Tibetan Book of the Dead

An Expanded View

Originally written June 1970

Edited November 2000

Redited March 2009


The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a most unusual book in the annals of recorded thought. It instructs one in the art of dying. The Buddhist sect responsible for this manuscript holds that with death man passes into what they call the Bardo world. One remains in this world for forty-nine days and then reenters the womb and is born again. This book deals with those forty-nine days. It tells the dead what to expect in this after-death state. Like boot camp in the military it gives you a best behavior for every situation. But while the army trains one to escape the snares of death the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches one how best to avoid the snares of life.

This Tibetan Buddhist sect holds that the purpose of existence is to escape life on this plane. The only constant in Life is change, which is painful for humans. While this painful life ends with death it is immediately followed by rebirth filled with more change and inevitable suffering. They maintain that we are trapped within the circle of birth and rebirth - caught on a treadmill, always moving - never getting anywhere. The purpose of this book then is to help the individual get off the treadmill as quickly as possible. While most won’t escape the cycle of death and rebirth through death, (only the saint attains liberation then,) this Book of the Dead teaches one to attain rebirth on a higher plane so that one will at least be closer to liberation.

Like many religious texts, the Tibetan Book of the Dead has an esoteric as well as a literal meaning. This book in its deeper levels of meaning deals with problems common to the state of life. So it deals with the top of the treadmill as well as the bottom of it. It deals with the art of living as well as the art of dying. The purpose of this paper will be to expand the understanding of this book to encompass virtually all of existence, rather than just the after death plane, hence the title of this paper, ‘An Expanded View’. Further these words are not just grinding wheat by explaining what the Tibetan Buddhists supposedly think about this book. Instead we will make some bread by illuminating the meaning of this classic for those who are ripe. Each age and culture must reinterpret classics for their own spot on the space/time continuum. We are looking for meaning not knowledge - relevance not cultural history.

Bardo Thodol: Liberation by Hearing on the After Death Plane

Bardo Thodol, which means ‘Liberation by hearing on the After Death Plane’, is the Tibetan name for the Book of the Dead. On the surface it is an instruction manual for the Living on what to whisper into the ear of someone who has just died. These verbal instructions are suggestions on how to be reborn into a higher plane.

The underlying assumption behind the book is that Being continually goes thru the cycle of Birth, Life, Death, After Death Plane or Bardo, and then Rebirth, Life, Death, Bardo, Rebirth, … over and over again. Rebirth and Death are the two transition points, between Life and the Bardos of the After Death Plane. This book addresses the Bardo states.

Book of the Dead addresses Ego Death, as well as Physical Death

Timothy Leary writes a book called The Psychedelic Experience in which he uses the Bardo Thodol to guide a psychedelic drug experience. Leary connects this experience to the life cycle. ‘Life -> Death -> Bardo -> Rebirth’ becomes ‘Coming on -> Peak-realization -> Come-down -> Rebirth’. Leary maintains that:

“The esoteric meaning (of the Bardo Thodol), as it has been interpreted in this manual, is that it is death and rebirth of the ego that is described, not the body.”

Ego death is here linked with the self-realization that comes thru psychedelics, meditation, or simply life experience.

Three types of ego loss

There are at least three types of ego loss:

       • 1) the loss of body, physical death. Externally this is the ego loss that the Bardo Thodol speaks of.

       • 2) identification with the universe, transcendence of self. This is the ego death of which Leary speaks in Psychedelic Experience (the ego-death which might occur from a psychedelic experience or from meditation).

       • 3) the death of a single ego or a few egos within the multi-self of normal life. This loss of the individual ego occurs with realization. One comes to understand something a little more deeply. All the selves that had previously arisen from ignorance, from lack of understanding, must inevitably die to be replaced by selves based on a higher understanding, but who must inevitably die themselves.[1] This is the type of ego death I speak of. It is most prevalent, as it seems to underlie all experience.

The Bardo Thodol in its symbol-layers includes instruction to those who have undergone any of those ego-losses before. It is a guidebook for anyone then.[2]

The Chikhai Bardo: The Primary & Secondary Clear Lights

Let us examine the specific instructions from the Bardo Thodol.

The Primary Clear Light of the Void

With physical death one is set face-to-face with the Clear Light.

