The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Contemporary Perspectives on Death, Dying, and the Bardo
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche received the teachings of Bardo Thödröl (known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead) when he was eight years old. At the same age, he was required as a tulku to visit dead and dying people about five times a week as part of his rigorous training. But one could say Trungpa Rinpoche’s study of the teachings began even before he was a child. Three lifetimes before, one of his previous incarnations had received this text directly from the 13th Karmapa, and then kept them safe for future incarnations in the Trungpa lineage’s Surmang monasteries.
Flash forward to 1971. Recently arrived in North America, Trungpa Rinpoche chose death and dying as one of his first subjects to give extended teachings on in three seminars, including one exclusively devoted to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. These seminars triggered a cascade of dharmic activity, including a new translation of the book, all kinds of death-related teachings, and a growing number of students actively putting these teachings into practice.
Bardo Thödröl in the West
When Chögyam Trungpa landed in North America in 1970, The Tibetan Book of the Dead was still the most popular Buddhist book in the West, and had been since its first translation into English in 1927. These eighth century teachings from Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal, via Karma Lingpa, were also one of the only Tibetan Buddhist texts widely available in English. Most people curious about Buddhism were at least familiar with the book, which describes the seemingly precarious journey between death and either liberation or rebirth. So in the early 1970s, the Bardo Thödröl (lit. Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Intermediary State), an esoteric text on the nature of mind and its projections, was strangely enough a common entry point into Buddhism. This contrasts somewhat starkly with the present, where the most common introduction to Buddhism is through the secular mindfulness movement — far removed from the tantric symbolism of both beautiful and terrifying deities parading in the luminous no man’s land between dying and living.
The 1971 Seminar: Inspiration for a New Translation
Chögyam Trungpa’s first seminar on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, given in 1971 in Vermont, was more than just meeting a cultural moment: for Trungpa Rinpoche, transmitting the teachings on death and dying to American students was a clear priority. His intention was also to dispel the many wild notions of the book since the late 1920’s (the first by Theosophical and spiritualist groups, later the psychedelic subcultures, and then leaping into the pop culture consciousness). There were plenty of reasons to clarify what the text was actually about, but Trungpa Rinpoche also, throughout these teachings, brought into focus the importance of understanding death in the context of Buddhist practice, which contrasted markedly with the West’s tendency to avoid the subject of death altogether.
Under a large tent in Vermont, he taught from a Tibetan blockprint text while the audience tried to follow with their copies of the 1927 translation by Kazi Dawa-Samdup. Questions soon bubbled up from the crowd, such as why the appearance of certain colors or timelines of the bardo experience didn’t match up. The archaic and even misleading translation of terms didn’t help with clarity either: for example, “dakini” was translated as “holy mother.” This confusion was in part what inspired Chögyam Trungpa to undertake a new translation with his student, the scholar and translator Francesca Fremantle.
Current Wisdom from Chögyam Trungpa Students
Not surprisingly, many of his Western students were inspired to bring these teachings on death into their work — some as hospice workers, chaplains, healthcare professionals, and Buddhist teachers. What impact did these teachings have on his American students in the field? How did they bring Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on The Tibetan Book of the Dead to dying people, those around them, and those confronting their own mortality? Now, more than five decades after that first seminar, three of his surviving students who have specialized in the subject matter share their perspectives and wisdom:
Judy Lief: The Tibetan Book of the Living
The first and most obvious interpretation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead is as a helpful script for guiding the recently deceased through their bardo journey, encouraging them not to be misled by their own projections. However, according to Chögyam Trungpa, the most relevant layer of meaning — especially for people who haven’t studied the text thoroughly — are how the symbolic teachings can be applied to life. He suggests throughout the seminar that a more fitting title would be “Tibetan Book of the Living”, or, alternatively, “Book of Space.”
Judy Lief, senior teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche’s trusted editor, and author of Making Friends with Death, has taught extensively on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In a recent interview, she shared part of why she felt he taught from this perspective: “Rinpoche impressed upon me that the teachings on The Tibetan Book of the Dead were much broader than just dealing with death. He talked about it as a vajrayana map of the mind, a description of psychology from the vajrayana perspective. … He thought Westerners had focused too much on just speculating on what happens after death, and didn’t focus enough on the teaching and how you could apply it right now.”
