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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
FALL 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 55 D eath is one of the most precious experiences in life. It is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The karma that brought us into this life is exhausted, leaving a temporar- ily clean slate, and the karma that will propel us into our next life has not yet crystallized. This leaves us in a unique “no-man’s-land,” a netherworld the Tibetans call bardo, where all kinds of possibilities can materialize. At this special time, with the help of skillful friends, we can make rapid spiritual progress and directly influence where we will take rebirth. We can even attain enlightenment. Buddhist masters proclaim that because of this karmic gap, there are more opportunities for enlightenment in death than in life. Robert Thurman, a translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, says, “The time of the between [bardo]... is the best time to attempt consciously to affect the causal process of evolution for the better. Our evolutionary momentum is temporarily fluid during the between, so we can gain or lose a lot of ground during its crises.” But even for spiritual practitioners, death remains a dreaded event. We dread it because we don’t know much about it. We do not look forward to death because we don’t know what to look forward to. For most of us, death is still the great unknown. It is the ultimate blackout, something to be avoided at all costs. So we have a choice. We can either curse the dark- ness or turn on the light. Death is not the time for hesitation or confusion. It is the time for confi- dent and compassionate action. Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, “This is when people must do something for the person who has died; this is the most crucial time for the person.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead says, “This is the dividing line where buddhas and sentient beings are separated. It is said of this moment: in an instant, they are separated; in an instant, complete enlightenment.” The moment of death, like that of birth, is our time of greatest need. The beginning and the end of life are characterized by vulnerability, bewil- derment, and rich opportunity. In both cases we are stepping into new territory—the world of the living or the world of the dead. The person who is dying, and his or her caretakers, have an opportunity to create the conditions that will make the best of this priceless event. Tibetan Buddhism is not the only Buddhist tradition that teaches the bardos, but it offers the most complete set of instruction for the bardos. The central orienting view in the Tibetan world is that of the three death bardos: the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata, and the karmic bardo of becoming. The painful bardo of dying begins with the onset of a disease or condition that ends in death. In the case of sudden death, this bardo occurs in a flash. It is called “painful” because it hurts to let go. The luminous bardo of dharmata begins at the end of the bardo