Bardo Birth


by Chogyam Trungpa


The Six Realms of Being

The Bardo of Meditation

The Bardo of Birth

The Bardo of Illusory Body

The Bardo of Dreams

The Bardo of Existence

The Bardo of Death

The Lonely Journey

From seminar’s in
Allenspark, Colorado
Karme Choling


Listen to Seminars

The Bardo of Birth

Yesterday we discussed the world of the gods and the particular point of eternity – involvement with eternity. That whole idea comes from an approach to spiritual practice which is based on the principles of ego. In such a spiritual trip, you tend to reach a peak point in which you do not know whether you are following a spiritual path or whether, you are going completely mad, freaking out. That is the point of the bardo of meditation, or samten bardo. You worked so hard to get something – eternal promise, eternal blessing – and you begin to feel that you are achieving something; but at the same time you are not quite certain whether that achievement is imaginary, based on self-deception. That doubt brings madness. Conviction is part of the pattern which leads you to the madness, conviction based purely on relating with ego. Whenever we talk about bardo principles, we can apply the same analogy that I used yesterday: experiencing both hot and cold water being poured on you simultaneously. That pattern, which is pleasurable and at the same time extremely painful, continues with all six types of bardo.

The second bardo is connected with the realm of the jealous gods, the asuras. According to the teaching, it is described as the bardo of birth or, in Tibetan, kye-ne bardo. Kye means “birth,” and nye means “dwelling.” So kye-ne bardo is the birth and dwelling aspect of bardo. This experience of birth and dwelling is based on speed and on our trust in speed. It is based on living and dwelling on that particular state of being, which is our own individual experience of speed, aggression, and that which brings speed, the ambition to achieve something. In this case, the bardo experience is not necessarily a meditative state of spiritual practice, but it is an ordinary everyday life situation. You put out a certain amount of speed constantly, yet you are not quite certain whether you are getting anything out of it or whether you are losing something. There is a certain peak point of confusion or hesitation, uncertainty. It is as if you are going too far. If you spin really fast, faster and faster – if you spin fast enough – you are not quite certain whether you’re spinning or not. You are uncertain whether it is stillness or whether it is absolute speed that drives you. Absolute speed seems to be stillness.

This, again, is exactly the same point as in the bardo of meditation: that uncertainty as to sanity or madness. You see, we come to this same problem all the time – whenever we have some peak experience of aggression, hatred, passion, joy, pleasure, or insight. In whatever we experience, there’s always some kind of uncertainty when we are just about to reach the peak of the experience. And when we reach the peak point, it is as though we were experiencing both hot and cold water at the same time. There is that kind of uncertainty between the fear of freaking out and the possibility of learning something or getting somewhere. I’m sure a lot of us have experienced that; it is a very simple and experiential thing. I would like you to have a clear perception of the bardo experience, both theoretically and experientially. Particularly those who feel they have experienced so – called satori have felt this experience. We are always uncertain whether we have actually achieved something or whether we are just about to freak out. And this very faint line between sanity and insanity is a very profound teaching in regard to the experience of bardo and Buddhist teachings in general.

According to history, at the very moment of enlightenment, Buddha experienced hosts of maras both attacking him with aggression and trying to seduce him with beautiful girls. That is a peak point, or moment of bardo experience. The point is that once we have achieved some higher state, a so-called higher state or more profound state of something, the negative aspect, or the mara aspect, is also going to be there – equally, exactly the same. And they both become more subtle. The subtleties of awakeness are exactly the same as the subtleties of sleepiness or confusion. Such subtleties continue all the time, side by side. Therefore, samsara and nirvana are like two sides of a coin. They occur together in one situation, simultaneously.

Such bardo experiences happen all the time with us. We don’t have to have a peak experience or a dramatic experience – in ordinary everyday situations as well, we are not quite certain whether we are learning something or whether we are missing something. There is that particular point of doubt. If you are more paranoid, you will think you are missing something; if you are more confident, you will think you are learning something. But there is also the awareness of the learning and missing qualities occurring simultaneously in experiences all the time. This experience is very common and very obvious. In many cases, we don’t have to ask any more questions: what is real, what is not real; what is safe, what is not safe. But when we are just about to approach safety, we are not quite certain whether it is really true safety or not. There is some faint suspicion of danger; at the same time we feel tremendous safety. The more we feel tremendous safety, the more we feel danger. That double take takes place all the time. It is a kind of supposing, or looking back again. That is the basic experiential factor connected with bardo.

