Tibetan Book of the Dead

Casey Alexandra Kemp

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online November 2011 | | DOI:
Tibetan Book of the Dead

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The most famous work of Tibetan literature known to the West, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol), has become the normative source for European and American popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. Numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies continue to be produced both by scholars and adherents of the tradition. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz first coined the title Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 with his edition of Kazi Dawa Samdup’s selected translation of The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This collection of texts was originally compiled in the 17th century by Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa (b. 1647–d. 1710) and has since been redacted in multiple editions. Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa’s collection is drawn from Karma Lingpa’s (b. c.1350) revealed treasure (gter ma), known as the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: A Profound Sacred Teaching; A Natural Liberation through [Recognition of] Enlightened Intention (Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol). This cycle of Nyingma (rNying ma) teachings is based on the mandala scheme of the 108 Peaceful and Wrathful Deities (zhi khro) according to the Guhyagarbha Tantra system. This treasure-anthology was allegedly authored in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, who is considered one of the originators of the Nyingma tradition. Although the texts were initially disseminated through this lineage from the 15th century onward, the compilation, particularly in its condensed version as the Bardo Thödol, has since also been transmitted through the Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) Buddhist lineage in Tibet and has been found to be used by adherents of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The Bardo Thödol is intended to be used in a funerary ritual context as an instruction manual for an individual to recognize the signs of impending death, to traverse 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 postmortem state. The texts are meant to be read out loud 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.

Article.  8469 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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