The Eight Bardos

Milarepa (detail) Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

According to Tibetan Buddhism, all life and death take place in the gap, or bardo, between one state and another. While the most famous bardo is the one between death and rebirth, there are others that also shape our lives. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen presents a commentary on Milarepa’s song of realization “The Eight Bardos.”

Milarepa’s style of teaching is called “direct pointing out.” This refers to instructions that pinpoint what should be rejected and what should be accepted, the causes of suffering and the causes of happiness, without a lot of intellectual argumentation. for centuries, people have benefited from studying his vajra songs. now we too have the good fortune to study the songs of Milarepa and be similarly inspired to practice dharma sincerely. even though we may not fully comprehend what Milarepa said, it is crucial to rejoice in the opportunity to read his words. If we can do that, we will make a connection with Milarepa and receive his blessings through his songs. This isn’t due to some magical power but rather is the natural result of understanding and practicing his teachings. In this song of the eight bardos, the profundity and vastness of his teachings are made clear to scholars and practitioners alike. If we keep them in mind, we will eventually arrive at buddhahood.

Commentary

I prostrate to the saintly lamas.

In particular, I go for refuge to the one who was kind.

Son, in answer to your prayer

I sing this song about the bardos.

Milarepa begins by singing the praises of the saintly lamas, who are the great enlightened masters. Among them, Marpa was the one who was most kind to Milarepa because he is the one who gave Milarepa all the lineage teachings, which caused him to achieve complete enlightenment in a single lifetime. Gampopa is Milarepa’s spiritual son, and the one who requested these teachings.

Bardo is a Tibetan word. The first syllable, bar, means “in between”; the second syllable, do, means “two.” So together, they mean “place in between two.” While the bardo between lives is the most well known, the word can be used to indicate a state between any two things: hungry and full, happiness and suffering, delusion and enlightenment, laughing and crying, this life and the next, or between meditation sessions. Our life constantly plays out in between, in duality. This song is a teaching on how to transcend duality or, in other words, how to purify the concept of duality. Since Gampopa was highly accomplished in meditation and scholarship, Milarepa explained these bardo teachings from the point of view of Mahamudra. All appearances related to every subject manifest in dependence on causality from the Mahamudra state, and they dissolve back into Mahamudra. A great amount of wisdom based on meditation experience with nonduality is needed to capture the meaning of inseparable appearance and emptiness.

Sentient beings in the three realms of samsara

and buddhas who have passed beyond suffering

are one in their actual true nature.

This is the bardo of view.

The three realms that comprise samsara are the desire, form, and formless worlds. The desire world is the largest, extending from the hells up to the six lowest desire god realms. In that world, beings are ruled by their senses and their desires are fulfilled by outer objects. for example, our human desires are fulfilled when we look at beautiful forms, hear beautiful sounds, smell lovely fragrances, taste delicious foods, and touch smooth objects. Beings in the four stages of the form world have a more subtle existence, and their desires are completely satisfied through meditative absorption. They feel so joyful and peaceful that external phenomena are of no interest. Instead of looking for outside stimulation as we do, they are content to abide inside the mind. Beings in the formless world are even more subtle and have no physical form. They have only a mental form that is so fully absorbed in equipoise that it can remain so for many thousands of eons. They are satisfied with a meditation state that is even more profound than that of the form world. All the countless sentient beings are contained within these three contaminated worlds.

Buddhas are those who have transcended these three realms to reach full enlightenment. Their obscurations, both gross and subtle, have been fully purified. The two wisdoms are fully awakened within them.

Although these two—sentient beings and buddhas—are on two different levels, they share the same essential true nature. The difference is that sentient beings are bewildered in a jungle of confusion. They have failed to recognize their buddhanature and wander in helpless suffering as a result, whereas buddhas have purified their ignorance and revealed their true nature. Out of great wisdom and compassion, buddhas teach the dharma based on the certainty that buddhanature makes perfect enlightenment possible for everyone.

