by Peter Engelmann, 4.23.2023
The Tibetan Book Of The Dead
In many cultures and visionary experiences, we find the concept of the intermediate realm. It is a spatial dimension in the other world. A limbo. A transitional state. However, it is not the same as the after-world because it is a waiting room. It is neither heaven nor hell. It is where people enter after death, or in visionary experiences. That place represents a concept in myth, antique drama, accounts of witnesses of near death experiences and religious writings as the Tibetian Book of the Dead. These writings often contain detailed descriptions of the intermediate realm, called Bardo.
The Bardo is a realm where the soul rests before it incarnates again. It is a state where people have lost their old reality. The life they had is no longer accessible.
The Tibetan Book Of The Dead contains descriptions of intermediary states between life and death. The term Bardo means a stepping stone in a stream.
In the Buddhistic world, the aspect of the development of the soul is central. Intimidating or even shocking visions are part of this development process.
J.T. Mathany writes in LITHUB, Adapting the Tibetan Book of the Dead: On Bardo or not Bardo, Ghosts, Prisons, and An Intermediary Void, “According to the Bardo Thödol (also known to the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead), the Bardo is an intermediary void where the departed soul must wander for forty-nine days, confronted by terrifying deities and illusions”. Further on, it is said: “In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, one’s soul must confront numerous illusions of life and suffering: past memories, cruel godlings, surreal landscapes that are part-Dalí, part-Bosch, part-nothing, and so on”.
Alteration Of The Original
The context of the development process in Buddhist thought is liberation. Liberation from a cycle of endless reincarnation. Liberation from suffering. The individual soul must do something to achieve liberation. Therefore, the title Book Of The Dead is also a translation mistake. The title was brought up by Walter Evan-Wentz, but the original “Bardo Thodol” means “Liberation through Hearing during the Intermediate State”.
Even more, the first translation into English was an alteration from the original. It is not accurate and propels a more spiritualist vision of the Bardo. The Book Of The Dead inspired the psychedelic movement in the 60ties. In our days, more accurate translations are available.
The central idea of the Bardo as an intermediate realm remains a constant in all versions, and it is the unifying concept with similiar spirtual ideas in different cultural context.
An Universal Concept
It is indeed a very universal concept. There is always the idea of an intermediate realm which is close to physical everyday world and another realm which is beyond our comprehension.
It is also common that this realm is a dark and dangerous zone often with a bleak threatening landscape. It is the forest dark. An unpleasant place as in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
The otherworld in the Divine Comedy is the closest thing to the Bardo. Dante Alighieri took the rich imaginary of the catholic PURGATORY into his imagination. Purgatory comes close to the concept of the Bardo, even with some fundamental differences. But it is alway about an intermediary void, something in-between, a state in limbo. Limbo itself is a term for a spatial dimension as a waiting room: In catholic theology it is also a border place between heaven and hell.
The Bardo-Otherworld In The Movie Nosso Lar
In the Brasilien Movie Astral City, A Spiritual Journey (Nosso Lar), the protagonist finds himself in a sinister valley with tortured souls. That place is called the Umbral, which bears some similarities with the Bardo and the Christian Purgatory.
A difference here is that there is no reincarnation but an ascend to a sci-fi-like futurist heaven, where the hero learns more about his mistakes.
In both cases, the intermediate realm is a waiting room. However, in Christianity, it is a waiting room before entering the train to heaven (or perhaps to hell).
Traditionally, it seems that only dead people enter this intermediate realm.
However, there are countless visionary experiences and near-death experiences which describe a similar realm. Why should it be only for the dead? Or could also a living person travel consciously into this realm? There are fundamental questions here on one side. On the other side authors make use of the concept of the Bardo and constantly develop this further. We are familiar with many variations of the Bardo concept.
Modern visions of the Underworld
In modern stories and movies, there are often otherworldly-realms reminiscent of the Bardo intermediate realm. Most prominently, David Lynch’s White Lodge and Black Lodge are Waiting rooms. Here people can indeed return to the world of the living. In Stranger Things, there is a dangerous intermediate realm, the Upside-Down. We have also stories, which are set in this intermediary void where the people are either not know if they are dead or they think they are dreamed by another person.
Here it is worth to mention the original purpose of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead: A lama would read instructions to the recently deceased person. This should help the soul wandering in the bardo-realm to get out of the eternal cycle of life and death and to reach Nirvana.
Thus originally, we have a building with clear structure. There is a temporal dimension and there is a spatial dimension. It means a normal living being wouldn’t end up in that Bardo-Waiting-Room and this otherworld waiting room is strictly separated. But what if these boundaries collapse? Could that happen? Or could they overlap? The whole idea of ghosts are challenging the Bardo concept in a way. Because, we, the living can see them at certain times.
So, what would happen if these otherworld journeys would not be bound to biological life or death? At least it would pose a theological problem. Because both the Tibetan Book Of Death implies a higher order as the catholic Purgatory. Wrongdoings or your positive development influences the outcome. That implies, we understand the otherworld like a game according to our values. But we can’t really know what are the rules in this game. And we don’t know where the waiting room exactly is or who created that waiting room. Is it the underworld, a parallel world, a heavenly sphere, is it inside, or is it outside? Maybe we are already in a waiting room when we are still alive.
Modern human experiences shift the storytelling about the limbo into a less predictable direction, into a less organised world. Again in Twin Peaks the border between ordinary world of the living and the more dreamlike world of Bardo is blurred. It follows more the famous Edgar Alan Poe Quote: ““All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”.
We are living in a transition zone
Reality, indeed, can become a transition zone, from the individual’s perspective. This can happen on different levels. We can go missing without necessarily being dead. We don’t have the final answers about the corporal realm or our status outside our corporal identity. Reality in certain moments is the Forest Dark itself. This is a thought which I followed again and again in the development of The Forest Dark Feature Film project.
There are unconventional concepts already in antique: In Orpheus the hero is a traveller between the world of the living and the underworld. It is a very interesting drama because it blurs the boundaries.
And we can take the waiting room concept much further. Both in fiction and in real life. Of course, we don’t find answers with pure associations. But experience tells us there are more possibilities than meets the eye. There are countless reports where people report a heightened reality, which bears some similarity with the Bardo otherworld or even purgatory. People which went missing tell often weird stories and their sense of time is confused. Alien-abductees tell story which sound very similar like being in a Bardo or in Purgatory. Dreams are resemblant sometimes to the Bardo State.
The Three Bardot
It becomes even more interesting if we look at the more detailed structure of the Bardo according to the Vajravanna (Tantric) Buddhism which developed the concept of the three Bardos. According to this the first Bardo is the Bardo of death where the deceased reflects upon its past life. The important one is the second Bardo: The individual encounters “frightening apparitions” without understanding that this apparitions are unreal. The danger is the consciousness becomes confused and me drawn into rebirth” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The third Bardo is the transition into a new body.
The interesting part lies with the frightening apparition: Who put them in place and why are they there? And why should they be unreal? What’s the purpose? Furthermore this sounds like phenomena which not only happen in the Bardo state. Frightening apparitions are not always necessarily something supernatural. It can be intimidating crossings in life, perhaps even people. That painful waiting room situation is also often a typical experience in dreams, where the dreamer feel stuck and is haunted by scary scenes.
Thus, it seems more like a somehow familiar experience. There is an otherworld not far from our everyday world. This world is often like a waiting room we already know. What we don’t know is what lies beyond. The Nirwana. The higher Otherworld. The Divine Realm.