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date: 24 September 2017

Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol)

Summary and Keywords

Although in Tibet there is no single text directly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this English work is the primary source for Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. These understandings have been highly influenced by Western spiritualist movements of the 20th and 21st centuries, resulting in efforts to adapt and synthesize various frameworks of “other” religious traditions, particularly those from Asian societies that are viewed as esoteric or mystical, including tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. This has resulted in creative forms of appropriation, reinterpretation, and misrepresentation of Tibetan views and rituals surrounding death, which often neglect the historical and religious realities of the tradition itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a prime example of such a process. Despite the lack of a truly existing “book of the dead,” numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies on this “book” continue to be produced by both scholars and adherents of the tradition, making it a focal point for the dissemination and transference of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

The set of Tibetan block prints that was the basis for the original publication of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz (1878–1968) consisted of portions of the collection known in Tibetan as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State or Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This work is said to have been authored by Padmasambhava in the 8th century ce, who subsequently had the work buried; it was rediscovered in the 14th century by the treasure revealer (gter ston) Karma Lingpa (Kar ma gling pa; b. c. 1350). However, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, it is nearly impossible to determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This is due partly to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably change the content and order of collected works. Despite this challenge, the few systematic efforts made by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, and the works produced by Bryan Cuevas and Donald Lopez Jr. are particularly noteworthy.

The Bardo Thödol is essentially a funerary manual designed to guide an individual toward recognizing the signs of impending death and traversing the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the post-mortem state. The texts are meant to be read aloud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition. This presentation is indicative of a complex and intricate conceptual framework built around notions of death, impermanence, and their soteriological propensities within a tantric Buddhist program developed in Tibet over a millennium, particularly within the context of the Nyingma (rNying ma) esoteric tradition known as Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). Tibet and other tantric Buddhist societies throughout the Himalaya have developed a variety of technologies for practically applying Buddhist understandings of death, and so this particular “book” is by no means the only manual utilized during the dying and post-mortem states, nor is it even necessarily included in all Tibetan or Himalayan funerary traditions. Nevertheless, this work has captured the interests of Western societies for the past century and has unofficially become the principal introduction not only to Tibetan death rites but also to Tibetan Buddhism in general for the West.

Keywords: Padmasambhava, Karma Lingpa, Guhyagarbha Tantra, Nyingma, Tibetan funerals, bardo, Tibetan afterlife, rebirth, reincarnation, Dzogchen, terma, tantra, Western Buddhism, Buddhist textual history, Buddhist translation history

History of the Text

The Tibetan source-text for the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thödol, was standardized as a cohesive set of works in the 17th century by Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa (Rig ’dzin nyi ma grags pa; 1647–1710), who was a well-known “treasure revealer.”1 This version has since been redacted in multiple editions throughout various lineage traditions both inside and outside Tibet, with Dragpa’s version considered to be the general standard for the textual corpus; however, other versions of the liturgy can be found to vary in order and content.2

This collection was drawn from Karma Lingpa’s revealed treasure (gter ma), The Profound Teaching of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: Natural Liberation through Enlightened Intention (Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol). This cycle of Nyingma teachings is based on the maṇḍala scheme of the 100 peaceful and wrathful deities (zhi khro rigs brgya) according to the Guhyagarbha Tantra system. This treasure literature is attributed to Padmasambhava, considered the originator of the Nyingma tradition in Tibet, who produced the work in the 8th century. According to tradition, his consort Yeshe Tsogyal (Ye shes mtsho rgyal; 757–817) wrote down the teaching and subsequently had the text buried in a cave at Gampodar Mountain in the region of Dakpo in Tibet.

Although the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the so-called Karling tradition was disseminated from the 15th century onward, the form that the collection took was most likely based on materials gathered by Karma Lingpa himself. It was revised and systematized by Karma Lingpa’s successors, including his father, Nyida Sangye (Nyi zla sangs rgyas), and his son, Nyida Chöje (Nyi zla chos rje). The collection was passed on through various lines of transmission, and the Bardo Thödol compilation in particular continues to be utilized by adherents of various sects of Buddhism in Tibetan and Himalayan regions to this day.

After the content of the Bardo Thödol was initially revealed, it was taught by Karma Lingpa in and around the area of Dakpo, eventually spreading to other Tibetan regions such as Kongpo, a significant location for the origin myths of the empire (7th–9th centuries), which were dominated by stories of ancient death rites. It was no coincidence that it was this location where the Bardo Thödol tradition flourished, given the region’s strong association with traditional funerary rituals associated with the early kings of Tibet.3 In fact, Gyarawa Chökyi Gyatso (rGya ra ba nam mkha’ chos kyi rgya mtsho; b. 1430), the abbot of Menmo monastery in Kongpo, was responsible for forming the first easily reproducible liturgical program for the Bardo Thödol literature. This is where the rituals associated with the manual became standardized and began to be disseminated throughout the rest of Tibet, mainly in communities associated with the Nyingma and Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) lineages, and where it soon became a primary source for funerary rites. In the 17th century, the collection was edited by Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa, who produced the version that we now commonly refer to as the Bardo Thödol.

The basic structure of the Bardo Thödol collection includes instructions on cultivating basic awareness of the nature of our minds within this life, methods for recognizing signs of impending death, an explanation of the dying process and dissolution of the bodily elements, and guidance on how to avoid untimely death. The primary utility of the work is found in its manual of instructions for the newly dead, which is to be read out to the deceased in order to help them successfully traverse the intermediate state before their next rebirth by recognizing the ultimate nature of their minds and thus the nature of appearances within the intermediate state existence. This is what is referred to in the title Liberation through Hearing (Thödol, thos grol). The collection further includes aspirational prayers for the deceased, a masked play illustrating the intermediate state experience, and finally instructions on attaching mantras to the deceased to encourage liberation through wearing (brtags grol).4

The “book” was most likely originally spread in the form of copies of handwritten manuscripts, since xylographs (wood-block prints) were not the standard means of text production in Tibet until the 18th century. These manuscripts were presumably commissioned by lamas and monastic institutions for ritual use, as well as by wealthy lay individuals who desired to accrue the merit from sponsoring text copying, a common practice in Tibet by that time.5 Some of the various manuscript editions were eventually set down as block prints, which is the form of the Bardo Thödol text that became the basis for the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

History of Translations

Walter Y. Evans-Wentz first coined the title Tibetan Book of the Dead with his 1927 Oxford University Press publication of significant portions of a version of the Bardo Thödol. This title was based on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a name which also did not equate with a single text from Egypt, but rather referred to a collection of traditional funerary rites and incantations that were traditionally buried with the dead and often varied in content. A version of these funerary manuals was translated in 1842 by Karl Richard Lepsius (1810–1884), who was the first to come up with the name.6

As for the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the publication was based on a set of block-prints originally acquired by Major W. L. Campbell in 1919 from Gyantse, Tibet. Later that same year he passed these texts on to Evans-Wentz, who subsequently commissioned Kazi Dawa Samdup (1868–1923), an English and Tibetan teacher and interpreter based in Sikkim, to translate the collection. The Tibetan collection, The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State, upon which the Tibetan Book of the Dead is based, is sometimes referred to nowadays by its Tibetan name, the Bardo Thödol (Bar do thos grol chen mo). After its initial publication, it was immediately noticed in spiritualist and psychologist circles, leading to the famous psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) providing his own commentary to the work; however, he was later criticized for his apparent rereading of the text to suit his own views of the unconscious.7 Evans-Wentz himself was highly influenced by the 19th-century spiritualist thought of Theosophy, which is apparent in his liberal interpretations of Dzogchen and tantric terminology found within the work.8 His limited knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism led to multiple misinterpretations and conflations of views that were at times more in line with the Indian Vedānta tradition.

