WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Bardo Thoedrol is often translated as the Tibetan Book of Dead. It literally means ‘liberation through hearing about the bardo’, and bardo refers to the post-mortem intermediate state between this and next life. It is one of the most common books used in Bhutan especially for funeral rites. When people die, Bardo Thoedrol is read next to the deceased person’s body to help the spirit.

Bardo Thoedrol is part of a larger cycle of teachings called Karling Zhithro, the teachings of Tertön Karma Lingpa on the practice of hundred peaceful and wrathful deities. This set of teachings is believed to have been taught by Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava in in the eighth century. The great guru is said to have buried the text, like many other texts, and Karma Lingpa rediscovered the texts from Gampodhar mountain in south-eastern Tibet. Since Karma Lingpa revealed it, Bardo Thoedrol has spread to many parts of the Himalayas and become popular in Bhutan mainly through the line passed down through Lhalung Sungtrul and Thugse. In addition to the books of Bardo Thoedrol brought from Tibet, the book was printed in at least three different places in Bhutan including Tharpaling, Domkhar and Paro Dzong. Today, Bardo Thoedrol has been translated into many languages including the first English translation in 1927.

The book has many chapters and sections. The versions printed in Bhutan has many supplications to the deities and lineage holders, aspirational prayers and chapters on seeking liberation through wearing, reading signs of death, postponing death, and also on the judgement of good and bad actions in bardo state, which is staged as a cham dance in many Bhutanese festivals. However, the core and most important part of Bardo Thoedrol are the chapters containing instructions for the deceased person on how to deal with the experience at the time of death and after death.

Thus, Bardo Thoedrol is a spiritual guidebook or an instruction manual which should be read out for the deceased person to follow. Generally speaking, the Bardo Thoedrol teachings focus on three bardos out of the six: chikha bardo or bardo at the time of death, chonyi bardo or the bardo of reality and sridpa bardo or the bardo of becoming. The instructions in Bardo Thoedrol help a person go through these stages of bardo and use the experience of bardo as an expedience for enlightenment. The book has the details of the various experiences one will go through and exhorts one to adopt an open, calm and enlightened approach and attitude towards them in the turmoil of bardo.

If a person effectively follows the instructions in Bardo Thoedrol, the person is said to get instantaneously enlightened or at least obtain a good rebirth to train further on the path to enlightenment. For this reason, a priest would normally read out the instruction loudly and step by step following the stages of bardo. This is seen as the best method to help the deceased person on spiritual path and in attaining happiness after he or she has gone through clinical death.

When Bardo Thoedrol is read during funeral services, one must remember this main purpose and try to make the reading as effective as possible. In the Bhutanese context, one must see Bardo Thoedrol as wonderful technique of making use of death as an opportunity to reach enlightenment without much effort. It is important for people to read the book and understand its content when they are alive so that it can be put into practice easily when one is the state of bardo.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.


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