“O nobly-born, the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face before the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience it in its Reality in the Bardo, where in all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or center. At this moment, know thou thyself and abide in that state.”[3]

At the moment of death one experiences the ultimate ego-death. All of one’s conscious selves, which are in reality manifestations of the subconscious self[4], cease to be; and one is alone with the subconscious self, the Clear Light. Most people, not having prepared themselves for this moment of death, lose consciousness[5] at this point and thereby fail to recognize the Clear Light. Those, who have prepared, recognize the Clear Light as themselves - they become the Clear Light, and are liberated from the cycle of birth and rebirth.[6]

Failing to recognize the Clear Light - Reborn

Those who fail to recognize the Primary Clear Light are relegated to at least one more lifetime. From the moment that one fails to recognize the Light, the subconscious begins to manifest itself again in duality and ego[7]. Once the subconscious begins manifesting itself again one is separated from the subconscious and becomes the manifestations[8] - unity is lost - rebirth is imminent. From this point on one’s purpose is to attain rebirth in the state that will be most conducive to one’s liberation for the next time around.

The Secondary Clear Light

“The person dying experiences the Clear Light in its primitive purity, the Dharma-Kaya unobscured; and, if unable to hold fast to that experience, next experiences the Secondary Clear Light, having fallen to a lower state of the Bardo, wherein the Dharma-Kaya is dimmed by karmic obscurations.”[9]

The Dharma-Kaya is the subconscious. It is unobscured initially but then is ‘dimmed by karmic obscurations’[10] - the subconscious begins manifesting itself and thereby dims itself[11]. When set face-to-face with the Secondary Clear Light, the obscured Dharma Kaya, one’s purpose again is to recognize it. With recognition of the Secondary Clear Light - Recognition in the sense of becoming it - one is immediately reborn again as a Divine Incarnation and is nearly assured liberation in the next life.[12] The after-death plane that includes the Primary and Secondary Clear Lights is called the Chikhai Bardo.

Chonyid Bardo: To Follow the Bright Light & Avoid the Dim

Failing to recognize the Secondary Clear Light one slips further away from his subconscious and is wrapped up more in the manifestations. In this stage, called the Chonyid Bardo, one is presented with karmic illusions. On the first to seventh day one is presented with the peaceful deities: from the eighth to the fourteenth day one is presented with the wrathful deities. Carl Jung says in his commentary on the Bardo Thodol,

“The Gods are archetypal thought-forms belonging to the sambhogakaya. Their peaceful and wrathful aspects, which play a great role in the meditations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, symbolize the opposites. In the nirmanakaya they are the positive and negative principles united in one and the same figure.”

The dharma-kaya is the state of absolute nothingness, the subconscious unobscured. The sambhoga-kaya is the state of oneness, the point; the self has now entered in but to assume identity with the subconscious, but has in a sense limited the actual subconscious by identifying with it. The nirmana-kaya is the multitude – the many, duality. The self is now separated in a more full sense from the subconscious. The Chikhai Bardo could be said in some sense to correspond with the dharma-kaya - the Chonyid Bardo with the sambho-kaya - the last Bardo of rebirth, the Sidpa Bardo, with nirmana kaya.

In the Chikhai Bardo all is void.

“O nobly -born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed into anything as regard characteristics or color, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good, the Dharma-Kaya.”[13]

In the Chonyid Bardo all is one. Although the peaceful and wrathful deities are separated, it is recognized within this Bardo that all the deities are “as the reflections of consciousness.” They are united as reflections from the same source. Also further cementing the unity it says, “The Wrathful Deities are only the former Peaceful Deities in changed aspect.”[14]

Recognize the Illusions as coming from the self

In the Chonyid Bardo as in the Chikhai Bardo one is merely to recognize the state as oneself. In the Chikhai Bardo one was to recognize the subconscious as the self; in the Chonyid Bardo one must recognize the illusions that one experiences as projections of the subconscious. Recognizing this in the fullest sense[15] would mean again rebirth as a Divine Incarnation as would happen if one had recognized the Secondary Clear Light.

During this stage one in presented with some beautiful illusions and with some terrifying illusions. The suggestion throughout with both types of illusion is to desire them not, nor fear them as they come from one’s self. This suggestion is very applicable to life in this world as well. Neither desire happiness nor fear sadness or depression; merely accept them both as reactions of the subconscious to this world. Then as all distinctions are products of the subconscious mind one is neither disturbed nor pleased[16] by anything that happens within this world. All is recognized as one.