Since Evans-Wentz’s edition of Kazi Dawa Samdup’s rendering of the Bardo Thödol was published, numerous editions and translations into Western languages have also used this title to attract a popular Western readership. Although they take advantage of the title Tibetan Book of the Dead, other translators have included their own selection of texts taken from the Bardo Thödol cycle of instructions that deviate to varied degrees from Evans-Wentz’s 1927 work. Among the European-language translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the famous Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci (1894–1984) was the first to translate Evans-Wentz’s work into Italian; his workis noteworthy because it included the first attempt to discuss the textual history of the Bardo Thödol, recognizing that the dissemination of the compilation in Tibet was varied and of ambiguous origin.9 Chögyam Trungpa (1939–1987), a Tibetan lama who was famous in the United States and the United Kingdom for presenting Tibetan Buddhism to a Western audience, worked with his student Francesca Fremantle to publish the first new translation of the Bardo Thödol passages since Evans-Wentz.10 This version attempted to make the language more accessible to a general audience and included a psychological commentary by Chögyam Trungpa. Francesca Fremantle later published her own supplementary book in order to provide further explanation to the concepts found in the text and updated translations of the work.11

The third English translation of selected passages from the Bardo Thödol was made by the Tibetologist Robert Thurman.12 This publication included additional translations of two works from the Bardo Thödol literature that were not included in either of the previous English editions, and has since remained one of the most popular versions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The scholar and translator Gyurme Dorje translated and published the first full English translation of Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa’s entire collection of the Bardo Thödol, which includes an additional nine chapters from Evan-Wentz’s version, and also includes translations of two related works found in Karma Lingpa’s larger treasure cycle, Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.13 The style of this translation is notably different from that of Evans-Wentz, providing clear and accurate renderings of Nyingma terminology, demonstrating Dorje’s strong grasp of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This work has been generally well reviewed and includes a foreword by the 14th Dalai Lama, as does Thurman’s publication. The full collection was also translated into French by Philippe Cornu for his doctoral thesis, which was subsequently published.14 A new translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Elio Guarisco is the most recently published, based on the commentary of Namkhai Norbu, a well-known Dzogchen teacher, and is intended to be an updated version based on Tucci’s Italian edition.15

Dying and Death in Tibetan Buddhism

Although it is the best-known Tibetan death manual in the West, the literature associated with the Tibetan Book of the Dead is only one example of an extensive Buddhist textual tradition relating to dying and death. Death has been a core object for contemplation and practice for Buddhists over the centuries, as is demonstrated in Buddhist literature. It was even Siddhārtha Gautama’s realization that every sentient being would inevitably die that motivated him to seek enlightenment and eventually become the Buddha. Death in Buddhism is equated with the reality of impermanence; that is, anything that arises eventually ceases, such as thoughts, emotions, and the physical world, including our own bodies. Death is considered to be the cessation or the exhaustion of circumstances that enable a phenomenon to occur, and thus itself a cause for a new phenomenon to arise; therefore, each moment arises from the death of the previous moment. The centrality of death to the Buddhist view of reality is present not only in its philosophy but also in its meditative practices. All major Buddhist schools encourage followers to contemplate the reality of death, the uncertainty of when it will happen, and the preciousness of this life. These reminders are intended to motivate a practitioner to utilize this lifetime to cultivate understanding of the Buddhist teachings and awareness of the impermanent nature of reality in order to attain liberation from the idea of an unchanging or undying self.

In later tantric Buddhist traditions, death is a central object of meditation. A yogi is instructed to remain in charnel grounds, drink from skull-cups, and wear the ash from human cremations. An intimate and immediate exposure to death is meant to facilitate meditation practice and reduce the relative dualistic notions of purity and impurity, and even of life and death, which are said to be exactly what binds one to the cyclic existence of birth and death. The moment of death itself becomes an opportunity for awakening and total enlightenment, and a yogi’s profession is to prepare for this occasion. A tantric practitioner trains in complex rituals and meditation techniques that are often intended to induce experiences that mimic the process of dying. According to the Bardo Thödol, in the Higher Yoga (yogāniruttara) tantric system of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the primary practices are concerned with manipulating and dissolving the subtle energies of the body in order to simulate the stages of dying. This is done both to utilize this experience to attain meditative realization and to prepare for the moment of death, leading to a favorable rebirth or the attainment of full Buddhahood and liberation from cyclic existence.16

When Buddhism initially entered Tibet in the 7th century ce during its early diffusion (snga dar) with the help of imperial patronage, tantric Buddhism was already well established in India. When Buddhism flourished again in the 11th–13th centuries during its later diffusion (phyi dar) in Tibet, tantric Buddhism had become highly institutionalized in India, and famous tantric adepts were systematically transferring their lineage traditions to Tibetans who consequently developed their own syncretized tantric traditions. A notable example of this phenomenon is the transmission of the Six Yogas of Nāropa (Nā ro’i chos drug) from India to Tibet through the Indian mahāsiddha Nāropa (Nā ro pa; 1016–1100) and the Tibetan translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö (Mar pa chos kyi blo gros; 1012–1097).17 The Six Yogas is a tantric program that combines various tantric practice traditions that eventually became the primary method of approaching tantra for the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, which developed its own commentarial and ritual tradition based on these teachings.18 The Six Yogas system itself also echoes many themes found within the Bardo Thödol literature, including detailed instructions on how to attain liberation in the intermediate state (bar do chos), as well as the practice instructions for transferring one’s consciousness (’pho ba chos) to a higher realm at the time of death, which is also described in the Bardo Thödol.

Buddhist notions surrounding dying and death have produced an entire genre of Tibetan literature, philosophy, iconography, and ritual. The medium that influences popular Tibetan Buddhist notions of the process of dying and the post-mortem state is primarily funerary rituals, which are predominately maintained and carried out by the monastic institutions. Another source for conceptualizing the framework for death within Tibet and the Himalaya is the popular folk tradition of delog (’das log) bards recount delog stories of those who travel to and return from the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth.19 Examining these cultural and religious popular expressions concerning death clearly illustrates the significance of mortality in Tibetan Buddhism, and one better comprehends the philosophical and social paradigms from which the Bardo Thödol developed.

The Intermediate State (antarābhava; bar do)

As illustrated by the title of the Bardo Thödol, The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State (Bar do thos grol chen mo), the primary concern of this collection is liberation while one is in the post-mortem intermediate state or bardo (antarābhava; bar do). In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this concept of an intermediate state most often refers to the in-between existence experienced during the transitional period from the moment of death to the moment of conception. However, this term has also been used to express all transitional experiences throughout life; for example, the experience of sleeping is an intermediate state between the moments of falling asleep and waking, and even the moment of death itself is considered an intermediate state between life and the after-death experience. Generally, adherents of Tibetan Buddhism consider people always to be in a transitional state between one experience and another. However, this type of notion of an intermediary state of existence did not originate in Tibet, nor was it always the primary model of the afterlife for Tibetans.

