Saddhaloka’s reflections on the Tibetan Book of the Dead Retreat

The Tibetan Book of the Dead appeared in an English translation by W Y Evans-Wentz nearly 100 years ago, a time when few Buddhist scriptures and books about Buddhism were available, and since then it has played a significant part in introducing many Westerners to Buddhism.

In September 1979, at Padmaloka Retreat Centre, Urgyen Sangharakshita led a seminar on Trungpa Rimpoche’s introduction to a new translation of the text by Francesca Fremantle. The Bardo Thodol, or Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State, to give its Tibetan title, has since then been explored on many retreats in Triratna, and this March we returned to it again at Adhisthana. It is traditionally presented as a guide through the bardos, or intermediate states, between life and death and rebirth, to be read to the dying and dead. It can also be seen as a training manual for Awakening in this life.

On the first morning, Prakasha led us through a portal into a darkened shrine room. We entered a bardo where the whole text was read aloud over several days. The elements were dissolved and we met the Five Jinas and all the strange and wonderful beings who appear in the bardo of Reality. Eventually, we approached the bardo of the Rebirth and the Six Realms. The whole passage was ritually marked on a central mandala shrine created and ceremonially tended by Sthanashraddha.

Subhuti offered a series of talks illuminating the journey we were all on, drawing out the spiritual principles underlying this specifically Indo-Tibetan presentation of the Dharma, and helping make it very immediate and accessible.

In discussion groups we looked at our personal experiences of death and loss and letting go, and how the text spoke to each of us.

All this in a context of regular meditation and puja, making for an inspiring, deeply stirring, and insightful retreat. The response of those attending has encouraged members of the Adhisthana Teaching Community to already start looking at how we might take the exploration of this text further on another retreat next year.

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