Avoid the Dim lights and follow the Bright Light

Further within this Bardo, it is said that one will be presented with two lights, “a light so radiant that one wilt scarcely be able to look at it” and a dull light. The admonition at this point is to put thy faith in the radiant light and not be attracted to the dull light. The radiant light, emerging from the void, is frightening because it is so bright, while the dull light shines from the devas (the constant motion of the duality). Many times the dull light seems more attractive in that it is easier to see and follow. Again very applicable -- in this world one mustn’t fear truth, but should be honest with themselves and those around them; one must embrace truth as the only reality. It is recognized that many times truth is very frightening, maybe almost painful, pushing one to escape it to the dull light of motion and self-ishness[17].

An interesting sidelight is that the Peaceful Deities of the Chikhai Bardo are said to issue from the heart while the Wrathful or Knowledge holding Deities issue from the brain[18].

Karmic propensities (habit patterns) hard to break

If one can recognize any of the illusions as oneself one attains a secondary Liberation and is immediately reborn as a Divine Incarnation. One doesn’t recognize the illusions because of bad karmic connections, strong propensities built up in the previous life. These bad karmic connections becloud the brain and cause it to fail to recognize itself. One’s past actions determine to a certain degree what will happen to him in the present. If during life the individual had acquired a strong sense of selfhood then during the Bardo experiences he will have a harder time recognizing the illusions as himself for he will try to maintain identity with the self he has created during life. If however the individual had developed good karma during this life by recognizing all his selves as manifestation of the subconscious, then it will be easier for him to recognize the illusions as issuing from himself. While the individual’s previous selves are all dead, in some sense their habit patterns still affect the individual’s present state and how he reacts to stimuli[19]. Again even in life one’s behavior in the present is determined primarily how that individual behaved in the past.

Identifying with superior karmic connections

To escape karmic connections the Bardo Thodol suggests that we meditate on the emptiness of the intellect, the Void. If this proves too difficult, we are to meditate on the great godhead – Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, or whomever one’s particular God is. (Timothy Leary even suggests meditating on such men as Herman Hesse, Carl Jung, or Aldous Huxley.) The idea is to identify oneself with one of superior behavior patterns, one who is closer to the subconscious. By identification with one of superior karmic connection one might escape one’s own connections.[20]

The Sidpa Bardo: Rebirth & the 6 Lokas

The final Bardo is the Sidpa Bardo, the Bardo of Rebirth. Here one is instructed in the methods of attaining rebirth on the highest plane possible.

The six Lokas

There are six Lokas, six states of rebirth; (I shall use Leary’s descriptions of the Lokas.)

       1) devas – the god-like state of state of sainthood,

       2) asuras – titans or heroes,

                      “people with a more than human degree of power and wisdom.”

       3) human – “one with physical or psychological handicaps of various sorts”

       4) animal – brute world, those who are tied helplessly to their needs and wants

       5) pretas – the neurotic, having many needs and wants

                      but unable to satisfy or understand them

       6) hell – the psychotic, living in a world of such strong anxieties and fears

that it causes a split with reality

Desire or fear nothing

Our purpose in the Sidpa Bardo is to gain rebirth in the highest possible Loka. The main suggestion here is to neither desire nor fear anything. At this stage we will be presented with various visions of future places of rebirth. If we desire rebirth before our time, the desire to be a person, we will be reborn in a lower plane. If we see a vision of a beautiful place and desire it we will also be reborn in a lower plane. If we have anger or low thoughts during this period we also descend into a lower Loka. During this period we are instructed to attain a state of thoughtlessness or at least a one-pointedness on the Godhead. This prevents us from having emotions or desires and will insure our rebirth on a higher plane.

Life is in a constant state of flux. At every instant some selves are dying, while others are being born. The Bardo Thodol’s suggestions about this Bardo assist us to be reborn into a higher Loka, as a more elevated self. We mustn’t desire birth before our time; nor become frustrated because we’re not as perfect or as good as we wish to be. Or, to be sure, we will be reborn in one of the lower lokas, perhaps in the brute, preta or, heaven forbid, hell realms, as one of our lower selves – prone to all the fears and anxieties that beset humanity. We must simply flow with the tide – accepting with great joy and understanding any advance or setback that befalls us. Further if we can remain in this state of no desire and no fear, the state where no thoughts are formed, we will be reborn into higher and higher states[21].


