Bardo Thödol

Bardo Thödol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead) Buddhist text on the art of dying. Tibetan Buddhism evolved from the shamanistic Bön into Tantric Buddhism beginning in the 8th century. In Tibetan thought, the process of right dying is as important as right living. A high form of yoga — a spiritual discipline of meditation — has developed over the centuries to speed the ghosts of the dead on their Afterlife spiritual journey and enable them to be conscious of the experiences waiting to greet them.

The Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan handbook on dying, the afterlife, and rebirth, is of remote antiquity. There are no known authors; more than likely, it was honed and refined over the course of history. It was first written down in the eighth century C.E.

The central objective of Tibetan death rites is to extract the consciousness-principle from the gross physical body so that it can truly perceive the spiritual world. Following death, the spirit enters a transit that lasts exactly 49 days and is divided into three stages. At the end of the Bardo, one either enters nirvana, an ineffable state, or returns to earth for another Reincarnation. Only the most enlightened avoid Reincarnation.

It is of paramount importance that the dying person remain fully conscious for as long as possible, for the last thoughts of the dying influence the quality of the afterdeath experience and the subsequent Reincarnation. He is laid on his right side, called the “Lion Posture,” and his neck arteries are pressed to prevent loss of consciousness. The dying person is guided by a guru or lama, who advises him on what to prepare for. If the person is wealthy, many lamas assist; if he is poor, only one assists, and rites are terminated partway through the 49-day Bardo.

The first stage of the Bardo commences at the moment of death and lasts from a half day to four days; this is how long it takes for the deceased to realize he has been separated from his body. As soon as the individual expires, a white cloth is thrown over his face, and no one is allowed to touch the corpse. All doors and windows are sealed, and the “extractor of consciousness-principle” lama takes up his vigil by the corpse’s head. No grieving is permitted. The lama takes up a mystical chant which provides directions for the deceased to find its way to the Western Paradise of Amitabha. If the person’s karma is good enough, this will enable him to escape the ordeal of the intermediate period of the Bardo. Tha lama examines the top of the head to determine if the spirit has exited as it should through the “Aperture of Brahma”; if so, he pulls out three hairs, if the head is not bald. If circumstances are such that there is no corpse, the lama visualizes the body as though present, and proceeds with the rites. A setting-face-to-face with the Clear Light is repeated until a yellowish liquid exudes from body orifi ces. In some descriptions, it is a yellowish luminosity, like an aura. If the deceased led an evil life, this state lasts but a moment. If enlightened, it lasts for an hour or so.

An astrologer lama casts a death horoscope, based on the moment of death, to determine who may touch the corpse, how it will be disposed of, and what funeral rites should be performed.

At the end of the first stage, the corpse is seated upright in a corner of the death chamber. Care is taken not to use one of the corners assigned to the household Demon. The relatives are summoned and a feast ensues, in which the corpse participates by being offered the invisible essences of all food and drink. The feast lasts for at least two days.

The corpse is then removed for disposal, and an effi gy of the corpse is made of wood and dressed in the clothes of the deceased. For the remainder of the Bardo, it stays in the corner, attended by the lamas who chant by relays the various liturgies at the appropriate time. At the end of the Bardo, the effi gy is hung with ornaments and dismantled, and the ghost of the dead is warned not to return to haunt the body.

The corpse, meanwhile, is given a funeral. Tibetans favour cremation, as they believe earth burial can cause the dead one to survive as a VAMPIRE. Another favoured means is to dismember the corpse and leave it to the BIRDS.

At the moment of death, the spirit sees the primary Clear Light, an ecstasy. All persons get at least a glimpse of the Clear Light, but the more enlightened can see it longer and transcend to a higher reality. Most relapse into the Secondary Clear Light, a lesser ecstasy.

The second stage is like an awakening, in which the spirit is presented with hallucinations created by karmic reflexes of actions done while alive. Unless enlightened, the spirit is under the illusion that it still has a body like the one that died. There begins a series of apparitions, the Coming of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, or personifi cations of human sentiment, which must be faced without fl inching. Most escape the second stage through rebirth, the third stage; the circumstances of rebirth are determined by past karma.

The most enlightened of yogis are said to bypass all of the Bardo, going directly to a paradise realm or else directly into another body in rebirth without any loss of consciousness. Yoga during life prepares one for the afterdeath experiences. See Survival After Death.


  • Bromage, Bernard. Tibetan Yoga. Wellingborough, England: The Aquarian Press, 1979. First published 1952.
  • Evans-Wentz, W. Y., ed. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
  • The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007