Beezone note: The following book was used by many thousands (millions?) of people during the early (1965) widespread use of LSD in America. There were no ‘maps’ in western culture that described the experience many were having. Therefore, the focus was turned towards the East, which was well aware of these ‘realms.’ As noted in 2022, it should be understood that this book was a beginning, a primer, to a much more expansive potential not fully understood at the time this it was penned.
A side note: When Timothy Leary separated from Richard Alpert while traveling together in India (1967), Leary when on to meet Lama Govinda. It was at that time Govinda introduced Leary to advanced Lama’s, who told him: “We knew you’d (meaning westerners) be back for more (wisdom) after we gave the book to Evans-Wentz” (1927), as we only gave you (Westerners) a part of it then.” – Beezone
Timothy Leary recast the verses of the Tao Te Ching in a book called Psychedelic Provers, and in 1962
Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert adapted the Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead retranslated from Evans-Wentz’s Anglo-Buddhist to American Psychedelic” in The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because the book was apparently meant to acquaint a dying person with the liberation of the Clear Light of Reality and then guide him or her through the peaceful and wrathful deities of the bardo it was fairly easy to recast it as a guide in which physical death was reconfigured as the death of the ego during a psychedelic trip. The Psychedelic Experience went through sixteen editions and was translated into seven languages – A High History of Buddhism by Rick Fields
The Psychedelic Experience
A manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead
“Liberation by Hearing on the
After-Death Plane.” (Tib)
By Timothy Leary, Ph.D., Ralph Metzner, Ph.D., & Richard Alpert, Ph.D.
The authors were engaged in a program of experiments with LSD and other psychedelic drugs at Harvard University, until sensational national publicity, unfairly concentrating on student interest in the drugs, led to the suspension of the experiments. Since then, the authors have continued their work without academic auspices.
This version of THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD is dedicated, to ALDOUS HUXLEY July 26, 1894 – November 22, 1963 with profound admiration and gratitude.
“If you started in the wrong way,” (egoically -Beezone note) I said in answer to the investigator’s questions, “everything that happened would be a proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.”
“So you think you know where madness lies?” My answer was a convinced and heartfelt, “Yes.” “And you couldn’t control it?”
“No I couldn’t control it. If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on the conclusion.”
“Would you be able,” my wife asked, “ to fix your attention on what The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Clear Light?”
I was doubtful. “Would it keep the evil away, if you could hold it? Or would you not be able to hold it?”
I considered the question for some time. “Perhaps,” I answered at last, “perhaps I could – but only if there were somebody there to tell me about the Clear Light. One couldn’t do it by oneself. That’s the point, I suppose, of the Tibetan ritual – somebody (Guru – Beezone note) sitting there all the time and telling you what’s what.”
(DOORS OF PERCEPTION, 57-58)
A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space- time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. [This is the statement of an ideal, not an actual situation, in 1964. The psychedelic drugs are in the United States classified as “experimental” drugs. That is, they are not available on a prescription basis, but only to “qualified investigators.” The Federal Food and Drug Administration has defined “qualified investigators” to mean psychiatrists working in a mental hospital setting, whose research is sponsored by either state or federal agencies. ]
Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key – it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.
The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical – the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social – feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural – prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide-books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories which modern science has made accessible.
Different explorers draw different maps. Other manuals are to be written based on different models – scientific, aesthetic, therapeutic. The Tibetan model, on which this manual is based, is designed to teach the person to direct and control awareness in such a way as to reach that level of understanding variously called liberation, illumination, or enlightenment. If the manual is read several times before a session is attempted, and if a trusted person is there to remind and refresh the memory of the voyager during the experience, the consciousness will be freed from the games which comprise “personality” and from positive-negative hallucinations which often accompany states of expanded awareness. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was called in its own language the Bardo Thodol, which means “Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane.” The book stresses over and over that the free consciousness has only to hear and remember the teachings in order to be liberated.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is ostensibly a book describing the experiences to be expected at the moment of death, during an intermediate phase lasting forty-nine (seven times seven) days, and during rebirth into another bodily frame. This however is merely the exoteric framework which the Tibetan Buddhists used to cloak their mystical teachings. The language and symbolism of death rituals of Bonism, the traditional pre- Buddhist Tibetan religion, were skillfully blended with Buddhist conceptions. The esoteric meaning, as it has been interpreted in this manual, is that it is death and rebirth that is described, not of the body. Lama Govinda indicates this clearly in his introduction when he writes: “It is a book for the living as well as the dying.” The book’s esoteric meaning is often concealed beneath many layers of symbolism. It was not intended for general reading. It was designed to be understood only by one who was to be initiated personally by a guru into the Buddhist mystical doctrines, into the pre-mortem-death-rebirth experience. These doctrines have been kept a closely guarded secret for many centuries, for fear that naive or careless application would do harm. In translating such an esoteric text, therefore, there are two steps: one, the rendering of the original text into English; and two, the practical interpretation of the text for its uses. In publishing this practical interpretation for use in the psychedelic drug session, we are in a sense breaking with the tradition of secrecy and thus contravening the teachings of the lama-gurus.
