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Tibetan Buddhism and the resolution of grief: The Bardo-Thodol for the dying and the grieving

by Robert Goss
Death Studies

Vol. 21 Issue 4 Jul/Aug.1997


Copyright by Death Studies

Web site: Tibetan Buddhism and the resolution of grief

All images are from “The Point! by MurakamiWolf productions copyright 1971

This article is a contribution to the cross-cultural study of grief The
Bardo thodol (sometimes translated the Tibetan Book of the Dead) and the
ritual associated with it provides a way to understand how Buddhism in
Tibetan culture manages the issues associated with what is called grief in
Western psychology. The resolution of grief in the survivors is intertwined
with the journey to rebirth of the deceased. The present article describes
(a) the progression of the deceased, (b) the rituals by which survivors
separate from the physical incarnation of the deceased, (c) how, by
channeling the feelings of grief to support the progress of the deceased,
grief is brought to a positive resolution, and (d) the continuing bond
survivors maintain with the dead even though the dead has moved on to the
next life.

Death is a universal human experience, yet wide variations exist in the
ways in which different intellectual and spiritual traditions understand
and manage what Western psychology calls grief and mourning. For example,
within the Western European tradition, over the last 150 years, there has
been a change in expectations of normal grieving (Dye & Smith, 1986;
Simonds & Rothman, 1992; Smart, 1983; Stroebe, 1992; Stroebe, Gergan,
Gergan, & Stroebe, 1992). Different cultures within the same major
religious traditions may even have what appear to be nearly opposite
expectations, as Wikan (1988) showed in a comparison of Muslim communities
in Egypt and Bali.

Buddhism has been integrated into many Asian cultures, and each of these
cultures has a different set of expectations and rituals at the time of
death. These ways of death and grieving have not been well understood in
Western thanatology. Outside small Buddhist immigrant communities, Japanese
Buddhism, especially Zen as interpreted by D. T. Suzuki (1955, 1964), was
the first to make a significant impact in the West. In Japan, the primary
connection most people have with Buddhism are funeral rituals and rituals
honoring family ancestors (LaFleur, 1992; Nara, 1995; Reader, 1991; Smith,
1974). Suzuki’s presentation of Zen did not include ancestor rites. So when
some Americans tried to develop a Buddhist way of dying and grieving their
Buddhism lacked reference to actual practice of Japanese Zen ancestor
worship (Levine, 1982, 1987). The second significant wave of Buddhism in
the West was brought on by the Tibetan holocaust as, beginning in 1959,
exiles like the Dalai Lama understood their dispersion as an opportunity to
share their form of Buddhism with the wider world and hence preserve it.
Previous articles have explored death and grieving in Japanese ancestor
worship (Klass, 1996; Klass & Heath, 1997). This article explores the
rituals and worldview of Tibetan Buddhism still practiced in the Himalayan
countries and, less so, in Tibet where the Chinese have destroyed more than
6,000 monasteries and killed over 100,000 monks. Participation in Tibetan
meditation and ritual has grown rapidly in North America. For the last 20
years, the Living Dying Project in San Francisco has used some of the
techniques described here as a way of helping dying people.

Prototypical Grief in the Buddhist Pali Canon

A prototypical story from the Pali Canon gives an overview of how Buddhists
deal with the issue of human grief. Kisa Gotami was a woman who had lost
her first-born son. Grief-stricken and clutching the body of her deceased
son, she roamed the streets looking for medicine or an antidote that could
restore her son to life. She finally took the body to the Buddha. The
Buddha listened to her pleas with compassion and said, “Go enter the city,
make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in
whatever home no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of
mustard seed” (Burtt, 1982, p. 45). Kisa Gotami went from house to house to
find a mustard seed from a household untouched by death. She soon realized
that the task the Buddha had set was impossible, and she brought the body
of her son to the cremation grounds. Gotami returned to the Buddha for
instruction on the truth. The Buddha taught her that there is only one
unchangeable law in the universe: All things are impermanent.

