All About Bardo Practices and How to Cultivate Them
If you know the proper techniques, there are certain cultivation practices you can follow immediately after you die, when you're in the intermediate "transition" phase between death and a new rebirth called the bardo.
The Tibet school has many teachings on this topic, but it's impossible to cultivate these practices unless you are familiar with the techniques before you die. Otherwise, you'll simply continue to be pushed along by the winds of karma in the after life, and will not be able to use this opportune time (when you're finally free of the constraints posed by the coarse physical body) for cultivation. The intermediate period between rebirths is called the "bardo stage" and the cultivation practices for this period of time are called bardo stage yogas. In actual fact, however, any intercessory period is a bardo stage and can become the subject of cultivation.
Remember, any gap between states, any intercession, any pause, and disjunction is called a BARDO. Dozens and dozens of cultivation methods are built upon seizing the moment of the bardo between two states.
In terms of bardo intermediate states, we must note that there is a silent period of resting between any two periods of dissimilar activity. Whether it is between two thoughts, two breaths, between waking and sleeping, dreaming and non-dreaming or between death and rebirth, the transitional state between two different phases always entails a minor period of resting. That's an entry point by which we can enter into realizing the true nature of the mind because the busy mind is quiet at that time.
One of the reasons there are so many cultivation methods in the world is that different techniques are designed around different types of cessational (bardo) periods. For instance, the bardo state between sleep and waking is the basis of the dream yoga practices, the silent gap between thoughts is the basis of Tien-tai cessation and contemplation practice, and the pause between respirations is the basis of pranayama breathing practices. This state of cessation, called XI or hsi, is the basis of the Anapan method of Buddhism that is revealed in the Anapanasati sutra.
All these practices focus on periods of cessation when the mind is momentarily at rest. If you can extend the amount of time you stay in that state while maintaining your awareness, this open but silent awareness can eventually converge into samadhi. If you apply wisdom to observe the state produced, then you can increase your stage of cultivation and eventually enter into the Tao.
At the initial stages of cultivation, the periods of cessation we've cited are all states where it's possible to drop, even though it's only a short while, the "sixth mind" of ordinary consciousness. During all these transition periods, our mental activity is greatly diminished and ordinary mentation seems absent. Thus these are periods where we can still our thoughts. However, since fundamental awareness always exists, we can use our knowing awareness during these intercessions to try and realize the true nature of the mind.
Capturing this idea of bardo contemplation, the Hindu Tantraloka symbolically states, "Do not worship the Lord during the day. Do not worship the Lord during the night. The Lord must be worshipped at the meeting of day and night." In other words, the transitional state is the period of cessation when it is "neither one nor the other", so this is where you should focus your cultivation. This is a bardo cultivation method. Do you get it? During these stages the mind is clear and awake, and thus one can awaken if they have the wisdom of letting go while maintaining mindfulness or awareness.
We typically refer to these intercessory gaps as being empty, but "cessation periods" are just lower stages of mental activity. For instance, we hear sounds, and when we don't hear any sounds, we call this silence. But actually, sounds are a form, and silence is a form as well; silence is just the sound of no disturbance. So sounds and silence are both forms, but there's that one thing above both that can comprehend their true nature. It's this one which we are seeking, and the focus during the bardo gap of silence is to realize its true nature. Thus the various bardo meditations involve making use of the temporary experiences of minor stages of emptiness in order to progress towards true emptiness. Hence, concentrating on various gaps is just a means of abandoning excessive external pollution, giving the mind time to introspect, to turn around within, and realize it's true body.
As to the famous bardo yoga practices for the period between death and rebirth, these belong to a specific form of cultivation technology which is very similar to kundalini yoga.