The dharma is not some kind of instant magic. We gradually follow in the footsteps of great masters like Tilopa, naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, phagmo Drupa, and Jigten Sumgön. One after another, they practiced and forcefully destroyed their delusions. Therefore, there is no doubt that we too can experience this. We only need courage, dedication, and strength.

The buddhas and great masters did not create their own view of reality; rather, they realized it as it actually is. They recognize the very ignorance that causes the perpetual suffering of samsara as primordial wisdom. When one sees everything clearly and precisely, there is no samsara to give up and no nirvana to achieve. Duality and all bardos are transcended. This is the principal point of all our dharma study and practice.

A simple analogy can help demonstrate this point. Let’s say you are suspicious of someone and think, “Oh, this is a terrible person. She gives me such a hard time.” But after some time, you get to know her better, discover her good qualities, and become close friends. The other person is the same; the duality of her being good or bad does not exist from her side. But as you gained understanding, your perceptions changed. Similarly, as we develop more loving-kindness, compassion, and bodhicitta, our perception of negative thought purifies. Mental clarity grows stronger as we perceive with a healthier mind. We can even get to the point where we feel grateful when someone presents us with an obstacle.

There is an account of a bodhisattva in ancient times whose hand was cut off by a king. The bodhisattva reacted by saying, “Thank you so much for this opportunity to enhance my practice.” His heart had been so transformed that instead of seeing a negative action, he genuinely felt grateful. With practice and confidence we too can transcend the duality of good and bad, buddha and sentient being.

This is the ultimate view, the view that the Buddha and we ourselves share the same nature. There are many, many high and profound views, but this one is the pinnacle. There is nothing higher that we might achieve. Actualizing this view is our goal, and until we arrive at that destination by transcending duality, we must exert whatever effort we can.

The various white and red manifestations and the inexpressible innate mind are inseparable, being one in the intrinsic state.

This is the bardo of meditation.

An infinite variety of experience will arise when we meditate. Manifestations can come while dreaming, during the meditation session itself, or afterward. There’s really no predicting what, if anything, will manifest. But no matter what appears, it is all a manifestation from the innate mind. The mind cannot be described or limited by any sort of boundary. We cannot say that it exists one way or the other. In fact, we cannot pin down whether it exists at all. Its nature is inexpressible by any conventional means, yet that same mind is the basis of all our experiences, the various white and red manifestations. These are the myriad experiences that occur during meditation practice and during our various thought processes.

The mind is like an ocean, and all mental activities are like ocean waves. Ocean waves arise from the water and dissolve back into it. When a wave manifests, we can point to it and say, “This is a wave.” But the wave is of the same nature as the water, so we can’t truly separate them. Big waves and small waves may come, but the water itself is unchanged. Water with waves and water without waves is still water. They may temporarily appear to be separate, but upon examination they are actually seen to be of a single nature. Similarly, when we are skilled at meditation, we can see that all phenomena are manifestations of the innate nature of mind. Different experiences come and go, but when it comes to the mind itself, nothing has happened. The innate mind is utterly unchanged.

We should focus on the mind in our meditation, rather than getting involved with the myriad manifestations that arise within it. Look at the ocean and the sky, and don’t be distracted by the waves and clouds. Let phenomena such as feeling good or bad manifest from mind and let them dissolve back into mind. Simply sustain awareness of the innate mind.

Delusory appearances in their various manifestations and one’s own nonarising mind are one as nondual coemergence.

This is the bardo of conduct.

We, and all others in samsara, are deluded and confused, blinded by ignorance, and mistake outer appearances in their various manifestations for reality. Not recognizing that they are illusory, we fixate on them and are continually disappointed. When we do not recognize the actual nature of these outer projections, they delude our mind even more, and the darkness thickens.