The notion of intermediate states of existence was asserted by some of the early Indian Buddhist schools such as Sarvāstivāda, although the concept was not supported by many traditions, including the Theravāda, and it may have had some conceptual roots in the Vedic tradition of India.20 Vasubandhu (c. 4th century ce) is known to be the first popular Buddhist supporter of the concept of intermediate states of existence, discussed in the third chapter of his Abhidharmakośabhāṣya, titled Exposition of the World (Lokanirdeśa). In this famous work on Abhidharma, Vasubandhu outlines four intermediate states: birth, the state between birth and dying, death, and the state between death and rebirth. The intermediate state is also advocated in several sūtras, including the Garbhāvakrāntinirdeśa Sūtra, which was the primary influence for the notion of the intermediate state found in the Yogācārabhūmi, a definitive text for the Yogācāra school of Buddhism.21

Vasubandhu also advocated that the intermediate being is a gandharva, or “smell-eater.”22 While the gandharva does not necessarily represent a soul or true self, as these concepts are rejected in Buddhist tenets, the being represents the form or body that the mental continuum takes, which is subject to karma and made up of aggregates (skandha; phung po). This being is driven to its next birth when, seeing its potential parents copulating, it becomes driven by its oedipal feelings to enter the womb of the mother at the point of conception. The period of remaining in the intermediate state is generally understood to last forty-nine days. During this time, it is said the bardo being repeatedly experiences the dissolution process of the gross and subtle levels of consciousness, only to arise again in its intermediate state existence. This pattern occurs every seven days for a total of seven weeks, until the individual finally takes rebirth in one of the six realms of existence that is determined by its karma.23

Indian Buddhist tantric traditions eventually integrated the notion of an after-death intermediate existence into their soteriological framework, which resulted in instructions designed to prepare yogis to be able to carry out certain tantric practices in the intermediate state between death and rebirth with one’s “illusory body” (sgyu lus), the ephemeral tantric body one possesses that is made up of channels (nāḍī; rtsa), wind (prāṇa; rlung), and drops (bindu; thig le).24 Although not much is known about the reception of the concept of the intermediate state during the early diffusion of Buddhism into Tibet, it is clear that by the time of the later diffusion these well-developed tantric understandings were systematically incorporated into Buddhist tantric systems, as can be seen in the Six Yogas of Nāropa literature, where one of the Six Yogas or practices is the yoga of the intermediate state (bar do chos).25

The model of four intermediate states was taken up by Tibetan commentators, but there were various alternative presentations, including threefold and sixfold divisions. We find in the Bardo Thödol literature a sixfold division of the intermediate state existences. These states include the bardo of birth and living (skye gnas bar do), the bardo of dreams (rmi lam bar do), the bardo of meditation (bsam gtan bar do), the bardo of death (’chi kha bar do) which occurs during the dissolution process of the physical and mental elements, the bardo of reality-itself (’chos nyid bar do) which is the moment all coarse and subtle types of consciousness cease and one is confronted with the actual luminosity (’od gsal) of reality itself, and the bardo of becoming (srid pa bar do) which is the state between death and rebirth. While there is precedent for the other bardo states in other Buddhist traditions, the bardo of reality-itself appears to be particularly a Dzogchen innovation.26

Tantric practice instructions such as those found in the Six Yogas system outline methods for engaging in meditative practices in this life which prepare one for recognizing reality and the nature of mind, particularly during the dying stages, at the moment of death when the ultimate luminosity manifests, and during the post-mortem state of existence. These preparations are cultivated in order to enable oneself to merge the luminosity experienced during meditation, referred to in many texts as the “child luminosity” (bu ’od gsal), with the “mother luminosity” (ma ’od gsal) of ultimate reality that naturally manifests during the bardo of reality itself. If a yogi succeeds at merging the mother and child luminosities, he will essentially be liberated from his karmic conditions and there will be no need to traverse the bardo of becoming.27 However, if the yogi does not succeed in merging, he may faint when confronted with the ultimate or mother luminosity, only to regain consciousness within the bardo of becoming. Nevertheless, the tantric practices cultivated in this life can help practitioners to recognize the nature of the many appearances in the intermediate state as merely projections of their own minds. This recognition can lead to liberation from the intermediate state and thus from being bound to one’s next birth and continuing the cycle of existence (saṃsāra; ’khor ba), instead leading one to full liberation (nirvāṇa; mya ngan las ’das pa). However, if one does not sufficiently train in practices that will lead to this recognition, the deceased can become disoriented, confused, and likely terrified by the many sensory manifestations occurring in the bardo of becoming.

The potentially terrifying experiences that one may encounter in the intermediate state are illustrated in depth within the Tibetan bard tradition of delog (’das log) accounts. Delog means “one who returns from beyond,” a popular figure in Tibetan folklore. A delog is a person (usually a woman) who dies an untimely death, traverses the intermediate state, and then returns to this life to share her or his experiences with the living. While both the Bardo Thödol literature and the delog bards give detailed descriptions of the intermediate state, the delog experiences have tended to focus on the negative aspects of traversing the bardo when one has behaved negatively in this life, thus serving as a reminder for ethical behavior according to lay Buddhist principles (e.g., not stealing, not consuming intoxicants, not killing).28 Although delogs convey the terrors of the after-death experience while the Bardo Thödol largely concentrates on death as an occasion for liberation, the delog tradition still acts as a popular medium by which Tibetans shape ideas about death and the intermediate state, further informing their preparations for the postmortem experience.

Tibetan Funeral Rites

Death as a rite of passage was crucial to Tibetan conceptual frameworks of reality long before Buddhism entered Tibet. Thus, funerary rituals as they are found today in Tibet and the Himalaya reflect a complex history of ideas and practices that has formed a hybridized ritual system rooted in both Buddhist and pre-Buddhist traditions. Although relatively little is known about pre-Buddhist conceptions and practices relating to death, textual evidence found at the Dunhuang caves suggests that early Tibetan funerary rites and rituals to guarantee safe passage for the kings (btsan po) to the heaven-realm above (dgung dgu gshegs) were considered central to the duties of court priests (referred to as bon po). It is clear that the Tibetans believed in a realm of the dead, and that the dead or ancestral spirits (mtshun) were not necessarily benevolent toward the living and were thus contained within tombs. Elaborate rituals were designed to appease the dead in order to avoid inauspicious circumstances, including the use of effigies as ransoms (glud), as well as animal and likely human sacrifices. Before Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century, the dead, those who had lost their life force (bla), were considered unable to return to the land of living and remained within their realm of existence indefinitely.29

As Buddhism entered imperial Tibet systematically under the auspices of King Songtsen Gampo (Srong btsan sgam po; c. 617–c. 649), Tibetans began to negotiate certain ritual practices that were considered incompatible with Buddhist principles, particularly the use of living sacrifices. Although there existed antagonism within the Tibetan court between the bon po priests and the Buddhist ritual priests throughout the course of the empire (effectively ending in the 9th century), syncretic ritual programs eventually developed, incorporating Buddhist and indigenous beliefs regarding the afterlife. Bardo rituals (bar do cho ga) and liturgy were systematized by the 13th century, and these programs were designed primarily to purify an individual’s negative karma during the dying and post-mortem states in order to redirect his or her path toward a better rebirth (i.e., toward the god realms, human realm, or a buddha’s pure land). The literature of the Bardo Thödol is exemplary of this intention, and the more the text is recited, the more beneficial it is for the dying or deceased, particularly if it is read by a lama or yogi in the presence of the corpse.

