Introduction to The Six Bardos

His Eminence Beru Khyentse Rinpoche

© Marpa Activities 1998

To begin with it is necessary to generate the compassionate attitude to benefit all living
beings; this is most necessary. Not only is it of immense benefit to others but it is also of
immense benefit to yourself; this is the whole idea of spiritual practice. The definition of
Dharma is that one can, by the process of cause and effect, eliminate all conflicting
emotions and plant the seed of limitless happiness. All beings commit actions by body,
speech and mind but it is on their attitude of mind that all actions depend. By the process
of the enlightened attitude we can in turn benefit others in all our actions of body and
speech. It is very important to realise that it is possible to change one's attitude from
negative to positive.

Bardo is a Tibetan word meaning the interval or gap between two things. All living beings of
the six realms undergo the experience of bardo states. Guru Rinpoche defined six such
states and Milarepa referred to these many times in his songs. The Sixth Bardo, that
between birth and death, is the most important of these as it is our current state. In
connection to this we also experience the Bardo of the Dream State. This bardo reflects
the habitual patterns we experience in our daily life. Ordinary people aren't able to
recognise this state when it arises. The process which occurs at this time mimics the
dissolution of the elements at the time of death. In this state one has the ability to travel
places in a dream body but it is still very much a deluded state.

The third bardo experienced is the Bardo of the meditative state of Samadhi. Samadhi is a
state of self recognition, a state of no distraction. The Tibetan word for this is samten. This
state also occurs within the Bardo between birth and death but it is something which must
be cultivated. Such a state benefits one's practise enormously, especially the practice of
the Generation and Completion stages of Tantra. When outer appearances arise in
samadhi they cause no distraction. Through the Samten Bardo it is also possible to
experience the Dharmakaya, but this depends on one's recognition of it.

The fourth bardo is the Bardo of Suffering, which is the actual moment of death. When the
five elements dissolve at this time one experiences a deep sense of loss and as a
consequence much distraction. The Five Elements are: Earth, Water, Fire, Air (Wind), and
Consciousness (Space). When the Earth element dissolves one experiences a strong
feeling of heaviness. All one's actions require immense effort and are very slow, in fact not
much action is possible at all at this time. The Water element is next to dissolve, then the
Fire element. At this time one's body loses its heat. When the Air element dissolves one
stops breathing. Consciousness then dissolves into even more subtle consciousness. A
good practitioner, one who practises properly, will not experience much suffering at this
time whereas someone who has performed harmful actions in their life will.

With an accumulation of wisdom it is possible to recognise the dissolutions as they occur
and also to experience the dharmata. Everyone who dies experiences these but not
everyone recognises them. Recognition depends entirely on one's prior practice.
Experienced meditators are able to meditate for a number of days after death. This is a
sign of their undistracted experience of the fundamental state of jnana, mahamudra. I have
seen a number of realised beings who have done this. H.H. Karmapa meditated like this
for three days after he had died, and more recently, Kalu Rinpoche for seven days.
Normally a body loses its lustre at the time of death, but in this instance there is a certain
aura about it. There is also a warmness in the area of the heart which is retained
regardless of the weather. I once went to see a practitioner after he had died in a hospital.
His body had been placed in a freezer a few days previous, but when I went to perform a
ceremony on it, it was found not to be frozen and the area around the heart was quite
warm. In such cases it is best to leave the body of the practitioner alone for as long as
possible. For most accomplished practitioners, though, there's not enough time for them
to practise and they go straight to a Buddha field.

If one goes through the bardo state, one then experiences the Bardo of Becoming - the
Sipa Bardo. In this state one has a mind-body, a naked mind whose duration depends on
one's karma. Generally this state lasts for no more than forty-nine days. During the first
three weeks the dead person has tremendous difficulty separating from a deep sense of
attachment and involvement with their previous body. They try to communicate with friends
and so on, and are frustrated when they are totally ignored. They have the ability to travel
through walls and journey to different places freely and unimpeded. Eventually they come
to the realisation they are dead and let go of appearances, which are merely reflections of
one's mind. Recognising this, a good practitioner will also recognise inseparability of their
mind with that of their guru or deity. The appearances experienced at this time very much
depend on one's previous familiarity with such forms and one's religion. After an initial
period of three weeks the dead person then experiences more a sense of the life to come.
This is more correctly the Bardo of Becoming. In extreme cases, where one is still
attached to friends and family, this period takes longer to come about.