Mind Beyond Death

· Teachings · , ,

by Dzogchen Ponlop

Whenever we embark on a long journey, there is a sense of death and rebirth. The experiences we go through have a transitional quality. The moment we step outside our house and close the door, we begin to leave our life behind. We say goodbye to family and friends and to the familiar rooms and routines that we inhabit. We might feel regret mixed with our excitement as we climb into the taxi that will take us to the airport. As our vision of home recedes, we are both sadly parted and joyfully released from all that defines us. The further from home we go, the more focused we become on our next destination. We think less of home and more about where we are going. We begin to look at a new map; we start to think about where we will land, about the new people, new customs and new environment—the new sets of experiences to come.

Until we reach our destination, we are in transit—in between two points. One world has dissolved, like last night’s dream, and the next has not yet arisen. In this space, there is a sense of total freedom: we are free from the business of being our ordinary selves; we are not tied to the day-to-day world and its demands in quite the same way. There is a sense of freshness and appreciation of the present moment. At the same time, we have moments of feeling fearful and groundless because we have entered unknown territory. We do not know with certainty what will arise in the next moment or where it will take us. The moment we relax, however, our insecurity dissolves, and the environment becomes friendly and supportive. We are at ease in our world once again and can move forward naturally and with confidence.


Still, Journeys Do Not Always go according to plan. If we are traveling by air, the flight might be delayed or cancelled. If we are on a train, weather conditions might slow us down. If we are on the road, in one moment, a tire could blow in heavy traffic, diverting us off the main highway to a small-town garage. It is sensible, therefore, to plan care- fully for what may arise. We should be sure to bring with us whatever we might need. We should know our route, the location of ame- nities and services along the way, and the local customs. Then we can simply relax and be wherever we are, which is the experience of being in the present moment.


Leaving This Life Is Similar in many ways to going on a long trip. In this case, the trip we are making is a journey of mind. We are leaving behind this body, our loved ones, our possessions, and all our experiences of this life, and moving on to the next. We are in transit, in between two points. We have left home but have not yet reached our next destination. We are neither in the past nor in the future. We are sandwiched between yesterday and tomorrow. Where we are now is the present, which is the only place we can be.

This experience of the present moment is known as bardo in Tibetan Buddhism. Bardo in a literal sense means “interval”; it can also be translated as an “intermediate” or “in-between” state. Thus, we can say that whenever we are in between two moments, we are in a bardo state. The past moment has ceased; the future moment has not yet arisen. There is a gap, a sense of nowness, of pure openness, before the appearance of the next thing, whether that is our next thought or our next lifetime. It is the same when we take any trip. We are in transition—even when leaving work to go home or leaving home to move to another state. If we pay attention to these transitions, if we can remain conscious of our environment at these times, then we are much more likely to be aware of our environment during the bardos that go beyond this life—that encompass our passage through the bardos of dying and death. We will be more in control of our journey and able to meet new or challenging experiences with a clear and steady mind.

When we can be fully present with them, the experiences we meet throughout the bardos of death become simple and natural. We can actually afford to relax and let go of hope and fear. We can be inquisitive about our new experiences. We can also learn something about ourselves—that, ultimately, who we are in the most genuine sense transcends our limited notion of self. At this transitional point, we have an opportunity to go beyond that perception and transform the appearance of death into an experience of awakening by recognizing the true nature of mind. Thus, just as we would prepare for any trip, packing clothes and so forth, it is highly advisable to make good preparations for our next major journey—our passage from this life to the next. Those preparations are the topic of this book.

According to the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, the essence of the spiritual journey can be said to begin and end with the present moment. Its extensive philosophical and meditative traditions all point to this state of simplicity. Among the most renowned and provocative of these systems are the tantric teachings on the six bardos, or intermediate states, of existence. In particular, these teachings describe six distinct sets of experiences: three that are related to this life and three that are related to experiences of death, after death, and our entrance into the next life. When the six bardos are viewed in full, we see that they encompass the entire spectrum of our experience as conscious beings, both in life and in death.