Student: What’s a good attitude to take to that ambiguity?

Trungpa Rinpoche: You see, at that point you can’t control the situation – you are the situation. So it depends on the technique or practice that you’ have already gained experience in. It really depends on that. You can’t correct or change course at all. In fact, the idea of a change of course doesn’t occur at that particular moment because you are so much into it: you are the situation rather than the situation being something external.

Student: Is there any difference between the feeling of confusion and the feeling of confidence?

Trungpa Rinpoche: It is the same thing. The same experience happens at exactly the same level. Fundamentally, at an experiential level, our perception is extremely fantastic and possesses all sorts of attributes. It is really fantastic to discover that perception has such a wide range, as well as a narrow range and a penetrating range. It has the capability of seeing a hundred things at the same time. That is why things are referred to as wisdom and things are referred to as confusion.

That’s a very important point. It is really the key point when we talk about madness and about sanity. It is extremely important. Everybody should know that that is one point, rather than that you belong to either of those groups. You don’t have to belong in order to become mad or in order to become wise or liberated. You don’t have to associate yourself with either the good or the bad, but you become the one. And that one possesses both good and bad simultaneously. That’s a very important point in terms of experience. It is extremely necessary to know that.

Student: Whenever that happens, I feel there’s something wrong. Doubt always occurs -always, always, always.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Yes. It occurs always.

Student: So there’s no point expecting it to diminish?

Trungpa Rinpoche: No. You don’t have to make the distinction as to whether you belong to that group or to this group, but you see the situation as it is – that’s the important point. You can’t change that particular situation at all. You can only divert it through some kind of chain reaction process: you can impose your experience prior to that by becoming familiar, with sanity or, equally, by becoming familiar with madness or insanity. Either way is safe and instructive, and either of them could be said to be insight. And, then one-pointedness switches you into the awake or, enlightened state automatically.

Student: Is that awake state free of doubt or uncertainty?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Yes, of course. The reason it is free of doubt is that there’s so much reinforcement from what you have already worked with before that experience. You are quite familiar with what you’ve gone through. But I would like to say something else on this particular point. That is, when we talk about self-awareness, self-consciousness, self-observing often that self-observing awareness – is negative. When you try to work on self-observing or self-awareness in a self-consciousness way, then the reason you’re being self-aware is that you are purely trying to ward off danger. It is sort of a conservative attitude.

In the general philosophy of conservatism, you don’t think about what could go right, or what is the best thing for you to do; often the inspiration of conservatism starts with what could go wrong with you, what’s a bad thing to do. Because of that, you give guidance to other people in a conservative way, saying “I am trying to talk to you in terms of safe and sound, so that what you’re doing is not a mistake.” The first statement comes from a negative view: “. . . so that what you are doing is not a mistake.” That approach to the fundamental basic Subtlety of self-awareness is not looking at the positive and healthy aspect of that state of mind, but constantly aggravating the negative “What could go wrong?” state of mind. That could pile up in the process of the path. And it’s quite likely that when such a person is in the peak state of mind of both sanity and insanity happening simultaneously, then the immediate first flicker of mind will reflect back naturally to what’s bad, that sense of paranoia. Then you could flip back into madness. It sounds quite dangerous.

Student: Do you have to be a warrior?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, I think the point is that you are willing to see the creative aspect rather than the negative aspect. The whole process is one of going along rather than looking back at each step.

Student: Is this doubt a result of an impending sense that the peak experience is going to deteriorate and return to a less profound state of consciousness, or is it a result of a sense that perhaps the peak experience won’t end, and you won’t return?

Trungpa Rinpoche: I don’t think you will return. Once you’ve had it, you’ve had it. That doesn’t mean to say there will be only one peak experience. There will be a succession of peak experiences – which happens with us anyway, all the time. I’m not talking purely theoretically. In our own experience of everyday life, flashes happen all the time, peak experiences. Doubt is not being able to match yourself with a prescribed goal. Whenever there is doubt, you also have an ideal concept of the absence of doubt, which is the goal.

Student: Is this particular experience – between sanity and insanity ever resolved by what’s known as surrendering or openness to the guru?

Trungpa Rinpoche: I would say both yes and no. You see, at that very moment nobody can save you. At the same time, at that very moment, things could be inspired – somebody could push you overboard. Both situations are possible. But fundamentally nobody can save you. You have to make your own commitment to the situation, that’s for sure.

