Tibetan Book of the Dead

From TSL Encyclopedia

The text of the Bardo Thodol, usually translated in English as Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of the scriptures of the Nyingma, or Red Hat, school of Buddhism founded by the great Indian Guru and Buddha Padma Sambhava.

The foundational teaching on the deadliness of the five poisons presented side by side with the saving power of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is principally expressed the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Purpose of the book

Although the text of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is used as a breviary and is read by a lama over the body of the one who has passed on so that he will gain liberation through hearing its truths, it is also recognized as a book for the living—for initiates striving in the here and now to win their freedom from the rounds of rebirth at the end of their present life or at least to be reborn in better circumstances for spiritual evolution in their next life.

Lama Govinda emphasizes that the Bardo Thodol

... 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.... It has value only for those who practice and realize its teaching during their life-time....

If you do not, it will not help you on your death bed or in the hereafter.

It is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of [the] death [of the old man] before he can be spiritually reborn [as the new man]. 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.[1]

The Tibetan Book of the Dead stresses that the training it presents is

... of particular importance to the living. Hold to it, read it, commit it to memory, bear it in mind properly, read it regularly thrice; let the words and the meanings be very clear; it should be so that the words and the meanings will not be forgotten even though a hundred executioners were pursuing thee.[2]


Lama Govinda writes:

According to Tibetan tradition, the Bardo Thodol is one of those works of Padma-Sambhava which were secretly hidden in order to preserve them for later generations, and which were to be revealed to the world when the time was ripe.

However this may be, it is a fact that during the persecution of Buddhism by Langdarma, at the beginning of the ninth century, A.D., innumerable books of the earliest period of Tibetan Buddhism were concealed under rocks, in caves, and other places, to prevent their destruction.

Since all members of the Buddhist Order and their supporters were either killed or driven out of Tibet, most of these buried scriptures remained where they had been hidden. Many of them were recovered during the succeeding centuries and designated “Termas,” a term derived from the Tibetan word meaning “Treasure.” Those who discovered these spiritual treasures and propagated their teachings were called Tertöns, meaning “Revealer of Treasure.”[3]


In Tibetan Buddhist practice, passages from this scripture are read over a number of consecutive days to those nearing death or to those who have passed on. Each day the soul is instructed that in the after-death state she will encounter and will have to choose between the radiant light of each of the Dhyani Buddhas and the dull light representing one of the lower realms. The soul is admonished not to fear the Dhyani Buddhas but to put her faith in them and to resist the pull of the dull lights. Depending on the mastery over the five poisons which that soul has attained while in embodiment, she will be attracted to a greater or lesser degree to the saving light of the Dhyani Buddhas.

Evans-Wentz, the compiler and editor of one translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, says:

To one after another of these divine attributes, or principles, innate in every human being, the deceased is introduced (as though in a symbolic drama of initiation) to test him and discover whether or not any part of his divine (or bodhic) nature has been developed.

Full development in all the bodhic powers of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, who are the personifications of them, leads to Liberation, to Buddhahood. Partial development leads to birth in one of the happier states.[4]

For example, on the second day the Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya comes with his attendant Bodhisattvas, including Maitreya, to appear to the soul. The text warns that a bright radiant white light shining from the heart of the Dhyani Buddha as well as “a dull, smoke-colored light from Hell” will “strike against thee.”

Through the power of anger, thou wilt beget fear and be startled at the dazzling white light and wilt wish to flee from it; thou wilt beget a feeling of fondness for the dull smoke-colored light from Hell.

Act, then, so that thou wilt not fear that bright, dazzling, transparent white light. Know it to be Wisdom. Put thy humble and earnest faith in it. Be not fond of the dull, smoke-colored light from Hell. That is the path which openeth out to receive thee because of the power of accumulated evil karma from violent anger. If thou be attracted by it, thou wilt fall into the Hell-Worlds; and, falling therein, thou wilt have to endure unbearable misery, whence there is no certain time of getting out. That being an interruption to obstruct thee on the Path of Liberation, look not at it; and avoid anger.[5]

For the soul who does not successfully respond to these first encounters, writes Evans-Wentz,

The Bardo visions become less and less divine; the deceased sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of sangsaric hallucinations; the radiances of the higher nature fade into the lights of the lower nature.[6]

Tibetologist Detlef Lauf further explains:

The Tibetan Book of the Dead recommends meditation on the true nature of these five Buddhas so that the great wisdoms of these Buddhas may take the place of the five negative forces. The five great wisdoms of the Buddhas are shining goals of spiritual transformation.[7]


Elizabeth Clare Prophet, “Teachings of the Buddha: The Five Dhyani Buddhas and the Five Poisons,” July 3, 1989.

  1. Lama Ahagarika Govinda, Introductory Foreword, in W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, according to Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup’s English Rendering (Oxford University Press, 1960).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Evans-Wentz, Tibetan Book of the Dead.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Detlef Lauf, Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead (Shamballa, 1975).