The Teachings On The Six bardos point out the fundamental continuity of mind through all states of existence. From this perspective, what we call “life” and “death” are simply concepts—relative designations that are attributed to a continuous state of being, an indestructible awareness that is birthless and deathless. While impermanence—the constant ebb and flow of appearance and dissolution—characterizes all phenomena that we can see, hear, taste, touch, or mentally conceive, this pure, primordial mind endures all transitions and transcends all boundaries created by dualistic thought. Although we may cling to this life and fear its end, beyond death there is mind; and where there is mind, there is uninterrupted display, spacious, radiant, and continually manifesting.

However, whether this understanding remains merely a comforting idea or becomes a key to accessing deeper levels of knowledge and ultimate freedom depends on us. Relatively speaking, we are not free, so long as we do not recognize the true nature of our mind. That nature is empty, luminous wisdom; it is primordially pure awareness; it is the state of wakefulness that transcends duality.

Although we are never separate from this nature, we do not see it. Instead, we see who we think we are, who we believe ourselves to be. We are a self that is fabricated by thought and thus we see a fabricated world, similar to the state of dream. However, through the practice of methods that cultivate mindfulness and awareness, we develop insight, or prajna, that directly sees this nature of mind. In the instant that this nature is fully recognized, our journey through the bardo states comes to an end. The opportunity to connect with such a full recognition is said to be greatly enhanced at the time of death and in the intermediate states after death, so long as we have prepared ourselves to meet it.


The Cycle Of The Six bardos describes our journey through various states of conscious experience in both life and death. In order to fully understand and appreciate the instructions on these bardos presented in the follow- ing chapters, it will be useful to first examine what bardo is on the most fundamental level. The instructions themselves cannot be of genuine help if we do not know in any meaningful way what is being pointed to. To begin with, we must see that bardo has more than one meaning. One is easy to understand and recognize, and that is the conceptual, or relative, bardo. The other is more subtle and more difficult to grasp, and that is the nonconceptual, or absolute, bardo. The nonconceptual bardo is regarded as the very essence or true nature of the bardo experience.

The understanding of bardo develops in stages, in the same way that all knowledge is accumulated. This realization can occur any time your mind is relaxed and open. It may be that you realize the nature of bardo when you are watching TV or eating a meal, and not while you are poring over words in a book. However it occurs, the journey you undergo to arrive at this understanding is a path that leads you to a direct experience of your own mind. It leads to an experience of pure awareness that is beyond thought. As you will hear over and over again, that pure mind is with you right now—it is closer to you than your own shadow.

There is a gap, a sense of nowness, of pure openness, before the appearance of the next thing, whether that is our next thought or our next lifetime.

Once we have some understanding of what bardo is, we will benefit from the rich variety of these instructions. When we begin to apply the instructions to our mind, what we are doing is preparing ourselves well for a long journey. We are preparing ourselves to meet, recognize and master our own mind under a number of diverse and at times, challenging situations. All Buddhist mind training is precisely for this purpose, whether or not we are familiar with the word “bardo.”


From One Perspective, bardo is an experience of a certain duration of time, marked by a clear beginning, a sense of continuity and distinct end. The duration of that interval may be as short as a finger snap, or it may be much longer, such as the duration between birth and death, or between birth and the achievement of enlightenment. Therefore, bardo refers to a moment of experience—no matter how long that moment is.

Here we can note that the duration of any moment is not the actual experience itself. Our sense of time comes afterwards, outside of it. For example, when we have had a headache, we might say, “I got a headache this morning and I had it until around 4 o’clock this afternoon.” When we attribute a measurable amount of time to our headache, that designation is conceptual. From an experiential point of view—what it felt like—its actual duration is not definite in any sense. That is why Buddhist teachings often describe time and space as relative phenomena, a view that corresponds to Western notions of relativity, such as the space-time observations of Albert Einstein. For example, a particular event may seem to pass in an instant for one person, while the same experience may seem to last an eon for someone else. So when we look at bardo from the perspective of a fixed amount of time we are seeing the relative or conceptual aspect of bardo. When we say “from birth until death,” for example, we are talking about a long chain of moments that are connected by conceptual mind and then viewed as a whole.