The story of Kisa Gotami reminds Tibetan Buddhists of the possibility of
attachment and freedom in the experience of death (S. Rinpoche, 1992). Her
son’s death was the catalyst not only for her grief and despair but also
for the possibility of her growth and transformation. In his compassionate
instruction, the Buddha directed her to immerse herself within the human
condition and so to realize the impermanence of life. Her grief led her on
a vain search for a mustard seed, representing her false hope for
permanence and her attachment to her son. When she realized the human
condition of suffering and death, from a Tibetan perspective, she freed her
son to move forward in his cyclic existence; her own struggle with death
and impermanence also prepared her to face her own impermanence. She
resolved her grief and attained enlightenment at the end of her life.

The Journey of the Deceased

The Tibetan rituals by which the grief of the survivors is managed are
intimately connected to the progression of the soul of the deceased from
this life to its next. Thus, to understand grief, it is necessary to
understand the problems and the progress of the dead. It is a common
Western misconception that Tibetans do not fear death because they believe
in reincarnation. Tibetans, like Westerners, fear death. They have a
pervasive sense that everyone is impermanent and destined to die. The image
of Yama, the ferocious God of Death, and his consort Chamunda, who
personifies his fierce energy, are vivid in their imagination. Tibetans
look to the Buddha and to all awakened beings for protection from Yama in
the experience of death. Death is fraught with danger and opportunity for
Tibetan Buddhists (Thurman, 1994).

There are thousands of texts and images on death that cross the boundaries
of all Tibetan Buddhist schools and lineages. Among the genres are
inspirational accounts of the deaths of great saints and teachers, ritual
texts for the dying, instructional manuals for guiding trainees in death
meditation, divination materials on the signs of untimely death, and yogic
manuals for the transference of consciousness at death (Mullen, 1986). The
best known of these texts is the Great Liberation Through Hearing the
Bardo, the Bardo thodol chenmo (bar-do’i-thos-sgrol-chen-mo), which was
misnamed by the American scholar W. Y. Evans-Wentz as The Tibetan Book of
the Dead in imitation of The Egyptian Book of the Dead. The authorship of
the text is attributed to Padmasambhava, who dictated to his consort Yeshe
Tosgyal and then hid the text during the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th
century. Karma Lingpa discovered the text in the 14th century. Thus the
book falls into a type of Tibetan revelational literature called treasure
texts or terma (gter-ma) (Gyatso, 1995) because it was discovered at a
later date and because its original author has an exalted or canonical
status. The journey of the deceased can best be understood by an analysis
of the Bardo thodol and the ritual in which it is used.

Bardo literally means “in between.” It indicates a number of transitional
or liminal conditions: (a) between birth and death, (b) the meditational
state, (c) the dream stage, (d) the moment of dying, (e) the interim
between death and rebirth, and (f) the process of rebirth. The bardo
teachings are relevant to each liminal stage but are more pertinent to
dying and death (Turner, 1969).
The Bardo thodol describes in detail the
experience of a person migrating from death to rebirth. In each bardo, the
deceased undergoes a set of different experiences and visions. In the text,
there are two sets of instructions: the root verses for the deceased and
the instructions for the reader (and by extension the listeners). The root
verses instruct the deceased on how to understand these bardo experiences
and visions. The verses remind the deceased that these visions are empty
emanations of the subtle mind. The instructions to the reader tell him or
her how and when to read the directions for the deceased.

Tibetan Buddhists believe that everyone has a subtle mind that migrates
through the bardo experiences. Tibetans view death not merely as the
maturation of karma, as in earlier Indian Buddhism, but also as the
separation of the life principle (bla) from the body (Tucci, 1980). It has
become common to translate bla as soul, although consciousness would be
better used. Tibetan Buddhism incorporated this notion of the separation of
the life principle from the body into the bardo experience. Tibetan
Buddhists also adopted the term lama (blama) for teacher. Literally, lama
means soul mother from the indigenous shamanic tradition (Wylie, 1977, pp.
146-147). The soul mother or lama guides the separation of the soul in
various liminal situations and is the spiritual guide who accompanies the
subtle consciousness of the dead person step by step on the difficult and
sometimes perilous path during the 49 days between death and rebirth.