The problem in our ordinary lives is that we're always preoccupied with our bodily sensations, and so we can't enter into samadhi. One way to defeat this type of clinging, or playing with sensations, is to imagine you're dead, which is one way to cultivate. It's extremely difficult to get rid of the view of the body, and the Zen school goes out of its way to point out that you really need great wisdom to discard this view. So imagining you are dead and letting go of your thoughts and sensations is one very important way to practice while you're still alive. But when you really die and have not yet go on to rebirth, there is yet another way to practice.
Shortly after death, every being is free of the restrictions of the body and will momentarily experience the formless "clear light" that accompanies the fundamental state of reality. When you can realize the clear light, this is the same stage as "seeing Tao", and the clear light will naturally appear upon your death. Why does it appear? Because it's the fundamental nature of reality, and when you're finally free of the confines of the body, and before you assume a new body, you'll be able to realize it. That's why people have to learn to discard their thoughts and body during the process of cultivation. In fact, the clear light also appears every time we're just about to wake up from sleep, and so it becomes the focus of the Tibetan "clear light of sleep" practices which ask you to concentrate on the heart chakra. While they're related, the bardo state clear light of death practices are different from this form of cultivation.
When you die, your intermediate body is composed of chi, like the body you seem to possess in dreams, and you can use this more subtle body to cultivate the clear light when it arises. If you have the requisite merit, and are familiar with the after death bardo practices, if you have previously achieved some level of accomplishment in your meditation practice and are not frightened during this period, then you may be able to "see Tao" at this point in time.
The detailed instructions for this form of practice are too lengthy for inclusion within this book, but can be found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and various other Tibetan works which greatly expound upon this technique. The basis of practice is to perceive that realm of primordial formless awareness, which Tibetans call the clear light, which corresponds to neither existence nor nonexistence. Although the full teachings of bardo yoga are lengthy, the stages of death and the accompanying bardo practices which are relevant to the path of cultivation can be summarized to some extent as follows.
The first element to start dissipating upon death is the chi of the earth element. When the earth element starts to dissipate, your arms and limbs will begin to feel heavy, as if you can't move your body anybody. It's a very dull, indistinct feeling because you're losing the sensation of the earth element since the earth element chi is dissipating. Similarly, for people who die because of sickness, their bodies will slowly lose their weight and mass which is a forewarning of this element's dissolution. But when the earth element is really leaving, your power of sight and vision will start to diminish, objects may seem to appear as if they're in the distance, or as we often see in the movies, the eyes will slow their flickering and become dull and lifeless.
These are just the initial stages of death, and you can still recover at this stage. But next the water element in the body starts to dissipate, and you'll secrete a very sticky sweat throughout the body and lose other bodily fluids. At the same time as the water element is diffusing, your power of hearing will also diminish, so you won't be able to hear sounds clearly anymore, and sounds will seem as if they're coming from far away. Next the sphincter muscle will release and the last bowel movement will occur. The urine will pass out of the bladder, and the individual will also release their seminal or sexual fluids. Then the individual will enter a state of unconsciousness or semi-consciousness where everything seems chaotic and moving about. The individual will no longer be able to recognize the meaning of different objects, but will be caught in their own little world. Thus they won't be able to recognize the people about them, or even the names of visitors and family members.
Now the loss of urine and feces shows that the downward moving chi of the body is dissipating, but the upward moving chi also wants to leave the body, so phlegm will begin to form in the throat during this process. In fact, when the water element is dissipating, the mouth will become dry and the individual may not be able to speak clearly anymore, or will only be able to mumble indistinct sounds. Because the upward moving wind is dissipating, one's breath will also become extremely shallow and will only reach to the throat rather than to the bottom of the lungs. Thus many people will seem as if they're choking, or struggling to breathe and speak, which is the upward flowing wind undergoing the state of dissolution. At this time the sixth consciousness is still there, but it's operating in a very restricted state.
When the individual goes through this choking phase, this is the last bit of the water element leaving the body. Soon the wind element will also leave, and at that time the individual will take their last breath. But at this current point in the process, the perceptions of the outside world will have stopped and the individual will rest in their own thought world separate from the input of the senses. This state has often been described as a yellowish or shadowy state of mind, or the road to Hades. After this stage, the heat and wind elements will then begin to leave the body.