However, this step is justified on the grounds that the manual will not be understood by anyone who has not had a consciousness-expanding experience and that there are signs that the lamas themselves, after their recent diaspora, wish to make their teachings available to a wider public.
Following the Tibetan model then, we distinguish three phases of the psychedelic experience. The first period (Chikhai Bardo) is that of complete transcendence – beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self. There are no visions, no sense of self, no thoughts. There are only pure awareness and ecstatic freedom from all game (and biological) involvements. [”Games” are behavioral sequences defined by roles, rules, rituals, goals, strategies, values, language, characteristic space-time locations and characteristic patterns of movement. Any behavior not having these nine features is non-game: this includes physiological reflexes, spontaneous play, and transcendent awareness.] The second lengthy period involves self, or external game reality (Chonyid Bardo) – in sharp exquisite clarity or in the form of hallucinations (karmic apparitions). The final period (Sidpa Bardo) involves the return to routine game reality and the self. For most persons the second (aesthetic or hallucinatory) stage is the longest. For the initiated the first stage of illumination lasts longer. For the unprepared, the heavy game players, those who anxiously cling to their egos, and for those who take the drug in a non-supportive setting, the struggle to regain reality begins early and usually lasts to the end of their session.
Words like these are static, whereas the psychedelic experience is fluid and ever-changing. Typically the subject’s consciousness flicks in and out of these three levels with rapid oscillations. One purpose of this manual is to enable the person to regain the transcendence of the First Bardo and to avoid prolonged entrapments in hallucinatory or ego-dominated game patterns.
The Basic Trusts and Beliefs. You must be ready to accept the possibility that there is a limitless range of awareness for which we now have no words; that awareness can expand beyond range of your ego, your self, your familiar identity, beyond everything you have learned, beyond your notions of space and time, beyond the differences which usually separate people from each other and from the world around them.
You must remember that throughout human history, millions have made this voyage. A few (whom we call mystics, saints or buddhas) have made this experience endure and have communicated it to their fellow men. You must remember, too, that the experience is safe (at the very worst, you will end up the same person who entered the experience), and that all of the dangers which you have feared are unnecessary productions of your mind. Whether you experience heaven or hell, remember that it is your mind which creates them. Avoid grasping the one or fleeing the other. Avoid imposing the ego game on the experience.
You must try to maintain faith and trust in the potentiality of your own brain and the billion-year-old life process. With you ego left behind you, the brain can’t go wrong.
Try to keep the memory of a trusted friend or a respected person whose name can serve as a guide and protection.
Trust your divinity, trust your brain, trust your companions. Whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream.
After reading this guide, the prepared person should be able, at the very beginning of his experience, to move directly to a state of non-game ecstasy and deep revelation. But if you are not well prepared, or if there is game distraction around you, you will find yourself dropping back. If this happens, then the instructions in Part IV should help you regain and maintain liberation.
“Liberation in this context does not necessarily imply (especially in the case of the average person) the Liberation of Nirvana, but chiefly a liberation of the ‘life-flux’ from the ego, in such a manner as will afford the greatest possible consciousness and consequent happy rebirth. Yet for the very experienced and very highly efficient person, the [same] esoteric process of Transference [Readers interested in a more detailed discussion of the process of “Transference” are referred to Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Oxford University Press, 1958.] can be, according to the lama-gurus, so employed as to prevent any break in the flow of the stream of consciousness, from the moment of the ego-loss to the moment of a conscious rebirth (eight hours later). Judging from the translation made by the late Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, of an old Tibetan manuscript containing practical directions for ego-loss states, the ability to maintain a non-game ecstasy throughout the entire experience is possessed only by persons trained in mental concentration, or one-pointedness of mind, to such a high degree of proficiency as to be able to control all the mental functions and to shut out the distractions of the outside world.” (Evans-Wentz, p. 86, note 2)
This manual is divided into four parts. The first part is introductory. The second is a step-by-step description of a psychedelic experience based directly on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The third part contains practical suggestions on how to prepare for and conduct a psychedelic session. The fourth part contains instructive passages adapted from the Bardo Thodol, which may be read to the voyager during this session, to facilitate the movement of consciousness.