The deluded samsaric mind and the innate nature of mind seem to be two different things. But they are one, nondually coemergent. That very deluded mind is coemergent with the unborn mind of wisdom. The confusion is that we do not recognize this. The unborn mind is like water and the deluded mind is like ice. no matter how long it has been frozen, ice retains the nature of water; they are one and the same. likewise, when the solid mind of ignorance, confused by appearances, melts into the expanse of the nonarising mind, there is no separation to be found.

We can habituate ourselves to this understanding when we meditate, especially when we dissolve into the Mahamudra state. pay close attention to that and experience the unceasing, nonarising mind. The duality of external projections, such as nonvirtues and positive thoughts, will fade. When you have developed the skill to recognize them, there are no poisons to give up. There is no medicine to seek. everything falls into one pile. That is the nonarising mind.

Why is this called the bardo of conduct? This verse is about internal conduct, the actions of the mind. The mind makes the decisions, then the body and speech follow. Milarepa exemplified perfect conduct after he purified his delusions. His mind flowed as freely as air, with no attachment to good and no aversion to negativity. He functioned in perfect nonduality.

Last night’s dreams arise from habitual patterns.

We know them to be false when we awaken.

These states are one in being illusion-like.

This is the bardo of dreams.

Dreams arise when we sleep. Most dreams arise out of our habitual tendencies, whether based in this life or some other lifetime. While we are dreaming, the experience seems true. When we go places in the dream, we perceive that we are really going there, meeting people, eating food, seeing things, and so forth. We don’t see the dream as a dream until later. When we awaken we say, “Oh, that was just a dream, not something real.” But when we interact with people in the daytime, we see that experience as real, as being fundamentally different from our dreams. In actuality, our dream experiences and waking experiences are both illusory. They have the same nature.

When you awaken from a dream, where does that dream-world abide? Where did all those people and places come from? In a moment, all we have left is a memory of a vanished experience. examine your daytime experience in the same way. Do all those people and buildings exist or not? you have a perception of solidity, of reality, but is it valid? After a while, all we have is a memory again—the daydream has vanished too. When we engage in purification practices, we have a better chance to understand what this means because our mind becomes very sharp and more relaxed through meditation. When the mind calmly abides, there is less suffering and greater wisdom. This wisdom can directly perceive all phenomena as a momentary display and that is the purpose of dream bardo practice.

There is a special practice called dream yoga that is used to enhance the Mahamudra meditation practices. practitioners who are interested in this must be very serious, attend an authentic teacher, receive the teachings, and go into retreat. As a foundation, it is of utmost importance to have achieved single-pointed absorption. Dream yoga provides an opportunity to be aware of the illusion of dream while we are dreaming. That experience is then applied during the daytime in order to see the illusory state of all phenomena and to experience manifestations as being inseparable from Mahamudra itself.

The impure five skandhas and the pure five families of the victorious ones are one within the nonconceptual completion stage.

This is the bardo of the generation and completion stages of the path.

The meaning here is similar to that in another of Milarepa’s songs, “Mahamudra: Distinguishing the provisional from the Definitive,” which says:

This skandha of form, which is brought about compulsively, when there is no realization, is a body of the four elements; sickness and suffering arise from it.

When there is realization, it is the form of the deity, which is union. This reverses ordinary clinging.

Ultimately, there is no body. It is pure like the cloudless sky.

At the center of our delusion is our conception of our own “self.” We hold tightly to this collection of afflicted skandhas as if it had some independent existence. We are thoroughly attached to this body, which is nothing more than the basis of suffering. If someone spreads negative words about us, it is painful. It hurts the heart because we are so attached to the “I” as something tangible or concrete. On the other hand, if someone praises us by saying, “how beautiful and skilled you are,” we feel happy and excited and attached to ourselves.