As these last elements leave, at this point a doctor or hospital may try to use electrical or other invasive measures to try and shock people back to life. This is extremely painful--pain beyond description for the individuals in this state of dissipation to suffer this type of thing. It's so extremely painful that you mustn't think you're being good to the person who is dying that you impose this upon them because you don't want them to leave. Life and death are just processes of transformation which we're going through all the time, so it's best to accept the inevitable and let them leave in peace. When the body isn't even a fit vehicle for cultivation any longer, what are you trying to do?
Now as the heat element begins to leave the body, the body will start to become cold. If you want to know the realm to which the person goes after death, you can feel the body after it's dead, and the location of the last bit of warmth will indicate the realm of the next incarnation. If the heat recedes from the body, going from the feet upwards, this is indicative of rebirth in a fortunate realm whereas when the heat leaves the body from the top of the head downwards, the next incarnation will not be so fortunate. In terms of specific destinations, if the top of the head is the last region to remain warm, the individual has gone on to rebirth in the heavens, and their face will look beautiful or peaceful. If the forehead or brow is the last area to remain warm, and the face looks a little bit angry, strong or stern looking, they've gone on to be reborn in the realm of the asuras, or angry gods. If the heart is the last place which remains warm, the next stage of transformation will be as humans again.
The warmth of these regions is very easy to distinguish, but it's harder to distinguish the warmth if it occurs in the body's lower regions. If the stomach is the last place where the heat leaves, though this is not easy to feel, the individual will be reborn in the animal realm. If their knees are the last place to remain warm, they'll become a preta or hungry ghost, and if the feet are the last things to remain warm, they'll be reborn in the hells because of the weight of their evil deeds. But these last three states are difficult to see and detect. People always think that they'll be reborn a human, but they forget that there are many realms such as this, and in terms of the larger cycle of life in the longer term, the present period of being human is just one phenomenon. The important thing is that death is a new life, and a new life means death; people just change their form and continue ever progressing through the realms of cyclical existence. There's no chance to escape from this process unless you master cultivation.
The reason we talk about this is to show you that the essence of life is always here, but the outward form that carries the life continually undergoes transformation. Hence we can say that life isn't purely materialistic, nor consciousness-only, but some union of the two aspects. When we say that we live or die, it's just that a certain stage in this continuously changing process is finished, and that's what we mean by living or dying. The essence which allows you to live or die never dies, but is eternal and gives rise to all these states. So our rebirths and previous lives are just these different phases of continual ephemeral transformation, a cycle of never ending impermanence and change. We establish arbitrary separations on this continual sequence but there isn't any such thing because it's one continual process. Coming to this world and being human is just one phase of this sequence, and even here we can divide the human life into phases as evidence of this continual process of change and transformation. What's important is that when you cultivate to a certain level, you'll be able to control this process of transformation, and determine where you're going to go.
Now at the very moment you die and stop breathing, for one single moment there's a moment of tremendous pressure which collapses producing a fabulous feeling of freedom, like a bird who's been trapped for years and finally escapes out of his cage. This is the point where "your spirit" becomes free of the confines of the physical body. It's also a moment when you experience an extreme amount of sexual desire. So at the moment of death, and the time of entry of the spirit into the womb, are the two moments in life where your sexual desire rises to its maximum peak. That's why if you can't free yourself from sexual desire, you'll never accomplish much in your cultivation or be ever able to control the rounds of birth and death.