In the remainder of this introductory section, we review three commentaries on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, published with the Evans-Wentz edition. These are the introduction by Evans-Wentz himself, the
distinguished translator-editor of four treatises on Tibetan mysticism; the commentary by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst; and by Lama Govinda, and initiate of one of the principle Buddhist orders of Tibet.
A TRIBUTE TO W. Y. EVANS-WENTZ
“Dr. Evans-Wentz, who literally sat at the feet of a Tibetan lama for years, in order to acquire his
wisdom . . . not only displays a deeply sympathetic interest in those esoteric doctrines so characteristic of the genius of the East, but likewise possesses the rare faculty of making them more or less intelligible to the layman.” [Quoted from a book review in Anthropology on the back of the Oxford University Press edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. ]
W. Y. Evans-Wentz is a great scholar who devoted his mature years to the role of bridge and shuttle between Tibet and the west: like an RNA molecule activating the latter with the coded message of the former. No greater tribute could be paid to the work of this academic liberator than to base our psychedelic manual upon his insights and to quote directly his comments on “the message of this book.”
The message is, that the Art of Dying is quite as important as the Art of Living (or of Coming into Birth), of which it is the complement and summation; that the future of being is dependent, perhaps entirely, upon a rightly controlled death, as the second part of this volume, setting forth the Art of Reincarnating, emphasizes.
The Art of Dying, as indicated by the death-rite associated with initiation into the Mysteries of Antiquity, and referred to by Apuleius, the Platonic philosopher, himself an initiate, and by many other illustrious initiates, and as The Egyptian Book of the Dead suggests, appears to have been far better known to the ancient peoples inhabiting the Mediterranean countries than it is now by their descendants in Europe and the Americas.
To those who had passed through the secret experiencing of pre-mortem death, right dying is initiation, conferring, as does the initiatory death-rite, the power to control consciously the process of death and regeneration. (Evans-Wentz, p. xiii-xiv)
The Oxford scholar, like his great predecessor of the eleventh century, Marpa (“The Translator”), who rendered Indian Buddhist texts into Tibetan, thereby preserving them from extinction, saw the vital importance of these doctrines and made them accessible to many. The “secret” is no longer hidden: “the art of dying is quite as important as the art of living.”
A TRIBUTE TO CARL G. JUNG
Psychology is the systematic attempt to describe and explain man’s behavior, both conscious and non- conscious. The scope of study is broad – covering the infinite variety of human activity and experience; and it is long – tracing back through the history of the individual, through the history of his ancestors, back through the evolutionary vicissitudes and triumphs which have determined the current status of the species.
Most difficult of all, the scope of psychology is complex, dealing as it does with processes which are ever- changing.
Little wonder that psychologists, in the face of such complexity, escape into specialization and parochial narrowness.
A psychology is based on the available data and the psychologists’ ability and willingness to utilize them. The behaviorism and experimentalism of twentieth-century western psychology is so narrow as to be mostly trivial. Consciousness is eliminated from the field of inquiry. Social application and social meaning are largely neglected. A curious ritualism is enacted by a priesthood rapidly growing in power and numbers.
Eastern psychology, by contrast, offers us a long history of detailed observation and systematization of the range of human consciousness along with an enormous literature of practical methods for controlling and changing consciousness. Western intellectuals tend to dismiss Oriental psychology. The theories of consciousness are seen as occult and mystical. The methods of investigating consciousness change, such as meditation, yoga, monastic retreat, and sensory deprivation, and are seen as alien to scientific investigation. And most damning of all in the eyes of the European scholar, is the alleged disregard of eastern psychologies for the practical, behavioral and social aspects of life. Such criticism betrays limited concepts and the inability to deal with the available historical data on a meaningful level. The psychologies of the east have always found practical application in the running of the state, in the running of daily life and family. A wealth of guides and handbooks exists: the Book of Tao, the Analects of Confucius, the Gita, the I Ching, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, to mention only the best-known.
