Liberation Upon Hearing
Courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources
Liberation Upon Hearing: An Explanation of the Phenomena of the Intermediate State
by Minling Terchen Gyurme Dorje
In devotion I bow to the one whose compassionate sunlight
Dispels the darkness of fear and who guides beings
Along the great pathway that leads to liberation.
Here I shall briefly explain the phenomena of the bardo.
Here, you can practise on the basis of any maṇḍala ritual that protects those beings caught in the noose of the Lord of Death from the terrors of the lower realms. When extending such practices with a related explanation of the phenomena of the bardos, do so with a motivation of boundless great compassion for all beings in general and especially for all beings of this world headed by your particular objects of focus. Make the necessary time available and recite the following words of the text slowly:
Kye! Son or daughter of noble family, you, the one named [insert name], who have died, do not be distracted! Listen and keep this in mind. It is the general nature of all conditioned phenomena to be impermanent and subject to change. And it is taught that the nature of beings’ lives in particular is that they lack even so much as a moment’s permanence. For you, the time has now come: your life is spent. You are in the intermediate state. Hold to these key points of profound instruction, and until this ritual introduction is complete maintain a natural state of awareness and, with the support of this name-card (ming byang), be at ease.
It is vitally important that you recognise the bardo as the bardo and set your intention towards the genuine path.
There now follows 1) a general teaching on the intermediate state and 2) an explanation of particular phases.
1. General Teaching
This has four parts: 1) The essence of the bardo; 2) the literal meaning of the term; 3) its divisions; and 4) specific practices for each.
All experiences other than the primordially pure space of the ground are intermediate states. The experience in which ground-appearances dawn as wisdom is the pure bardo of dharmatā, while all the phenomena of delusory appearance that comprise the six realms of beings constitute the impure bardo of delusion. Thus, bardo refers to the mental states together with their seeds that have arisen from the primordially pure space and continue until they are exhausted within that space that is the basis for their arising.
2. Literal Meaning
The term bardo refers to an interim between what comes before and what follows. In the case of the first two bardos, this means the interim that has been initiated by an earlier life and precedes the formation of the next life. In the case of the latter two, it is as said in the Treasury [of Abhidharma]:
Here, between death and birth
There arises intermediate existence
Since the destination is not yet reached,
It is the interim phase of becoming.
As this indicates, the period when someone has died before they take up their subsequent rebirth is the intermediate state of existence.
The Unimpeded Sound says:
When divided, there are four, of which…
Thus, there are four: 1) the bardo of birth and death or natural bardo; 2) the bardo of dying; 3) the dharmatā bardo; and 4) the bardo of becoming. The first begins with birth from the mother’s womb and continues until succumbing to a fatal condition or injury. The second begins with the approach of death and continues until breathing ceases. The third begins with the cessation of inner respiration and continues until the dissolution of the visions of spontaneous presence. The fourth begins with the dissolution of the visions of spontaneous presence and continues until the occurrence of a subsequent birth.
4. Specific Practices
Each of the following explanations consists of an analogy and its meaning.
The analogy for eliminating misconceptions in the bardo of this life is a falcon entering its nest. The meaning is that one must eliminate misconceptions by following a noble guru and applying oneself assiduously to studying, reflecting upon and meditating upon the instructions that he or she gives.
Similarly, the analogy for clear recollection (gsal gdab pa) in the bardo of dying is a beautiful girl staring into a mirror. As this suggests, one must clearly bring to mind instructions that are familiar from the past.
Trusting that appearances are mind’s own manifestation during the bardo of dharmatā is likened to a child entering its mother’s lap. By mastering the meaning of the instructions, no matter what appearances of dharmatā may arise, one must not react to them with fear but maintain confidence that they are the naturally manifesting display of one’s own wisdom.
Extending one’s karmic fortune in the bardo of becoming is likened to mending a broken irrigation channel by adding a spout. No matter how terrifying the deluded appearances might be, one sets out on the path to a pure rebirth based on the key points of the instructions with which one is already familiar, or which are explained at the time (such as is happening now).