When the Bardo thodol is used for the dying and the dead, the preliminary
prayers orient the dying person to the death process and instill a proper
frame of mind to assure either a good rebirth or liberation. Ideally, the
dying will have practiced the bardo teachings during their lives in
preparation for death. Thurman (1994) and S. Rinpoche (1992) gave
descriptions of such meditational preparations for death. In meditational
training, a person learns to perceive the natural state of the subtle mind
as pure luminosity. An untrained person, even when given the bardo
instructions after death, has greater difficulty overcoming egocentric
tendencies and perceiving the true nature of the mind.

Death is certainly not sanitized within a Buddhist household. After a
person has died, the body usually stays in the bedroom or in the house
chapel until its final ritual disposition. Bedding of animal hide is
removed, since the skin of an animal may hinder the transference of
consciousness. The body is covered, except for the crown of the head. Loved
ones or relatives often set up a small shrine, consisting of pictures of
Buddhas, teachers, bodhisattvas, or empowering deifies. The body is rolled
on to its right side, the posture of the sleeping lion in which the Buddha
died (N. Rinpoche, 1991; S. Rinpoche, 1992). According to Buddhist
tradition, the posture of the sleeping lion allows the blocking of the
karmic winds of delusion and speeds the process of bodily dissolution in
the death process. Incense is burned as an offering and, more practically,
to cover the odor of body decomposition. Offerings are made outside the
death chamber and house to encourage the deceased to leave his or her body.
During the bardo death journey, the deceased is understood to take
nourishment from the odors of the incense offerings. Ritual disposition of
the body usually occurs from day 4 to day 10. An astrologer is con-suited
on the precise auspicious moment for the disposition.

Funeral rites (rje-‘dzin), as in other Buddhist traditions, span 49 days,
the transition period of consciousness between the death of the body and
rebirth into another body. The bardo teachings imagine that the
consciousness of the deceased journeys through three liminal stages: (a)
the moment of dying (‘chi-kha’i-bar-do), (b) the bardo of reality
(chos-nyid-kyi-bar-do), and (c) the seeking of rebirth (srid-pa’i- bar-do).
At each of these stages, the consciousness of the dying or dead person is
encouraged to recognize all appearances as a projection of the mind and to
merge with the luminous mind. The bardo guidebook makes the treacherous
journey easier by telling the deceased what is happening to them in the
bardo realms and gives them the correct instructions on how to deal with
these realms. The reciter of the Bardo thodol becomes the spiritual guide
or director, teaching the mind of the deceased to relax or to let go in
order to realize the natural liberation of the mind.

The Bardo thodol is read aloud by a lama or tantric adept (ngag-pa) in the
presence of the dead body for 49 days. When an ordinary deceased person who
is unskilled in meditational practices awakens in the bardo of dying, it is
believed that the person is confused and does not know where he or she is.
In a Dharma talk on the bardo, Lama Lodo said that the deceased realizes
their altered condition when they walk in the sand or in the snow and see
that they leave no footprint or realize they do not cast a shadow even when
walking in the sunlight. Many persons spend a number of days in a state of
confusion about what has happened to them. When the signs of death and
physical dissolution have set in, the lama who recites the bardo teachings
is the spiritual guide, instructing the deceased not to cling to life but
to recognize that luminous essence that is the mind.

The lama or tantric adept directs the deceased to fall on whatever
spiritual practices and imaginative preparations he or she engaged in while
living. The deceased is reminded of his or her relationship to their
primary teacher-mentor. The lama begins with a series of prayers and then
recites the following i@to the left ear of the departed:

Hey, noble one! Now you have arrived at what is called “death.” You are
going from this world to the beyond. You are not alone; it happens to
everyone. You must not indulge in attachment and insistence on this life.
Though you are attached and you insist, you have no power to stay, you will
not avoid wandering in this life cycle. Do not lust! Do not cling! Be
mindful of the Three Jewels! (Thurman, 1994, pp. 131-132)

According to Tibetan teachers, most people continue to grasp a false sense
of themselves. It is difficult to give up yearning for attachment to
relatives or to stop struggling to hold on to one’s past life. It is
difficult to leave things unfinished or to let go all the things cherished
in life. The departed are often frozen in their attachments and fears. The
deceased grieve for their former lives and loved ones. Tensions,
attachments, and discomfort can generate negative emotions that can propel
the deceased in the afterlife bardos to a less than favorable rebirth.

