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Tibetan Art of the Afterlife Ramon N. Prats

On the high [Tibetan] tableland a person can be seen from a great distance, like a meaningless black dot on the background of barren, lifeless rocks. Huge, overbearing cliffs crowd the landscape in the boundless waste, with the crashing majesty of nature. Man does not count: he is a tiny being moving along and disappearing without trace. 1

Few know of the tragic beauty of those paths and the inspired prayer of the earth, the dangerous course and the heavenly storms. They are so closely entwined that man walks through them as if in a dream, caught between the admiration of a prodigy and the prospect of death.2 Fig. 1

terton karma lingpa

These lines written by Giuseppe Tucci, the Italian

From a set of ritual cards Tibet; 17th century Natural pigments on paper; 4 x 3 in. Rubin Museum Of Art C2004.1 (Har 289)

Tibetologist who made eight scientific expedi-

Portraits of Karma Lingpa are rare. In this small image he is seen wearing the garments of a Tibetan layman, swathed in the folds of his cape and cloak. On his head is seen the ritual hat of Padmasambhava, known as the Lotus Hat. From his sash emerges the hilt of a tantric dagger, a ritual object characteristic of treasure revealers, and he cradles another important Buddhist symbol, the Vase of Life, in his left hand. The inscription below the painting reads “Salute to Treasure Revealer Karma Lingpa.” The card is marked with the number seven of the series.

tions to Tibet between 1929 and 1948 , point at one of the primordial characteristics of Tibetan civilization: the awesome majesty of its natural habitat and the rigorous living conditions it imposes on its creatures. Those vast, high, and silent spaces, which appear as a projection of the eternal and the infinite, must have been one of the determining factors that induced in the Tibetan soul an intimate conviction of the fragility and impermanence of life. “What comes earlier, tomorrow or death?” asks a popular Tibetan saying. This menacing presence of death moved the Tibetans to investigate its mystery more than other peoples seem to have done. The Bardo Thodrol, known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is the result of those insights and reflections.

Self-liberating Realization of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities Tibetans credit the teachings of the Bardo Thodrol to the tantric master Padmasambhava, who spent only a brief period in Tibet in the late eighth century but left an indelible mark on its religious tradition. It is believed that the original manuscript of the book was concealed, together with hundreds of other texts, by Padmasambhava’s disciples. Thought of as sacred treasures (terma), they were to be prophetically

Fig. 2

discovered in later times by certain individuals

mongolian manuscript of the book of the dead

predestined to do so by their good karma. One of them was the treasure revealer (terton) Karma Lingpa (Fig. 1), the son of an accomplished tantric practitioner. In the second half of the fourteenth century, at the age of fifteen, he unearthed on Mount Gampodar, in southern Tibet, a cache of manuscripts containing the tantric teachings of the “Self-liberating Realization of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities” (Shitro Gongpa Rangdrol). Included was a set of instructions to be put into practice during the transitionary states (bardo) of dying, death, and rebirth, which are crucial periods when the possibility for spiritual liberation is heightened. 3 These instructions were standardized at the end of the seventeenth century by the yogi Rigdzin Nyima Dragpa and became the core of the Bardo Thodrol, which served as the basis for the first Western-language edition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead 4 (Fig. 2).

Mongolia; 19th century Natural pigments and ink on paper; 7 x 25 in. Rubin Museum of Art C2004.37.3 (HAR 66013, 66043) Although it stemmed originally from the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo Thodrol was soon adopted by all other schools in Tibet and was also spread widely in Mongolia by the Gelugpas. These finely illustrated pages of a Mongolian translation of the text show Buddha Vairochana in union with his consort, Dhatvishvari, the first peaceful deities to appear during the Transitionary State of Absolute Reality; and three of the four female ogresses that preside over the cardinal directions.

Fig. 3

stupa: a representation of buddhahood Tibet; 18th century Natural pigments on cloth; 37 x 24 in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.25 (HAR 795)

Aside from their structural symbolism, stupas are emblems of the enlightened mind of a buddha, hence the achievement of nirvana. The stupa of this exquisite painting enshrines in its heart an image of Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our aeon, while it emanates a halo of light beams. The corners atop the painting show small images of Kashyapa (left), the Buddha of the previous aeon, and Maitreya (right), the Buddha of the next.

