“Bardo means gap” (Fremantle and Trungpa, Tibetan 1). It refers to experiences of suspension in life as well as in death, for death happens in the process of life (1). Bardo experiences happen to us all the time. They are experiences of not knowing our ground, of not knowing for what we have asked or are going to receive. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, therefore, is not about death any more than it is about birth. It is about the uncertainties of everyday life in which birth and death happen to us all the time (2).
Do you remember the moments when your best friend moved away or your grandmother died and everything felt fuzzy, as if you were between two worlds or passing out of one life into another? Poignant moments such as these flooded my mind in the continuous gaps between endings and beginnings as I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, moments when the ground seems to move, moments that happen to us all the time.
I reflected on the moment when, garbed in scuba gear, I jumped off a boat and was totally engaged in the intermediate space after the jump but before hitting the cold water to take my first deep ocean dive, or the moment I became a parent. During these moments, I was suspended between two worlds: the known and unknowable. I remember each as thresholds I had to cross in order to reach today. During such moments, the familiar world seems to fall away before there is the chance to attain a new sense of things. These are moments of suspension. These are not the moments when our lives start or end, but are moments when our consciousness shifts.
“Bar” means in between and “do” means island or mark, so “bardo” is sort of a landmark that stands between two points, like an island on a lake. It is the point between sanity and insanity, the state before confusion is transformed into wisdom (10-11). It is the place between death and birth. It is the moment before the future has manifested itself, yet the past has already been left behind: it is the gap (11).
Buddhism teaches that to view the whole of life from an egocentric view is to live in an “unreal” world and “the remedy is to see through the illusion, to attain the insight of emptiness—the absence of what is false” (xvi). With emptiness is luminosity, “the presence of what is real, the basic ground of which the play of life, takes place” (xvi). The first bardo experience is of the uncertainty about whether or not we are going to die; it is the moment we experience the possibility of stepping out of the real world into an unreal world (3).
The bardo experience can be seen in terms of the six realms of existence that we go through, our six psychological states, or the deities that we meet in our lives, the same ones that we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Within this context, there is no one to save us; everything is left to us and to the commitment we make to who we are (2). The teachings are not for the dying any more than they are for the living, or for those who seek a spiritual understanding in everyday life.