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The Ancient Practice of Bardo Yoga: Consciousness Between Life & Death

Posted by on Mar 17, 2014

Bardo - Tibet“The mind, deluded by the appearance of samsara, sees the faults of others with the senses. It is darkened by the prison of samsara; It is made intolerable by the fire of samsara; It is caught in the spider web of samsara; It is stuck in samsara as the bee is in nectar. . .” ~ Naropa

In less commonly discussed yogic practices, there is an ancient art for dealing with death. This, the quintessentially ignored cycle of all sentient beings on our planet in the Western world, is looked into deeply, if not embraced by other cultures. One of the six yogas of the master, Naropa, Bardo Yoga was cultivated as a way to help the soul transition between physical forms. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is in fact, a set of yogic practices which elucidate on how to cultivate the mind even after our physical deaths. Its most salient point is that after death the ‘higher self’ or ‘I’ leaves the body, but journeys ever on with our consciousness.

Of course, the entire teaching is based upon a premise that this body is nothing more than a suitcase – a bag of skin and bones which is useful for facilitating lessons in manifest form for a single life – one that can be discarded so that another journey can be taken up. This is not a yoga which concentrates on death as the sole means to ‘Nirvana’ or ‘after-life’ promises that many religions base their foundational teachings upon, but it does teach that upon mastery, the practitioner will become a ‘Buddha,’ that is a realized soul, spared the cycles of life, death and rebirth, unless of course we choose them consciously for ourselves in order to help other sentient beings become more conscious.

For instance, consider space: what depends on what?
Likewise, mahamudra: it doesn’t depend on anything.
Don’t control. Let go and rest naturally.
Let what binds you let go and freedom is not in doubt. ~ Tilopa

These teachings were handed down as pith-instructions, originally, a verbal exchange from master to a student who was found worthy of receiving. Not unlike the fact that a mother would rarely try to teach her child how to perform Shakespeare before learning to say, ‘C.A.T,’ masters like Naropa were selective with whom they shared their knowledge, lest it be misunderstood and perpetuated wrongly.

Teachings on the bardo, which means, ‘the interim or liminal state,’ usually were methodical, since, and those who have had near-death experiences (NDEs) can attest, there are similar states of consciousness which most people descend through when they start to leave their physical bodies. Our bodies are only the temporary house of consciousness according to this school of yoga. There are eight consciousnesses within us, and we are with this consciousness prior to even beginning our journey into this life in our mother’s womb. In fact, our karmic tendencies have been developed over infinite cycles of time.

Tibetans believe that prior to re-entering another form, or body, the 8 consciousnesses that form ‘us,’ or our karmic pattern in time/space has several other possible experiences. These can range from having moments of complete knowing, where we feel utterly connected to the unmanifest reality, and completely insightful, to very unpleasant hallucinations which tend to distract us – these are based on previous karmic choices which we made while in form. Just as in life, the ‘interim state’ or bardo, offers us an opportunity, when we train for it through yogic practices, to be mindful in death. Some of the earliest teachings on this set of beliefs are found in the Sarvāstivādin text, the Mahāvibhāṣa, thought to be authored around 150 BCE.

One can also think of any pause between states of consciousness as a ‘bardo.’ This makes it easier to understand the steps described in traditional yogic teachings on the topic. It is through interdependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) – the concept that all things only take form or definition based on the arising of other forms, and the concept of dissolution of erroneous concepts, i.e. the dissolving of the ego, that after death bardo begins to make sense.

Essentially, the mind tends to cling to conceptions of itself that it becomes used to – even after death. This is true even though we are not these concepts alone. The bardo state in death accepts that between any two acts of consciousness, like sleeping and waking, there is another state – for example, dreaming. We become name and form while we are awake, and when we sleep, in the interim, in dreams, we can become another name or form – an aggregate of different experience, or consciousness, than that which we had while in a waking state.

Similarly, in death, as our body becomes a corpse, our mind carries on into other experiences in consciousness. It does not dissolve. Consciousness lives on past physical death. In bardo, like our dreams, our consciousness yearns for a place to call ‘home’ even if it is only temporary, but since we are let loose from our bodies, it can roam from one ‘place’ or experience to another almost endlessly, and this can feel very frightening to a person who has not been prepared for the experience. We also experience naked awareness, which for even the most courageous soul, can be quite an experience.

No matter what flights of fancy or distressing images come to ‘mind’ during a bardo state, the consciousness which can rest in stillness will be the most unaffected by them, and can therefore make more mindful choices abut subsequent rebirth. Some call this entering the Tao, or the dropping of our ‘ordinary consciousness’. The Hindu version of this is explained in the Tantraloka.

Essentially we train to look for the gap between death and life, and even the gaps between experience after death to understand the true nature of the mind. Just after death there is a rare opportunity to realize this gap between thoughts –  it is shortly after death, in fact, that a being is free of the restrictions of the body and will momentarily experience  the formless ‘clear light,’ mentioned in so many ADEs, that accompanies  the fundamental state of reality. When you can realize the clear light, this is the same as Samadhi, or the Tao – the Union of the unmanifest with the manifest.

There is much to learn on the topic of consciousness in death, just as there is to learn about consciousness in life.

To learn more about Bardo yoga, the following overview by Thrangu Rinpoche is very helpful.

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