The "Bardo Thodol", sometimes translated as "Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State", is a funerary text and is often referred to in the West by the more casual title, "Tibetan Book of the Dead", a name which draws a parallel with the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, another funerary text. It is the most internationally famous and widespread work of Tibetan Nyingma literature.
According to Tibetan tradition, the "Bardo Thodol" was composed by Padmasambhava, an Indian mystic and written down by his primary student, Yeshe Tsogyal. Padmasambhava is said to have introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. Legend has it that while visiting Tibet, Padmasambhava found it necessary to conceal sanskrit works he had arranged to be written. The Tibetans of that time were not ready for the spiritual teachings contained the texts, so he hid them in strange and remote locations (buried in the Gampo hills in central Tibet), leaving them to be discovered at a later time when their spiritual message could be received by those with an open mind. They were subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa.
Karma Lingpa was born around 1350 CE. According to his biography, Karma Lingpa found several hidden texts on top of a mountain in Tibet when he was fifteen years old. Within those texts, he found a collection of teachings entitled "The Self-Emergence of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities from Enlightened Awareness". These teachings contained the texts of the now famous "Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Bardo".
It was first published in 1927 (Oxford University Press) by Dr. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz who chose the title, "Tibetan Book of the Dead" due to the similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
The origins of the texts have been disputed, however, as Fremantle (2001: p.20) states:
...there is in fact no single Tibetan title corresponding to the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'. The overall name given to the whole terma cycle is 'Profound Dharma of Self-liberation through the Intention of the Peaceful and Wrathful Ones', and it is popularly known as 'Karma Lingpa's Peaceful and Wrathful Ones'. It has been handed down through the centuries in several versions containing varying numbers of sections and subsections, arranged in different orders, ranging from around ten to thirty-eight titles. These individual texts cover a wide range of subjects, including the dzogchen view..., meditation instructions, visualizations of deities, liturgies and prayers, lists of mantras, descriptions of the signs of death, and indications of future rebirth, as well as those that are actually concerned with the after-death state. the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead' as we know it in English consists of two comparatively long texts on the bardo of dharmata (including the bardo of dying) and the bardo of existence.... They are called 'Great Liberation through Hearing: The Supplication of the Bardo of Dharmata' and 'Great liberation through Hearing: The Supplication Pointing Out the Bardo of Existence'. Within the texts themselves, the two combined are referred to as 'Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo, Great Liberation through Hearing', or just 'Liberation though Hearing',....
The texts describe and are intended to guide one through, the experiences that the consciousness has after death, during the interval between death and the next rebirth. This interval is known in Tibetan as the bardo.
The text also includes chapters on the signs of death, and rituals to undertake when death is closing in, or has taken place. The Bardo Thodol is recited by Tibetan Buddhist lamas over a dying or recently deceased person, or sometimes over an effigy of the deceased.
The "Bardo Thodol" differentiates the intermediate state between lives into three bardos:
The "chikhai bardo" or "bardo of the moment of death".
Instructions on the Symptoms of Death. The Primary Clear Light Seen at the Moment of Death.
Second Stage: :
Instructions on the Second Stage. The Secondary Clear Light Seen Immediately After Death
The "chonyid bardo" or "bardo of the experiencing of reality".
Instructions Concerning the Experiencing of Reality During the Third Stage of the Bardo, when the Karmic Apparitions Appear.
The Dawning of the Peaceful Deities, from the First to the Seventh Day.
The Dawning of the Wrathful Deities, from the Eight to the Fourteenth Day
The "sidpa bardo" or "bardo of rebirth", which features karmically impelled hallucinations which eventually result in rebirth. (Typically imagery of men and women passionately entwined.) ".
to the assembled Deities, to the Tutelaries, to the Gurus
The After-Death World:
The Bardo Body-
Its Birth and Its Supernormal Faculties
Characteristics of Existence in the Intermediate State
The All-Determining Influence of Thought
The Dawning of the Lights of the Six Lokas
The Process of Rebirth:
Method of Preventing Entry into a Womb
The First Method of Closing the Womb-Door
The Second Method of Closing the Womb-Door
The Third Method of Closing the Womb-Door
The Fourth Method of Closing the Womb-Door
The Fifth Method of Closing the Womb-Door
The Choosing of the Womb-Door
The Premonitory Visions of the Place of Rebirth
The Protection Against the Tormenting Furies
The Alternative Choosing: Supernormal Birth; or Womb-Birth
Supernormal Birth by Transference to a Paradise Realm
The Return to the Human World
There are rituals and prayers ('paths of good wishes'), which all professional readers of the Bardo Thodol must learn, and use as required. The titles are -
The Invocation of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas
'The Path of Good Wishes for Saving from the Dangerous Narrow Passageway of the Bardo'. (Numbering 1 to 10)
'The Root Verses of the Six Bardos'. (Numbering 1 to 7 plus epilogue)
'The Path of Good Wishes which Protect from Fear in the Bardo'. Numbering (1 to 14)
Together these "six bardos" form a classification of states of consciousness of 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.
One can perhaps attempt to compare the descriptions of the "Bardo Thodol" with accounts of certain "out of the body" near-death experiences described by people who have nearly died in accidents or on the operating table. These accounts sometimes mention a "white light", and helpful figures corresponding to that person's religious tradition.
P9 would like to put up the complete 1927 work. We would prefer to do so under the guidance and with the expertise of someone or a small group well aquainted with the significance of the texts and who could add relevant notation where it was thought useful or informative.