Noble Living, Noble Caring, Noble Dying · Study and Reflections

The Six Bardos: Powerful Opportunities for Liberation

We can use the term bardo also 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.

In a previous Guru Rinpoche Day Teaching, Phakchok Rinpoche sent students a reminder to regularly bring to mind teachings on the six bardos. We present here an excerpt from this message in which Rinpoche quotes Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche:

“When keeping up with your practice, constantly think of the six Bardos:

  1. Bardo of This Life
    The key here is to remember that the only thing that you can take forward is your practice—meaning the good deeds and the bad deeds you have accumulated in this lifetime. Practice bodhicitta, maintain your faith and devotion, accumulate merit, practice purification, and maintain the nature of mind.
  2. Bardo of Dreaming
    The key practice here is not to be attached to seeing everything as a dream and non-existing.
  3. Bardo of Meditation
    The key practice here is to meditate with clarity and an unwavering mind.
  4. Bardo of Dying
    Knowing that you are dying—the key here is to reduce your attachment, to do confession, and to maintain your practice.
  5. Bardo of Dharmata
    Seeing the shitro deities—the key here is to see all appearances inseparable from your guru’s, Buddha’s, and your own nature.
  6. Bardo of Rebirth
    The key here is to remember your practice, seeing all appearance as the appearance of Buddha fields.

These are the six bardos.

Make sure when the time comes, you have no regret, no fear, and no attachment. Now is the time to practice, and the most important of the six bardos is the first one. Make sure to take this to heart. I am sending this reminder from my heart.”

Bardo Defined

Originally, bardo referred only to the period between one life and the next. Later Buddhism expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states, covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, serves as the prototype of the bardo experience. However the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods.

We can use the term bardo also 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. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that occurs between two other states.

As we refine even further the understanding of the essence of bardo, we understand how we can apply the term to every precious moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a continual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future.

The Six Bardos According to the Tibetan Tradition

  1. Kyenay bardo (skye gnas bar do) is the Bardo of This Life. This bardo begins at conception and lasts until the final breath, when the mindstream withdraws from the body.
  2. Milam bardo (rmi lam bar do) is the Bardo of the Dream State. The milam bardo is a subset of the first bardo, the bardo of this life. Dream Yoga develops practices to integrate the dream state into Buddhist meditative practices.
  3. Samten bardo (bsam gtan bar do) is the Bardo of Meditation. This bardo is generally only experienced by meditators, though individuals may have spontaneous experience of it.
  4. Chikhai bardo (chi kha’i bar do) is the Bardo of the Moment of Death. According to tradition, this bardo begins when the outer and inner signs of the onset of death appear and continues through the dissolution or transmutation  until the external and internal breath ends.
  5. Chönyi bardo (chos nyid bar do) is the Bardo of Dharmata or the luminosity of the true nature. This commences after the final inner breath (Sanskrit: prana, vayu; Tibetan: rlung). Within this bardo visions and auditory phenomena occur. In the Dzogchen teachings, these are known as the spontaneously manifesting  Thödgal (Tibetan: thod-rgyal) visions. A sense of profound peace and pristine awareness may accompany these visions. However, sentient beings who have not practiced during their lived experience and/or who do not recognize the clear light (Tibetan: od gsal ) at the moment of death are usually deluded throughout the fifth bardo of luminosity.
  6. Sidpa bardo (srid pa bar do) is the 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.

Additional Reading

  • PadmasambhavaNatural Liberation: Padmasambhava’s Teachings on the Six Bardos, commentary by Gyatrul Rinpoche, translated by Allan Wallace (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1998, 2008)
  • Chögyam TrungpaTranscending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos, The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, Volume Six.
  • Chökyi Nyima RinpocheThe Bardo Guidebook, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1991