It is taught that according to varying levels of capacity, there are thus three possible stages of liberation.
2. Particular Phases
What follows refers primarily to the three later bardos.
1. The Bardo of Dying
At the time of transferring from life at death, the body’s water, fire and wind elements are disturbed and it can no longer support heat or consciousness. This marks the severing of one’s vital force. The aggregates, elements and sense-sources, together with their objects, all gradually fade. But, to emphasize what is most important, this is spoken of as the dissolution of the elements, because whenever a support dissolves whatever relies upon it will certainly dissolve as well.
Wisdom Display says:
First earth dissolves into water,
Water then dissolves into fire.
Fire dissolves into wind,
And wind then dissolves into consciousness.
That very consciousness then
Enters into clear light.
Thus, when earth dissolves into water the body’s strength deteriorates. (Note: this does not mean that physical strength deteriorates once earth has finished dissolving into water, but that the process begins from the initial moment of dissolution and the arising of outer, inner and secret signs.) As water dissolves into fire, the mouth and nostrils dry up. As fire dissolves into wind, the body loses heat beginning from the extremities. As wind dissolves into consciousness, the flow of coarse breathing is cut. As consciousness dissolves into space, all the coming and goings of energy-mind cease. As space dissolves into luminosity, the consciousnesses of the five sense doors and all processes of thought fade into absolute space. Then all the subtle essences of the left and right channels dissolve into the A and HAṂ at the upper and lower ends of the central channel.
The white essences at the upper end of the channel descend. When they reach the heart centre the whole of one’s experience becomes totally white like the risen moon. This is known as the experience of appearance because the natural glow of cognizance is clearly apparent. The thirty-three thought-states that derive from anger, such as freedom from passion, and coarse percept-thoughts (gzung rtog) cease. This is the first moment, known as empty luminosity.
Red essences at the lower ends of the channel ascend, and the whole of one’s experience becomes totally red like the risen sun. Mind appears extremely clear, so this is known as the experience of increased luminescence. The forty thought-states that derive from desire, such as attachment, and coarse perceiver-thoughts ('dzin rtog) cease. This is the second moment, known as extremely empty luminosity.
As the white and red essences meet at the heart the wind-energies in the vital channel cease, and the whole of one’s experiences becomes totally black like dense darkness. This is known as the experience of the attainment of experience at the approach to mind's cessation. The seven thought-states that derive from vacuity, such as lack of clarity, and extremely subtle conceptualization cease. This is the third moment, known as the luminosity of great emptiness.
Then, as the A HAṂ at the heart dissolves completely, the whole of one’s experience arises as luminosity without centre or periphery, like a cloudless sky. This is known as the experience of full attainment wherein mind is free from any stain. The three experiences cease. This is the fourth moment, known as the luminosity of universal emptiness.
At that time, what manifests is the great indestructible nature that beings have always possessed from the very beginning, the dharmakāya of primordial purity, referred to as primordially pure original liberation. On top of this ground luminosity which beings have always had as their nature, that clear light which the sublime guru introduced in the past and with which one has become familiar also manifests, so that mother and child meet. By remaining in that non-conceptual state of clear light, which is the profound and crucial point, there can be what is called ‘awakening as clear light dharmakāya at death,’ just as in the saying, “In an instant complete enlightenment.” This is the attainment of liberation in the bardo of primordially pure dharmakāya.
The sequence in which all this arises is as follows. The clear light of the supporting aggregates, elements and sensory sources, together with the supported, merges with the clear light of the support and supported for the three of appearance, increase and attainment. At full attainment the all-ground, too, enters the space of the great luminosity of union. Then there manifests the level of the great bliss dharmakāya in which absolute space and pure awareness are indivisible. This very luminosity arises for everyone at the time of death, but for those who lack the instructions on prior familiarisation it arises for no longer than a single instant, and they therefore fail to recognise it.