At some point during the first 21 days, or if the lama is present at the
moment of death, the lama performs the powa (‘pho-ba), or transference of
consciousness ritual. Offerings of barley and butter are placed on the head
of the corpse. The lama instructs the deceased on how to break attachment
to the body. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition maintains that the clairvoyant
consciousness of the dead person is seven times clearer than the
consciousness of a living person. Through such clairvoyant powers, the dead
person can see into the wise mind of an accomplished teacher and can be
introduced to the luminous nature of the mind and thus be liberated. At the
conclusion of the rite, the lama invokes the blessings of the Buddha and
awakened ones. He looks for signs or physical indications of the complete
transference of consciousness from the corpse. Some spiritual teachers
perform a transference of consciousness for their disciples. As part of
their spiritual training they transfer the consciousness of their disciples
to a paradise realm.

The Grief of the Survivors: Rituals of Separation

While the powa ritual encourages the deceased’s consciousness to break the
connection with the body, the survivors engage in rituals that graphically
show them that the deceased’s physical body is no longer an object of
relationship. Even though the Tibetans speak of reincarnation in everyday
expressions and build their religious leadership around the belief that
certain lamas are reborn into children who can be specifically identified,
the funeral ritual has very explicit and graphic symbols of the separation
of the deceased’s physical presence from the living community.

The family consults an astrologer who correlates birth and death times with
other astrological factors to determine a precise moment for disposing of
the body. In preparation, monks or family members wash the corpse while
reciting prayers for the benefit of the deceased. Tibetans practice four
ritual methods of disposing of corpses: sky burial, cremation, ground
burial, and water burial. Ground burial is rarely practiced except in the
case of contagious diseases. Cremation is reserved for incarnate lamas or
for during the winter months. In sky burial, the corpse is cut up and fed
to vultures. In water burial, the corpse is dismembered and thrown into the
river. The latter method is quite limited (Mumford, 1989).

In Ladakh and Tibetan refugee communities in India, cremation is often used
to dispose of the body. The deceased body is offered as a fire offering
with butter, oil, grains, and sugar. Monks offer chants and prayers for the
benefit of the deceased (McClean, 1994a, 1994b). The funeral pyre is
visualized as the mandala of Vajrasattva. Often, the lama performs a ritual
of cutting (gcod), a meditational dismemberment of the body (Edou, 1996;
Gyatso, 1985; Mumford, 1989; Paul, 1982; Samuel, 1993; Tucci, 1980). As the
corpse burns, the relatives and friends are encouraged to envision the body
being devoured by the hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities and the
consciousness being transformed into their wise nature. Survivors chant the
six-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva: Om Vajrasattva Hum (S. Rinpoche, 1992).
Frequently, the ashes of accomplished teachers are mixed with clay to make
devotional images that become linking objects (Volkan, 1981) between the
living and the deceased teacher. The ashes of ordinary people are gathered
and left to the natural elements on a mountain top. Some readers may have
seen Bertolucci’s film, Little Buddha (1994) in which Lama Norbu’s cremated
ashes are distributed to the three children, the triple reincarnation of
Lama Dorje. The children offer his ashes to the natural elements of air,
earth, and water.

