The Tibetan Book of the Dead


All the teaching of Buddha, known all over the world as Buddhism, is based on the ideas of karma and reincarnation. Buddhists believe that after death the person is reborn and gets another incarnations in order to pay his karmic debts and get a chance to become enlightened of liberated. That is the reason they regard death as nothing but a pass to another physical incarnation and try to use this chance to get better conditions of life.

The Bardo Thodol, also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead belongs to the secrete texts of Buddhism and describes the experience of the death and gives guidelines how to pass from one incarnation to another.

The name Bardo means the period between the death and next birth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains practical guidelines on the way to the next incarnation. In addition to ancient rituals and rites, it also contains main philosophical doctrines of Buddhism. The study of this book can give a better understanding of fundamental ideas of Buddhism and key concepts of this religion.

General features of Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism is one of three major world religions. It was founded about 2.500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Its main idea is a salvation from the world sufferings with the help of meditation. There are more than 350 million of followers of Buddhism in the modern world.

Most followers of Buddhism live in India, China, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Buddhism came to Tibet and 12 centuries later it appeared in India.

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It became widespread in Tibet beginning from the 7th century. It came in conflict with local religion called Bon, despite their main concepts agreed on many points. Tibetian Buddism assimilated a lot from Bon and The Tibetan book of The Dead is a perfect example of synthesis of these two religions.

Buddhist term for awakening is nirvana. Nirvana means liberation from samsara – cycle of rebirth and entering another mode of existence. Buddhism states that all human beings are born in life full of sufferings and pain. Desires make people unhappy, as our mind can’t be satisfied with anything it gets and always asks for more. Making true one wish people start longing for something else and this vicious circle never ends. Existence full of sufferings and pain doesn’t stop after death as Buddhists believe in rebirth – the repeated process of life and death conditioned by the karma law.

The only way out of this misery and pain is nirvana, which can be achieved through meditation and following the principles of Buddhism and to achieve the enlightenment or awakening of selfhood. Reaching enlightenment means reunion with one’s true Self. The state of nirvana is hard to define, as it lies beyond words and notions, but the most appropriate categories used to define it are emptiness, space and openness. In other words, reaching the state of nirvana means realization the emptiness of the true Self. Buddha is a Sanskrit term that means “awakened one” and it describes Buddha’s nature. Buddha was the first person who achieved liberation or awakening and could pass his experience to other people. He teaches people that all of them have the potential to become Buddha, reaching the state of nirvana.

Tibetan Perspectives on Death and Dying

The concept of death accepted in Buddhism is fundamentally different from the one, which exists on the West. Eastern people believe in reincarnation and that is why the death for them is not an end of existence but just an interesting journey and great opportunity. Buddhist teaching pays special attention to the death experience as a transitional state from one incarnation to another. Death rituals, described in the Book of the Dead derive from Bonism, traditional Tibetan religions, which preceded Buddhism. Ideas from Bonism naturally supplement new Buddhism concepts and together they combine an organic combination of religion, philosophy and practical rituals.

The concept of death in Buddhism has two meanings and The Book of the Death speaks about two of them. In the first interpretation the death is regarded as a physical death, the cease of earthy existence. The first part of the Book of the Dead, The First Bardo deals with this death. Another meaning of death is a death of ego. It’s an esoteric meaning of death and it stands for inner transformation.

This inner transformation is the ultimate goal of Buddhism and The Book of Dead deals with this kind of death too. As Tibetan Lama Govinda states in his introduction to this book, “It is a book for the living as well as for the dying.” (The Tibetan Book of the Dead: or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering) The book contains a lot of layers of meaning and can have several levels of interpretation. For centuries this book was kept in secret and only separate religious authorities could access it.

Bardo Thodol – the Guidance for the Death and Life

The Bardo Thodol was used by lamas. Literary translation of the name of the book means “liberation while hearing being in the intermediate state”. Lamas use this intermediate state as a mean to appeal to the true self of the person, when his physical body is passing away and thus give him an opportunity to stop the endless chain of births and deaths and get final liberation, or nirvana. There are three intermediate states described in the Book of the Dead. They are: the chikhai bardo, or bardo of the moment of death; the Chonyid bardo, or bardo of experiencing of reality; and the sidpa bardo, or bardo of rebirth. (The Book of the Dead)

The Chikhai bardo makes the person ready to meet the very moment of the death. This moment is very important because the moment when vital force leaves the body and last directions if heard in time can help the person to pass the intermediate state correctly. As the Book of the Dead states, “When the expiration hath ceased, the vital-force will have sunk into the nerve-center of Wisdom and the Knower will be experiencing the Clear Light of the natural condition . Then the vital force, being thrown backwards and flying downwards through the right and left nerves the Intermediate State (Bardo) momentarily dawns.“ (The Book of The Dead)

In his commentaries, to The Tibetan Book of the Dead Evans-Wentz explains that “never centers” mentioned in the book mean psychic centers or cakras and the Center of Wisdom mentioned in the book is located in anahata cakra in the center of the chest. (Evans-Wentz) The Knower mentioned in the same passage stands for the mind in the state of impartial observer. The Chikhai bardo explains the changes in the energetic structure of the body with the coming of death. It doesn’t only describe physical changes, which occur in the body and the way energy leaves the body, but also stresses on the necessity to remain in the state of observer, in order to get the liberation.