[Note: In the context of the stages of dissolution explained above, the reference to earth dissolving into water does not mean that the earth areas of the body become devoid of earth element or that they switch places and a coarse earth-element dissolves into the water-element. Rather, it means that through the strength of wind-energy in the central channel the karmic wind associated with the earth element is overcome. Then, as there is no longer any support, the supported cannot continue, so the subtly appearing consciousness, which, remains in the central channel according to one’s habitual tendencies, ceases. Then the body’s elements of solidity such as the bones lose their supporting wind-energy and consciousness. Thus, the subtle essence of earth dissolves into the subtle essence of water. A similar principle applies to the dissolution of water into fire and fire into wind. Wind dissolving into consciousness does not mean that it leaves the domain of the physical body or that it transfers and enters the path of consciousness. Nor does it mean that the habitual tendencies of wind’s subtle essence settle in consciousness and then wind ceases. Rather, the subtle essence of wind disappears from everywhere in the body, including the coarse vital channel, and merges indivisibly — as a single taste — with the bindu that combines the five pure essences inside the vital channel. Consciousness dissolving into space does not mean that it ceases to be an entity, but that since it is clear and unobstructed like space, it enters the central channel in a way that is difficult to illustrate.]
2. The Bardo of Dharmatā
This is the time when luminosity dissolves into union. As explained above, there is an experience of luminosity and emptiness at the end of the fourth moment. Within this there is full attainment of experience. Then, out of that comes the increase of experience and out of that, appearance. Then, in an instant, from this threefold experience and its accompanying wind-energy, through the proximate cause of the appearance of clear light there arises an extremely subtle form, clear and unobstructed, like a reflection in a mirror or rainbow light in the sky. This is the dawning of saṃbhogakāya.
Here, the five original and indestructible aggregates are what is pervaded, and that which pervades them is the maṇḍala of the five buddha families, based on the crucial fact that these buddha families, their forms and pure realms are innately present. These maṇḍala gatherings fill the whole of space. On the first day, the maṇḍala of Vairocana arises out of blue light, which is like a cloudless autumn sky. Similiarly, on the following four days, the other sets of maṇḍala gathering arise on a boundless scale — Akṣobhya from white light, Ratnasambhava from yellow light, Amitābha from red light and Amoghasiddhi from green light, all of them together with male and female bodhisattvas and gatekeepers — making five sets in total.
All arise spontaneously out of the radiance in one’s own heart, so they are maṇḍalas of the vajra space of Akaniṣṭha appearing at this time. The instruction related to this phase is called the crucial point of understanding engagement.
The crucial point of awareness engaging with light is to direct subtle clear rays of five-coloured light from your heart to strike the hearts of the maṇḍala gathering and then to rest in an experience of clarity and emptiness.
Then, when the gatherings are drawn back and dissolved into your heart centre, to settle in an experience of awareness and emptiness in which whatever naturally arises is naturally liberated is the crucial point of light engaging with awareness.
If you lack confidence in this, then union will dissolve into wisdom. From your heart emerges the light of fourfold wisdom — blankets of blue, white, yellow and red light — into the space above. On top of each are clear light-spheres (thig le) of matching colours, all of them ornamented with five lesser spheres of light. Above, a dome of light appears like a peacock’s tail fan.
At this time, the crucial point of the body is that the aggregates are freed from self-clinging, so the body remains in the actual face of luminous dharmatā, and, since it is without elements and subtle afflictions, to recognise this as one's own projection.
Following this, there is the stage of wisdom dissolving into spontaneous presence. The wisdom visions are absorbed into the dome of light above. Then, out of primordially pure appearance, which is like a cloudless sky, all the infinite appearances of the pure peaceful and wrathful realms and the impure six classes of beings, arise in a moment. At this stage, to attain liberation through eliminating misconceptions concerning self-manifestation is the crucial point of recognising the ultimate.
On this occasion, awakening in primordial absolute space occurs on the basis of the eight modes of arising of the visions, the six sets of six of higher perceptions, such as the faculties, the three sets of three higher perceptions of the three kāyas and the six recollections, and by means of the eight modes of dissolution with confidence in spontaneous presence.