Sky burial and open cremation may initially appear grotesque for
Westerners, especially if they have not reflected on their own burial
practice of embalming. For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are
templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life. Cremations
and burial grounds are haunts for hungry ghosts and demons, and they have
become places for Buddhist meditation on impermanence and egolessness.
Illness, old age, and death compelled Siddartha Gautama to seek liberation
from cyclic existence. Thus the gruesomeness of death and the decomposition
and disposition of the human corpse all provide a strong teaching on
impermanence (Lhalungpa, 1985; S. Rinpoche, 1992). b-pa) place the body on
a flat rock representing a mandala and begin to slice across the chest
cavity of the body according to the instructions of the lama or tantric
adept (ngag-pa). The ritual of meditational dismemberment is actualized in
the ritual of sky burial. Giving the body as food to the vultures becomes
the final act of compassion. The vultures are kept at bay until the proper
time, when slices of the body are cast upon the rock mandala for
consumption. This is to prevent the vultures from fighting over the corpse
and injuring each other. The skeletal bones and skull are hammered into
dust and mixed with barley flour (tsam-pa) and fed to the vultures (Powers,
1995). The video The Art of Dying (Jensen & Munck, 1992) has graphic scenes
of body cutters defleshing the bones of the deceased and feeding them to
the vultures. To date, there are no reports of North Americans following
bardo rituals to aid the dying and practicing sky burial.

The final disposition of the corpse provides a graphic ritual to separate
the living from the physical body that housed the now-ended incarnation of
the soul. It is a pivotal time in which the consciousness of the deceased
breaks off attachment to his or her body. Likewise, ritual cremation or sky
burial breaks physical attachments of the relatives to the deceased. The
house of the deceased is fumigated with incense, and monks are hired to
come in to chant the Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines. A tantric adept
or lama exorcises the death demon from the house (Mumford, 1989; Paul,
1982; Waddell, 1972). The possessions and the clothing of the deceased are
frequently donated to the local monastery, the temple, or charity.

Among the Yolmo Sherpas, a Tibetan group that migrated to Nepal, a
purification rite is performed on the 49th day. The monks process from the
local monastery to the deceased’s house and accept an effigy of the
deceased, usually made from dough and butter. The monks process back to the
monastery to a choreographed dirge and music. This procession is the only
time in the Yolmo funeral ritual in which there is unrestrained, emotional
expression of sadness; tears flow freely. When they reach the monastery’s
chapel, monks conduct a purification rite while mourners and monks outside
the chapel conduct their own prayer service. The monks chant prayers and
Buddhist texts while a community of women mourners chant the mantra of
Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion: om Mani Padme Hum.

After the purification ceremony in the chapel is concluded, the outside
ceremony continues. The lamas, followed by men and women, move in a
circular dance while reciting prayers. A bonfire is built, and groups of
men and women continue to chant the mani hymns. Groups of men and women
exchange songs of sadness (tser-glu) in antiphonal couplets (Desjarlais,
1991). These exchanges of songs of sadness continue until dawn.

Transforming the Problematic Feelings in Grief

A culture’s funeral rituals, instructions to the dead, and instructions to
the survivors establish guidelines for the emotional expressions of grief.
Different cultures have different prescriptions and proscriptions; for
example, in contemporary American grief guidebooks, emotional expressions
are regarded as good, but expressions related to images of the dead are
said to retard resolution (Simonds & Rothman, 1992). Wikan (1988) showed
Muslim communities in Egypt expect overt expressions of sorrow immediately
after death, whereas in Bali such expressions are severely proscribed.

Tibetan Buddhism recognizes that survivors have many feelings after someone
dies. Some feelings, such as regret, longing, guilt, or anger are
problematic, first, because they stem from unresolved relationships with
the dying person–what in the West would be called unfinished
business–and, second, because the feelings retard the progress of the
deceased to the next life. Part of the Tibetan preoccupation with
preparation for death is an injunction to attend to one’s duties toward
living relatives and friends so that when someone dies the relationship is
unclouded by negative karma. But few living bonds are wholly positive, so
when there are problematic relationships, there are explicit instructions
for resolving these negative feelings. Once the feelings are resolved,
however, it does not mean that the bond with the deceased is severed.
Rather, the deceased can continue his or her progress toward rebirth, and
the survivors can maintain ritual and positive emotional connections with
the deceased by supporting the deceased’s journey.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) gives a Heart Practice Meditation for transforming
the negative emotions of grief. It begins with an invocation to all
Buddhas, bodhisattva, and enlightened teachers and for the grieving to
imagine their presence. The grieving are instructed to open their hearts to
all the pain, experience their grief and tears, and to call to a Buddha by
using the mantra Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum for healing. Sogyal
Rinpoche (1992) continued the imaginative visualization in the following