Eastern psychology can be judged in terms of the use of available evidence. The scholars and observers of China, Tibet, and India went as far as their data allowed them. They lacked the findings of modern science and so their metaphors seem vague and poetic. Yet this does not negate their value. Indeed, eastern philosophic theories dating back four thousand years adapt readily to the most recent discoveries of nuclear physics, biochemistry, genetics, and astronomy.
A major task of any present day psychology – eastern or western – is to construct a frame of reference large enough to incorporate the recent findings of the energy sciences into a revised picture of man.
Judged against the criterion of the use of available fact, the greatest psychologists of our century are William James and Carl Jung. [To properly compare Jung with Sigmund Freud we must look at the available data which each man appropriated for his explorations. For Freud it was Darwin, classical thermodynamics, the Old Testament, Renaissance cultural history, and most important, the close overheated atmosphere of the Jewish family. The broader scope of Jung’s reference materials assures that his theories will find a greater congeniality with recent developments in the energy sciences and the evolutionary sciences.] Both of these men avoided the narrow paths of behaviorism and experimentalism. Both fought to preserve experience and consciousness as an area of scientific research. Both kept open to the advance of scientific theory and both refused to shut off eastern scholarship from consideration.
Jung used for his source of data that most fertile source – the internal. He recognized the rich meaning of the eastern message; he reacted to that great Rorshach inkblot, the Tao Te Ching. He wrote perceptive brilliant forewords to the I Ching, to the Secret of the Golden Flower, and struggled with the meaning of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. “For years, ever since it was first published, the Bardo Thodol has been my constant companion, and to it I owe not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights. .. Its philosophy contains the quintessence of Buddhist psychological criticism; and, as such, one can truly say that it is of an unexampled superiority.”
The Bardo Thodol is in the highest degree psychological in its outlook; but, with us, philosophy and theology are still in the mediaeval, pre-psychological stage where only the assertions are listened to, explained, defended, criticized and disputed, while the authority that makes them has, by general consent, been deposed as outside the scope of discussion.
Metaphysical assertions, however, are statements of the psyche, and are therefore psychological. To the Western mind, which compensates its well-known feelings of resentment by a slavish regard for “rational” explanations, this obvious truth seems all too obvious, or else it is seen as an inadmissible negation of metaphysical “truth.” Whenever the Westerner hears the word “psychological,” it always sounds to him like “only psychological.”
Jung draws upon Oriental conceptions of consciousness to broaden the concept of “projection”: |”
Not only the “wrathful” but also the “peaceful” deities are conceived as sangsaric projections of the human psyche, an idea that seems all too obvious to the enlightened European, because it reminds him of his own banal simplifications. But though the European can easily explain away these deities as projections, he would be quite incapable of positing them at the same time as real. The Bardo Thodol can do that, because, in certain of its most essential metaphysical premises, it has the enlightened as well as the unenlightened European at a disadvantage. The ever-present, unspoken assumption of the Bardo Thodol is the anti- nominal character of all metaphysical assertions, and also the idea of the qualitative difference of the various levels of consciousness and of the metaphysical realities conditioned by them. The background of this unusual book is not the niggardly European “either-or,” but a magnificently affirmative “both-and.” This statement may appear objectionable to the Western philosopher, for the West loves clarity and unambiguity; consequently, one philosopher clings to the position, “God is,” while another clings equally fervently to the negation, “God is not.”
Jung clearly sees the power and breadth of the Tibetan model but occasionally he fails to grasp its meaning and application. Jung, too, was limited (as we all are) to the social models of his tribe. He was a psychoanalyst, the father of a school. Psychotherapy and psychiatric diagnosis were the two applications which came most naturally to him.
Jung misses the central concept of the Tibetan book. This is not (as Lama Govinda reminds us) a book of the dead. It is a book of the dying; which is to say a book of the living; it is a book of life and how to live. The concept of actual physical death was an exoteric facade adopted to fit the prejudices of the Bonist tradition in Tibet. Far from being an embalmers’ guide, the manual is a detailed account of how to lose the ego; how to break out of personality into new realms of consciousness; and how to avoid the involuntary limiting processes of the ego; how to make the consciousness-expansion experience endure in subsequent daily life.
