THE BARDO THODROL EXPLAINED IN A MURAL
photo giancarlo radice the retreat center-photo elisa meriggiani below the kora-photo franco pizzi
Lamayuru doesn't really need a lot of explanations. The geo-physical environment is so special that whoever arrives here cannot but feel ecstatic about the place. The monastery perched on top of a rock surmounted by the retreat center, below the valley with its fields in the form of a 'swastika' -as told in an ancient legend about the place-, all this merged in between arid and impressive rocks, offers one of the most imposing sceneries in Ladakh.
The monastery in its present form is not very old: from the local history we learn that the original buildings were all but destroyed during the invasion of the Dogras from Punjab in the second half of the nineteenth century, out of spite against the destruction by the Ladakhis of a Hindu temple in Leh . It was the Kushog Bakula of those times who offered money for the reconstruction and the decoration of the halls.
Here I would like to draw the attention to one of the rarely visited temples, which is however a " pearl" of Ladakh: the Chenrezig Lhakhang, located below the monastery kitchen, by the side of a thicket of willows and above the small monks' school . This hall, dedicated to Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion), is used by the devotees during the days in which the Nyung-ne ritual is performed (a fasting ritual combined with visualizations , prayers, prostrations and recitations of the Chenrezig mantra ). In fact the main feature in the hall is a big 11 headed and 1000 armed Chenrezig. But my attention has been attracted mainly to the mural paintings on the right hand side when entering the prayer hall, which I believe to be unique in the whole Tibetan world. I nowhere saw so complete a representation of the Bardo Thodrol, inclusive of all the details of the visions experienced by the deceased before he arrives at the point of choosing his next incarnation.
According to the "Bardo Thödrol", known in the west as "The Tibetan Book of Death", one learns that at the moment of death the deceased will have to pass through an intermediate state - bar-do in Tibetan- during which he will have a series of experiences that will bring him, after 49 days, to a new incarnation in one of six possible existences: as a god, a demi-god, a human being, an animal, a hungry ghost, or as a hell-being. If the deceased receives help from somebody near to him, if a person reads this book to him day after day and the deceased follows the indications give en to him, there is a possibility that during this intermediate period he might be liberated from the cycle of conditioned existence (thus the second part of the title: thos-grol: liberation through listening) or at least that he might choose a place where to reincarnate that is auspicious for his further progress on the path towards liberation.
The book describes three phases, three 'bar-dos’ experienced after death : the bardo of the moment of death,('chi kha'i bar do) ending with the manifestation of the ultimate nature of the mind; the bardo of ultimate reality (chos nyid bar do), in which the deceased experiences visions of deities, at first peaceful, and as time goes by more and more wrathful and terrifying; and the bardo of becoming (srid pa bar do), which corresponds to the visions that will bring him to choose a new incarnation.
On our wall in Lamayuru all these phases are painted in details, and every detail is explained with the appropriate inscription in Tibetan.
Kuntuzangpo with his consort
The first image on the upper left side of the wall shows Kuntuzangpo/Samantabhadra in union with his consort, Kuntuzangmo/Samantabhadri. They symbolize the union of emptiness and luminosity, the characteristics of the nature of mind. According to the Bardo Thödrol theory at the moment of death each of the physical elements of the body dissolves into the other (earth in water, water in fire, fire in air, air in consciousness) and once this process has been completed for a very short moment a state of pure light manifests, the real nature of mind, which if recognized brings one to liberation. This recognition might be possible for those who have trained the mind to recognize this state through meditation during their lifetime.
Nampar Nangdze, Vairocana Buddha, the first peaceful deity
But as this is quite difficult, it is more likely that at this point the deceased will have to 'roam in the bardo of ultimate reality' passing through a series of visual and auditive experiences. In a first phase he will be confronted with the series of peaceful deities: day after day he will meet one of the five "Dhyani-Buddhas", each in sexual union with his own consort, an experience that is so strong and blinding to induce fear and an impulse to flee. It will therefore be useful if the person near to him will read the characteristics of each deity and encourage the deceased to recognize the vision as an aspect of his own nature; instead of fleeing from it, he should unite with the light, in this way obtaining liberation. If instead of this strong and fearful light he will follow the softer and less fearful light of one of the six existences simultaneously manifesting with each of the Dhyani Buddhas, he will end up reincarnating in one of the six conditioned worlds of existence. In fact underneath each of the peaceful deities one can see that the deceased is confronted with two rays of light, one emanating from the heart of the deity, and one from one of the six realms.