Imagine and know that the Buddha you are crying out to responds, with all
his or her love, compassion, wisdom, and power. Tremendous rays of light
stream out toward you from him or her. Imagine that light as nectar,
filling your heart up completely, and transforming your suffering into
bliss. (p. 314)

The mantra generates a feeling of bliss that enables mourners to keep their
hearts open to the deceased and to engage in spiritual practices: prayer,
alms giving, transference of consciousness meditations (‘pho-ba), and other
practices for helping the dead.

Tibetan Buddhist practices for resolving grief start by accepting the
reality of grief. Grief does not disappear in a day or in a week. It takes
time for grief to dissolve into solace. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels
(the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Community) is the primary faith practice,
preceding all other devotional and meditative practices. Taking refuge
allows the mourner to face grief and find solace within a spiritual
community. Continued meditational practices, such as those suggested by
Sogyal Rinpoche (1992), lead to acceptance and solace. Various techniques
include a final visualization within the ritual practice that imagines
saying a loving farewell to the deceased with the whole mind and heart and
then imagining the dead person turning and leaving. Not only does this
ritual assist the living, but it also provides freedom for the deceased to
continue the bardo journey.

The suffering in grief is not repressed or denied but accepted and
transformed into motivational energy for spiritual practice. Suffering
motivated the Buddha to seek liberation; grief energized Kisa Gotami to
engage in Buddhist practices that led to her realization of enlightenment.
From a Tibetan Buddhist perspective, grief can be an opportunity for an
individual to examine his or her own life and find meaning in it. Grief
teaches one about compassion and can provide the motivation to engage in
spiritual practices.

The mourning process encompasses a long period, exceeding the bardo period
of 49 days. Expressions of grief include wearing hair loose and unbraided,
the lack of jewelry, and wearing old, black clothes. Similar to Jewish and
Islamic customs of grief, there is no singing or dancing during the
mourning period (T. Sangay, 198.4). Feelings of grief will return
periodically. Words of condolence and consolation do not resolve the grief.
Sogyal Rinpoche (1992) shared the following experience of grief from his

While everyone else slept, I lay awake and cried the whole night long, I
understood that night that death is real and that I too would have to die.
As I lay there, thinking about death and about my own death, through all my
sadness a profound sense of acceptance began slowly to merge, and with it a
resolve to dedicate my life to spiritual practice. (p. 7)

Tibetans recognize death all around them: The deaths of those they know and
love cause them to search for the meaning of life with a sense of hope. An
unceasing ecology of birth and death form the matrix of grieving, but
rebirth does not remove the pain of loss.

At the same time, Tibetans discourage excessive emotional expressions
because, Tibetans say, such expressions hinder the progress of the
deceased. The dying persons is most vulnerable at the moment of death, and
the intense emotions of loved ones may provoke strong feelings of
attachment in the deceased. Sogyal Rinpoche encouraged families “to do
their best to work out attachment and grief with the dying person before
death comes: Cry together, express your love, and say good-bye, but try to
finish with this process before the actual moment of death arrives.” (S.
Rinpoche, 1992, p. 225). Lama Lodo similarly taught that the tears of loved
ones are experienced by the bardo voyager as peals of thunder or like a
severe hail storm. Tears disturb and disrupt the dead in their migration
toward either liberation or rebirth. The attachment of the living can bring
the dying confusion, pain, and trouble. Letting go of the deceased means
working through grief and channeling grief into the emotional energy of
assisting the deceased in the bardo experience.