Jung struggles with this point. He comes close but never quite clinches it. He had nothing in his conceptual framework which could make practical sense out of the ego-loss experience.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thodol, is a book of instructions for the dead and dying. Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence… .
In this quote Jung settles for the exoteric and misses the esoteric. In a later quote he seems to come closer:
. . . the instruction given in the Bardo Thodol serves to recall to the dead man the experience of his initiation and the teachings of his guru, for the instruction is, at bottom, nothing less than an initiation of the dead into the Bardo life, just as the initiation of the living was a preparation for the Beyond. Such was the case, at least, with all the mystery cults in ancient civilizations from the time of the Egyptian and Eleusinian mysteries. In the initiation of the living, however, this “Beyond” is not a world beyond death, but a reversal of the mind’s intentions and outlook, a psychological “Beyond” or, in Christian terms, a “redemption” from the trammels of the world and of sin. Redemption is a separation and deliverance from an earlier condition of darkness and unconsciousness, and leads to a condition of illumination and releasedness, to victory and transcendence over everything “given.”
Thus far the Bardo Thodol is, as Dr. Evans-Wentz also feels, an initiation process whose purpose it is to restore to the soul the divinity it lost at birth.
In still another passage Jung continues the struggle but misses again:
Nor is the psychological use we make of it (the Tibetan Book) anything but a secondary intention, though one that is possibly sanctioned by lamaist custom. The real purpose of this singular book is the attempt, which must seem very strange to the educated European of the twentieth century, to enlighten the dead on their journey through the regions of the Bardo. The Catholic Church is the only place in the world of the white man where any provision is made for the souls of the departed.
In the summary of Lama Govinda’s comments which follow we shall see that the Tibetan commentator, freed from the European concepts of Jung, moves directly to the esoteric and practical meaning of the Tibetan book.
In his autobiography (written in 1960) Jung commits himself wholly to the inner vision and to the wisdom and superior reality of internal perceptions. In 1938 (when his Tibetan commentary was written) he was moving in this direction but cautiously and with the ambivalent reservations of the psychiatrist cum mystic.
The dead man must desperately resist the dictates of reason, as we understand it, and give up the supremacy of egohood, regarded by reason as sacrosanct. What this means in practice is complete capitulation to the objective powers of the psyche, with all that this entails; a kind of symbological death, corresponding to the Judgement of the Dead in the Sidpa Bardo. It means the end of all conscious, rational, morally responsible conduct of life, and a voluntary surrender to what the Bardo Thodol calls “karmic illusion.” Karmic illusion springs from belief in a visionary world of an extremely irrational nature, which neither accords with nor derives from our rational judgments but is the exclusive product of uninhibited imagination. It is sheer dream or “fantasy,” and every well-meaning person will instantly caution us against it; nor indeed can one see at first sight what is the difference between fantasies of this kind and the phantasmagoria of a lunatic. Very often only a slight abaissement du niveau mental is needed to unleash this world of illusion. The terror and darkness of this moment has its equivalent in the experiences described in the opening sections of the Sidpa Bardo. But the contents of this Bardo also reveal the archetypes, the karmic images which appear first in their terrifying form. The Chonyid state is equivalent to a deliberately induced psychosis. .. .
The transition, then, from the Sidpa state to the Chonyid state is a dangerous reversal of the aims and intentions of the conscious mind. It is a sacrifice of the ego’s stability and a surrender to the extreme uncertainty of what must seem like a chaotic riot of phantasmal forms. When Freud coined the phrase that the ego was “the true seat of anxiety,” he was giving voice to a very true and profound intuition. Fear of self-sacrifice lurks deep in every ego, and this fear is often only the precariously controlled demand of the unconscious forces to burst out in full strength. No one who strives for selfhood (individuation) is spared this dangerous passage, for that which is feared also belongs to the wholeness of the self – the sub-human, or supra-human, world of psychic “dominants” from which the ego originally emancipated itself with enormous effort, and then only partially, for the sake of a more or less illusory freedom. This liberation is certainly a very necessary and very heroic undertaking, but it represents nothing final: it is merely the creation of a subject, who, in order to find fulfillment, has still to be confronted by an object. This, at first sight, would appear to be the world, which is swelled out with projections for that very purpose. Here we seek and find our difficulties, here we seek and find our enemy, here we seek and find what is dear and precious to us; and it is comforting to know that all evil and all good is to be found out there, in the visible object, where it can be conquered, punished, destroyed or enjoyed. But nature herself does not allow this paradisal state of innocence to continue for ever. There are, and always have been, those who cannot help but see that the world and its experiences are in the nature of a symbol, and that it really reflects something that lies hidden in the subject himself, in his own transubjective reality. It is from this profound intuition, according to lamaist doctrine, that the Chonyid state derives its true meaning, which is why the Chonyid Bardo is entitled “The Bardo of the Experiencing of Reality.”