Fig. 4

the five cosmogonic elements Page from an illuminated manuscript on the Bardo Thodrol Tibeto-Himalayan region; 17th century Natural pigments on cloth; 2.625 x 12 in. Rubin Museum of Art F1998.16.5.2 (HAR 68878)

The nuclei of different colors represent the Five Cosmogonic Elements that constitute our psycho-physical individuality: earth (yellow), water (white), fire (red), air (green), and space or quintessence (blue). They dissolve in succession at the time of death, propelling the mental principle to the bardos of the afterlife.

The Bardo Thodrol The Bardo Thodrol— literally “Liberation upon

deceased have already learned and practiced the

Hearing in the Transitionary States”— describes

teachings in their lifetime.

the process that begins at the moment of death and continues through a postmortem state

It is extremely important to train the mind in the

characterized by hallucinations generated by

[instructions of the] Liberation upon Hearing,

the deceased’s karma, finally leading to a further

particularly while one is still alive. Grasp its meaning,

rebirth in samsara, the cycle of birth, death, and

comprehend it thoroughly, read it aloud, take it to

rebirth. However, the deceased have the pos-

heart properly! Do it three times [a day] without

sibility of breaking through these stages and attaining nirvana at any time by fully realizing

fail! May its words and its meaning be perfectly clear to you.5

the contingent situation they are traversing and the delusional nature of the karmic occurrences confronting them.

This will determine the outcome of the bardo experience: the attainment of nirvana (Fig. 3) or continuation in samsara.

In order to advise the departed during their

The entire postmortem process is divided into

anguishing and terrifying experience and at the

forty-nine steps, or days. The Transitionary State

same time to remind them that those states are

of Dying (chikai bardo) is the shortest of the three

full of potential for spiritual realization, the Bardo

bardos, lasting just a few days. The very moment

Thodrol is ritually read aloud to the dead as a

the mental principle departs the inanimate body

thanatological guidebook— hence its Tibetan title.

(Fig.4), the pitch darkness that the deceased

In Tantric Buddhism the belief is held that the

is immersed in is abruptly transformed into a

deceased’s primordial consciousness survives

dazzling light (wosal) that, just like a flash of pure

physical death temporarily and maintains a

consciousness, is the manifestation of buddha-

subliminal capacity to perceive lights, forms, and

hood. If the departed succeeds in recognizing the

sounds. Thus, the person— usually a lama— who

significance of this light without being mesmer-

gives guidance by reading those instructions,

ized by its splendor, he or she realizes nirvana,

takes a role similar to that of the prompter in a

and thereby the cyclic transmigration in samsara

play, who assists the actors by providing them

comes to a definitive end. If that is not the case,

with the successive cues of the work. However,

the departed’s mental principle passes on to the

the lama will be effective in this role only if the

next transitionary stage.

Appearances Are Deceptive The Transitionary State of Absolute Reality (cho-

Admonitions and advice are given at frequent

nyi bardo) is the most typical part of the Bardo

intervals, but a large part of the text uses icono-

Thodrol and is populated by a body of archetypal

graphic symbols— images that are subservient to

visions that appear to the deceased. These visions

their analogical meaning, for example:

are grouped under the Mandala of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, forty-two and fifty-eight

O respected one! The essence of your current state of

deities in each respectively, in accordance with

mind is undefiled emptiness. This essence is devoid

their being projections of the positive and nega-

of any substance, any given nature, quality, or color.

tive aspects of our psychic nature (Fig.5).

It is [the Buddha] Samantabhadri, [the emblematic female aspect of] the Absolute! Nevertheless, this

Although those visions correspond to basic facets of the human psyche, the Bardo Thodrol describes them in accordance with the symbols of the Buddhist tradition and Tibetan iconogra-

state of mind is not just blank emptiness, as it shines in full glow, unobstructed, pure, and vibrant. This intrinsic awareness is the Buddha Samantabhadra [the emblematic complementary male aspect of the Absolute]! 8

phy. Therefore it seems appropriate to make a transversal reading of the text and explore it in an open interpretation to better comprehend its universal character and value, the more so because the essential message of the book is to clarify the deluding nature of such visions, which are explained to be no more than unconscious projections of the deceased’s subtle mind propelled by his or her karmic inclinations and stimuli. O respected one! These [lights and visions] are the specular projection of the energy of your intrinsic awareness—they have no other origin. So, do not be attached to them, do not fear them! Remain serenely in the nonconceptual state. If you stand by this, every divine image and every ray of [prototypal] light will merge in you and you will achieve 6

spiritual realization.

or else: Whatsoever [appears in your visions] is a mere manifestation of your own mind. And because mind in its ultimate state is like a self-illusion—which has no existence from the very outset—nothing can arise apart from it.7

In other words, the deceased is exhorted to recognize uncompromisingly that the godlike visions that manifest through a carousel of apparitions have an empty and hence illusory nature. They are a mere projection of his or her psyche on the screen of the karmic mind. However, the Bardo Thodrol does not read so directly throughout.