One of the ways that the lama handles the bereavement of a Tibetan family
and friends is by encouraging them to actively do something for their loved
one: to engage in spiritual practices, embark on pilgrimage, or do good
works. The lama tries to focus the emotions and grief of the relatives and
friends into constructive practices for the deceased. The well-being of the
deceased takes on supreme importance. The deceased has moved into a liminal
bardo experience fraught with danger and opportunity. Despite the loss,
Buddhists want their loved one to realize liberation or achieve a good
rebirth. They harness their grief into chanting mantras and prayers,
offerings, and meditational rituals.
Continuing Bonds With the Dead

The strategy of Tibetan Buddhist teachers and adepts is to encourage family
members to channel their grieving energies into spiritual practices for the
dead. This strategy can be best understood as helping the survivors join
with the deceased in a new way (see Klass, Silverman, & Nickman, 1996). The
rituals of body disposal radically end the old physical relationship, but
as part of the powa ritual and for all the rituals of the first 49 days,
the bond of the living and the dead is renewed and strengthened.
members communicate with the dead person through food offerings. Each
morning and evening, food is set aside in the bowl of the deceased and is
used for burnt offerings. In many indigenous cultures, family members offer
sacrifices to assist the dead in their journey in the afterlife. According
to the Tibetan tradition, the smell of the burnt offering gives the
deceased strength in the bardo journey.

In Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhism, there is a strong belief in transferring
merit to another. Death provides an occasion for the living to perform
spiritual works to assist the deceased in the bardo journey. Lamas instruct
families on their need to generate merit for the deceased before the karmic
judgment of the Lord of Death. The notion of family assistance for the dead
relative takes on great importance, for its helps mourning family members
to channel personal grief. Relatives and friends can join in the process of
transferring merit to the deceased and provide a devotional mind, full of
compassion for the deceased.

Assisting the dying in a peaceful death and
transferring merit to the deceased becomes the paramount goal of mourners.
They are assisting their loved one through the perilous karmic judgment of
the Lord of Death, who will decide the realm of rebirth.

Lama Rinchen Phuntsogs (person communication, February 7, 1996) from the
Nyingmapa school described the emotions he and his family experienced when
his father, a reincarnated lama, died. Both he and his mother felt sorrow
at the loss for 2 days but did not cry. His sister, on the other hand,
mourned for several days. Lama Rinchen pointed out that he and his family
remembered the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence. Emotional grief was
understood as attachment. Buddhist teachings on suffering attachment placed
constraints on public display of intense emotions. Negative feelings of the
emotional loss of his father were short lived by Lama Rinchen and his
family. He said they generated a sense of devotion as they perceived signs
that the deceased lama had been liberated into a pure land. The father’s
ashes were placed in a stupa that was built for him. Lama Rinchen, in this
linking object, said he feels a devotional connection to and a proximity
with his continued father.

The most powerful time to perform spiritual practice for the deceased is
during the first 21 days, because it is in this period that the deceased
has his or her strongest links with the living. The consciousness of the
deceased is acutely clairvoyant. Therefore, the living have the greatest
access to the deceased and thus the strongest opportunity to assist him or
her into liberation or a favorable rebirth. Directing good thoughts or
performing spiritual practices can benefit the deceased. Negative emotions
confuse the dead. By clearing one’s mind of negative emotions, generating
devotion, and visualizing awakened Buddhas and deities, the living actually
assist the deceased. They communicate spiritual images to direct the
wandering bardo consciousness to realize its spiritual goal. For the period
of 49 days, the community of family and friends are kept busy in giving
spiritual assistance to the deceased. Family and friends may practice powa,
or the transference of consciousness meditation ritual, on any day of the
49-day period but do so especially on the same day of the week that the
person died (S. Rinpoche, 1992). This ritual provides solace to relatives
and friends, giving them an opportunity to assist and say farewell to the
deceased. For the 49-day period, family and friends interact in a common
cause of assisting the bardo voyager to a favorable rebirth. They also
provide emotional support to one another through the grieving process. By
the end of 49 days, the deceased has been reborn in a womb.

The bardo
connection with the deceased begins to provide an outlet for transforming
grief into compassion. Solace thus comes from helping a loved one to engage
in the project of liberation.