The reality experienced in the Chonyid state is, as the last section of the corresponding Bardo teaches, the reality of thought. The “thought-forms” appear as realities, fantasy takes on real form, and the terrifying dream evoked by karma and played out by the unconscious “dominants” begins.
Jung would not have been surprised by professional and institutional antagonism to psychedelics. He closes his Tibetan commentary with a poignant political aside:
The Bardo Thodol began by being a “closed” book, and so it has remained, no matter what kind of commentaries may be written upon it. For it is a book that will only open itself to spiritual understanding
and this is a capacity which no man is born with, but which he can only acquire through special training and special experience. It is good that such to all intents and purposes “useless” books exist. They are meant for those “queer folk” who no longer set much store by the uses, aims, and meaning of present-day “civilization.”
To provide “special training” for the “special experience” provided by psychedelic materials is the purpose of this version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
A TRIBUTE TO LAMA ANAGARIKA GOVINDA
In the preceding section the point was made that eastern philosophy and psychology – poetic, indeterministic, experiential, inward-looking, vaguely evolutionary, open-ended – is more easily adapted to the findings of modern science than the syllogistic, certain, experimental, externalizing logic of western psychology. The latter imitates the irrelevant rituals of the energy sciences but ignores the data of physics and genetics, the meanings and implications.
Even Carl Jung, the most penetrating of the western psychologists, failed to understand the basic philosophy of the Bardo Thodol.
Quite in contrast are the comments on the Tibetan manual by Lama Anagarika Govinda.
His opening statement at first glance would cause a Judaeo-Christian psychologist to snort in impatience.
But a close look at these phrases reveals that they are the poetic statement of the genetic situation as
currently described by biochemists and DNA researchers.
It may be argued that nobody can talk about death with authority who has not died; and since nobody,
apparently, has ever returned from death, how can anybody know what death is, or what happens after it?
The Tibetan will answer: “There is not one person, indeed, not one living being, that has not returned from
death. In fact, we all have died many deaths, before we came into this incarnation. And what we call birth is
merely the reverse side of death, like one of the two sides of a coin, or like a door which we call “entrance”
from outside and “exit” from inside a room.”
The lama then goes on to make a second poetic comment about the potentialities of the nervous system,
the complexity of the human cortical computer.
It is much more astonishing that not everybody remembers his or her previous death; and, because of this
lack of remembering, most persons do not believe there was a previous death. But, likewise, they do not
remember their recent birth – and yet they do not doubt that they were recently born. They forget that
active memory is only a small part of our normal consciousness, and that our subconscious memory
registers and preserves every past impression and experience which our waking mind fails to recall.
The lama then proceeds to slice directly to the esoteric meaning of the Bardo Thodol – that core meaning
which Jung and indeed most European Orientalists have failed to grasp.
For this reason, the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan book vouchsafing liberation from the intermediate state
between life and re-birth,- which state men call death,- has been couched in symbolical language. It is a
book which is sealed with the seven seals of silence,- not because its knowledge would be misunderstood,
and, therefore, would tend to mislead and harm those who are unfitted to receive it. But the time has come
to break the seals of silence; for the human race has come to the juncture where it must decide whether to
be content with the subjugation of the material world, or to strive after the conquest of the spiritual world,
by subjugating selfish desires and transcending self-imposed limitations.
The lama next describes the effects of consciousness-expansion techniques. He is talking here about the
method he knows-the Yogic-but his words are equally applicable to psychedelic experience.
There are those who, in virtue of concentration and other yogic practices, are able to bring the subconscious into the realm of discriminative consciousness and, thereby, to draw upon the unrestricted treasury of subconscious memory, wherein are stored the records not only of our past lives but the records of the past of our race, the past of humanity, and of all pre-human forms of life, if not of the very consciousness that makes life possible in this universe.
If, through some trick of nature, the gates of an individual’s subconsciousness were suddenly to spring open, the unprepared mind would be overwhelmed and crushed. Therefore, the gates of the subconscious are
guarded, by all initiates, and hidden behind the veil of mysteries and symbols.