Many standard ritual programs for the dead that developed in Tibet are based on an early text translated from Sanskrit, The Tantra on the Elimination of All Evil Rebirths (Sarvadurgatiparś odhana).30 While various traditions stemmed from this work, the practices tend to follow a common structure which includes such basic elements as prayers and rituals to avoid untimely death, supplication prayers to Buddhist masters and buddhas to aid in guiding one toward a better rebirth, deity meditation, rituals to save individuals from the lower realms, and instructions for bodily disposal. Another important element of most Tibetan Buddhist funerary rites is the practice of mind transference (’pho ba) to a higher realm, which is ideally to be carried out by a realized Buddhist master as close to the moment of death as possible.31 All of the basic elements mentioned above are present within the Bardo Thödol.

Scholars have tended to approach studies of Tibetan Buddhist funerary rituals from an anthropological perspective.32 They map their observations of such funerary rites in order to outline the complex process from the time of death through the ceremonies that take place during the forty-nine-day bardo period. According to these accounts, after death, in many regions of Tibet and the Himalaya, the body is often bound and continuously watched out of concern that the corpse may be possessed by demonic forces and rise again as a zombie (ro langs).33 If the family has the financial means, monks are commissioned to perform prayers and standard practices such as mind transference and purification rituals. This is the time when the Bardo Thödol is traditionally to be read aloud next to the dead. The corpse often remains within the home of the deceased until an ideal time for bodily disposal is determined by an astrologer. There are various options for bodily disposal within the Tibetan region that relate to the elements: earth burial (sa sbas gtong ba), water burial (chu bskyur), cremation (ro sregs), and sky burial (bya rgod ’don).34 In Tibet, a sky burial is considered to be spiritually ideal, and includes offering one’s body through having the corpse cut into pieces and fed to vultures. However, this form of disposal is not available in all regions, and so cremation is the most common practice, particularly in the Buddhist communities of India and Nepal. In Tibetan custom, certain individuals are also mummified (pur phung bzos), particularly lamas of high status.

During a cremation ceremony, offerings are made to the deceased and are thrown onto the fire while monks perform certain rituals and prayers depending on the family’s particular Buddhist affiliation. If the individual is considered a realized being, it is common to find reports of miraculous signs occurring during the funeral rite which signify a saintly death in Tibet, including rainbows, visions of buddhas, the sound of conch shells, and a rain of flowers. A saintly figure in Tibetan areas will also often leave relics behind, including pearl-like stones, teeth, and parts of the skull. These relics will be enshrined in special containers, especially in reliquary structures known as stūpas (mchod rten).35

Padmasambhava and the Nyingma (rNying ma) Tradition

The Bardo Thödol, while purportedly revealed by Karma Lingpa in the 14th century, is said to have been originally authored by the famous Tibetan saint Padmasambhava (8th century), a semi-historical figure in Tibetan tradition whose name means “one born from a lotus.” This Buddhist yogi and saint came from the land of Oḍḍiyāna (likely to be the present-day Swāt valley) and was invited by King Trisong Detsen (Khri srong lde btsan; 742–797) in order to fully transmit Buddhism to Tibet. Padmasambhava (also referred to by Tibetans as Guru Rinpoche) is perhaps the most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism, as he is widely worshipped among all the major schools and is credited with subjugating the malevolent spirits of Tibet that were creating obstacles to the establishment of Buddhism. Legend claims that he never died, but instead traveled westward once his tasks in Tibet were completed. He is said to have possessed supreme magical powers, and is considered by many Tibetan Buddhists to have been a buddha and the emanation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara, and the celestial buddha Amitābha.36

Padmasambhava is also known to have imparted many teachings to disciples throughout Tibet and the Himalaya, the highest teachings of which are the Dzogchen (also referred to in the Nyingma tradition as Atiyoga or primordial yoga) instructions, which aim to engender direct recognition of awareness (rig pa) and the natural state of reality as naturally empty and luminous.37 Many of the treasure teachings Padmasambhava transmitted claim to come directly and indirectly from the primordial buddha Samantabhadra (kun tu bzang po). He also received extensive instructions on the Dzogchen tantras from his guru Śrī Siṃha. Padmasambhava is thus considered by many to be the founder of Tibetan Buddhism and the central figure of the school known as Nyingma, meaning “ancient ones.” The tradition that stemmed from his teachings is considered to be the oldest Buddhist school surviving in Tibet.

The Nyingma tradition maintains unique tantric teachings and rituals as well as Dzogchen instructions, many of which are included within their core collection of canonical works, the Collection of Nyingma Tantras (rNying ma’i rgyud ’bum). This collection consists of many works that were translated into Tibetan during the early diffusion of Buddhism in the imperial era. Many of these works were not adopted into the canonical collections of what were later referred to as the “newer schools” (gsar ma), which were established during the later diffusion of Buddhism. Most Nyingma works were not included in the canons of the Translated Words (bKa’ ’gyur) or the Translated Treatises (bsTan ’gyur) because they lacked an established Indian source, a conscious concern for many adherents of the newer schools such as the Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu. Many of these rejected texts were, however, preserved within the Nyingma canon, including the Guhyagarbha Tantra, a central tantra to the Nyingma and the tantric tradition in which the Bardo Thödol literature developed.

Padmasambhava is said to have foreseen the degeneration of Buddhism in Tibet, and thus to have concealed many treasure teachings both in the ground (sa gter) as well as in the mind-streams of disciples (dgongs gter), which were sometimes revealed in the form of pure visions (dag snang). There are some Indian precedents for the custom of hiding teachings for the benefit of later generations, particularly within the Mahāyāna tradition. In Tibet, this means of providing innovative teaching cycles attributed to Padmasambhava and other buddhas has been largely associated with the Nyingma school. The practice of treasure revealing is a common phenomenon for realized Nyingma masters and is still carried out to this day. The authenticity of these systems of teachings has been questioned by more orthodox Tibetan teachers, who believed Buddhist teachings must be traced directly to Indian teachers in order to be considered authoritative and in line with the Buddha’s instructions. Despite this concern, there have also been instances of revealed treasure teachings from other Tibetan Buddhist traditions, particularly from the Kagyu school. However, these teachings are not as central to their practice systems as they are to the Nyingma followers.38

Many of the treasure teachings that were concealed in the ground were written down by Padmasambhava’s consort Yeshe Tsogyal, including The Profound Teaching of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: Natural Liberation through Enlightened Intention, within which the Bardo Thödol literature is contained. Padmasambhava imparted these instructions after Trisong Detsen requested that he give a quintessential teaching on tantra which would enable an individual to attain buddhahood within one lifetime. These teachings were given to the translator Chokrolui Gyaltsen (Cog ro klu’i rgyal mtshan; 8th century), after which Padmasambhava had them buried at Gampodar mountain in Dakpo for the benefit of future generations. This cycle of teachings on the peaceful and wrathful deities, from which the Bardo Thödol originated, was discovered by the treasure revealer Karma Lingpa, which was prophesied by Padmasambhava, a common claim for treasure revealers of the Nyingma tradition.