Student: Then there’s no surrendering.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Surrendering happens early on. If you surrender, that means you are associating yourself with positive experiences and you are not trying to hold back and be careful and conservative, as I have been saying. Surrendering to the guru is a very positive thing; therefore, it proceeds with inspiration rather than by holding back and checking the danger. You see, the idea of the term surrender is that once you surrender – that’s the whole thing! You don’t surrender because of something. Surrendering to the guru is quite different from an insurance policy. In the case of an insurance policy, you write down a list of all sorts of dangers, up to the point of the will of God or “acts of God.”

Student: You talked about the nirvanic and the samsaric worlds as being coexistent. Autobiographically speaking, I am very much aware that in certain chemical states the reality of the world of physics is revealed to me, the world of wave patterns and whirling molecules and whatnot. It seems to me this world, which modern physics has revealed to us, very often is equated with the nirvanic state, where you as an ego, as a separate item, cannot exist. Do you see the nirvanic state as I described it? ‘

Trungpa Rinpoche: The state of nirvana or freedom cannot be described in any way. If you are trying to describe it, then you are involved witli wishful thinking of some kind more than natural reality because immediately when you begin to describe it, you are separating the experience from the experiencer. Nirvana is something quite different from that.

Student: But people still say they have seen nirvana, so they must have been aware of something.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Yes, definitely.

Student: Then the split remains. As you come out of nirvana, there is a moment where your senses react to the high state you’ve been in and say, “I come from nirvana.”

Trungpa Rinpoche: Once you’ve gotten into it, you are in it already you can’t come out of it.

Student: Is there only one bardo experience associated with each world, or is it possible to have any of the bardo experiences in any of the worlds?

Trungpa Rinpoche: I think so, yes. Yesterday we discussed the bardo experience associated with the world of the gods, and today we have been discussing the bardo connected with the world of the asuras, or jealous gods. Each bardo experience is connected with a particular sphere, so to speak, or world.

Student: Then there’s a one-to-one correspondence between bardos and worlds?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Yes, but these corresponding experiences happen irregularly within one’s own experience, all the time. You may begin with hell and continue with the world of human beings. From the world of human beings you could go back to the world of the pretas, the hungry ghosts, and so on. This could happen continuously. The whole point I’m trying to make is that bardo experience is a peak experience where you are not quite certain whether you have completely gone mad or you are just about to receive something. That particular peak point is the bardo experience. And the bardo experience cannot be resolved unless there is training. Without lifelong training in the practice of meditation and in accordance with the practice of meditation, putting the skillful actions of a bodhisattva into practice, you cannot have a complete bardo experience.

Student: Rinpoche, what is madness?

Trungpa Rinpoche: That’s a good question. At the experiential level, madness begins with some kind of confusion between the experience of reality and the experience of the perceiver of reality, a conflict between the two. Then, further on, one tends to go on with that confusion and try to discover some ultimate answer to pinpoint what is reality and what is the perceiver of the reality. You try and you struggle more and more :up to the point where you cannot discover the answer unless you give up the idea of the existence of both the experiencer and the experience.

At that level, you are so overwhelmed by such experiences that you make up all sorts of ways of convincing yourself. You either try to rationalize that there is such a thing as a self, that things outside are dangerous or seductive, and that “me” is the rightful person to experience that. Or, on the other hand, you begin to feel that you are out of control. Then you become ultimately mad.

You are so confused as to what is the experiencer and what is the experience. The whole thing is completely amalgamated into the one or the many. It is confusion between the one and the many. You don’t have the earth – grounding process of seeing “that” as opposed to “this” anymore at all, because the whole thing is so overwhelming. You are completely sucked into it. You have all sorts of experiences of being claustrophobic, because the whole situation around you is so overwhelming. You experience paranoia because such overwhelming experience could try to suffocate you, destroy you, destroy the experiencer. And at the same time you would like to act as though nothing happened. You begin to play the game of deaf and dumb, but you pretend you actually never heard of it. Hundreds of millions of tactics begin to develop because of this overwhelming suddenness, this overwhelming crowdedness.

Student: Is it possible to achieve enlightenment without becoming mad?

Trungpa Rinpoche: We are mad anyway, in different degrees. We may not become completely mad unless we are maniacs – religious maniacs or political maniacs, whatever-unless we lose control of the situation. We have a sort of medium madness going on all the time, with the possibility of absolute madness. You see, that is samsara – madness. And that which is not madness is called enlightenment. Because such an idea as madness exists, therefore automatically there is that which is not madness, which, is enlightenment. So once you begin to talk about enlightenment, or freedom, that means you are speaking in terms of madness.