Regarding the determinacy of days in the dharmatā bardo, one meditation day is the time one can remain in an experience of clear light. For someone who has previously trained in meditation such days will therefore arise for a long while, and liberation will come through recognition at that time. For someone without familiarity, however, this will be unstable and only last a moment. There will be no recognition, only continuing to the next bardo.
3. The Bardo of Becoming
For beginners the earlier visions of luminous dharmatā fade away unrecognised. Then, in the next moment, habitual tendencies for the following stage are triggered by various activating conditions. Wind-energy, mind and the four subtle elements serve as causes and conditions through which the subtle and unobstructed bardo form is created. The duration of this bardo is seven days, where one day is equivalent to a human day. Then, if one has still not found the support of another body, one dies again and lives for another seven days. This process of repeated birth and death every seven days continues for a maximum of forty-nine days in total, within which one will find the conditions for rebirth.
For the first half of the seven weeks you retain your appearance from the previous life and then from the halfway point onwards you take on an appearance based on your next life. You might think that during the bardo you would certainly have the appearance of the next life alone. This is possibly how it is in reality, but that would not involve a contradiction, because the clinging to an earlier appearance would be based on habitual tendencies familiar from the past. All relative appearances are determined by the deluded mind.
Therefore, to be shaken by some terrifying experience can inspire a recognition of your future appearance. Moreover, all six sensory powers are complete here, so you can experience the sensory objects of common karmic perception. You also have miraculous powers that enable you to travel anywhere — except the site of your future rebirth — unimpededly, meaning that you can even pass through solid objects like mountains or walls. Your faculties are sharp and your presence of mind clear. All those are of the same type within the bardo can see one other with divine sight but are invisible to others.
Generally, it is said that once the bardo connected to a future birth has been determined there is no turning back. Still, in certain special circumstances, it is as the Abhidharmasamuccaya says: “… in which case this is avoided.” Thus, it is possible to transform the situation through the power of virtue. Furthermore, although it is said that scents, which could be good or bad, provide basic sustenance, you can also receive whatever is dedicated through special rituals.
The bardo that possesses these characteristics also features various signs: the four paths of beings, three terrifying abysses, four dreadful sounds, five definite signs, six uncertainties, and so on:
Four Paths of Beings
An area may feature a path of white light that leads to the realms of devas and asuras; a black path that leads to the hells; a red path that leads to the preta realm; or a yellow path that leads to the human and animal realms. Moreover, to move along with the head turned down is a feature of the bardo leading to lower realms; moving along with the head turned up is a feature of the bardo leading to the deva realms; and moving straight ahead is a feature of the bardo leading to the human realm.
Three Terrifying Abysses
Similarly, there are three vast abysses — deep red, ashen grey and dark black, all unbearable to behold — which appear through karmic vision based on the three poisons, and which, when seen, indicate impending descent into the three lower realms.
Four Dreadful Sounds
As the wind-energies of the four elements and thoughts slip into ordinary patterns, the wind-energies of the four subtle elements re-emerge producing four dreadful sounds that cause unbearable pain: sounds of earthquakes and avalanches; of torrential rivers and crashing waves; of blazing forest fires; and of fierce hurricane winds.
Five Definite Signs
The definite signs are as follows: 1) whereas in the past you would be obstructed by even the slightest physical barrier, now you are able to pass unhindered through mountains and walls; 2) whereas in the past others would see your physical gestures and hear your utterances, now these go unseen and unheard; 3) in the past you would leave footprints and cast a shadow but not any longer; 4) in the past you had no heightened powers of perception, but now various subtle forms of higher perception arise. These are all signs of having no tangible body. 5) Internally, since you lack the white and red elements, you no longer see the sun, moon, planets or stars, but instead behold darkness.
