The Tibetan
Tibetan language
The Tibetan languages are a cluster of mutually-unintelligible Tibeto-Burman languages spoken primarily by Tibetan peoples who live across a wide area of eastern Central Asia bordering the Indian subcontinent, including the Tibetan Plateau and the northern Indian subcontinent in Baltistan, Ladakh,...

 word Bardo means literally "intermediate state
Intermediate state
In Christian eschatology, the intermediate state or interim state refers to a person's "intermediate" existence between one's death and one's resurrection from the dead...

" - also translated as "transitional state" or "in-between state" or "liminal state". In Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

 the concept has the name antarabhāva. It is a concept which arose soon after the Buddha's passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it.

Used loosely, the term "bardo" refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibet
Tibet is a plateau region in Asia, north-east of the Himalayas. It is the traditional homeland of the Tibetan people as well as some other ethnic groups such as Monpas, Qiang, and Lhobas, and is now also inhabited by considerable numbers of Han and Hui people...

an tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spirit
The English word spirit has many differing meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body.The spirit of a living thing usually refers to or explains its consciousness.The notions of a person's "spirit" and "soul" often also overlap,...

ually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one's previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically
Karma in Indian religions is the concept of "action" or "deed", understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect originating in ancient India and treated in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh philosophies....

 created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth
Rebirth (Buddhism)
Rebirth in Buddhism is the doctrine that the evolving consciousness or stream of consciousness upon death , becomes one of the contributing causes for the arising of a new aggregation...


The term bardo can also be used metaphorically to describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish. However, they can also present challenges because our less skillful impulses may come to the foreground, just as in the sidpa bardo
Bardo Thodol
The Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State , sometimes translated as Liberation Through Hearing or Bardo Thodol is a funerary text...


Intermediate State in Indian Buddhism

From the records of early Buddhist schools, it appears that at least six different groups accepted the notion of an intermediate existence (antarābhava), namely, the Sarvāstivāda, Darṣṭāntika, Vātsīputrīyas, Saṃmitīya, Pūrvaśaila and late Mahīśāsaka. The first four of these are closely related schools. Opposing them were the Mahāsaṃghika, Mahīśāsaka, Theravāda, Vibhajyavāda and the Śāriputra Abhidharma (possibly Dharmagupta) (Bareau 1955: 291).

Some of the earliest references we have to the “intermediate existence” are to be found in the Sarvāstivādin text the Mahāvibhāṣa 《阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論》. For instance, the Mahāvibhāṣa indicates a “basic existence” (本有), an “intermediate existence” (中有), a “birth existence” (生有) and “death existence” (死有) (CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 959, etc.). Bareau (1955: 143) provides the arguments of the Sarvāstivāda as follows:

The intermediate being who makes the passage in this way from one existence to the next is formed, like every living being, of the five aggregates (skandha). His existence is demonstrated by the fact that it cannot have any discontinuity in time and space between the place and moment of death and those of rebirth, and therefore it must be that the two existences belonging to the same series are linked in time and space by an intermediate stage. The intermediate being is the Gandharva, the presence of which is as necessary at conception as the fecundity and union of the parents. Furthermore, the Antarāparinirvāyin is an Anāgamin who obtains parinirvāṇa during the intermediary existence. As for the heinous criminal guilty of one of the five crimes without interval (ānantarya), he passes in quite the same way by an intermediate existence at the end of which he is reborn necessarily in hell.

Deriving from a later period of the same school, though with some differences, Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa explains (English trs. p. 383ff):

What is an intermediate being, and an intermediate existence?
10. Intermediate existence, which inserts itself between existence at death and existence at birth, not having arrived at the location where it should go, cannot be said to be born. Between death-that is, the five skandhas of the moment of death – and arising – that is, the five skandhas of the moment of rebirth-there is found an existence-a "body" of five skandhas-that goes to the place of rebirth. This existence between two realms of rebirth (gatī) is called intermediate existence.

He cites a number of texts and examples to defend the notion against other schools which reject it and claim that death in one life is immediately followed by rebirth in the next, without any intermediate state in between the two. Both the Mahāvibhāṣa and the Abhidharmakośa have the notion of the intermediate state lasting "seven times seven days" (i.e. 49 days) at most. This is one view, though, and there were also others.

Similar arguments were also used in Harivarman’s *Satyasiddhi Śāstra, a quasi-Mahāyāna
Mahāyāna is one of the two main existing branches of Buddhism and a term for classification of Buddhist philosophies and practice...

 text, and the Upadeśa commentary on the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, both of which have strong influence from the Sarvāstivāda school. Both of these texts had powerful influence in Chinese Buddhism, which also accepts this idea as a rule.

The Saddharma-smṛty-upasthāna Sūtra (正法念處經) classifies 17 intermediate states with different experiences.