Next you enter into a state of mental coma or unconsciousness. We can call this a state of no-thought, no mind, or no perception because its nature is quite similar to fainting. The time spent in this state, if we were to measure it according to human time, would be about thirty hours or so. Some people say it's about twenty hours, but the important point is that it's like a long sleep, and then you "wake up" out of that state. After you wake up, you assume a different form other than that of the physical body. Some people think you take the form of a spirit or ghost, but that's incorrect. Rather, you arise in the form of a "bardo body", which is also called an "intermediate body", or "yin-body" in the Tao school. This body is similar in form to the human body, but it's composed of subtle chi. A closer approximation would be to say that it resembles our dream body that arises during sleep, which is also composed of chi, but the bardo body is more radiant and powerful than the dream body. Sometimes a relative or friend can receive a visitation from this bardo body, which suffers less constraints of space and time than our coarser physical form.
Now the way the bardo yoga works is the following. It's a natural characteristic of the state of sleep that when you're just about to wake up--on the border of sleep and wakefulness--you experience a very special moment of mind, for a very brief moment: the light of the mind which we call "luminosity". Of course this is not a physical light but a state of mind, a type of clear formless awareness which we refer to as the "clear light". So as you wake up out of this state of unconsciousness, just as you're about to assume the bardo body, you will also experience this clear light.
When you cultivate so as to reach a high level of samadhi, you will also experience the stage of clear light as well. At that point you will experience a profound peace and serenity and the "child light of mind". The best way we can describe clear light is to say that the experience is very serene, comfortable, peaceful, empty and clear; awareness is "bright" and endless. The experience is like coming upon an endless expanse of cloudless sky on a clear, crisp day in the cool settled autumn. This clear light is the same state you momentarily experience when you just about wake up to assume the bardo body. If you can grasp that moment when you wake up in that state, then you can remain cultivating in that state and stay out of reincarnation for a very long time. Hence that particular state of clarity or purity is what we call "Nirvana". Nirvana doesn't mean death, extinction or annihilation as some early translators supposed, but is a state of supreme peace, clarity and calm which, as descriptive terms, still don't do justice to this term. While the transitory world of samsara is totally characterized by movement, including the opposite dualistic state of stillness we call "emptiness", Nirvana is nonmoving, formless, blissful, indescribable. Nirvana is the real nature of reality.
For forty-nine years Shakyamuni Buddha taught that all things are empty of a self, are impure, involve suffering, and are impermanent. However, at the end of this life he taught the Nirvana Sutra where he said there is a true self of purity, bliss and permanence. That's the original essence of life, which is blissful and pure. That's what you try to reach through cultivation because it's the answer to all your questions and longings. As human beings we can't recognize this original essence because we keep grasping to things like pleasure and non-pleasure, or we become attached to our thoughts and sensations. Hence we cover over this experience although it's there all the time and has never left us. And since the state of motion will always change into non-motion, and non-motion into motion again because all states are impermanent, so even thoughts and internal silence are not the way to Tao. To reach Nirvana you have to get rid of these two states, you have to detach from these two extremes. Nirvana isn't in either existence or non-existence. Between the two states it's easiest to perceive the true nature of Nirvana, but in everyday life you just don't realize it. Hence you have to cultivate. And because we can't recognize this state of Nirvana, we still continue going round and round the cycle of birth of death. Is there a god in charge of this process? No there isn't. The only gatekeeper to the process is yourself. You're the one responsible for all your actions and behavior and all the events which happen to you because of the karmic seeds you've sown; there's only your karmic seeds, which constantly undergo a subtle perfuming process of transformation, that manifest when conditions are ripe in the world of interdependent arisings. This is just the way this universe works, and there's no outside force which gives you a personal fate other than yourself.
In bardo state, all your previous life experiences show up as in a movie review, and you can see all the interconnections you've experienced in life, and all the good and bad you've done to others in a sort of macro life review. If you've cultivated a good deal, many of your past life experiences can be seen as well. In the bardo state we may also see images of a god, a gatekeeper, or the "doors to heaven or hell" but these are all part of our shadow consciousness. These images are our own projections because of cultural conditionings; there is no outside controller over our destiny. Even though we seem to have no control over our destiny, we're actually the ones in charge who determine everything. There is no being in charge of this process other than ourselves, so cultivation comes down to mastering our functions and behavior. We plant the seeds which create our future, and those seeds are never destroyed. When the seeds finally sprout because conditions arise, our various experiences come into being. That's just the way this illusory realm of interdependent, but empty causation works. There's no creator being behind it, as it's all a selfless illusion. Even what we think of as the self is just an egoless process of causes and conditions which undergo a sequence of transformation. But what substanceless formlessness is it that holds the key to awareness throughout his process?
