The Tibetan Book of the Dead, known in Tibet as the Bardo Thodol, is an eighth century Buddhist text used in rituals surrounding death and dying. The text became popular in the West with psychologists such as Carl Jung and psychedelic drug enthusiasts such as Timothy Leary. These thinkers proposed various ways in which The Tibetan Book of the Dead could be applied to psychological development or altered states of consciousness. In its original context, however, The Tibetan Book of the Dead was meant as a guide through death and towards one’s next rebirth. The ultimate goal of this text, as it is for many Buddhist texts, is to liberate one from the cycle of life and death altogether.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead places a strong emphasis on consciousness and devalues the physical body. It considers everything as only projections of the self. This includes all the physical and spiritual worlds, all other creatures, all of the Buddhas, and even the idea of good and evil. Because everything is only a projection of the self, this means that death and the transition through death are just different states of consciousness. The physical body is seen as nothing but a temporary home for the consciousness which continues to travel after the body dies. The Tibetan Book of the Dead encourages the reader to have no desire for a body, as having a physical form serves only to keep one stuck in the world of suffering and desire.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead also instructs the reader concerning issues of emotions and morality. In order to be liberated one must be able to transcend emotions, which serve only to empower the ego and keep it tied to worldly desires. Morality and ideas about good and evil likewise need to be transcended. This is not to say that the text takes an “anything goes” approach to morality. The Buddhist path demands a rigorous moral code without which one cannot hope to reach the higher states of consciousness that ultimately lead to liberation. However, full liberation does require the complete transcendence of moral codes, as even good and moral actions will keep one trapped in the cycle of life and death.
The worldview presented by the The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an interesting one. In the final stage before birth one must face all kinds of punishments. However, all punishments are only temporary. They are also self-inflicted, as they are merely projections of one’s own unenlightened self-judgments. The purpose of this punishment is to hopefully force the consciousness to realize its true nature. If one’s true nature isn’t realized, then the consciousness continues on and is reborn into a new place that is determined by past karma. The Tibetan Book of the Dead makes it clear that all of these places are only temporary. Just as hells and other places of punishment are temporary, so are all of the heavens and all of the worlds like the one we live in.
The only truly permanent place is no place at all. It is the state of nirvana, the realization of one’s true nature. Liberation from the cycle of life and death places one outside of time and space. Because of this, it is also outside of the world of language and concepts. The Tibetan Book of the Dead can therefore only guide the seeker through life and death, and can only point the way towards liberation. The final realization and awakening can only come from the self.