THE IN BETWEEN
The word bardo refers to the state between lives. It is a gap or transition period. More generally, we experience many such periods, not merely after actual death but also after every ending before a new beginning has taken form. Mahayana Buddhism envisages a period of up to seven weeks between lives in which the karma of a person transitions through a non-physical, dream state before condensing into a new rebirth. During this time the things that our life is usually anchored to are missing. We are adrift with only our own karma to rely upon.
LIFE WITHOUT SUPPORTS
Reflection upon the bardo, therefore, is both an investigation of what we are when we give up our customary supports and, simultaneously how we cope with change - whether it comes to us as liberation or as a terror. Many people who seem stable and strong, fall apart when their props are no longer there.
This is, therefore, part of the Buddhist teaching on conditioning. Buddhism sets up a contrast between the world of conditioning and "the unconditioned". In ordinary life, everything seems to depend upon conditions. The spiritual or holy life is an attempt to ground oneself beyond conditions. In the bardo this is tested in the most extreme way and the result of this test is the next life.
The experience of the bardo is much like dream. At the end of each day we dream and one of the main functions of dreaming is to integrate the day that has passed in such a way as to provide a healthy mental attitude to the day that is to come. However, this does not always work. Sometimes what we have experienced is too extreme to be integrated. Also, depending upon the mental resilience one has - which is substantially a function of faith - so the same experience may feel more or less overwhelming. The person who has found faith in the unconditioned - in nirvana - experiences the bardo as access to bliss and the malevolent appearances there are seen as insubstantial, whereas the person still mired in conditions experiences them as real, overwhelming and terrifying. The average person experiences a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant visions and sensations, never quite reaching the highest nor sinking to the lowest.
At the death time there is a spontaneous review of the past life and in the bardo the effects of the past life are reencountered as dream-like experiences, both seductive and terrifying as the residues of the past life are sifted through and represented in symbolic form. One can think of Buddhist practice as being about getting ahead of the game by making such a life review earlier and in a sufficiently penetrating manner as to really make a difference to the way one lives, such that when the death time comes one is not unprepared. Our Western culture has turned its back on death whereas in Buddhism the time of dying is the one great moment for which all else is a preparation.
The bardo teachings thus have relevance in helping us to prepare for and beware of what may follow this life and also in relation to all transitions that occur actually in this life, each of which is a forerunner of the one great moment. Life is full of changes, many of which are unchosen. Do we learn? Do we grow or are we defeated? Does our past become an asset or a nightmare? Do we become more liberated or do we cling more tenaciously? Is our faith strengthened or does it fail us?
ENTERING UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
According to Buddhism, at death there firstly appears unconditional love in the manifestation of a clear white light. This may also be accompanied by visions of Buddhas and bodhisattvas - sambhogakaya - who come to assist us and take us to realms of light where our spiritual life will be enhanced and refreshed. However, the intensity is too much for most people and they are unable to merge into or go along with it and this refusal sets in train the passage toward another incarnation. Similarly, within this life, when something ends we find ourselves in a phase of unprecedented freedom, but generally people are unable to grasp this liberation and quickly flee into attachment and dependency of a new kind that, often enough, turns out to be just the same old prison in new guise.
ROUND AND ROUND
Although we can reflect upon this intellectually and understand that it is our own mind that is making life difficult for us, when change comes along we still fall prey to panic and make all the false moves that have let us down in the past. Instead of advancing into the light, we regress into old ways and become entangled all over again.
The basic model that is found in so many Buddhist teachings is that of going round in circles, the action that we take to escape being precisely what lands us back in the same old trap. This is samsara. In the bardo, before the bardo, and after the bardo, there is always opportunity to find liberation, but unaided we almost always fail to make the leap.