The Guhyagarbha Tantra and the 100 Peaceful and Wrathful Deities (zhi khro rigs brgya)

The iconography described in the Bardo Thödol and associated meditative practices is derived from the Tibetan Buddhist tantric tradition that is concerned with the use of esoteric meditative practices, deity worship, and ritual techniques associated with a particular maṇḍala system. A maṇḍala is a geometric depiction of a particular buddha or deity universe, and is designed to be a representational aid for one’s practice.39 Tantric literature is often set within a particular cosmogenic maṇḍala. The tantric liturgical program of the Bardo Thödol is based on the Guhyagarbha Tantra (The Essence of Secrets Tantra) and its associated maṇḍala of the 100 peaceful and wrathful deities (zhi khro rigs brgya).40 This is a primary tantra studied by the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and its maṇḍala system is central to various treasure teachings maintained by the tradition.

Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol)Click to view larger

Figure 1. Maṇḍala Depiction of the 100 Peaceful and Wrathful Deities of the Bardo. Tibet, 18th century. Rubin Museum of Art. Image from Himalayan Art Resources.

The works included in the Nyingma canon, the Collection of Nyingma Tantras (rNying ma’i rgyud ’bum), are divided into Atiyoga, Anuyoga, and Mahāyoga. The Guhyagarbha Tantra is included here in the Mahāyoga class of tantras, which are considered to focus on the generation phase of tantric practice (Anuyoga tantras focus on the completion phase practices, and Atiyoga includes the Dzogchen tantras). Despite this classification, the Guhyagarbha Tantra has also been linked with Dzogchen principles in various treasure literature and commentaries by famous Nyingma masters, including Longchen Rabjam (kLong chen rab ’byams; 1308–1363) and Mipham Gyatso (Mi pham rgya mtsho; 1846–1912).41 This is due largely to the fact that the content of the associated tantric literature focuses on directly realizing the primordial nature of our minds as pure and naturally luminous (’od gsal). The authenticity of this tantra has been questioned by conservative Tibetan scholars, such as the translator Gö Khugpa Lhetse (’Gos lo tsā ba khug pa lhas btsas; 11th century), who did not believe it resembled other Indian tantras and could not trace a direct Indian lineage of the text.42 Other Tibetan scholars, including Gö Lotsawa Zhonu Pal (’Gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal; 1392–1481), assert that a Sanskrit version of the tantra was accounted for at Samye Monastery by the Kashmiri paṇḍita Śākyaśrībhadra (1127–1225).43 Although there is currently no extant Sanskrit manuscript, the Guhyagarbha Tantra is nonetheless a highly influential tantra of the Tibetan Nyingma tradition and has given rise to a multitude of commentaries and associated treasure literature, including the Bardo Thödol.

The maṇḍala that is described in the Guhyagarbha Tantra is a set of forty-two peaceful (zhi) deities and fifty-eight wrathful (khro) deities.44 The central figures of the maṇḍala are the primordial buddha Samantabhadra with his consort Samantabhadri. These figures are considered the ultimate source for all Buddhist teachings and for buddhahood itself. The rest of the ninety-eight deities consist of their retinue or emanations. The two primordial buddhas are directly surrounded by the five celestial buddhas together with their consorts. The rest of the peaceful retinue is made up of eight male and eight female bodhisattvas, six buddhas of the six realms, and four male and four female gatekeepers (sgo ba). The fifty-eight wrathful deities are made up of the five tantric deity emanations of the buddhas along with their consorts, surrounded by eight female and eight animal-headed deities, four female wrathful gatekeepers, and twenty-eight yoginis. Some scholars have interpreted these deities as symbols or archetypes of the pure nature of our psychological processes. From the Dzogchen perspective, all of these figures are merely projections of our minds, appearances which are pervaded by luminosity (’od gsal) and are ultimately expressions of the pure nature of our psycho-physical aggregates. They are said to be directly encountered as one traverses through the bardo, according to the Bardo Thödol and associated literature, and if one is able to recognize their true nature, one can be liberated from the bardo and ultimately attain buddhahood.

Western Interpretations

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially a Western invention based on selections from the Bardo Thödol. No text actually titled Tibetan Book of the Dead ever existed in Tibet, and the selections taken from the Bardo Thödol were chosen by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz himself and had never made up a cohesive work in Tibet. A plurality of Tibetan funerary texts could have been given the same title, but it is these passages of the Bardo Thödol that have come to represent how the West understands Tibetan notions of dying, death, and the process of taking rebirth.

The first published edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 primarily consisted of annotations and an introduction by Evans-Wentz, with a preface by Sir. John Woodroffe, a British follower of Hindu tantrism residing in India. Evans-Wentz liberally interpreted the material of the Tibetan Book of the Dead from the perspective of his theosophical belief system, based on Helena Blavatsky’s (1831–1891) The Secret Doctrine.45 Blavatsky herself had knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, claiming to have spent seven years in Tibet with a secret order instructing her on “esoteric Buddhism.”46 This experience directly influenced her spiritual views and subsequently those promoted by the Theosophical Society, which maintained eclectic and perennialist notions of the nature of the divine, humanity, and the cosmos.47 Their notoriety and emphasis on the study and incorporation of Asian esoteric traditions meant that the Theosophical Society greatly influenced Western ideas of Asian religious doctrines, especially in terms of Hinduism and Buddhism. Despite this mutual influence of interpretation between the first English presentation of the Bardo Thödol and prominence of religious esotericism found in early 20th century theosophical circles, doctrinal differences between tantric Buddhism and theosophy were largely ignored by Evans-Wentz. This synthetic presentation of Tibetan Buddhism has continued to influence subsequent translations, commentaries, and reformulations not only of the Bardo Thödol, but also of general Western understandings of Tibetan Buddhist funerary traditions.48

Since Carl Jung (1875–1961) produced his “Psychological Commentary,” which appeared in English in the third edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1949), further psychological interpretations have emerged from popular culture and Western scholarship.49 The message of these commentaries, for the most part, accords with Jung’s understanding that the text should be read as a psychological account of unconscious tendencies. The third edition also includes a foreword by the German-born Lama Anagarika Govinda (1898–1985), who also supported a psychological interpretation of the Bardo Thödol that claims that the text describes the death of the ego. Jung’s and Govinda’s interpretation was further maintained by scholars and spiritualists who have read the work as a manual for the living to transform their psychological experiences.50

Timothy Leary (1920–1996), a famous proponent of the use of psychedelic drugs to expose the consciousness to higher states of reality, also provided his own interpretation of the text, based on popular Western psychological interpretations of ego death. Leary, together with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, published Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964), which restructured of the text as a guide for a drug-induced experience.51 The book has also been interpreted as a literary work, providing an alternative to reading it as a literal account of the afterlife.52 This Western tradition of liberally interpreting the text as symbolic or metaphoric has continued through the various popular readings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.53