Student: Rinpoche, it seems that one thing you were saying is that when you approach this peak experience of the bardo, if you’re not prepared for it, it’s too sudden and you go mad.

Trungpa Rinpoche: That seems to be the point, yes. That’s the whole idea of why we mention bardo at all, because it is connected with the teachings, with the path.

Student: Could you describe the bardo in the asura world again? I don’t have any feeling for that at all.

Trungpa Rinpoche: It is trying to give birth and at the same time trying to dwell on it. Suddenly, at the peak experience, you try to force things you try to push your situation because you are about to reach some experience. That experience is pushed by a certain effort, extreme effort, and you would like to retain that particular effort.

Student: You mean like a woman trying to give birth and keep the baby at the same time?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Exactly. Yes. It is so action – conscious.

Student: Is it a sense of having too much energy?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Too much energy, yes, because the ground for this particular bardo of birth and dwelling is the realm of the asuras. The whole environment of the jealous god realm is very much action – conscious, all the time rushing. But you get more than that action at the asura level, you get a peak experience: you have to push yourself into some particular peak experience, and you would like to hold on to that, grasp it.

Student: If you see somebody going crazy, is there anything you can do, or should you just leave them alone? They might be destroying themselves or trying to destroy others.

Trungpa Rinpoche: You can do a great deal. But to start with, it is better not to do anything at all. It is better not to try to use any system or psychological school or concept – Freudian, Jungian, Buddhist, Christian, or whatever. You see, one problem is that when we come across somebody who is absolutely mad, our immediate response is to try to do something with them, rather than trying to understand the basic ground. So you have to allow yourself space and not allow the situation to be completely controlled by them. You should allow space and not associate with any category of philosophical or psychological school.

You should not analyze at all – that’s the last thing you would like to do. That’s the source of what’s been wrong in the past. Without trying to fit things into pigeonholes of that category or this category, but with an open mind, you can relate with the situation of the moment – the person, the background of the person, as well as your own state of mind, whether that situation is your imagination or whether it actually exists independent of your imagination.

From that level, once you get a clear percetion of the situation, then you can proceed to relate with the person. You can do a great deal, because generally madness is the ultimate concept of frustration, and frustration needs to work, or communicate, with some kind of external situation. Even though the person who is in a state of madness appears to be completely, absolutely incommunicative, absolutely going wild at the same time, the wildness depends on the external situation, or the internal situation of mind being sparked up by the external situation. So nothing could be said to be completely impersonal. In other words, the point is not to relate with that person as an impersonal thing, but as something still living and continuing. In that way you will be able to relate with the person and go along with the situation.

Another important point is not to be either too compassionate and gentle or too aggressive. You should be aware of the “idiot compassion” aspect of being too kind, and at the same time, you should be aware of laying your trip on the other person. It is an individual matter and you should work along with it. These little details can’t be generalized; they depend on the individual situation. But you can do great deal to help. There is a moment when you should let the person be what they are, and there also will be a moment when you shouldn’t let them be what they are. That is individual inspiration, how you relate with that person. It also depends on how much space you allowed at the beginning, that you didn’t rush in immediately.

Student: I saw somebody who wanted to stick their hand in a fire to prove that they could withstand pain, and it was a thing for me to watch their hand swell up like a marshmallow. Then I had to say, “No, you can’t do that.”

Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, you use your basic common sense. Actually, there is a particular mentality involved when you are dealing with people like that: the whole thing is regarded as a game. You analyze the person’s every activity and appreciate its symbolic quality, and you let them do what they like. But completely letting the person do what they like is somehow too self-indulgent. One should use some common sense, in the process, definitely. In other words, one should not expect any miracles. If a person says he can’t feel heat and his hand is invincible, that person is trying to imagine himself as more than he is. Quite possibly he would like to become what he imagines he should be rather than what he is, and one should realize that situation. The earth-grounding quality is very important.

Student: How can you respond when a maniac attacks you?

Trungpa Rinpoche: You can stop it, generally speaking. But you have to deal with it individually, whether the person is attacking in order to get some reaction from you or because he would like to release himself. It depends on the situation.

Student: Sometimes they attack without knowing why they attack, because they are in a crisis. In this case, you can’t say you respond according to what the person wants, because you don’t know. Even the person doesn’t know what he wants.

Trungpa Rinpoche: It seems that often you have some knowledge of the person as the person is, in any case, unless it’s somebody you just met that very moment on the street. If the person is a friend, then there will be some idea of that person’s state of mind-not necessarily just that person as insane, but his aspects of sanity as well and his particular way of handling himself in terms of sanity.

