Bardo Thodol. The Bardo Thodol, as mentioned was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava according to Tibetan tradition, and was written down by his student, Yeshe Tsogyal.[7]

Although the Bardo Thodol has been popularly known to the west as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lama Anagarika Govinda has said that we must not forget that it was originally composed to serve as a guide not only for the dying but for the living as well.[8] Thus the Bardo Thodol has strong influence and connection to the Tibetan people who use it as a guidebook for the transitions between life and death and not just as a tool during the rites of the dead where it is recited to the newly departed. According to the Bardo Thodol, upon dying the dead are “presented with a series of opportunities for recognizing the actual “truth” (de-bzhin-nyid) of that moment”. Following one’s death the mind is separated from the body for 49 days and the dead are confronted with bardo visions of many wrathful deities (see right). If the person is able to distinguish these visions as simply “mental projections reflective of the previous life’s thoughts and deeds then it is said that Buddhahood will be attained”. If the person cannot make this distinction then he is led to an eventual rebirth and consequently further suffering in cyclic existence (“samsara”).

Within the Bardo Thodol are guidelines in order to prepare oneself to correctly distinguish these bardo visions upon death and thus attain Buddhahood. These guidelines strongly influence the Tibetans who follow a monastic lifestyle and also the laypeople who practice to a lesser extent. The guidelines discuss various preparatory philosophical studies and meditational practices which are to be practiced over many years. Solitary retreat is also advocated while practicing a “full generation stage” entitled The Natural Liberation of Feelings which is advised to be done four times a day while in the extended solitary retreat.[9] Following the retreat the “full generation stage” is supposed to be practiced at least once a month. Another practice for, “enhancing and sustaining an unbroken purity of perception,”[10] is entitled The Natural Liberation of Habitual Tendencies. This practice is advised to be performed three times a day “in the morning, at midday and in the evening, throughout the practitioners’ life. If this is not practical then the concise practice should be done twice a day, in the morning and evening, or at least once a day in the morning…”[11] With these multiple instructions derived from the Bardo Thodol we can see exactly how the literary work has direct influence on the Tibetan people since it guides them through exact instructions on how to prepare oneself for the transitional phases of life and death. The ultimate goal of these practices is to “provide a means by which the practitioner can cultivate an unwavering recognition of the nature of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities within his or her own mind and body. Thereby recognition of the natural purity of the practitioner’s impure habitual tendencies is continuously developed.”[12] Therefore, once the location and nature of the deities are remembered by the practitioner, as well as the recognition that all phenomena, sounds and thoughts are, in their essence, the body, speech and mind of the deities, then a practitioner has successfully trained him or herself.

The Bardo Thodol is particularly important to the Tibetan people of the Nyingma School. The Bardo Thodol itself is an example of Nyingma literature since the school traces it’s “lineage back to the first wave of transmission of Buddhist teachings to Tibet, to the royal dynastic period of Tibetan history in the eighth century”[13], during the time of the Bardo Thodol’s composer, Padmasambhava. This makes the Nyingma school the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and also makes the Bardo Thodol particularly important to its followers since they both share the same roots. The Bardo Thodol also describes the Tibetan Buddhist views of the “six intermediate states” or the six forms of unenlightened existence through poem. The abode of the gods is a temporary paradise achieved by the action of good deeds. The god’s have many pleasures but their vanity and arrogance deceives them into believing themselves as immortal. However, after thousands of human years, they are too are subject to old age and death. Thus their suffering is the illusion of eternity in their state of paradise. Their suffering lies in the eventual realization of this error. The world of men driven by egoism and ignorance, they suffer from the permanent repeated cycle of birth, sickness and death. The realm of the insatiable is full of greedy ghosts who suffer from hunger and thirst which they cannot appease or quench due to their tightened throats and bloated bellies. The world of hells is both cold and hot. It is a place of torture for those who have committed evil deeds out of hatred and anger. This life is not eternal however, after being punished for their sins, rebirth into a better life is possible. Yama, the Lord of Death weighs the deeds of the deceased who enter into his kingdom, but he does not decide their fate since their fate has already been decided by themselves. The world of animals is a world where suffering comes from oppression by other beings, the devouring of one another, and being used as beasts of burden. The last of the six worlds is the world of the Titans. The Titans are permanently warring against the gods and fighting for the fulfillment of their desires. They suffer due to the endless war and the result of envy and insatiable ambition. From the description of these six worlds, Tibetan Buddhists derive their beliefs of the transitional phase between life and death where one is reincarnated into another form depending on the actions of the previous life. The Tibetan Buddhist practitioner therefore strives to escape these six forms of unenlightened existence and does so with the guidelines placed within the Bardo Thodol to attain Buddhahood. (*See the “Tibetan Wheel of Life” post for more info)

The Bardo Thodol is popularly known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This title pertains to the rituals discussed and advocated for the dead and dying within the Bardo Thodol. “Traditionally, to help the deceased travelers (re)gain insight into their ambiguous situation, a monk or skilled layperson will recite guiding instruction and inspirational prayers from special funeral texts, the so-called Tibetan Books of the Dead.”[14] Along with these recitations Tibetans also dispose the corpse of the dead so that their spirits will not linger and remain attached to his or her previous life. Thus cremation and sky burials are performed on the corpses of the dead in order to ease them into the next life. The sky burials are performed by cutting up the corpse and then feeding it to the vultures (See sky burial site pictured in right). The Bardo Thodol also influences perceptions of the signs of death since it describes “visual indication and signs of death”.[15] Various descriptions symptoms and physical indication are also described within the text:

“There are two [primary] conditions responsible for the death of human beings: [First] untimely death and [second] death due to the [natural] exhaustion of the lifespan…The body is composed of the four elements, thus the following portents of its demise will arise prior [to the time of death]: Loss of appetite, dullness of the sense faculties, A feeling of anger which consumes the body, speech and mind, distracted or depressed thoughts, disturbed dreams, character changes, and fading complexion. These are the portents [indicating] that life [-threatening] hindrances may arise.