New-age spiritualists in America have continued the tradition of Evans-Wentz’s theosophical rendering, often combining the instructions with Hindu, pagan, or even Christian belief systems to fit their own dispositions and beliefs. However, it is important to note that New Age as well psychological interpretations may dilute the socio-historical and religious context from which the Bardo Thödol literature developed.54 The intended function of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is to act as a ritual guide for the deceased, based on the belief in an afterlife existence and eventual rebirth that can be positively influenced by the living. Although from an ultimate perspective the appearances of deities in the bardo state as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead are merely projections of our primordially luminous minds, on a relative level they are not necessarily any less real than any experience we may encounter throughout our lives, according to Tibetan Buddhist principles.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead has had a direct as well as indirect influence on popular culture in the West, as illustrated by John Lennon’s song “Tomorrow Never Knows” and Gaspar Noé’s 2009 film Enter the Void. Two documentary films on the Tibetan Book of the Dead have also been produced for a Western audience. In 1984 Hiroaki Mori and Yukari Hayashi produced a two-part documentary on the book, narrated by Leonard Cohen, offering a unique and notable introduction to ways in which the text is utilized both in the Himalaya as well as in the West. In 2007, the History Channel aired the documentary film Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Review of the Literature

The various editions and renderings of the Tibetan Book of the Dead have traditionally included interpretive commentary or introductions by spiritualists such as Walter Evans-Wentz or Lama Govinda, psychologists such as Carl Jung, or scholars such as Donald Lopez.55 These introductory notes and annotations contain a wealth of valuable information on the historicity of the Bardo Thödol in Tibet, the wider religious context of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Western reception and reinterpretation of the text(s). Apart from these introductions and the available translations of Bardo Thödol literature into European languages, Tibetologists have also devoted considerable attention to the collection and its history both in Tibet and in translation. Bryan Cuevas has provided the most exhaustive treatment of the historical developments of the various Tibetan traditions of the Tibetan Book of the Dead literature, and Donald Lopez has covered the history and reception of the book in the West.56 Gyurme Dorje, who published the first complete English translation of the entirety of works included within the Bardo Thödol, provides a useful and brief account of the literary history of this cycle of texts, as well as a glossary and tables which aid in conceptually mapping out the content of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.57 This work also includes translations of Buddhist instructions on related preliminary practices and the tantric yoga of consciousness transference (’pho ba) to be performed at the time of death.

In terms of psychological (re)interpretations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead based on Jung’s psychological commentary, which recommends a “reverse reading” of the described mental process of dying, Timothy Leary and colleagues offer the best-known publication that draws upon this theme by redesigning the book as a manual for drug-induced explorations of the ego and psyche.58 Chögyam Trungpa, a popular Tibetan guru in America during the 1970s and 1980s, further echoed this prominent Western understanding that the purpose of the text(s) is to elucidate psychological processes that occur throughout this life, rather than taking the work to be a literal description of the after-death experiences.59 While this was the dominant interpretation seen in commentaries, rereadings, and retranslations of the 1960s and 1970s within popular culture and spiritual circles, by the 1990s this type of reading of the Tibetan Book of the Dead and associated literature was also picked up by academics who were attempting to provide comparative or literary interpretations of the book.60 These studies have tended to examine the Tibetan Book of the Dead apart from its socio-historical and religious contexts, rarely acknowledging how the text(s) and the philosophical content are actually interpreted and practiced by Tibetans themselves. This point has recently been brought to light and critically examined by scholars such as Peter Bishop and Donald Lopez.61

Within the field of Tibetology, scholars continue to be fascinated by the complexity of rituals, practices, and doctrines associated with death in Tibet. This is due in part to the primacy of the funerary tradition in Tibet’s pre-Buddhist indigenous religious practices and its later, elaborate manifestations syncretized with Buddhist doctrine. As Tibet was largely cut off from the rest of the world until the mid-20th century, many ancient shamanistic practices were preserved within mainstream Buddhist rituals, allowing for direct access into ancient practices. This is reflected by the fact that Tibetological investigations into Tibetan traditions related to dying and the dead have been primarily anthropological observations of funeral practices.62 There have also been a few notable textual studies into the doctrinal interpretation of death and the dead by such scholars as David Germano and Tadeusz Skorupski.63

Although Nyingma funerary manuals have been the primary resource for Tibetological studies of belief systems related to death and the afterlife, until recently the history and doctrine of the Nyingma tradition was perhaps the least studied of all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. This may be due partly to the fact that, unlike the other major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingma lacks a clear hierarchal or institutional structure.64 Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been a strong surge in Nyingma studies with prominent scholars such as Jacob Dalton, Janet Gyatso, Robert Mayer, Cathy Cantwell, and Orna Almogi all making valuable contributions toward understanding Nyingma literature and its history.65 Also, Dorji Wangchuk, Gyurme Dorje, Dan Martin, Henk Blezer, and Sam van Schaik have all made important contributions toward investigating the Guhyagarbha Tantra and its associated literature.66 It should finally be noted that perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Tibetan Book of the Dead literature is that the conceptual framework and terminology for the Bardo Thödol is based on the Nyingma’s Dzogchen tradition. Dzogchen, although little understood by Western spiritualists or academics, has received some notable attention from scholars including Sam van Schaik, Samten Karmay, and David Higgins.67

Primary Sources

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is essentially based on a collection of Tibetan literature known as the Bardo Thödol or as The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State (Bar do thos grol chen mo). Various editions of this text are available in Tibetan, and have been outlined by Bryan Cuevas.68 This collection is part of a larger corpus of Tibetan treasure literature, The Profound Teaching of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: Natural Liberation through Enlightened Intention (Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol). This treasure text is based on the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which is also extant in Tibetan in various editions. Various editions of all three of these textual collections and associated commentaries can be easily accessed online through the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC).69

University of Virginia. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. This website is a digital version of a special collections exhibition from the University of Virginia Library, curated by Bryan Cuevas. Although the website is difficult to navigate, it provides good examples of the Tibetan textual traditions of death and dying, particularly according to the Bardo Thödol tradition.

Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife. The physical exhibition of bardo iconography is located at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, New York City, which can be toured via the website. This collection includes sculptures of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, illuminated manuscripts, three-dimensional mandalas, and so forth that illustrate Tibetan depictions of the bardo experiences between death and rebirth.

Himalayan Art Resources. Subject: Guhyagarbha Tantra (Peaceful & Wrathful Deities). This website is an indispensable source for iconographic information on Tibetan and Himalayan art and contains an outline, iconography, and useful links relevant to the Guhyagarbha Tantra.