As for the uncertainties, 1) your dwelling place, which could be an empty house, or a cavern and the like, is uncertain; 2) your companions could be devas, pretas, or spirits and demons and so on, and are thus uncertain; 3) your food and clothing, which could manifest as the various forms of food and clothing of the six realms, all difficult to obtain, are uncertain; 4) your resting place, which could be a bed of straw or the corner of a bridge, is uncertain; 5) your behaviour, which could take on any form in an instant, is uncertain; and 6) feelings of pleasure and pain, which are varied and liable to fluctuate without reason, are uncertain as well.
Thus, you are flung across chasms repeatedly like a feather cast about in the wind. Or else your surroundings are entirely shrouded in heavy darkness; you are tormented by wild and vicious beasts; and led along by the servants of Yama, lord of death, while pursued by terrible sounds of violence and slaughter. Your virtues and misdeeds are judged with an array of white and black pebbles. You are beset by fierce blizzards of sleet and snow or assailed by showers of assorted weapons. You might see your past home and close family as if in a dream and wander off in search of them. When approaching and calling out, they neither see nor hear you, and therefore do not reply. When seeing their mourning and cries of distress, you understand that you have died. With nowhere left to go, you feel unbearable sorrow. Seeing others carelessly abuse your possessions you feel intense attachment and anger. Such confused, terrifying experiences will arise on an unfathomable scale, but since they are but the delusory appearances of the bardo you must recognise them as such.
Moreover, any initiative based on your former place of residence is now finished; your connection to close family and friends has been cut; the karma to use accumulated belongings is exhausted; and all your past experiences are now no more than the basis for habitual traces. As these inconceivable bardo appearances dawn they arise only due to the deluded perceptions of your own mind. Aside from this, they lack even the slightest speck of true reality. As the Bodhicaryāvatāra says:
Understand that it is just so. Avoid attachment and aversion towards the appearances of friends and enemies, sensual delights that produce pleasure or unpleasant things that cause suffering. Without evaluating them as to what should be taken up or avoided, develop a single-pointed focus and confident trust in the illusory, unreal nature of all phenomena.
It is easy to change support within the bardo. Consciousness is clear, so if you accumulate karma based on attachment or aversion this can stimulate negative karma from your past and cast you down into the lower realms; whereas if you generate a virtuous mind of faith, compassion and so on this can reinvigorate any virtuous karma from the past. To put it simply, to be deluded can have serious consequences, and even a minor thought of attachment or aversion can cast you into the lower realms, while training in the path is also highly consequential. Here your training can progress more in a single moment than it did in the course of months and years while you were alive. So, avoid falling prey to afflictive emotions and meditate on the profound path. Through this, in the best case, you will be liberated in that very moment, and at the very least, you will proceed to the higher realms — of this there is no doubt.
Should you fail to seize this opportunity, you will have to be reborn. In which case, seeing an image of your parents having intercourse is a sign of impending womb-birth or birth from an egg. An attraction to scents is a sign of birth through heat and moisture, while attraction to place is a sign of miraculous birth. More particularly, avoid becoming attached to warmth when trying to avoid the cold of the rain and wind, and avoid a desire for cold when afflicted by the heat of fires and so on, because these would only lead you to the hot and cold hells. Similarly, should you appear as a woman avoid feeling passionate attachment toward men, or if appearing as a man avoid feeling passionate attachment toward women — and, in both cases, avoid hostility toward their counterparts. Unite all potential objects of attachment and aversion, such as delusory perceptions and terrifying appearances, with illusoriness and emptiness. Allow awareness to hold its place and relax deeply without grasping. Through this, all deluded perception will be naturally liberated upon arising.
In short, allow all visual forms to arise naturally as the infinitely pure maṇḍala of the guru and yidam deities. Allow all sounds to reverberate naturally as the dharmatā’s own natural resonance, indestructible sound and emptiness. And recognise all thoughts as the display of primordially pure dharmakāya. No matter what occurs — be it happiness or sorrow, good or bad — generate fervent, one-pointed devotion for the sources of refuge by thinking, “Precious Three Jewels, know and care for me!”
