Bardo Thodol (Tibetan “Book of the Dead”) properly, Bardo thos grol; a group of writings in Tibetan BUDDHISM that describe the passage between death and rebirth. Tibetan Buddhism envisions an intermediary period between death and rebirth known as bardo, the time “between (bar) the two (do).” Ideally the period lasts 49 days. (Forty-nine is the square of seven, which is considered a sacred number.) In actuality the length of the bardo may vary with the amount of KARMA a person has. The writings of the Bardo Thodol describe what happens during this period.

The Bardo Thodol identifi es three stages between death and rebirth. First comes the state immediately after death, known as Chikhai Bardo. Then comes a transitional state known as Chonyid Bardo. The fi nal state is the state of being reborn, known as Sidpa Bardo. In between each state a period of unconsciousness intervenes. People who are so enlightened that they have no karma do not experience these stages.

At the beginning of the fi rst stage, deceased persons are unconscious and unaware that they have died. This condition lasts perhaps three and a half to four days. The fi rst stage culminates in a vision of clear light. At fi rst the light is pure. Eventually it becomes obscured by the refl exes of karma.

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During the second stage the deceased see VISIONS. These visions result from the karma that was acquired during life on Earth and must now work itself out. During the fi rst seven days the deceased see visions of peaceful deities, among them the BUDDHAS associated with the center and the four cardinal directions: Vairocana, Vajrasattva, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. They see these Buddhas in both their masculine and feminine aspects. During the second seven days the deceased see visions of wrathful deities, or rather, of the same Buddhas, but now under their wrathful aspects.

During the second stage people believe that they actually have physical bodies. The third stage begins when they realize that their bodies are only illusory. They begin to desire bodies, and this desire leads to rebirth. As desire arises, the deceased begin to see the world into which they will be reborn, whether it be the world of devas, asuras, human beings, animals, pretas, or hell. (Devas, asuras, and pretas are mythological beings.) Each of these worlds is associated with a particular colored light: dull white, green, yellow, blue, red, and smoke-colored, respectively. The third stage concludes when the deceased are actually reborn. Only those who are reborn in the world of human beings advance along the way to ultimate release.

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Many Tibetans believe that one’s fi nal thoughts determine one’s existence after death. As a result, they read the Bardo Thodol to a dying person or over an image of the corpse. These writings also form the basis of a ritual that seeks release for the living. Those who perform this ritual spend 49 days shut up in completely dark caves. During that time they attempt to experience while still alive the events that the Bardo Thodol describes. This experience is helpful, they say, in attaining ultimate release.