Six Bardos in Tibetan Buddhism

Fremantle (2001) states that there are six traditional bardo states known as the Six Bardos: the Bardo of This Life (p. 55); the Bardo of Meditation (p. 58); the Bardo of Dream (p. 62); the Bardo of Dying (p. 64); the Bardo of Dharmata (p. 65); and the Bardo of Existence (p. 66).

Shugchang, et al. (2000: p. 5) discuss the Zhitro
In Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, Zhitro or Karling Zhitro is the name of a genre of scripture and associated tantric practices primarily concerned with the "Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities"...

 (Tibetan: Zhi-khro) teachings which subsume the Bardo Thodol
Bardo Thodol
The Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State , sometimes translated as Liberation Through Hearing or Bardo Thodol is a funerary text...

 and mention Karma Lingpa
Karma Lingpa
Karma Lingpa , a great tertön, is embraced as a reincarnation of Chokro Luyi Gyaltsen , a great master, and accepted as the revealer of the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead. Karma Lingpa took body in southeast Tibet as the eldest son of Nyida Sangye , the great Tantric practitioner...

, terma
Terma (religion)
Terma are key Tibetan Buddhist and Bön teachings, which the tradition holds were originally esoterically hidden by various adepts such as Padmasambhava and his consorts in the 8th century for future discovery at auspicious times by other adepts, known as tertöns. As such, they represent a...

 and Padmasambhava
Padmasambhava ; Mongolian ловон Бадмажунай, lovon Badmajunai, , Means The Lotus-Born, was a sage guru from Oddiyāna who is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet and neighbouring countries in the 8th century...

 and list the Six Bardo: "The first bardo begins when we take birth and endures as long as we live. The second is the bardo of dreams. The third is the bardo of concentration or meditation. The fourth occurs at the moment of death. The fifth is
known as the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature. The sixth is called the bardo of transmigration or karmic becoming.
  1. Shinay bardo (Tibetan): is the first bardo of birth and life. This bardo commences from conception until the last breath, when the mindstream
    Mindstream in Buddhist philosophy is the moment-to-moment "continuum" of awareness. There are a number of terms in the Buddhist literature that may well be rendered "mindstream"...

     withdraws from the body.
  2. Milam bardo (Tibetan): is the second bardo of the dream state. The Milam Bardo is a subset of the first Bardo. Dream Yoga
    Dream yoga
    Dream Yoga or Milam — the Yoga of the Dream State are a suite of advanced tantric sadhana of the entwined Mantrayana lineages of Dzogchen...

     develops practices to integrate the dream state into Buddhist sadhana
    Sādhanā literally "a means of accomplishing something" is ego-transcending spiritual practice. It includes a variety of disciplines in Hindu, Sikh , Buddhist and Muslim traditions that are followed in order to achieve various spiritual or ritual objectives.The historian N...

  3. Samten bardo (Tibetan) is the third bardo of meditation
    Meditation is any form of a family of practices in which practitioners train their minds or self-induce a mode of consciousness to realize some benefit....

    . This bardo is generally only experienced by meditators, though individuals may have spontaneous experience of it. Samten Bardo is a subset of the Shinay Bardo.
  4. Chikkhai bardo (Tibetan): is the fourth bardo of the moment of death. According to tradition, this bardo is held to commence when the outer and inner signs presage that the onset of death is nigh, and continues through the dissolution or transmutation of the Mahabhuta
    Mahābhūta is Sanskrit and Pāli for "great element." In Buddhism, the "four great elements" are earth, water, fire and air...

     until the external and internal breath has completed.
  5. Chönyid bardo (Tibetan): is the fifth bardo of the luminosity of the true nature which commences after the final 'inner breath' (Sanskrit: prana
    Prana is the Sanskrit word for "vital life" .It is one of the five organs of vitality or sensation, viz. prana "breath", vac "speech", chakshus "sight", shrotra "hearing", and manas "thought" Prana is the Sanskrit word for "vital life" (from the root "to fill", cognate to Latin plenus...

    , vayu
    Vāyu is a primary Hindu deity, the Lord of the winds, the father of Bhima and the spiritual father of Lord Hanuman...

    ; Tibetan: rlung). It is within this Bardo that visions and auditory phenomena occur. In the Dzogchen teachings, these are known as the spontaneously manifesting Thödgal (Tibetan: thod-rgyal) visions. Concomitant to these visions, there is a welling of profound peace and pristine awareness. Sentient beings who have not practiced during their lived experience and/or who do not recognize the clear light (Tibetan: od gsal
    Ösel (yoga)
    Ösel , the Yoga of the Clear Light Ösel (tib. hod-gsal; od gsal), the Yoga of the Clear Light Ösel (tib. hod-gsal; od gsal), the Yoga of the Clear Light (often translated as 'Radiant Light' (Sanskrit: prabhasvara), referring to the 'intrinsic purity' (Tibetan: ka-dag) of the substratum of the...