Further Reading

Bishop, Peter. “A Landscape for Dying: The Bardo Thödol and Western Fantasy.” In Constructing Tibetan Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Edited by Frank Korom, 47–72. St.-Hyacinthe, Quebec: World Heritage, 1997.Find this resource:

Blezer, Hank. Kar gling zhi khro: A Tantric Buddhist Concept. CNWS Publications 56. Leiden, The Netherlands: CNWS, 1997.Find this resource:

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

Dorje, Gyurme. “The Guhyagarbhatantra and Its Fourteenth Century Tibetan Commentary: Phyogs bcu mun sel.” PhD diss., University of London, 1987.Find this resource:

Dorje, Gyurme, trans. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. Edited by Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa. London: Penguin, 2006.Find this resource:

Evans-Wentz, Walter Y.The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. Translated by Kazi Dawa Samdup. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000a.Find this resource:

Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., trans. The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, or The Method of Realizing Nirvana through Knowing the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000b.Find this resource:

Fremantle, Francesca, and Chögyam Trungpa, eds. and trans. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo. Clear Light Series. Boston: Shambhala, 1975.Find this resource:

Germano, David. “Dying, Death, and Other Opportunities.” In Religions of Tibet in Practice. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 458–493. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Gouin, Margaret. Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices. Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism. New York: Routledge, 2010.Find this resource:

Gyatso, Janet. “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature.” In Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Edited by José Cabézon and Roger P. Jackson, 147–169. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.Find this resource:

Imaeda, Yoshiro. “The Bar do thos grol, or ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’: Tibetan Conversion to Buddhism or Tibetanisation of Buddhism?” In Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang: Rites and Teachings for This Life and Beyond. Edited by Matthew Kapstein and Sam van Schaik, 145–158. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.Find this resource:

Jung, Carl G. “Psychological Commentary.” In The Tibetan Book of the Dead; or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane: According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. Edited by Walter Y. Evans Wentz and Kazi Dawa Samdup, xxxv–lii. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949.Find this resource:

Lauf, Detlef Ingo. Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1997.Find this resource:

Leary, Timothy, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. London: Penguin Classics, 2008 [1964].Find this resource:

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. “The Book.” In Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 46–85. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Lopez, Donald S., Jr.The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

Rinpoche, Dudjom. Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom, 2002.Find this resource:

Thurman, Robert. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation through Understanding in the Between. New York: Bantam, 1994.Find this resource:

Wicks, Robert. “The Therapeutic Psychology of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead.’” Philosophy East and West 47.4 (1997): 479–494.Find this resource:


(1.) For an overview of Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa’s life story, see Treasury of Lives: Nyima Drakpa.

(2.) For more on the various available Tibetan editions of the Bardo Thödol, see the first half of the chapter “Conclusion: Manuscripts and Printed Texts,” in The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, ed. Bryan Cuevas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 205–210.

(3.) Hidden History, 18.

(4.) The full set of the Bardo Thödol collection has been translated in Gyurme Dorje, trans., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States, ed. Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa (London: Penguin, 2006).

(5.) For more on the significance of written works in Tibet, see Kurtis Schaeffer, The Culture of the Book in Tibet (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

(6.) John Taylor, ed., Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

(7.) Donald Lopez Jr., “The Book,” in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 46–85.

(8.) For more on the life of Walter Evans-Wentz, see Ken Winkler, Pilgrim of the Clear Light: The Biography of Dr. Walter Evans-Wentz (2d ed.; Bangkok: Booksmango, 2013 [1982]).

(9.) Giuseppe Tucci, trans.,Il Libro Tibetano del Morto (Turin: UTET, 1949).

(10.) Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa, eds. and trans., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo (Boston: Shambhala, 1975).

(11.) Francesca Fremantle, Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Boston: Shambhala, 2001).

(12.) Robert Thurman, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation through Understanding in the Between (New York: Bantam, 1994).

(13.) Gyurme Dorje, trans., The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

(14.) Philippe Cornu, trans., Le Livre des Morts Tibétain: La grande libération par l’écoute dans les états intermédiaires (Paris: Buchet/Chastel, 2009).

(15.) Elio Guarisco, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Awakening upon Dying, ed. Nancy Simmons (Berkeley: Shang Shung, 2013).

(16.) David Germano, “Dying, Death, and Other Opportunities,” in Religions of Tibet in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 458–493.

(17.) On the story of how Marpa received teachings from Indian mahāsiddhas including Nāropa, see Nalanda Translation Committee, trans., The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All, composed by Tsangnyön Heruka (Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1982).

(18.) Ulrich Kragh, “Prolegomenon to the Six Doctrines of Nā ro pa: Authority and Tradition,” in Mahāmudrā and the Bka’-brgyud Tradition: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, ed. Roger Jackson and Matthew Kapstein, (Andiast, Switzerland: International Association for Tibetan Studies, 2011), 131–177.

(19.) Bryan Cuevas, Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

(20.) Bryan Cuevas, “Predecessors and Prototypes: Towards a Conceptual History of the Buddhist Antarābhava,” Numen 43.3 (1996): 263–302.

(21.) Robert Kritzer, “Childbirth and the Mother’s Body in the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya and Related Texts,” in Indo tetsugaku bukkyō shisō ron shū: Mikogami Eshōkyōju shōju kinen ronshū (Kyoto: Nagatabunshodō, 2004), 1009–1085. See also Robert Kritzer, Garbhāvakrāntisūtra: The Sūtra on Entry into the Womb (Studia Philologica Buddhica, Monograph Series 31; Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 2014).

(22.) For more on the classic Indian notion of a gandharva being, see Alex Wayman, The Vedic Gandharva and Rebirth Theory (Pune, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1997).

(23.) Margaret Gouin, “The 49 Days,” in Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism; New York: Routledge, 2010), 97–99.

(24.) Alex Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990 [1973]).

(25.) Jamgön Kongtrul, “Intermediate State,” in The Treasury of Knowledge Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions, trans. Sarah Harding (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2007), 194–202.

(26.) Bryan Cuevas, “Transitions: The Buddhist Intermediate State,” in Hidden History, ed. Cuevas, 39–68.

(27.) On the notion of merging types of luminosity in Tibetan tantric traditions, see Casey Kemp, “Merging Ignorance and Luminosity in Early Bka’ brgyud Bsre ba Literature,” in Toward a History of Tibetan Mahāmudrā Traditions, ed. Klaus-Dieter Mathes (Zentralasiatische Studien 44; Andiast, Switzerland: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 2015), 35–50.

(28.) Françoise Pommaret, Les revenants de l’au-delà dans le monde tibétain: Sources littéraires et tradition vivante (Paris: CNRS, 1989).

(29.) Bryan Cuevas, “Beginnings: Funeral Ritual in Ancient Tibet,” in Hidden History, ed. Cuevas, 27–38.

(30.) Tadeusz Skorupski, “The Cremation Ceremony According to the Byang-gTer Tradition,” Kailash 9.4 (1982): 361–376. See also Tadeusz Skorupski, The Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra: Elimination of All Evil Destinies, Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts with Introduction, English Translation and Notes (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983); Leonard van der Kuijp, “Notes Apropos of the Transmission of the Sarvadurgatipariśodhanatantra in Tibet,” Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik 16/17 (1992): 109–125; and Zeff Bjerken, “On Mandalas, Monarchs, and Mortuary Magic: Siting the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra in Tibet,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73.3 (2005): 813–841.

(31.) For a detailed account of the significance of the practice of transference (’pho ba) in Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, see Ching Hsuan Mei, “The Development of ’Pho ba Liturgy in Medieval Tibet,” PhD diss., Universität Bonn, 2009.

(32.) For example, some anthropological accounts have investigated the kinds of influence indigenous religious traditions and Buddhism have on Himalayan funerary rites. See Charles Ramble, “Status and Death: Mortuary Rites and Attitudes to the Body in a Tibetan village,” Kailash 9.4 (1982): 333–359; and Michael Vinding, “The Thakalis as Buddhists: A Closer Look at their Death Ceremonies,” Kailash 9.4 (1982): 291–318.