Student: No, but this is a case where my friend has to go to the hospital. She’s completely out of herself: she can awake in the middle of the night and do anything, and if she doesn’t go to the hospital she might kill herself.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Quite unlikely.

Student: How can you deal with that?

Trungpa Rinpoche: You can deal with the given situation. If you are her friend, then you must have some understanding of her – not necessarily from the technical point of view of a psychiatrist, but in terms of being able to deal with her particular aspects and go along with them. You can deal with it, of course. It is exactly an aspect of the normality of the person – so you go along with that.

Student: But then sometimes you have to use violence.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Sure, you can. That also depends on the situation. I don’t mean to say that you have to be completely gentle all the time – that’s another weak point, trying to be too kind. In fact, a person needs reminders, shaking back – violence, in this case. So violence can be a reminder of sanity presuming, of course, that you who are going to work with her are yourself sane. One has to use a sane kind of violence, not insane violence.

Student: What happens if you’re the one who’s really feeling crazy, if you’re the person who feels out of control?

Trungpa Rinpoche: You don’t purely have to live in your dream world, dealing with your imagination and your neurosis by yourself. You have something else to relate with – the actual physical world outside. And if you are going too far, your physical world will act as a reminder to you. That’s a very important point: the only way to deal with yourself is through your` relationship with the actual physical world outside. Therefore, the body is very important in this case, in human life.

Student: Sometimes you begin seeing things in the physical world that aren’t there, hallucinations.

Trungpa Rinpoche: That means that you are not seeing the physical world as it is, completely. One should take a second look.

Student: What is openness?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Openness is without paranoia, I suppose, to begin with. You don’t have to put up barriers or a boundary to your territory: in your territory, others are welcome as well. That doesn’t mean that a person has to be absolutely polite, diplomatic, just acting. It is a genuine welcoming. Your territory is not defended territory but it’s open territory – anyone can walk into it. By doing that, automatically the other person will be able to walk into it without putting out any territory of his own.

Student: Is bardo experience possible in the awakened state?

Trungpa Rinpoche: In the awakened state there will be the experience of the essence of the bardo, which is the constant act of compassion. A continual loosening process, either in terms of the other person or yourself, is taking place all the time.

Student: Could you speak further on the difference between surrender to the guru and a life insurance policy?

Trungpa Rinpoche: An insurance policy automatically talks of what could go wrong and how you can guard against it. An insurance policy often talks about being a guardian, in other words, sort of exorcising the danger. In the case of surrendering to the guru, the emphasis is’ not so much on the danger aspect, but that the danger could be transmuted into creative relationships. Everything that comes up in the pattern is a continual creative process. Both negative and positive could be used as stepping-stones on the path, which the guru could point out to you as long as you don’t try to hide from the guru. That’s the ultimate meaning of surrendering, surrendering all, aspects of yourself to the guru. And then you learn from that.

Student: It seems to me that there is a boundary between the generosity of openness and self-defense. Sometimes you can’t be generous without harming either yourself or both yourself and the other person.

Trungpa Rinpoche: You see, the general idea is that if you open yourself to what the given situation is, then you see its completely naked quality. You don’t have to put up a defensive mechanism anymore, because you see through it and you know exactly what to do. You just deal with things, rather than defending yourself.

Student: But then the feeling might be that you have to refuse somebody.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Sure, yes. Openness doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to make yourself available to the other person all the time. Openness is knowing the situation-if it’s healthy and helpful to the other person to involve yourself with them, or if it is more healthy not to involve yourself, if showing this kind of commitment is not healthy for the other person. It works both ways. Openness doesn’t mean you have to take everything in at all; you have a right to reject or accept-but when you reject you don’t dose yourself, you reject the situation.

Student: But maybe the other person doesn’t want to reject the situation.

Trungpa Rinpoche: Whether you accept or reject it depends on whether it’s a healthy situation for the other person or not; it’s not purely what they want. Openness doesn’t mean that you are doing purely what the other person wants. Their wantingness may not be particularly accurate. They may have all sorts of ulterior motives and neurotic aspects to their desire, and often it’s not recommended to encourage that. So you just work along with what’s valuable there.


Bardo | The Six Realms of Being | The Bardo of Meditation | The Bardo of Birth

The Bardo of Illusory Body | The Bardo of Dreams | The Bardo of Existence

The Bardo of Death | The Lonely Journey