    ) at the moment of death are usually deluded throughout the fifth bardo of luminosity.
  6. Sidpa bardo (Tibetan): is the sixth bardo of becoming or transmigration. This bardo endures until the inner-breath commences in the new transmigrating form determined by the 'karmic seeds' within the storehouse consciousness.


Fremantle (2001: p. 53-54) charts the development of the bardo concept through the Himalayan
Himalayan can refer to:* The Himalayas mountain range* Himalayan , the type of cat* List of rabbit breeds#Himalayan, the breed of rabbit* The Himalayans, a band...


Originally bardo referred only to the period between one life and the next, and this is still its normal meaning when it is mentioned without any qualification. There was considerable dispute over this theory during the early centuries of Buddhism, with one side arguing that rebirth (or conception) follows immediately after death, and the other saying that there must be an interval between the two. With the rise of mahayana, belief in a transitional period prevailed. Later Buddhism expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states, covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that lies between two other states. Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, is the prototype of the bardo experience, while the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods. By refining even further the understanding of the essence of bardo, it can then be applied to every moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a continual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future.

However, as shown above, Fremantle's idea that it was originally only "between one life and next" was not how it was used by the Sarvāstivāda school from the outset. Also, the idea that the ascendancy of this idea was due to the Mahāyāna is unfounded, and it is much more likely that it was due to the Sarvāstivāda influence, several centuries before the Mahāyāna had any real influence.

See also

  • Desire realm
    Desire realm
    The desire realm is one of three realms or three worlds in traditional Buddhist cosmology into which a being wandering in may be reborn. The other two are the form realm, and the formless realm The desire realm (Sanskrit kāma-dhātu) is one of three realms (Sanskrit: dhātu, Tibetan: khams) or...

  • Dzogchen: Reality vs dreams
  • Six Yogas of Naropa
    Six Yogas of Naropa
    The Six Yogas of Nāropa , also called the six dharmas of Naropa and Naro's six doctrines , are a set of advanced Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tantric practices and a meditation sādhana compiled in and around the...

  • Limbo
    In the theology of the Catholic Church, Limbo is a speculative idea about the afterlife condition of those who die in original sin without being assigned to the Hell of the damned. Limbo is not an official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church or any other...

Further reading

  • Abhidharma Kośa Bhāṣyām'.' 1991. de la Vallèe Poussin, L; translated by. Pruden, L. Vols I, II, III & IV. Asian Humanities Press.
  • The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. 1993. Sogyal Rinpoche
    Sogyal Rinpoche
    Sogyal Rinpoche is a Tibetan Dzogchen Lama of the Nyingma tradition. He has been teaching for over 30 years and continues to travel widely in Europe, America, Australia and Asia...

    . New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
  • Luminous Emptiness. 2001. Francesca Fremantle
    Francesca Fremantle
    Francesca Fremantle is a scholar and translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan works of Hindu and Buddhist tantra, and was a student of Chögyam Trungpa for many years...

    . Boston: Shambala Publications. ISBN 1-57062-450-X
  • American Book of the Dead. 1987. E.J. Gold. Nevada City: IDHHB.
  • Death, Intermediate State, and Rebirth. 1981. Lati Rinpoche
    Lati Rinpoche
    Kyabje Lati Rinpoche Born in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet in 1922, Lati Rinpoche was identified as the reincarnation of a great practitioner by Gongkar Rinpoche and entered monastic life at the age of 10....

    . Snow Lion Publications.
  • The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 1967. Timothy Leary et al.
  • Natural Liberation. 1998. Padmasambhava
    Padmasambhava ; Mongolian ловон Бадмажунай, lovon Badmajunai, , Means The Lotus-Born, was a sage guru from Oddiyāna who is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet and neighbouring countries in the 8th century...

    . The text is translated by B. Alan Wallace, with a commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche. Somerville, Wisdom Publications.
  • Bardo Teachings. 1987. By Ven. Lama Lodo. Snow Lion Publications.
  • Mirror of Mindfulness: The Cycle of the Four Bardos, Tsele Natsok Rangdrol
    Tsele Natsok Rangdröl
    Tsele Natsok Rangdröl was an important master of the Kagyü and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also known as Tsele Gotsangpa.-References:...

    , translated by Erik Pema Kunsang
    Erik Pema Kunsang
    Erik Pema Kunsang is a Danish translator and was, along with Marcia Binder Schmidt, director of Rangjung Yeshe Translations and Publications in Kathmandu. He has translated over fifty volumes of Tibetan texts and oral teachings...

    (Rangjung Yeshe Publications).
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