Lief never intended to dedicate so much of her life teaching about death. While a young professor at Naropa University (then Institute), Chögyam Trungpa asked her to fill in at the last minute to teach a course on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Never having read the book, she furiously studied between classes. More than pulling it off, she was subsequently asked to teach the course over and over again. Teaching in a variety of settings, she found a way to make this esoteric text accessible so that it was practical and applicable for people, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. On the most fundamental level, Lief characterizes The Tibetan Book of the Dead as “touching basic human issues of loss — dealing with loss, dealing with change, dealing with emotions, and dealing with extremes.”
Throughout the 1971 seminar, Chögyam Trungpa comes back to the idea of symbolic death and rebirth in our everyday lives. He teaches the whole seminar in this parallel fashion, making the case for the bardo experience in daily life. Lief sheds light on this: “There’s so much teaching in The Tibetan Book of the Dead about how we deal with emotions and how we avoid the intensity of life, particularly of our own wisdom and how it scares us. That’s why it says the wrathful deities and peaceful deities are both unsettling when you actually relate to them. … And there’s the whole theme of choosing — when the option comes to us, we generally choose the dimmer option, rather than the brilliant one. You can see that in how it comes up so easily for us, that kind of ignoring, not willing to lean into the rawness of experience.”
Lief points out that another purpose of applying these teachings in our life is to train for our physical death: “As Trungpa Rinpoche said all along, if you’re going to prepare for death, you have to do it now. And you can’t think, ‘Well, I’m fine. And when I’m on death’s door, then I’ll relate to it.’ It doesn’t work like that. It’s also such a key teaching of nowness.”
Ginger Brooks: Facing the Fear of Bardos
The setting of The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the bardo: the colorful lands between death and — if we remain caught in samsara — our next birth. But Trungpa Rinpoche stresses throughout the seminar that in fact our whole life is full of little bardos — moments between the death of experiences and the birth of the next ones. Chögyam Trungpa’s teaching is to meet these ordinary groundless moments and use them as opportunities to let go of ego.
Ginger Brooks is a student of Trungpa Rinpoche and an experienced Buddhist chaplain, who has worked with close to a thousand dying people. She says the bardo teachings directly inform how she relates with someone at the end of their life. “Through my Buddhist practice, I know that everybody has bardos. Everybody experiences periods of transition and groundlessness. So when I’m with people who are dying, they’re afraid — because we’re all afraid of transition, groundlessness, and this gap. So one of my main instructions to people who are dying — if I think they’re open to hearing it from me — is not to be afraid. I say, ‘You’re going to see a lot of things. It’s just your mind. Like when you’re dreaming or when you’re lost in thought, it’s the same kind of thing. You might have a really vivid experience. Everybody has a little bit of fear at this point, but try not to be so afraid.'” Beyond communicating helpful aspects of the bardo teachings, Brooks’s message achieves a familiar tone. She may not be using The Tibetan Book of the Dead language, but she captures part of its essence in her own words — of friendly encouragement and guidance on the journey.
“Listening is so important,” she says. “Communication or communion is kind of number one. We’re not really that unique or separate. It’s important to have a connection with others and be able to communicate. And good communication leads to something mystical called communion. That’s a Christian term, but it just occurred to me that that’s what it’s all about, is becoming one with others. And really listening helps people connect and feel less separate, and feel that the truth is not separate.”
On a personal level, Brooks values her work as a powerful and essential bardo teaching. “Working with dying people has shown me the truth of impermanence,” she says. “It has become less and less theoretical and more and more real. It’s also taught me that when you’re working with people in so-called denial about their death, there’s no reason to try and fix that. The truth of their dying will come to them. It’s a natural process of knowing impermanence — probably on a cellular level.”
