The most famous work of Tibetan literature known to the West, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thödol), has become the normative source for European and American popular understandings of Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. Numerous translations, commentaries, and comparative studies continue to be produced both by scholars and adherents of the tradition. Walter Y. Evans-Wentz first coined the title Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927 with his edition of Kazi Dawa Samdup’s selected translation of The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State (Bar do thos grol chen mo). This collection of texts was originally compiled in the 17th century by Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa (b. 1647–d. 1710) and has since been redacted in multiple editions. Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa’s collection is drawn from Karma Lingpa’s (b. c.1350) revealed treasure (gter ma), known as the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: A Profound Sacred Teaching; A Natural Liberation through [Recognition of] Enlightened Intention (Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol). This cycle of Nyingma (rNying ma) teachings is based on the mandala scheme of the 108 Peaceful and Wrathful Deities (zhi khro) according to the Guhyagarbha Tantra system. This treasure-anthology was allegedly authored in the 8th century by Padmasambhava, who is considered one of the originators of the Nyingma tradition. Although the texts were initially disseminated through this lineage from the 15th century onward, the compilation, particularly in its condensed version as the Bardo Thödol, has since also been transmitted through the Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) Buddhist lineage in Tibet and has been found to be used by adherents of various sects of Tibetan Buddhism. The Bardo Thödol is intended to be used in a funerary ritual context as an instruction manual for an individual to recognize the signs of impending death, to traverse the intermediate state (bar do) between death and rebirth, and to guide one’s consciousness to a favorable next life. These instructions provide detailed descriptions of visions and other sensory experiences that one encounters when dying and during the postmortem state. The texts are meant to be read out loud to the deceased by the living to encourage the consciousness to realize the illusory or dreamlike nature of these experiences and thus to attain liberation through this recognition.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as a subject for literary and historical inquiry, has received minimal attention from academic researchers. It is a nearly impossible task to systematically determine what Tibetan texts should be classified under the Western conceptual rubric of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, due to the Tibetan tendency to transmit textual traditions through various redactions, which inevitably changes the content of collected works. However, the few systematic efforts by scholars of Tibetan and Buddhist studies to investigate Bardo Thödol literature and its associated funerary tradition have been thorough, the most noteworthy work being Cuevas 2003, a historical account of the origins and transmission of the Bardo Thödol. Bryan Cuevas also produced an online resource, Tibetan Book of the Dead, to explore various texts and concepts regarding the literature through the University of Virginia. Fremantle 2001 provides a conceptual context to the major themes found within the text. Conze 1959, a brief summary, exemplifies how early Western scholars of the tradition began to critically examine the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Dorje 2006 is a thorough and well-researched introduction to the significance of the Bardo Thödol. Imaeda 2010 asks to what extent the funerary tradition of the Bardo Thödol is an indigenous, pre-Buddhist custom, which is a useful question. Seminal works in German have also been produced, such as Back 1979, a philological study, and Lauf 1977, which has been translated into English and is perhaps the most thorough account of the philosophical and iconographic content of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Back, Dieter. Eine buddhistische Jenseitsreise: Das sogenannte “Totenbuch der Tibeter” aus philologischer Sicht. Freiburger Beiträge zur Indologie 13. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1979.
A groundbreaking German philological study of the Bardo Thödol.
Conze, Edward. “Life after Death, and the Book of the Dead.” In Buddhist Scriptures. By Edward Conze, 227–236. Penguin Classics 88. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1959.
Conze dedicates a section of his book on Buddhist scriptures to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, where he provides a summary of its contents, on the basis of Kazi Dawa Samdup’s translation and Alexandra David-Neel’s French translation.
Cuevas, Bryan J. The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Easily the most comprehensive and essential work published to date on the history and origins of the textual tradition of the Bardo Thödol. Cuevas includes the various known editions of the compendium, as well as charts and lists of the various transmission lineages and traditions of the textual corpus, clearly mapping the dissemination of Bardo Thödol literature.
Dorje, Gyurme. “A Brief Literary History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.” In The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. Composed by Padmasambhava. Edited by Graham Coleman and Thupten Jinpa, xxxvi–xlix. London: Penguin, 2006.
Dorje provides a concise and useful overview of the origins of the literary tradition of the Bardo Thödol and available editions of the collection, clarifying what one is actually discussing when referring to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Revealed by Karma Lingpa, with an introductory commentary by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Fremantle, Francesca. Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 2001.
After publishing a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead with Chögyam Trungpa (see Fremantle and Trungpa 1975, cited under Translations), Fremantle has published this overall introduction concerning major themes of death and dying in the Tibetan tantric tradition, on the basis of Trungpa’s teachings.
Imaeda, Yoshiro. “The Bar do thos grol: Tibetan Conversion to Buddhism or Tibetanisation of Buddhism?” In Esoteric Buddhism at Dunhuang, Rites and Teaching for This Life and Beyond. Edited by Matthew Kapstein and Sam van Schaik, 145–158. Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library 25. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
Imaeda explores the extent to which the Bardo Thödol liturgy and associated funerary rituals are “Buddhist”; he also explores how much this tradition incorporates pre-Buddhist indigenous Tibetan elements—in both cases by examining funerary ritual manuscripts from Dunhuang. Available online to subscribers.
Lauf, Detlef Ingo. Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead. Translated by Graham Parkes. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 1977.
Lauf’s book, first appearing in German in 1975, is one of the most comprehensive works available on doctrine and tantric iconography relevant to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead. University of Virginia.
This website is a digital version of a special collections exhibition from the University of Virginia Library, curated by Bryan Cuevas. Although the website is difficult to navigate, it provides good examples of the Tibetan textual traditions of death and dying, particularly according to the Bardo Thödol tradition.
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