When we look at bardo from the perspective of essence, we are seeing the absolute, or nonconceptual, aspect of bardo. The essence of bardo is discovered in the experience of nowness, in the gap between the cessation of one moment and the arising of the next. That essence is nothing other than the self-aware wisdom that is the fundamental nature of our own mind. In the Mahamudra teachings, this nature of mind is called “ordinary mind,” and in the Dzogchen teachings, it is called rigpa, which means “bare awareness,” or “naked awareness.” This wisdom does not exist in substantial form. It exists as pure awareness, as the light of mind. When we do not recognize this nature, we perceive the world in a way that gives rise to confusion and suffering. When we do recognize it, we perceive the world clearly, in a way that gives rise to liberation.


The Experience Of The Gap between the cessation of one moment and the arising of the next is nothing less than the “moment of truth” that will determine our direction and shape our future experience. In Tibetan, we say that in each moment we are at a fork in the road. If we recognize the nature of our mind, then our clear vision, what arises before us, are the appearances of absolute truth, of actual reality. If we fail to recognize the nature of our mind through our obscured vision, what arises before us are the delusive appearances of relative truth. Therefore, bardo is a pivotal moment, a crucial and decisive point in our journey.

Whichever fork or direction we take, it is important to realize that all appearances are, ultimately speaking, aspects of the nature of our own mind. They do not exist in a manner that is independent of our minds. It is taught that anyone who recognizes this does not have to continue through the cycle of the six bardos. All bardos are naturally self-liberated. Anyone who fails to recognize this must continue on this journey. However, it is also taught that every living being possesses this naked awareness. It is naturally present within the mindstreams of all beings.

In order to experience the nature of mind, you do not need to fulfill any pre-requisites. You do not need any special training. You do not need to be initiated into any form of religion. You do not need to be a scholar, a great meditator, a great logician or philosopher. The pure awareness that is the essence of the present moment of our consciousness is free from all such labels and concepts—whether philosophical or religious. There is no question of whether or not we possess this awareness. The question is simply, do we recognize it? While we all have the opportunity to do so, we consistently miss the moment. However, there are certain times when it is easier to see. The opportunity seems to be greatest when mind becomes intensified.

Such heightened states of mind occur under a variety of circumstances, both painful and pleasurable. We might be experiencing anger, jealousy or irritation; we might also be feeling happiness, joy or bliss. Either way our experience can intensify to the point where we recognize the naked awareness that is the essence of all such experiences. It does not matter what our circumstances or conditions are. If we can simply watch our minds and observe the arising of our thoughts and emotions, then recognition of the nature of mind will arise naturally. If you seem to miss it right now, then just keep looking. One day that looking will strike that vital point. However, if you do not make an effort, then there is not much hope that you will recognize the nature of mind.


If We Look Carefully At at our experience of daily life, we will see that we are rarely in the present moment. Instead, we are living in the past or in the future. Our experience remains primarily on the conceptual level because we are always lost in our thoughts, one moment thinking of how life was, and next about how it will be.

We spend a great deal of time and energy on the future—to fulfill our hopes and dreams for a time that is yet to come. All of this hard work is for the benefit of the person we will be when that time comes. It is not for us now, the “I” or “me” of the present. The future is out there ahead of us but never comes into this world so that we can enjoy the results of our hard work. Since that is the case, why are we working so hard, like crazy machines? It is like cooking meal after meal but never eating a single dish. It is as though our hunger and thirst are so great that we are driven by fear to stockpile food and drink. We put bottles of soda in the refrigerator and cans of food on our shelves, but we never eat or drink because these supplies are for our future hunger, our future thirst. This is what is happening in our ordinary life, where we are always working for the future. How can we overcome the pain of our hunger and thirst and the fear it causes? There is no way that we can truly overcome them so long as we are always missing the present moment.

Another habitual tendency we have is to live in a fantasy world of the past, in which we are incessantly recalling bygone events. We are either enjoying reliving certain past occurrences or becoming depressed about them. However, the past is not here; the person we were, our friends and enemies, as well as the actual events themselves, are long gone. When we try to relive a former experience, we are not actually reliving the same event. Each time we recall it, it is a slightly different experience. Why? Each experience differs because the environment of our mind is always different. Our experience is affected by the thought that we had immediately before, as well as by the thought that is going to arise next. Thus, our recollection of the past is necessarily distorted. We cannot undergo the same experience again, whether we consider it to have been wonderful or horrible.