Concentrate as well, with singular focus, on generating an excellent motivation. Think: “I shall take on a pure body complete with all freedoms and opportunities, so that I may accomplish vast waves of beneficial activity for the teachings and all sentient beings!” Visualize the parents to whom you will be reborn as the guru inseparable from the yidam deity, together with the consort. Enter their forms with powerful focus. Rest evenly in emptiness beyond conceptual elaboration and train as much as you can with pure perception.
In short, those you have left behind will make offerings to the Three Jewels on your behalf. They will give charity to people in need, recite profound sūtras, and perform offering practices connected to the maṇḍalas of various texts from the tantra collections. They will thus carry out powerful virtuous acts on a vast scale that will benefit you enormously, so do not worry. We now, in particular, are carrying out this offering practice in relation to the great maṇḍala of [insert name here]. Since this special ritual practice for purifying the lower realms will serve you greatly, consider that that the maṇḍala of the transcendent, accomplished lord [insert name of deity] is actually present here. And taking your place before it, generate faith in the guru and Three Jewels, compassion for sentient beings who are infinite in number, and regret for your past misdeeds, as well as a commitment not to repeat them. Motivated by the intense wish that you and all others may attain enlightenment, perform prostrations as a physical act; verbally recite prayers and the verses for taking refuge; and mentally carry out the stages of the practice, without error, by receiving empowerment and so on, as you allow your mind to follow the words of the text. Doing so will be enormously beneficial for you.
This is the clear reminder.
For those whose lives and merit, engendered by past virtues, have ended,
And who are led by terrifying Yama to the citadel of the other side,
All those who are worn out and who lack protection,
Here is an entry to the method of guidance through loving kindness.
Based on what the protector, embodiment of boundless compassion,
Taught in all the sūtras and tantras, and especially
Those simple supplements to rituals for guiding the deceased —
From all such presentations of the bardo states, Pure works that gather together the essential details, This is a quintessential summary — may it guide all beings!
This essential introduction to the bardos entitled ‘Liberation Upon Hearing’ was requested by Lama Shakya Özer from Ngenlung Sang-ngak Chöling in the Mön district and composed in the palace of secret mantra next to the great temple of glorious Tradruk by the upāsaka follower of Śākyamuni, the awareness-holder Gyurme Dorje, who combined without contradiction the intent of general works and those specifically dedicated to the bardos. May virtue and goodness abound!
| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2019. With many thanks to Sean Price for his suggestions.
SB 'Gyur med rdo rje. "Bar do'i chos bshad thos pas rnam grol." In gTer bdag gling pa ’gyur med rdo rje’i gsung ’bum. TBRC W22096. Dehra Dun: Khochhen Tulku, 1998. Vol. 8: 347a–357b.
RTD 'Gyur med rdo rje. "Bar do'i chos bshad thos pas rnam grol." In 'Jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas. Rin chen gter mdzod chen mo. TBRC W20578. 111 vols. Paro: Ngodrup and Sherab Drimay, 1976–1980. Vol. 66: 501–521
- Kangyur Rinpoche, Treasury of Precious Qualities, Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications, 2001.
- Shantideva. The Way of the Bodhisattva. Translated by Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997 (revised 2006)
- Tsele Natsok Rangdrol, The Mirror of Mindfulness: the Cycle of the Four Bardos. Translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications. 1987.
rgya khra ↩
This note appears in SB but not in RTD. ↩
This note appears in both SB and RTD. ↩
Following SB: ri ra ba sogs. RTD: ri rab sogs. ↩
SB appears to be corrupted here and omits this quotation from Abhidharmasamuccaya. ↩
SB: rlung; RTD: glud? ↩
RTD: rtsa brgyad; SB: rtsa skyil (for rtswa spyil?) ↩
RTD, SB: zam tur, the meaning of which is unclear. Other lists have zam zur, corner of a bridge. ↩
Following SB: lan med pa; RTD: phan med pa. ↩
Both RTD and SB have me tshogs here. This is generally considered a common mistake for mo tshogs, hence Padmakara’s translation: “Whence have all these demon-women sprung?” ↩
Bodhicaryāvatāra V, 7cd–8ab. ↩