More particularly, there are the following specifically physical signs of death: If the fingernails and toenails become bloodless or lustreless, [This indicates] death after nine months, less half a day. If the cornea of the eyes begin to cloud over, [This indicates] death after five months. If the hair on the nape of the neck grows upwards, [This indicates] death after three months.”

From these types of descriptions of how life threatening symptoms appear we see that the Bardo Thodol has influence on the Tibetan perceptions of the dying and also possible influence on the medical school of thought within Tibet since we see the illustration of the life threatening symptoms which could pertain to possible usage in the medical field.

The Bardo Thodol, published in the 8th century and discovered in the 14th by Karmalingpa, has had a huge influence on the people of Tibet and the other Tibetan Buddhists of the Himalayan region. This text, composed by Padmasambhava, has impacted Tibetan views and beliefs of the afterlife and of the life through the depiction of a cyclic existence in which one must follow certain guidelines in order to prepare oneself to attain Buddhahood through the realization of the mind’s illusions. The funerary rituals of cremation and sky burial have also been in relation to the beliefs of the afterlife depicted with the Bardo Thodol in which the destruction of the body is seen as a method in which to help the dead not linger in his previous life. Perceptions of the dying have also been strongly influenced by the text through the description of various symptoms of the dying.

[1] Bryan J. Cuevas, The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 3.
Ibid, p.6.
Evans-Wentz and Dawa Samdup [1927] 2000, p. 34. ed. Bryan J. Cuevas, The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 7
Cuevas, p. 8.
Cuevas, p. 9.
Ibid, p. 14.
Graham Colman and Thupten Jinpa, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Penguin Books, 2005) p. xxxvii
Jung Young Lee, Death in the Eastern Perspective: A study based on the Bardo Thodol and the I Ching (New York: Interface, 1974) p. 4
Colman, p. 61
Colman, p. 61
Ibid, p. xxxvi-xxxvii.
Cuevas, p. 27.
Colman, p. 151


Colman, Graham and Thupten Jinpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, London: Penguin Books, 2005.

Cuevas, Bryan J. The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2006.

Lee, Jung Y. T. Death in the Eastern Perspective: a study based on the Bardo and the I Ching. New York, Interface, 1974.

Snellgrove, David and Hugh Richardson, A Cultural History of Tibet Boulder: Prajana Press, 1980

Stein, R. A. Tibetan Civilization. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972.

Tsomo, Karma L. Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death. New York: New York, University of New York Press, 2006.

4 thoughts on “The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Bardo Thodol

  1. daz2naz@aol

    Very interesting. Do you know i there are any similarities between the Tibetan and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I know that they were written in papyrus as a guide for the Pharoahs in their quest to achieve eternal life. For them it was eternal life, and for us it is to attain Buddhahood which means to escape samsara. So while you were doing your research, did you by any chance find anything about the similarities and connections between the two.

  2. Jigme32

    Well they are similar in the fact that they both are funerary texts that deal with beliefs of the afterlife. But, like you said, those beliefs of the afterlife are quite different.

    I can’t say too much about the Egyptian book of the Dead since I don’t know too much about what it contains. But I suspect that the Tibetan Bardo Thodol was consequently named the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” since the Egyptian “Book of Coming” was named “Egyptian Book of the Dead”, a few years before the Bardo Thodol’s discovery.

    Some differences that I did notice is that the Egyptian Book of the dead was actually buried with the dead whereas the Bardo Thodol is not (Tibetan Buddhists don’t bury their dead anyhow). Also the Egyptian Book of the Dead does not believe in reincarnation after death, instead they believe person is judged upon death (“weighing of the heart”). If the person is deemed worthy he/she travels to the company of the Gods, if he/she is not then they are destroyed by Ammit (a crocodile dog-like creature that embodies divine retribution). So that is one stark contrast, the Egyptians believed that a person could be completely destroyed from existence in the afterlife whereas Tibetan Buddhists believe that even a person who has lived a life full of wrongs will possibly suffer in hell upon death but will still be reborn into existence eventually.

    Also the Egyptian Book of the Dead explains only the journey the dead undertake upon death whereas the Tibetan Bardo Thodol explains the journey along with the symptoms of the dying and also guidelines as to how to prepare for death and or attain Buddhahood. So the Bardo Thodol seems to have a wider usage, instead of just strictly a funerary text. So it’s title of Book of the Dead seems ill fitting.

  3. Your article has confirmed useful to me.
    It’s very informative and you are naturally really knowledgeable in this area.
    You’ve got opened my eyes to varying views on this subject with intriguing and solid content.

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