Among the Yolmo Sherpas, songs of sadness (tser-glu) provide a social
medium for expressing and transforming emotional sadness at loss. After the
purification rite on the 49th day, mourners exchange songs of sadness in
group duet couplets (Desjarlais, 1991). As male mourners complete the final
couplet, female mourners begin their couplet. Songs traditionally function
as media for public emotion and sentiment (Goldstein, 1982). Desjarlais
observes that in this ritual exchange of songs, “wounds are exposed and
hearts are cleansed. Similar to the Delta Blues, pain is affirmed” (1991,
p. 405). The songs express a solidarity of experience of sadness and
provide a medium for transforming and alleviating sadness. The reality of
life is affirmed.

Sadness (tsera) differs from the more problematic emotions in grief that
signify attachment and thus the failure to fully recognize the Buddhist
truth that all life is suffering (dukkhah). Although sadness among the
Yolmos and other Tibetan Buddhists includes the experience of the physical
separation from death, it recognizes the impermanence of life. The
difference is portrayed in the story of Kisa Gotami. When she realized that
finding a mustard seed from a household untouched by death was impossible,
she felt her sadness and let go of her son.

The Bardo thodol becomes a text of reassurance. The deceased loved one is
proclaimed to be living and on the way to liberation or rebirth through the
help of texts, lama, and family. These bardo instructions for the reader
are filled with reassurances that the dead will obtain liberation or a
favorable rebirth. The presence of reincarnated lamas within the Tibetan
Buddhist community increases the faith of the lay practitioners and
provides assurance that the bardo teachings are efficacious.

As the teachers read the Bardo thodol for the dead and for the living, the
mourners learn the art of dying by listening and practicing the death
process itself. Through meditative visualization and various spiritual
practices, they are able to imagine and experience death in the bardo. They
train their mind to know death in order to attain liberation, and this
training begins with compassionate practices for the dead that deconstruct
egocentric grasping. The mourners participate in the liminal world of the
bardo voyager. They discover a new way of interacting with the deceased and
practices for dealing with their own deaths.

Tibetans never forget the dead. They customarily celebrate the death
anniversaries of relatives. They realize the final goal of both the living
and the bardo voyagers is liberated existence. Prayers are offered for the
dead and for their rebirth. Taking refuge in the Three Jewels or in
awakened spiritual beings generates an imaginative realm of compassion and
wisdom. Tibetan Buddhists believe that if one does not have compassion for
others, including the dead, one will never know the luminous nature of
one’s own mind.

Years after a loved one’s death, relatives festively remember the
anniversary of the death with food offerings and rituals. Monks or lamas
are hired to chant rituals. The families believe that their own efforts and
the efficacious performance of the Bardo thodol by the lama have resulted
in the favorable rebirth of the deceased.
Anniversary rituals become an
occasion to celebrate the rebirth of the deceased, and the surviving family
continues a relationship with the deceased, now either reborn or an
awakened being, by generating merit. It is merit shared with the deceased,
who may or may not have need of such merit. Such spiritual practices become
meritorious for oneself as well. Thus, the transmutation of problematic
feelings into compassionate assistance of the deceased continues the path
of self-discovery of the luminous mind. While continued sadness is
transferred into continual recognition of the importance of life,
self-actualization and discovery happen through assisting the dead.


The Bardo thodol affirms spiritual direction for the dead and for the
living. The bardo practice for the Tibetans is a method for transcending
both death and grief. At death, the deceased loses everything that was once
real. The fear and yearning associated with grief bring the deceased into
the negative karmic continuum that will lead to a less than favorable
rebirth. The spiritual director attempts to guide the deceased into cutting
attachment to the physical world and embracing the expansiveness of
devotion and compassion.
The Bardo thodol helps the living to resolve their
grief by focusing on their providing spiritual assistance to the deceased.
Grief becomes reinvested in compassionate acts for the benefit of the
deceased. In the process of compassionate outreach for the deceased loved
one, survivors discover the meaning of the impossible conditions of
self-permanence. They learn what Kisa Gotami did, that there is no mustard
seed to be gathered, that every household is touched by death, and that all
existence is impermanent.

Address correspondence to Robert E. Goss, Webster University, 470 East
Lockwood, St. Louis, MO, 63119, USA. E-mail:


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