Let’s investigate this. The five skandhas of form, feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness—where do they exist? Are they in your name? your body? In some part of your body, such as the hand or the chest? A name can be changed, so it is clear that your name doesn’t contain the self. If your hand were cut off, would you become someone else? Some say the self is in the mind. you yourself cannot find your own mind, let alone others’, so how could you know whether a self is there? no matter how we investigate and analyze, we cannot prove that a self exists. This is what is called “illusory nature.” We are not denying or ignoring the label of “I,” we are just questioning whether it exists independently.

The Buddha himself used conventional language when he said things like, “When I was in such and such place I did these things” and “This is my dharma teaching.” So the label of “I” can be used conventionally, but the self to which it refers does not exist in the way we perceive it. That’s why we are said to be confused. hard as we try, we cannot stabilize or establish as true that which does not exist. no matter how long we meditate, we will never see a self. We cherish ourselves so much that surely we should have seen it by now. Someone who will sacrifice anything to protect the self would have found it if it existed. But no one has seen a self-existent self. Grasping and cherishing that which does not exist is at the center of our suffering.

On the other hand, the buddhas have purified their misconceptions and realized that the five skandhas are illusory. In actuality, the heads of the five buddha families are themselves the perfection of the five impure skandhas. The five buddhas do not exist apart from the five skandhas. The form skandha corresponds to Buddha Vairochana, whose purified aspect is mirror-like wisdom. The feeling skandha corresponds to Buddha Ratnasambhava, whose purified aspect is equanimity. The skandha of perception corresponds to Buddha Amitabha, whose purified aspect is discriminating wisdom. Mental formation corresponds to Buddha Amoghasiddhi, whose purified aspect is all-accomplishing wisdom. Finally, consciousness corresponds to Buddha Akshobhya, whose purified aspect is the all-pervading wisdom of the dharma-expanse. This is another way of saying that samsara and nirvana are of one nature. When you realize this, you are a buddha. When you do not realize this, you are confused in samsara. This is the teaching of the Vajrayana.

The Vajrayana methods are very skillful. Through the empowerment ceremony, for example, you are introduced to the ultimate state of reality, and you gain the opportunity to manifest as a buddha right where you are sitting. Through the deity yoga practices, you learn to sustain yourself in that state. You begin to understand the continuity of arising as the deity, dissolving into emptiness, and manifesting again from within emptiness—in short, the bardo of the generation and completion stages of the path. You go back and forth arising as the deity and dissolving into emptiness. As you practice and progress, all your delusions, negative karma, and negative thoughts become purified. Then one day, you can attain buddhahood, inseparable appearance and emptiness, where there is nothing to give up and nothing to accept. When you have perfected the inseparability of the five skandhas and the five buddhas or wisdoms, then within nonconceptual thought the generation and completion stages have been perfected. But while we are still on the path, we need to follow those practices, step by step.

The father tantras arising from skillful methods
and the mother tantras arising from wisdom
are one as the coemergence of the third empowerment.

This is the bardo of the essential point.

Father tantras arising from skillful methods encompass all the skillful means that are manifestations of appearances and compassion, such as the first five paramitas, the first two of the three trainings, and the generation of oneself as the yidam deity with all the subsequent practices. Mother tantras arising from wisdom refers to development of the wisdom of emptiness, practices such as the last of the six paramitas, the third of the three trainings, and the completion stage with signs. All the different methods of dissolution into all-pervading emptiness are related to wisdom. When skillful means and the wisdom of emptiness are understood to be inseparably coemergent, the third empowerment is realized. Luminosity or appearances and emptiness are experienced concurrently. That is the realization of Mahamudra.

The essential point here is the coming together of the various elements of tantric meditation techniques. For example, we often visualize white light coming from the forehead of the deity and flowing into us, transforming our body into the enlightened state. Then red light manifests from the throat and purifies our speech obscurations. finally, blue light arises from the deity’s heart and purifies our mind, which is called the third empowerment. Based on this skillful method, we transform our ordinary form into the enlightened state. Without that, there is no basis from which to meditate on emptiness.