For These Reasons We say that the truth is found only in a moment of present experience, which is always fleeting. So why do we call memories “the past”? Each thought occurs in the present. What we are experiencing now is new. It is not what we have experienced before but what we are creating now in the present moment. Simply reliving the past in a neurotic or obsessive way is not going to help us with anything. On the other hand, if we direct our experience properly, reflecting on past events with mindfulness and awareness, then we may gain some insight into our actions. If such reflections help to free us from our habitual patterns, then there is some benefit to those memories.

In general, however, if we do not have a proper means of working with our minds, then these recurring recollections of the past and projections of the future are not very fruitful. We are never here, in the present moment. We never actually see reality or recognize the true nature of bardo.

If we are neither in the past nor in the future, then where are we? We are here, now. We have emerged from the past and we have not yet projected the future. When we can relate directly to the present moment in this way, it is a very subtle, profound and powerful experience. From this point of view, death is taking place in every moment. Every moment ceases, and that is the death of that moment. Another moment arises, and that is the birth of the next moment.

Photo by Vincent Ahrend

Photo by Vincent Ahrend

If we truly penetrate this experience, there is a sense of nonconceptuality—of clear awareness without thought. Whenever mind’s steady stream of thought ceases, there is a sense of openness, of being nowhere. I am not talking about being “nowhere” in the mundane sense. In conventional speech, when we say someone is nowhere, they are still somewhere. In this context, nowhere is actually nowhere. In this experience of the present, of nowness, there is already a sense of non-solidity, of dissolution. From a tantric perspective, that is how we understand the bardo. We feel that we are neither here nor there, neither in the past nor in the future.


At This Point, We begin to encounter the sense of dissolution that occurs constantly in our present life but is almost never noticed. When thought dissolves, we dissolve with it. Whoever we think we are dissolves into awareness that is free of the concept of self. In that very moment, we can directly experience the non-solidity of phenomena, the reality of emptiness, or shunyata. At the same time, there is so much energy present—so much so that it forms into another moment. The energy brings a sense of clarity that is so sharp, it is like a clear mirror in which mind can at last recognize itself. In this mirror of mind, we see the radiant yet transparent nature of our own awareness.


Whether we focus our minds on the perceptions of form, sound, smell and so forth, or on conceptual thoughts, or place our minds in a meditative state through the practices of shamatha and vipashyana, in every case there is this sense of nowness. When we look at it on the subtle level, it is the same experience. We have the experience of being nowhere. There is a sense of groundlessness, of having no solid ground on which to stand; yet there we are. Being in that space is a some- what mysterious experience. It is also the experience of bardo.


Since The Bardo Is This present moment, it not unreachable. We might think, “Oh, the bardo teachings and practices are too difficult to understand; they are too com- plicated and enigmatic.” However, when we have familiarized ourselves with them, we find that these teachings are neither inaccessible nor esoteric. In fact, they relate to our ordinary, day-to-day experience of working with our minds. We do not need to feel discouraged and think that the bardo teachings are too difficult to contend with. At the same time, the bardo teachings may be seen as depressing or as dwelling on top- ics that are frightening. Most often, people think the teachings are all about death and dying and the suffering of those states. However, the teachings are not only about suffering and death. As already mentioned, they are essentially about this moment, this present experience. Thus, the bardo teachings are absolutely practical and reachable—something that we can all grasp.

These teachings are also refreshing in the sense that, when we practice them, it is like taking a break from our regular job. Our regular job, in this case, is to be in the past or future. In the same way that we would walk out of the office and go for a coffee break, we can turn away from thoughts of past and future and move into the space of the present moment. In this way, the bardo teachings are a relaxing and uplifting practice.

Dzogchen Ponlop is a scholar and teacher within the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the author of Wild Awakening and Penetrating Wisdom.

From Mind Beyond Death by Dzogchen Ponlop. Copyright © 2008 by Dzogchen Ponlop. Reprinted by permission of Snow Lion, part of Shambhala Publications.