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How many bardos?

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Kyabjé Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche, the late Lama of Ngak’chang Rinpoche, said “if there are nine bardos then Padmasambhava must be stupid as he only knew six of them.” This has been taken as a criticism of the Aro gTér, which describes nine bardos.

This might seem to be an insignificant technical point. However, it is important because it is the only case (as far as I know) in which anyone has suggested that the Aro gTér contradicts a generally-accepted Nyingma teaching.

So—which is it? Six bardos or nine?

But first—what is a bardo? Who is Padmasambhava? How do we know there are six of them?

Bardo” literally means “in-between state.” Their best-known explanation is in the Bardo Thödröl. That book is often called “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” in English, although that doesn’t translate the title at all. It is called that because the bardo teachings discuss the “in-between state” that comes between one life and the next. The Bardo Thödröl is a térma (“revelation”) that is attributed to Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha who established Vajrayana in Tibet.

The Bardo Thödröl describes six bardos. The Aro gTér describes nine. That’s a contradiction, isn’t it?

Although the Bardo Thödröl is the most widely known térma to describe bardos, there are many other termas that do so. Among these, there are systems of three, four, and five bardos. There is also a system of six bardos that are quite different from those named in the Bardo Thödröl. (You can read about these in David Germano’s scholarly history of the subject.) All these térmas are universally accepted as canonical Nyingma scriptures.

So, evidently, there is no contradiction between different systems of bardos after all. There is no reason to doubt the Aro gTér on this basis.

But, how can it be that there is not a contradiction? And why would Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche say what he is reported to have, if not to suggest a flaw in the Aro gTér?

The answer to the first question is valuable, because it shows how Buddhism is misunderstood when one fails to understand the relationship between truth and methods. The classification of bardos is not a matter of truth. Bardos are not objectively existing, well-defined entities with crisp boundaries.

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An analogy might be helpful. We can divide up the twenty-four hour daily cycle in several ways. There is day, and there is night. That is a two-fold division. Within the day, we could distinguish a.m. and p.m., yielding a three-fold division. Or we could speak of morning, afternoon, evening, and night. Or morning, noontime, afternoon, evening, and night. We could add dawn and dusk. And so on.

None of these descriptions is “the correct one.” They do not conflict. We can certainly tell noon from midnight, and it would certainly be wrong to say that noon was part of the night. But there is no objective standard for when late afternoon turns into early evening. There is no truth of the matter as to whether “noontime” is “really” part of the day, or how long dusk lasts. All these categories may be useful as ways of talking in certain situations. They are methods for describing periods of time that are relatively stable in nature. When we speak of “morning,” we mean a period during which things are about the same, as far as light and temperature go.

Bardo” might be better translated “mode of awareness.” A bardo is a period during which our awareness is about the same. There is a bardo of waking, and a bardo of dreams. Awareness generally has a different character in dreams than while waking. There is the bardo of meditation, during which awareness again has a different flavor.

Historically, as described by Germano, later térma generally had successively greater numbers of bardos, derived by sub-dividing ones described earlier. Just as “day” can be divided into morning and afternoon, awareness in “life” (as opposed to between-lives awareness) can be divided into waking and dreaming. Waking can be further divided into distraction and meditation. The bardo between lives is also subdivided into less-familiar modes of awareness.

The Aro gTér system of nine bardos subdivides some of those found in the Bardo Thödröl system. It draws additional distinctions, pointing our attention to other ways in which our awareness may vary.

The bardo teachings are part of Dzogchen. The central aim of Dzogchen is to recognize rigpa: non-dual awareness, or enlightenment-in-the-moment. According to Dzogchen, we always experience rigpa, but fail to recognize it.

The whole point of the bardo teachings is to discover that there is, in a sense, only one bardo: rigpa. Rigpa is always our true mode of awareness. Whether we are awake or asleep, alive or dead, mopping or meditating, rigpa is always the same. The aim of bardo practice is to recognize this sameness.

Paradoxically, we do this by recognizing difference. In reality, every moment is a distinct bardo. Our awareness is subtly different in each instant.

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The value of listing bardos is in pointing out that our mode of awareness varies—because it is only when we can experience the variation that we discover what is the same underneath the differences.

So—how many bardos? One. Three. Six. Nine. Two hundred and forty-seven. A billion. Infinitely many.

All these are correct, as Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche of course knew. So why did he say “if there are nine bardos then Padmasambhava must be stupid”?

I wasn’t there. However, I can guess:

He was making a joke! He may have been affectionately teasing Ngak’chang Rinpoche. But mostly it’s funny because it points out the irresolvable tension between the theoretical absurdity of naming any definite set of bardos and the practical value in doing so.