(33.) Turrell Wylie, “Ro-Langs: The Tibetan Zombie,” History of Religions 4.1 (1964): 69–80.

(34.) Margaret E. Gouin, “Disposal of the Body,” in Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices, ed. Gouin (Routledge Critical Studies in Buddhism; New York: Routledge, 2010), 46–78.

(35.) Dan Martin, “Pearls from Bones: Relics, Chortens, Tertons and the Signs of Saintly Death in Tibet,” Numen 41.3 (1994): 273–324.

(36.) For insights into the early sources for the legendary figure Padmasambhava, see Jacob Dalton, “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4 (2004): 759–772.

(37.) For more on the Dzogchen view and tradition, see John Pettit, “Tibetan Buddhist Traditions and the Great Perfection,” in Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, ed. John W. Pettit (Boston: Wisdom, 1999), 71–100.

(38.) For more on treasure literature in Tibet, see Janet Gyatso, “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature,” in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Cabezón and Roger Jackson (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996), 147–168.

(39.) For more on the significance of the maṇḍala in Tibet, see Martin Brauen, Mandala: Sacred Circle in Tibetan Buddhism (New York: Rubin Museum of Art, 2009).

(40.) For a full translation of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, see Lama Chönam and Sangye Khandro, The Guhyagarbha Tantra: Secret Essence Definitive Nature Just As It Is (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2011).

(41.) Jamgön Mipham, Luminous Essence: A Guide to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, trans. Dharmachakra Translation Committee (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2009).

(42.) Sam van Schaik, “In Search of the Guhyagarbha Tantra,” in Early Tibet.

(43.) Dan Martin, “Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist Intellectual History,” in Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, ed. Christopher Beckwith (Bloomington, IN: Tibet Society, 1987), 175–220.

(44.) Henk Blezer, Kar gling Zhi khro: A Tantric Buddhist Concept (School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies 56; Leiden, The Netherlands: Research School CNWS, 1997).

(45.) Helena Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (Los Angeles: Theosophy Company, 1947 [1888]).

(46.) Donald Lopez Jr., “Foreword,” in The Tibetan Book of the Dead or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, trans. Kazi Dawa Samdup (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(47.) See further Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: A History of the Mystics, Mediums, and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America (New York: Schocken, 1993).

(48.) Donald Lopez Jr., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

(49.) Originally published in 1935 in Das Tibetanische Totenbuch and translated into English by R. F. C. Hull. See Carl G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary,” in The Tibetan Book of the Dead; or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane: According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, ed. and trans. Walter Y. Evans Wentz and Kazi Dawa Samdup (3d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), xxxv–lli.

(50.) Robert Wicks, “The Therapeutic Psychology of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead,’” Philosophy East and West 47.4 (1997): 479–494.

(51.) Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (London: Penguin Classics, 2008).

(52.) Ralph Flores, “Final Emergency Reading: The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in Buddhist Scriptures as Literature: Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory, ed. Flores (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008 [1964]), 163–182.

(53.) For an example, see E. J. Gold, American Book of the Dead (San Francisco: Harper, 1995).

(54.) Peter Bishop, “A Landscape for Dying: The Bardo Thodol and Western Fantasy,” in Constructing Tibetan Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Frank Korom (St-Hyacinthe, Quebec: World Heritage, 1997), 47–72.

(55.) Carl G. Jung, “Psychological Commentary,” in The Tibetan Book of the Dead; or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane: According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, ed. and trans. Walter Y. Evans Wentz and Kazi Dawa Samdup (3d ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), xxxv–lli; Donald Lopez Jr., “Foreword” and “Afterword,” in The Tibetan Book of the Dead or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, According to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering, trans. Kazi Dawa Samdup (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), A–Q, 243–253.

(56.) Cuevas, Hidden History; and Lopez, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Biography.

(57.) Gyurme Dorje, “A Brief Literary History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States, ed. Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa (London: Penguin, 2006), xxvi–xlix.

(58.) Leary, Metzner, and Alpert, Psychedelic Experience.

(59.) Francesca Fremantle and Chögyam Trungpa, eds. and trans., The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo (Clear Light Series; Boston: Shambhala, 1975).

(60.) See for example Christopher Carr, “Death and Near-Death: A Comparison of Tibetan and Euro-American Experiences,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 25.1 (1993): 59–110; and Ralph Flores, “Final Emergency Reading: The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” in Buddhist Scriptures as Literature: Sacred Rhetoric and the Uses of Theory, ed. Flores (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008 [1964]), 163–182.

(61.) Lopez, “The Book”; and Peter Bishop, “A Landscape for Dying: The Bardo Thodol and Western Fantasy,” in Constructing Tibetan Culture: Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Frank Korom (St-Hyacinthe, Quebec: World Heritage, 1997), 47–72.

(62.) See note 33.

(63.) David Germano, “Funerary Transformation of the Great Perfection (Rdzogs chen),” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 1 (2005): 1–54; and Tadeusz Skorupski, “The Cremation Ceremony According to the Byang-gTer Tradition,” Kailash 9.4 (1982): 361–376.

(64.) The most extensive reference available on Nyingma teachings and history in English is Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History, translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (2 vols.; Somerville: Wisdom, 2002).

(65.) Jacob Dalton, “Recreating the Rnying ma School: the Mdo dbang Tradition of Smin grol gling,” in Power, Politics, and the Reinvention of Tradition in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Tibet, ed. Bryan Cuevas and Kurtis Schaeffer (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006), 91–101; Janet Gyatso, “Logic of Legitimation in the Tibetan Treasure Tradition,” History of Religions 33.2 (1993): 97–134; Robert Mayer, “gTer ston and Tradent: Innovation and Conservation in Tibetan Treasure Literature,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 36/37 (2015): 227–242; Cathy Cantwell, “Different Kinds of Composition/Compilation Within the Dudjom Revelatory Tradition,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 36/37 (2015): 243–280; and Orna Almogi, “The Materiality and Immanence of Gnosis in Some rNying-ma Tantric Sources,” in Yogic Perception, Meditation and Altered States of Consciousness, ed. Eli Franco and Dagmar Eigner (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009), 241–262.

(66.) Dorji, Wangchuk, “An Eleventh-Century Defense of the Authenticity of the Guhyagarbha Tantra,” in The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism, ed. Helmut Eimer and David Germano (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 265–292; Gyurme Dorje, “The Guhyagarbhatattvaviniṣcayamahātantra and its XIVth century Tibetan Commentary phyogs bcu mun sel,” PhD diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1987; Martin, “Illusion Web”; and Blezer, Kar gling Zhi khro; van Schaik, “In Search of the Guhyagarbha Tantra.”

(67.) Sam van Schaik, Approaching the Great Perfection: Simultaneous and Gradual Approaches to Dzogchen Practice in the Longchen Nyingtig (Boston: Wisdom, 2004); Samten Karmay, The Great Perfection (rDzogs chen in Tibetan): A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007); and David Higgins, The Philosophical Foundations of Classical Rdzogs chen in Tibet: Investigating the Distinction Between Dualistic Mind (sems) and Primordial Knowing (ye shes) (Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde 78; Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2013).

(68.) Bryan Cuevas, “Conclusion: Manuscripts and Printed Texts,” in Hidden History, ed. Cuevas, 205–210.