Deborah Luscomb: Showing up and Being Present
In the tenth and final talk of the 1971 seminar “Relating with Death and the Dying Person,” Chögyam Trungpa gives simple, touching instructions on how to be with a dying person, regardless of their spirituality. He describes how to show up for them — to be brave and honest about communicating the fact that they are dying, and to bring an uplifted and loving presence.
Intentionally confronting human death on a routine basis is an experience that not many people have, outside of the healthcare system. Among those few also is Deborah Luscomb, who guides dying people and their families through the dying process, including getting their affairs in order. She jokingly refers to herself as a “death concierge.” Luscomb shares that Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to death was the greatest influence on her work. “He encouraged us to experience death completely viscerally, openly, and to learn how to take care of our dying and dead. … And he insisted on not avoiding experience, real experience at all, ever. That’s been the main influence for how I do it.” She also attests to this specific kind of “showing up” that Trungpa Rinpoche emphasizes. She says, “Being present with them — that’s the most important thing. And it’s true of being with grief-stricken people, too. It’s presence that’s genuine and open. And there doesn’t have to be a word.”
As a former midwife, Luscomb has the even rarer experience of having witnessed many people come into this world as well leave it. She describes the similarities between the two: “Death is very much like birth. There’s labor involved, especially before the death,” she says. “You can see that there’s internal stuff going on, as the move toward actually exiting or letting go occurs. … At the time of birth, there’s this huge release and then overwhelming joy. At the time of death, there’s a huge release for everyone, but it’s not overwhelming joy; it’s overwhelming grief and loss. But the process is really similar.”
Chögyam Trungpa’s teachings on The Tibetan Book of the Dead weren’t just a philosophical or theoretical view of the afterlife, but practical instructions on how to live, teachings that have stood the test of time. Beyond the text itself, Trungpa Rinpoche transmitted how to be compassionate with someone who is dying, and how to truly be there for them in a culture where death is so often a taboo subject. Receiving these precious teachings, a number of his students including Judy Lief, Ginger Brooks, and Deborah Luscomb, continue to radiate this wisdom through their work. In the intervening half century since that first historic seminar, the ripples of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on death continue to be felt.
Tibetan Book of the Dead Playlist
Tibetan Book of the Dead I (Vermont, 1971)
- Talk 1: Introduction
- Talk 2: The Bardo of the Moment Before Death
- Talk 3: The Six Realms
- Talk 4: The Bardo of Dharmata
- Talk 5: The Nature of the Visions
- Talk 6: First Day (Buddha) and Second Day (Vajra)
- Talk 7: Third Day (Ratna), Fourth Day (Padma), and Fifth Day (Karma)
- Talk 8: The Peaceful Deities (Sixth and Seventh Day)
- Talk 9: The Wrathful Deities (Eighth to Fourteenth Day)
- Talk 10: Relating with Death and the Dying Person
- Full seminar playlist
- Video bonus track: Open Secret: The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Trungpa Rinpoche and Franscesca Freemantle are interviewed by David Rome on their newly-released translation)
Tibetan Book of the Dead II (Colorado, 1973)
- Talk 1: Discontinuity
- Talk 2: Egolessness
- Talk 3: Shunyata and Buddha Nature
- Talk 4: The Paramitas
- Talk 5: Intuition and Intellect
- Talk 6: Frivolousness and Rigidity
- Talk 7: Maha Ati
- Talk 8: Ground, Path, and Fruition Tantra
- Talk 9: The Primordial Fortress
- Full seminar playlist
Deborah Luscomb, interview with author, May 9th, 2023, Halifax.
Ginger Brooks, phone interview with author, May 27th, 2023.
Judy Lief, interview with author, June 27th, 2023, Boulder.
Fremantle, Francesca. 2001. Luminous Emptiness: Understanding The Tibetan Book of the Dead Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Fremantle and Trungpa. “Open Secret: The Tibetan Book of the Dead” Video recording of interview. 18 August 1975. Item 19750818VCTR2, Chogyam Trungpa Digital Library, Boulder, Colorado.
Fremantle and Trungpa. 1975. The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo Berkeley and London: Shambhala Publications.
Luminous Emptiness: Understanding The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Francesca Fremantle
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, Chögyam Trungpa and Francesca Fremantle, translators