The unchanging dharmakaya for one’s own benefit and the unceasing form kayas for the benefit of others are inseparable, being one in the intrinsic state. This is the bardo of the three kayas.

A dharma practitioner who is fully convinced of the real nature of samsara will be inspired to study and practice the dharma. One starts through the stages of understanding, then practices step by step to purify the gross and subtle adventitious defilements. finally, the practitioner actualizes emptiness and fully awakens the two wisdoms: knowing reality as it is, and understanding each and every object of knowledge. These two wisdoms are a single point without separation. One eventually achieves the dharmakaya, the dimension of the Buddha’s perfect, excellent qualities. Upon the attainment of buddhahood, the dharmakaya, one is completely free from suffering and its causes. That accomplishment is said to be for one’s own benefit because all the perfect, infinite qualities are fully realized.

To attain buddhahood, you must initially cultivate bodhicitta, which is the desire to benefit all sentient beings. Then you train to perfect that mind for a long and difficult period of time. Once you become a buddha with these excellent qualities, you will have the skills and methods to benefit others through the two enlightened form kayas: the sambhogakaya (enjoyment form) and nirmanakaya (emanation form). Sentient beings have to interact with a perceptible form because they cannot perceive the dharmakaya. Therefore, the unceasing form kayas are necessary in order to accomplish the benefit of others. By manifesting these forms, a buddha’s activities are effortless and limitless and can adapt to the various dispositions of sentient beings. The sambhogakaya relates to the great bodhisattvas, who are highly accomplished in their spiritual realization. The nirmanakaya is for all. For example, Buddha Shakyamuni manifested as the nirmanakaya from the dharmakaya to demonstrate the path to enlightenment.

While they appear separately according to the needs of sentient beings, in reality these three kayas cannot be separated, because buddhas have completely transcended all such duality. Their unproduced, empty nature is dharmakaya, their luminous nature is sambhogakaya, and their infinite manifestations, as limitless as the objects of knowledge, are the nirmanakaya.

The impure illusory body born from a mother’s womb and the pure form of the deity are one in the luminosity of the bardo. This is the bardo of result.

The meaning here is similar to that of the verse about the impure skandhas discussed earlier. When you are born in this world from a mother’s womb, the body is usually perceived as impure. Later, we see that it is illusory. look at a reflection in a mirror—it is an illusory form. Or look at a bubble, here one moment and gone the next. Clouds appear and disappear without effort. These analogies help us understand that our own body is illusory. We know that a rainbow is illusory, but we still enjoy looking at its beauty. however, we would never try to capture one and put it in the closet. When we recognize a mirage as an illusion, we never try to drink its water. look at your own body and see that it has that same nature. There is no difference at all. But sentient beings in samsara have such dense delusions regarding duality!

On the other hand, the pure illusory body is the deity form that we see in our mind when we practice. There, you can clearly see that this illusory form, inseparable appearance and emptiness, does not exist. The pure form is luminosity. This is the bardo of result. When you actualize the inseparable nature of the impure and pure illusory bodies, this is the ultimate achievement, buddhahood.

There is a special practice called luminosity, or clear light yoga, that is similar to the dream yoga mentioned earlier. here again, the practitioner must be able to devote his or her life to retreat without wavering toward the eight worldly concerns. One’s mind must be fully established in meditative equipoise, and the practice instructions must be personally received from a vajra master. The essence of the practice is that one maintains single-pointed concentration throughout sleep, particularly during the deepest portion, when there is an opportunity to experience the luminous nature of the mind. When fully accomplished and stabilized, this experience transcends and purifies all aspects of duality.


Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen is a meditation master and scholar in the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Vajrayana. He is the founder of several Buddhist centers worldwide, including the tibet Meditation center in Frederick, Maryland, which he founded in 1982. This teaching is adapted from his new book, Opening the Treasure of the Profound, published by shambhala Publications, 2013.

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