In summary, the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) deals with the process of life as well as the process of death. There are three stages. The Chikhai Bardo deals with the moment of peaking and immediately afterward. It teaches one to retain the peak experience as long as possible[22]. The Chonyid Bardo deals with the period after the peak; the period when one is feeling powerful emotions and experiencing heavy (profound) thoughts. It teaches one to recognize all good and bad experiences of this period as projections of the self, the subconscious. It teaches one to accept truth as the one guiding principle of life. The Sidpa Bardo deals with the period of rebirth into new selves. It teaches one to have good thoughts in order to gain rebirth in the highest plane possible. The whole book can be thought of as a guidebook to physical death, a guidebook to a meditation or drug experience, or more all-embracing, a guidebook to the death of individual selves and how to avoid rebirth, or at least how to be reborn in a higher plane.[23]


----, The Tibetan Book of The Dead edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, published by Oxford University Press, 1969

Leary, Metzner, Alpert; The Psychedelic Experience, published by University Books, 1969

Jung, Psychology and Religion: East and West, translated by R.F.C. Hull, published by Pantheon Books 1958, pp. 475-526


[1]Very profound - The Left Brain Mind creates multiple illusionary worlds. All these worlds are based on the illusion that we, Being, are a Person with a Physical Body and a Mental Character or Personality that we are pure Being not an individual Self. This comes physically with death or mentally with a momentary sense of cosmic union, perhaps psychedelic inspired. However, Integration of these insights only comes thru Life Experience. No matter how much we seem to understand that the material world is illusion, until our material world is threatened in some way, we don’t let go of it - Clinging desperately to Shadows.

[2]The Tibetan Book of the Dead is addressed from Being to Being. As we shall see, the Words attempt to wake Being up to its true nature - which transcends its Body/Mind Complex - traditionally called a Person, while including it. Hence the ultimate realization is that we are Being, not a Person. This is the Death of Person-ality. What Now? How do we remain in this ego-less state? What should we expect? The Book of the Dead deals with these questions.

[3]The Tibetan Book of The Dead edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz

[4] Rephrasing this concept under the assumption that this ‘subconscious self’ is Being: for drama Being, unrecognized as the true Self, powers Brain to create illusory conscious selves, which believe themselves real. With Death only Being remains.

[5]‘Losing verbal consciousness is not really the problem but the solution. The problem is instead losing Being, non-verbal awareness. Those who’ve dwelt consistently in the verbal Left Brain world can’t let go – thinking that this is real. Those who’ve cultivated the whole-istic Right Brain world are more prepared for their Person to die.

[6][Still under the Delusion that he is a Person, our Writer uses some misleading phrases.] Death is the momentary realization that we are more than a Person. Because of the experiential (non-verbal) nature of this realization it is regularly forgotten. We easily slip immediately back into thinking that we are a Person with all the pain and suffering that this entails. If instead we regularly visit the Void (the state of Death) to become immersed in Being (our true self) then we remain in the Primary Clear Light rather than being reborn. However most of us (addicted, as we are, to the pleasures of the Duality) are continually reborn into a state of desire. Those who have come to fully identify with the One rather than the Duality remain in the desireless state of pure Being – the Primary Clear Light of the Void - which is, of course, Empty, while Not At Rest (dynamic).

[7]As soon as Brain, master of the verbal mode, seizes control of Mind, seat of conscious awareness, Duality and Ego emerge - Polarity and Person-ality. And as soon as this occurs, the primal Holy-istic Right Brain Unity – the One develops a crack – the beginning of the Separation from Reality, which shatters one is separated from

[8] Instead of Being, we, whoever that is, begin to identify with Brain’s illusory worlds. Fascinated by the Smoke - the Fire is forgotten.

[9]footnote #1 page 98, Tibetan Book of the Dead

[10]We will take the Dharma-Kaya to be the Path. If Body, Mind and Spirit (jing-chi-shen from Taoist alchemy) are unified then one automatically manifests their Dharma. However if they are not unified the true Dharma Path is obscured by Person-al considerations. Instead of manifesting cleanly Fear and Desire cloud the Way – Desires luring you off the Path - Fears scaring you away from it.

Aligned one is not tempted to stray or afraid to continue. Because one is not attached to the idea of being a Person - individual desires and fears melt away.

[11]Operating from subconscious levels the Right Brain demands to manifest as the True Self. However if the Left Brain has seized control (as he regularly does) the Right Brain creates greater and greater mental disturbances to draw the attention back to herself. If the Mind gets stuck in the idea of Person, the Dharma-Kaya (the Path) is lost. Instead of secret Passageways, only Walls are found.

