The last stage in the nocturnal practices is bardo yoga, which is a uniquely Tibetan contribution. “Bardo” means “gap, transitional process, in-between,” and refers to the gap between any two states of consciousness. This means that bardos occur constantly, as often as the gap between any two thoughts. But bardo yoga is classically about the gap between lives. In the Eastern view, rebirth is axiomatic, a given. (We can look at some of the support for this view in later posts.) So while bardo yoga is principally about preparing for the darkness of death — literally called “the dream at the end of time” in Buddhism — it applies equally to every moment in life. In this regard, while it may seem to be the most esoteric of all the nocturnal practices, bardo yoga actually has the widest applicability. As we will see in this track of Night School, bardo yoga applies directly to anything that ends – and what doesn’t?
There has been a long and intimate connection between sleeping and dying. In Greek mythology, the god of death is Thanatos, and the god of sleep is Hypnos. They’re not distant cousins, they’re not just brothers – they’re twins. I suspect that Thanatos was born just before Hypnos, because death is the big sleep – the slightly bigger brother. This connection is also implied when we talk about putting our pets to “sleep,” and “resting in peace” at the end of life. The relationship is ubiquitous.
The Logic of Bardo Yoga
Bardo yoga follows the other nocturnal practices in a logical way. Remember that dreamless (as in dreamless sleep) means formless, and formless means deathless. This is why sleep yoga is a great way to prepare for bardo yoga. Sleep yoga introduces you to your formless nature, bardo yoga shows you that this deepest aspect of your being is also deathless. Your formless nature is your truest nature. In Buddhism it’s called the dharmakaya, or “body of truth.” It’s who you truly are.
This is the deepest (and prior to bardo yoga also the darkest) part of you that doesn’t enter the world of space and time. It doesn’t grow old, get sick, or die. It doesn’t get dementia, Parkinson’s, cancer, or Alzheimer’s. Another name for it is the changeless nature. The closest analogy is space. In bardo yoga, formless awareness is often referred to as “space-awareness.”
Space has unique properties in that it’s the softest thing in the world. Is there anything softer than space? But it’s also the most indestructible. Being utterly formless, you can’t cut it, burn it, bomb it, or hurt it in any way. Space also contains everything but is not affected by anything. That space-like nature is the very core of your being – you’re truest Self – and that’s what bardo yoga introduces you to, and then allows you to become increasingly familiar with — the very definition of meditation in Tibetan, or gom (which means “to become familiar with”). In other words, bardo yoga allows you to become familiar with the part of you that does not die.
The three death bardos
There are technically six bardos, three related to life and three connected to death. The three life bardos are the bardo of this life, the bardo of meditation, and the bardo of dream (which includes sleep). Both the bardo of meditation and bardo of dream are contained within the bardo of this life. This is obviously the bardo we are in now.
The three death bardos are the painful bardo of dying, the luminous bardo of dharmata (“suchness”), and the karmic bardo of becoming. We’ll explore all three of these death bardos in upcoming posts. The point for us now is that the three death bardos are intimately connected to sleeping and dreaming. The process of falling asleep is a concordant experience of the bardo of dying; dreamless sleep is a concordant experience of the bardo of dharmata; and dreaming is a concordant experience of the bardo of becoming. According to the Tibetans, this means you can use the process of sleeping and dreaming as a similitude for dying. You can use the darkness of the night to prepare for the darkness of death.
Every night is like a “pop-quiz” for the “final exam.” There is even a saying in Tibet, “Based on my experiences last night, I can infer I’m going to have a hard time in the bardos tomorrow.” The point of bardo yoga is to replace that dreary adage with this cheerful one, “Based on my new experiences (of lucidity) last night, I can now infer I’m going to have a great time in the bardos tomorrow!”
The importance of lucidity, or recognition
One of the biggest problems in the bardos is realizing that you’re in them. Most people don’t know that they’re dead when they’re dead, in exactly the same way that most people don’t know that they’re dreaming when they’re dreaming. But if you become lucid in the bardos the tables are instantly turned. What just a moment ago had total control over you (a non-lucid bardo experience), now comes under your control. It’s precisely what happens when you go from a non-lucid dream into a lucid one. Dream yoga therefore came about in the Tibetan tradition principally as way to prepare for death.
The Dalai Lama has said, “A well-trained person can recognize a strict order in the four stages of falling asleep, and is well prepared to ascertain an analogous order in the dying process.” And Bokar Rinpoche adds, “The energy governing each element ceases to be functional and is absorbed into the energy of the following element. This process of absorption of the four elements into each other does not only occur at death, it also happens in an extremely subtle manner when we fall asleep or when a thought is removed from our mind.”
One of the most repeated lines in the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead is, “Recognition and liberation are simultaneous.” Recognize the bardo to be the bardo (in exactly the same way that you recognize the dream to be a dream) and you can take control over it. If you don’t, your unconscious habits take control. When asked what it is that reincarnates, Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Your bad habits.” That makes for a bad trip — when we dream and then when we die.
Most of us dread the end of life, but death is only the end if you assume the story is about you. It’s not about you, because bardo yoga – with a little help from sleep yoga – points out that there is no “you.” Ego is an illusion, a bad dream. When you wake up in the spiritual sense you discover that death is also an illusion. Bardo yoga therefore transforms the greatest obstacle into the greatest opportunity. It’s magic, truly alchemical. Bardo yoga points out the death of death. This consummate nocturnal yoga transforms death into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And by the way, where do you go after you die? Is there a pre-existing heaven or hell waiting for you? When you die, you don’t go to another place. “You” go into another dream. Bardo yoga points out that any manifestation of mind is fundamentally a dream – which means that your so-called waking life right now is just a dream. This is precisely what the Buddha (“the awakened one”) woke up to, and what we’ll explore in our upcoming posts.
The teachings contained within bardo yoga are beyond profound, one of the greatest gifts to humanity by one of the deepest wisdom traditions. And they fit in perfectly as the conclusion to our nocturnal meditations.