What Happens When We Die? Or: Why We Need a Guide Through the Bardo
According to the teachings on the bardos in Tibetan Buddhism, when we die we enter what is known as the bardo of the intermediate state. This is the period between the end of one life and the beginning of the next. The Buddha taught that sentient beings are continually revolving endlessly on the Wheel of Death and Rebirth, and this is the teaching that explains how that actually happens. Just to dispel any misperception that this is an invention of Vajrayana Buddhism, the first bardo teachings appeared soon after the Buddha’s death in various Theravadan schools, so it has a long history.
What is a bardo exactly? Bardo simply means “becoming”. In other words, a transitional state. In fact, we are always in one bardo or the other. There are traditionally four types of bardos that we as sentient beings experience, the bardo of life, the bardo of dying, the bardo of the intermediate state or death, and the bardo of entering a new life. Two other states are often included in the list of bardos, the bardo of meditation and the bardo of the dream state. Basically these are six different states of mind.
When a person dies, they go through a series of distinct phases of outer and inner signs preceding actual death. This is when the elements that came together in life dissolve and move apart. Thus when the white bindu (the male element) separates, the person experiences the brilliant white light that people who undergo near death experiences (NDEs) describe when they are revived. When the red bindu (female element) rises from the navel area up the central channel, the person experiences red light. Finally the person experiences what is perceived as utter blackness but is actually a direct experience of the clear light of dharmadhatu, the primordial wisdom state. It is at this point that most beings pass out and remain unconscious for a time, thus missing a golden opportunity at instantaneous enlightenment.
It is when the inner breath stops that one enters the bardo of the intermediate state in which one experiences visions that are perceived according to the karma of one’s mindstream created in past lives, including the one just ended. This can therefore either be a very peaceful experience or a terrifying one. One sees visions of the peaceful and wrathful deities, and to the practitioner who has visualized these deities in his or her life, they are not threatening. But to the person who has never had the benefit of an introduction to these deities, they may appear as terrifying demons and devils.
The experience of the bardo of the intermediate state, as described in great detail in the famous book, The Bardo Thodol, sometimes erroneously referred to as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is a time when having a connection to a teacher who can guide one through this time, which is fraught with danger and the imminent threat of rebirth in the lower realms, is invaluable. We sentient beings, even those who have practiced, are usually simply overwhelmed by the experience and can easily be led astray on the journey to the next life. A teacher trained in the bardo teachings and experienced in the practice of Phowa, the transference of consciousness at the moment of death, however, has the ability to guide the person through this experience and achieve the auspicious result of a precious human rebirth, meaning a human rebirth in which one is able to practice without obstacles and has the potential to achieve liberation in one life. For the practitioner who has practiced Phowa extensively, it is possible, with the assistance of the teacher, to attain instantaneous enlightenment at the moment he or she encounters the clear light state. This is the aspiration of all those who desire enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Without the assistance of a guide, however, sentient beings are blown by the winds of karma to their next life with no possibility of altering the outcome. This is what keeps beings trapped on the Wheel for lifetime after lifetime, experiencing the suffering that is the result of their own actions. Therefore the importance of having a pure guide and teacher in the present life cannot be underestimated. Simply living blindly, following our desires, is a sure way to spend countless lifetimes lost in the six realms of existence. This is the true value of the pure teacher.
There are those who suggest that all sentient beings are already enlightened and that they do not need such silliness as practicing and a teacher. Anyone who says this simply does not know what they are talking about and are trying to lure people away from the truth. Is the suffering experienced by sentient beings, all sentient beings, an enlightened state? Are sentient beings able to experience lasting happiness on their own? The answer to both questions is a resounding “No!” Sentient beings are unable to get off the Wheel on their own. Having a qualified teacher is the fastest and best way to accomplish this.
One of our readers who wishes to remain anonymous recently shared a story with us that seems appropriate here. It is about a lama who was riding in a car with a man who falsely claimed he was a tulku. They came upon an elk that had apparently fallen on the road they were on and was still moving slightly. They stopped, and the lama began to do Phowa for the creature. However, the false tulku stepped up to the elk and kicked it in its back to show that it was indeed dead. Then he played a tape of another lama making prayers. The lama was dumbfounded. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about the practice of Phowa knows that one never touches the dead being anywhere except for tugging on the hair on its head to direct its attention upward so that its consciousness can exit the body upwards and go directly to Amitabha’s Pure Realm. Kicking it is just about the worst thing anyone can do. After this performance of sheer ignorance, the false tulku pulled the lama back into the car and drove off. Fortunately for the elk, as soon as she got home, the real lama performed Phowa for it.
This story illustrates how important it is to find an authentic lama in whom one can entrust one’s life and death. Trusting a false lama like this one would clearly have no good result, only disaster. Choose carefully, your future literally depends on it! Accept no substitutes!