As Detlef Ingo Lauf states in his commentaries to the Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Book of Dead “This is the very content and substance of the state of liberation, if only the soul can recognize it and act in a way to remain in that state.” (Lauf, 254) Special words, repeated several times, must help the dying person to fulfil the main purpose of his pass and help him find the right way in Bardo, where “wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or centre.” (The Book of the Dead) During the reading lama must change the body position of the dying person in order to create the right flow of energy in the body.

The main purpose of all rites and ceremonies, described in The Book of the Dead, is to make the person stay conscious during the very moment of the death. This will enable him to remain conscious in the Bardo, and this way “From the union of the two states of mind, or consciousness, is born the state of Perfect Enlightenment, Buddhahood. The Dharma-Kaya (‘Body of Truth’) symbolizes the purest and the highest state of being, a state of supramundane consciousness (The Book of the Dead).

The person should overcome fear and his own egoistic desires and meet the moment of death pure and full of compassion to all living beings. The Book of Dead states that most of the people fail to remain consciousness at the very moment of the death. This can be explained by the weight of their past karma, fear and selfishness. “According to the wisdom of Buddha, we can actually use our lives to prepare for death” and that is why this moment is so important ( Ringpoche, 45) In this case they fail to see “Clear Light of Ultimate Reality” and should pass to the next stage. The Bardo Thodol gradually describes next steps of the process of passing away and stresses on the different opportunities to get liberation on the different stages.


The main message of The Bardo Thodol is to be conscious at the moment of death. The book describes different techniques used by lama in order to “awake” the person at the very moment of death or afterwards. At the same time, if we think about our life carefully, we will understand that we approach death with every second of our life; and being conscious in everyday life can be also the way to get liberation.

As Sogyal Rinpoche states in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: “In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.” (Rinpoche, 45) This holistic approach peculiar to Orinatal religions and philosophical systems illustrates their attitude to the death as a natural continuation of life and vice versa.


  1. Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.

Sogyal Rinpoche is a Tibetan Teacher. He did a perfect job adapting ancient texts, which compose “The Book of the Dead” for the modern reader. Original book even with commentaries and comments was very hard to comprehend for the unprepared reader. Sogyal Rinpoche made this text easy to read. At the same time he managed to write his book in such a way that the text did not lose its original meaning and those, who are interested in studying sacred Buddhist text, can read “The Book of the Dead”, which is one of central texts of Tibetan Buddhism in easy and comprehensive interpretation.

The book investigates the topics of death and dying, which are central notions of Buddhism. The author introduces Buddhist concepts of karma, mediation, reincarnation and bardo in interesting and understandable manner. The book also contains practical guideline of dealing with the death. Reading this book transforms one’s attitude to the question of death and to life. Overcoming the fear of death can become that turning point, which changes the whole life, and Rinpoche’s book helps to deal with this fear. The author gives practical advice, which can help both – experienced seekers and people, who only start their acquaintance with Buddhism.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. Ed. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Oxford University Press, 1949 This book gives Buddhist vision of the process of death and dying. This book teaches not only the process of dying, it also centers on the process of living and uncovers new levels of meaning of our earthy existence. The text produced in this addition is Lama Kazi Dawa Sammdup’s interpretation of the Bardo Thodol edited by the famous specialist in this field and first translator of this book to English Evans-Wentz.

Their creative tandem gave birth to new interpretation of classical text. Commentaries of C.G. Jung, the representative of the “New School” psychology helps Western people to get prepared for dealing with such complicated issues as death and dying, which is a very difficult topic for Westerners. Introduction written by Lama Anagarika Govinda, a modern religious authority, helps to understand the ancient texts.

All those, who contributed to this book, made a great job by making an ancient Orintal wisdom understandable for western audience. General information about Buddhism, which makes the third part, can be useful for those, who want to penetrate deeper into this religious teaching. Comments and commentaries presented in the book make it not only ancient classics, but also a comprehensive book about self-improvement and coming in terms with your life.

  1. Detlef Ingo Lauf. Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead. (Trans. by Graham Parkes) Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989.

Detlef Lauf is a famous German religious scholar and Tibetologist. In his “Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead” he provides his own commentaries about the famous text. He introduces different variants of The Book of the Dead and uncovers their deep symbolism. Religious concepts are supplemented by historical information, which makes their comprehension easier.

The book written by Detlef Ingo Lauf is a necessary addition to the information, presented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book is a deep survey of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist relations’ teachings, which attributed to the Buddhist concepts of death and dying. The author makes a research of the different deities, Buddhist doctrines and principles created a necessary basis for the right understanding of the classical texts of the Bardo Thodol or the Book of the Dead. The author goes even further and compares the concepts of death discovered in the Book of the Dead with views on death applied in different religious doctrines of Rome, Greece, Eqypt, India and Persia. Information about the death and dying received by modern Western scholars help to understand the basic ideas of the book.


  1. Evans-Wentz, W.Y. (ed.) The Tibetan Book of the Dead. London/Oxford/New York; Oxford University 1960. (Trans. by Graham Parkes) Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1989.
  2. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: or, The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering. Ed. W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Oxford University Press, 1949
  3. Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
    San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992.
  4. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo.
    By Guru Rinpoche according to Karma-Lingpa. (Translated Francesca Fremantle, Chogyam Trungpa). Boston and London: Shambhala Pocket Classics, 1992.
  5. Detlef Ingo Lauf. Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead.

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead. (2017, Mar 20). Retrieved from

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