In a later section of his foreword the lama presents a more detailed elaboration of the inner meaning of the
If the Bardo Thodol were to be regarded as being based merely upon folklore, or as consisting of religious speculation about death and a hypothetical after-death state, it would be of interest only to anthropologists and students of religion. But the Bardo Thodol is far more. It is a key to the innermost recesses of the human mind, and a guide for initiates, and for those who are seeking the spiritual path of liberation.
Although the Bardo Thodol is at present time widely used in Tibet as a breviary, and read or recited on the occasion of death,- for which reason it has been aptly called “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”- one should not forget that it was originally conceived to serve as a guide not only for the dying and the dead, but for the living as well. And herein lies the justification for having made The Tibetan Book of the Dead accessible
to a wider public.
Notwithstanding the popular customs and beliefs which, under the influence of age-old traditions of pre-Buddhist origin, have grown around the profound revelations of the Bardo Thodol, it has value only for those who practise and realize its teaching during their life-time.
There are two things which have caused misunderstanding. One is that the teachings seem to be addressed to the dead or the dying; the other that the title contains the expression “Liberation through Hearing” (in Tibetan, Thos-grol). As a result, there has arisen the belief that it is sufficient to read or recite the Bardo Thodol in the presence of a dying person, or even of a person who has just died, in order to effect his or
Such misunderstanding could only have arisen among those who do not know that it is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, and to his old ego, before he can take his place in
the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.
The dead or the dying person is addressed in the Bardo Thodol mainly for three reasons: (1) the earnest practitioner of these teachings should regard every moment of his or her life as if it were the last; (2) when a follower of these teachings is actually dying, he or she should be reminded of the experiences at
the time of initiation, or of the words (or mantra) of the guru, especially if the dying one’s mind lacks alertness during the critical moments; and (3) one who is still incarnate should try to surround the person dying, or just dead, with loving and helpful thoughts during the first stages of the new, or afterdeath, state of existence, without allowing emotional attachment to interfere or to give rise to a state of morbid mental depression. Accordingly, one function of the Bardo Thodol appears to be more to help those who have
been left behind to adopt the right attitude towards the dead and towards the fact of death than to assist the dead, who, according to Buddhist belief, will not deviate from their own karmic path.
This proves that we have to do here with life itself and not merely with a mass for the dead, to which the Bardo Thodol was reduced in later times. Bardo Thodol reveals the secret of life; and therein lies its spiritual value and its universal appeal.
Here then is the key to a mystery which has been passed down for over 2,500 years – the consciousness-expansion experience – the pre-mortem death and rebirth rite. The Vedic sages knew the secret; the Eleusinian initiates knew it; the Tantrics knew it. In all their esoteric writings they whisper the message: it is
possible to cut beyond ego-consciousness, to tune in on neurological processes which flash by at the speed of light, and to become aware of the enormous treasury of ancient racial knowledge welded into the nucleus of every cell in your body.
Modern psychedelic chemicals provide a key to this forgotten realm of awareness. But just as this manual without the psychedelic awareness is nothing but an exercise in academic Tibetology, so, too, the potent chemical key is of little value without the guidance and the teachings.
Westerners do not accept the existence of conscious processes for which they have no operational term. The attitude which is prevalent is: – if you can’t label it, and if it is beyond current notions of space-time and personality, then it is not open for investigation. Thus we see the ego-loss experience confused with schizophrenia. Thus we see present-day psychiatrists solemnly pronouncing the psychedelic keys as psychosis-producing and dangerous.
The new visionary chemicals and the pre-mortem-death-rebirth experience may be pushed once again into the shadows of history. Looking back, we remember that every middle-eastern and European administrator (with the exception of certain periods in Greece and Persia) has, during the last three thousand years, rushed to pass laws against any emerging transcendental process, the pre-mortem-death-rebirth session, its adepts, and any new method of consciousness-expansion.
The present moment in human history (as Lama Govinda points out) is critical. Now, for the first time, we possess the means of providing the enlightenment to any prepared volunteer. (The enlightenment always comes, we remember, in the form of a new energy process, a physical, neurological event.) For these
reasons we have prepared this psychedelic version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The secret is released
once again, in a new dialect, and we sit back quietly to observe whether man is ready to move ahead and to make use of the new tools provided by modern science.