[12]The illusion of Rebirth is based upon the Person illusion. Having lost the Path, one can instantly regain it. After returning to the Path one is a Divine Incarnation - no matter what. However it is easy to stray - tempted, angry and afraid.

[13]Tibetan Book of the Dead

[14]Tibetan Book of the Dead

[15]As we sink thru the Bardos towards rebirth, we find someone who is more and more attached to the illusion that they are a Person with events and circumstances happening to them. Thus it is more and more difficult to realize that the universe with all its pain and suffering is only mind projection. Thus the habit of thinking oneself a Person becomes more and more difficult to break the more one is invested in the idea. It is as if the Actor has forgotten that he is merely playing a role.

Further the Dharma path is obscured by this cult of Person-ality. However anytime that one momentarily realizes the unity, the Dharma Path becomes clear. And as soon as one returns to the Path – which can be at any time as the Trailhead is right in front of you - one begins manifesting as a Divine Incarnation.

[16]This is the big problem for most humans. Most would gladly give up their fears and pain. But few are willing to give up their pleasures and desires. Unfortunately they are only two sides to the same coin. The coin must be given up to find the Dharma Path. It is the Payment. Without it one is doomed to rebirth into the world of suffering.

[17]The root fear of the Bright light is based in the Person illusion. When the Dharma Path (the Bright Lights) inevitably puts your Person is at risk, the dim lights are tempting because they seem safer. With the realization that you are not your Person desire of the Peaceful Deities and fear of the Wrathful Deities is not an issue. However many that have reached this state are still immersed in the perceived reality of the utilitarian Person construct.

[18]This metaphor is also employed in the Tarot deck. The swords in the Tarot deck are associated with the verbal constructs of the Brain that create the duality. Conversely the cups in the Tarot deck are associated with the empathy and love of the heart. The negative of the swords is bloodshed, while the negative of the cups is stagnation and overindulgence.

[19]Stuck in the construct of Person the Mind develops habit patterns based upon this misconception. This is a karmic propensity. However one is not being punished for a past lifetime - except in the sense that the longer one has been stuck in this idea -> the more habit patterns have built up and persisted -> the harder they are to break. In this context, the longer one has held the mistaken notion of self and other, the harder it is to understand that the illusions are self-generated.

Further the deeper the infection the harder it is to uproot. When the infection has entered the Body, mere understanding is not enough. A corrupted Mind creates physical blockages in the Body that must be unclogged before any real progress can be made. Verbal understanding is just the first step - not the last. This is why body practices accompany Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga. It is not enough to understand - one must also integrate the insights into the body by clearing out the channels.

[20]By the mere act of identification with the Godhead, or one who is more in touch with Being, one dims the sense of Ego or Person that is at the root of delusion. In this way one ‘escapes’ one’s destructive mental habits. There is nothing magical about it. Anything that diminishes the sense of self weakens one’s bad karma (one’s bad habits), allowing one to more easily recognize the universe as one’s own projection.

[21]To be in the state of no fear and no desire is the higher state. The illusion that one body is better than another is based around the concept that Being is a Person. When one is in the state of no fears or desires one is bathing in the Void. The point of the Book of the Dead is to teach one how to remain there. The Dead are those who don’t think themselves a Person. Being Reborn means to think of oneself as a Person again. This is to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately our verbal world constantly reinforces the idea that we are People. While we are not a Person - we have a Person. While we play the Game - we are not the Game. Mistaking Being for Person - we tend to play the Game as if it is Real – taking everything entirely too seriously - causing ourselves no end to grief, pain and suffering.

[22]This peak experience (death of self) is manifested in many ways. The features are the transcendence of subject and object, of self and other, of the duality. Some of the most common moments when this occurs are when reading, playing music, creating, possibly in the heat of a sporting event, meditation and psychedelic experiences. Wrapped up in each of these experiences one momentarily loses the sense of subject and object. Becoming one with the story, the music or the game, one forgets that one is a Person. However as soon as the event ends, one tends to be reborn a Person due to existing mental habit patterns reinforced by social convention. The purpose of the Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol, is to assist one in avoiding rebirth as a Person and to instead remain in the state of the Chikhai Bardo, the state of the Unborn & Undead.

[23]In the novel Butter on Table Seven the Author employs the idea that one fears the Primary Clear Light of the Void and is attracted to the dull lights. Further he stresses ego-death as the only way to channel as a Divine Incarnation.

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