One of the 4 " spiritual heroes " (dpa'- bo, vira) surrounding the 5 Vidhyadharas
as becoming liberated at this point is not easy, it is more
likely the deceased will let the moment pass without doing anything, thus arriving at the sixth day of the
bardo, in which the five peaceful deities manifest all together surrounded by
male and female guardians, simultaneously with the lights of the 6 conditioned
worlds. If the deceased recognizes these visions as aspects of his own mind and unites
with them he will be liberated. Otherwise, on the seventh day the
will manifest, highly realized beings surrounded by female yoginis, dakinis
and spirtual heroes; if recognized the deceased will be liberated.
Wrathful deities with consort; photo G.O Dyhrenfurth, 1930;
After the visions of these peaceful deities there follow a series of more terrifying experiences of wrathful deities. On the wall we have to go back, on the second line of paintings starting from the left: one ofter the other one can see the five wrathful deities, each with his mystical consort. The visions experienced by the deceased are dreadful: very bright lights, very intense lightrays, and violent sounds. But the person guiding him will explain all details of these visions and will encourage the deceased not to be afraid and to become one with the deities. Recognizing all these appearances as a manifestation of his own mind he will be liberated.
guardian deities with animal heads surrounding the wrathful deities
DAfter five more days all the 58 wrathful deities will manifest at once: besides the Herukas first manifested one by one, now also the female Gauri/Keurima and Pisaci/Phramenma manifest, then the yoginis of the different directions and the ishvari goddesses with animal heads, female and male guardians of the directions. All these appearances are fearful, but if recognized as an aspect of on's own mind one will be liberated.
But if one is swept away by his own hallucinations, one will have to proceed in the third phase, the bardo of becoming. One's own visions will now take theappearance of the Dharmaraja, the Lord of Death, surrounded by a white god and a black demon, each of them exposing a heap of small pebbles, white or black according to the good or bad deeds of the deceased. Looking in his mirror of karma, the Lord of Death will decide where the deceased will have to be reborn, and he will be dragged there without being able to resist. At this point, if the deceased will not manage to follow the instruction read to him by his helper and if he will not recognize all these images as features of his own mind, his situation will become unbearable and he will have to find a solution. Being pursued by the demons of his own karma, and being pushed in the middle of a snowstorm, in the pitch-dark, a situation from which all he wants is to flee.
visions urging to enter in a womb
So he will see a couple making love and will be tempted to enter in the uterus of the lady, thus taking a new rebirth. At this point many instructions can be read to him to avoid the deceased from entering in a womb, and to enable him either to be liberated or, if this is not possible, to be able to choose a life-situation that will enable him to progress on the path towards liberation. So there are descriptions of the 4 continents where one can possibly take rebirth according to the tibetan cosmology, and one will be advised to choose the southern continent, Jambudvipa, our universe. Then there are descriptions of visions of possible unfavorable places to take rebirth: the deceased will see nice houses and temples in the godrealm, a thick forest with circles of light in the demi-god realm, caves, crevices and huts wrapped in dense fog in the animal realm,
a desert, a ravine, a dark and impenetrable forest with black holes in a rock in which to take refuge thus being born as a hungry ghost, or a world wrapped in darkness with black and red cubes and chasms in the earth to take rebirth in one of the hellrealms . Each of these destinations is unfavorable, and so after describing it to the deceased he will be advised not to enter there. After thus having avoided an unfavorable rebirth, at the end the moment will come in which he can no longer delay. He will receive further instructions to go to one of the pure lands, or if he really has to enter a womb, at this point he will be directed to choose an appropriate family, where he will have the opportunity to to pursue his spiritual search in the next life.
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So far I managed to collect only 5 images of this fantastic wall. In the coming years, with the help of future visitors of Lamayuru, I would like to be able to document this wall in a more complete way. Will you help me collect other images?
Kristin Blancke, marzo 2009