Commonly known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan: བར་དོ་ཐོས་གྲོལ, Wylie: bar do thos grol, "Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State") is a text from a larger corpus of teachings, the ,[note 1] revealed by Karma Lingpa (1326–1386). It is the best-known work of Nyingma literature.
The Tibetan text describes, and is intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, in the bardo, the interval between death and the next rebirth. The text also includes chapters on the signs of death and rituals to undertake when death is closing in or has taken place.
According to Tibetan tradition, the Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State was composed in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal, buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet and subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century.
Within the texts themselves, the two combined are referred to as Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, Great Liberation through Hearing, or just Liberation through Hearing.[note 2]
The Profound Dharma of Self-Liberation is known in several versions, containing varying numbers of sections and subsections, and arranged in different orders, ranging from around ten to thirty-eight titles. The individual texts cover a wide range of subjects, including meditation instructions, visualizations of deities, liturgies and prayers, lists of mantras, descriptions of the signs of death, indications of future rebirth, and texts such as the bar do thos grol that are concerned with the bardo-state.
The Bardo Thodol differentiates the intermediate state between lives into three bardos:
The Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State also mentions three other bardos:[note 3]
Together these "six bardos" form a classification of states of consciousness into six broad types. Any state of consciousness can form a type of "intermediate state", intermediate between other states of consciousness. Indeed, one can consider any momentary state of consciousness a bardo, since it lies between our past and future existences; it provides us with the opportunity to experience reality, which is always present but obscured by the projections and confusions that are due to our previous unskillful actions.
The bar do thos grol is known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a title popularized by Walter Evans-Wentz's edition, but as such virtually unknown in Tibet. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was first published in 1927 by Oxford University Press. Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz chose this title because of the parallels he found with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
According to John Myrdhin Reynolds, Evans-Wentz's edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead introduced a number of misunderstandings about Dzogchen. In fact, Evans-Wentz collected seven texts about visualization of the after-death experiences and he introduced this work collection as "The Tibetan Book of Death." Evans-Wentz was well acquainted with Theosophy and used this framework to interpret the translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was largely provided by two Tibetan lamas who spoke English, Lama Sumdhon Paul and Lama Lobzang Mingnur Dorje. Evans-Wentz was not familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, and his view of Tibetan Buddhism was "fundamentally neither Tibetan nor Buddhist, but Theosophical and Vedantist." He introduced a terminology into the translation which was largely derived from Hinduism, as well as from his Theosophical beliefs. Contrary to the general belief spread in the West by Evans-Wentz, in Tibetan Buddhist practice the Tibetan Book of Dead is not read to the people who are passing away, but it is rather used during life by those who want to learn to visualize what will come after death.
C. G. Jung’s psychological commentary first appeared in an English translation by R. F. C. Hull in the third revised and expanded Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The commentary also appears in the Collected Works. Jung applied his extensive knowledge of eastern religion to craft a commentary specifically aimed at a western audience unfamiliar with eastern religious tradition in general and Tibetan Buddhism specifically. He does not attempt to directly correlate the content of the Bardo Thodol with rituals or dogma found in occidental religion, but rather highlights karmic phenomena described on the Bardo plane and shows how they parallel unconscious contents (both personal and collective) encountered in the west, particularly in the context of analytical psychology. Jung’s comments should be taken strictly within the realm of psychology, and not that of theology or metaphysics. Indeed, he warns repeatedly of the dangers for western man in the wholesale adoption of eastern religious traditions such as yoga.
The Psychedelic Experience, published in 1964, is a guide for LSD-trips, written by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, loosely based on Evan-Wentz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Aldous Huxley introduced the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Timothy Leary. According to Leary, Metzner and Alpert, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is
... a key to the innermost recesses of the human mind, and a guide for initiates, and for those who are seeking the spiritual path of liberation.
They construed the effect of LSD as a "stripping away" of ego-defenses, finding parallels between the stages of death and rebirth in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the stages of psychological "death" and "rebirth" which Leary had identified during his research. According to Leary, Metzner and Alpert it is:
... one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.