Now the bardo body you arise in after death even has its own life and death. Using human being time, we can say that every seven days it's born and dies. If the strength of habit energy isn't enough to pull the bardo individual into the next incarnation at the death of their bardo body, the individual will go unconscious, and then awaken in another new bardo body, and at most you can go through seven of these transformations. So would might stay in the bardo for up to forty nine days waiting for all the right conditions to come together (it usually takes from two to thirty days) before you assume a new incarnation and the transference of consciousness is completed. But don't fixate upon these numbers, for the bardo stage description is just a metaphor for helping you understand what goes on. What's important is that during the transformation from the one bardo body to the next, upon awakening there's that flash of "base luminosity" or "ground luminosity" we call the clear light, and if one can recognize that experience and rest in it, they have the chance of attaining enlightenment. That's the bardo state yoga! Otherwise, you'll just fall into the next existence of the bardo state, or you'll experience the unconscious consciousness-transference into a rebirth, or new life in another realm. The practice of training how to perform a deliberate consciousness-transference is yet another technique found in the Tibetan tantras, such as the Six Yogas of Naropa.
Now if we can think of the dream state where it seems kind of hazy but sort of under our control, this is the shadow consciousness which is a bit like the bardo state. The bardo body can eat, smell, and have sensations just like the dream state, but these are clearer than in the dream state. Hence any proficiency that you can achieve in the sleep and dream yogas will bring great benefits at the time of death, because they'll help you master the bardo yoga. In other words, when you enter into the clear light of the moment of sleep and then pass into the dream state, the illusory dream body that arises is similar to the bardo body. The Tibet school also has a specific technology for generating a illusory body with which to cultivate the Tao, similar to the yin and yang bodies of the Tao school, and this is similar to the bardo body.
If you practice meditating on the clear light of the waking state, the clear light of sleep and the clear light of death, which all involve the fact that the vital energies dissolve and are drawn into the central channel, then you can possibly master the bardo yoga. Because of this requirement, the Tibet school says it's mastery depends upon proficiency in kundalini yoga. In general, that's the basis of attaining the clear light of the path in the Tibetan "completion stage" yogas, but as to the clear light of sleep, during sleep you try to cultivate the state of presence, and blend your awareness with the clear light of sleep no matter how deep your sleep is. As to the bardo clear light, you have to recognize this state and then blend it with emptiness, but you'll only be able to recognize the state if you have prior yogic training and know these particular instructions.
Only two types of individuals don't go through the bardo state. Those who are extremely virtuous go directly to heaven, and extremely evil people go directly to the hells without passing through the bardo. The bardo body can also travel everywhere in the world except to two places: the experiential realm of the Bodhisattvas, and inside a woman's womb. If a bardo body entered into the Bodhisattva mandala they'd be enlightened, and if it entered into the woman's womb, then that would be their next incarnation. Hence these two doors of experience are closed.
The question arises as to how can one take control or direct where their next cycle of life will be? The answer is: who is it that makes the karma? It's you! You're the one who makes your karma as you live your life and make decisions and do things. It's not the act of a god or someone else which directs you into a certain state or experience, nor is it a function of chemical reactions and random material events. It's all a function of your own mind. Does the bardo body have a material content? It's composed of a subtle form of chi, so sometimes people describe the bardo body as having a subtle substance or subtle energy. The other aspect is to describe the mental state, which doesn't have any substance. This is a very deep and difficult subject to discuss the bardo state, and bardo yoga, so this is as much as we can provide here.
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