Fig. 5

assembly of peaceful and wrathful deities of the bardo thodrol Tibet; 19th century Natural pigments on cloth; 27.25 x 19 in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.539 (HAR 1015) This fine thangka portrays 113 deities arranged by categories, with most of their names given in small inscriptions. The innermost circle enshrines the Supreme Heruka together with the five Transcendent Herukas, all paired with their consorts. The two large concentric circles display forty-eight other deities that complete the wrathful appearances of the Bardo Thodrol. The figures outside comprise the canonical forty-two peaceful deities complemented by other figures, like those of the four paired wrathful Gatekeepers. At top center Samantabhadra and consort preside over the whole assembly of deities, which is closed at the bottom by the five Awareness Holders standing with their consorts.

Some of the most striking paragraphs of the book are those that give a vivid and powerful depiction of the deities envisioned during the Bardo of Absolute Reality, especially the Blood-drinking (tragthung) Herukas who follow upon the Five Transcendent Buddhas and other peaceful deities. The archetypal Buddha Heruka, a terrifying emanation of Buddha Vairochana, is the first to appear, on the eighth day: O respected one! The glorious Buddha Heruka will arise from the center of your brain to appear manifestly before you. His body is brownish, with three heads, six arms, and four legs astride. The right face is white, the left one is red, and the front one brownish. His body blazes like a mass of light, his nine eyes gaze fiercely into yours, his eyebrows flash like lightning, and his fangs gleam like copper. He laughs boisterously—ha, ha, ha!—and utters loud mocking noises—Shoo-oo!. His red-gold hair stands up straight and blazes, and his heads are adorned with sun and moon discs, and a crown of dried skulls. His body is garlanded with black serpents and freshly severed heads. He holds a Wheel [of Dharma] in his main right hand, an axe in the upper one, and a sword in the middle one; a vajra-bell in his upper left hand, a ploughshare in the middle one, and a skull-bowl in the main one. His consort, Buddha Krodhishvari, embraces his body with her right [arm] clasped around his neck while her left [hand] holds a [blood-] reddened [skull-] bowl to his mouth. They emit Fig. 6

buddha heruka presiding over the wrathful deities of the bardo thodrol Tibet; 15th century Natural pigments on cloth; 24 x 16.75 in. Rubin Museum of Art C2006.66.90 (HAR 7) The image of Buddha Heruka and his consort, which dominates the painting, accords in great detail with the description in the text. The scroll portrays all the wrathful deities of the Transitionary State of Absolute Reality. They are completed with the images of Samantabhadra (top center) and his wrathful aspect, the Supreme Heruka (directly below) in union with their respective consorts. The lowest register displays seven protectors of the Nyingma tradition, among whom Vajrasadhu (first from left), Mahakala (center), and Rahula (second from right) stand out.

menacing sounds and roar like a thunder. The flames of primordial wisdom shoot out from the blazing vajra-like hair of his body. He stands [in the “warrior’s posture”] with one pair of legs bent and the other stretched out.9 (Fig. 6)

As intense as this and similar iconic hallucinations might be, the voice of the lama rises persistently as an admonishment: If you recognize these manifestations of luminous visions and divine images as the connatural radiance of your intrinsic awareness, your own potential radiance will merge inseparably with those lights and divine images and you will achieve spiritual enlightenment. . . . By doing so, you will certainly achieve buddhahood at that very moment. . . . Remember! 10

The Worlds of Existence But what are these wrathful deities if not mani-

After looking in the mirror of their own karma

festations of Yama Dharmaraja (Fig.7), the Lord

held by Yama Dharmaraja, the dead are judged

of Death, and his host? And further on, who is

by the balance between their virtues and vices

the giant Yama if not a conventional aspect of

and rewarded accordingly. Buddhist soteriology

the metaphysical emptiness that substantiates

describes at this point two possible exits from the

ultimate reality? The Lord of Death, the throng

bardos of death. The most favorable one is taking

of gods and spirits, benign or malign, ogresses,

rebirth in one of the pure buddhafields, or heav-

etc., have no other nature. It is only the delud-

enly realms, presided over by a Transcendental

ing nature of the ordinary mind that creates the

Buddha. But it is the second option to which most

fear of what Yama represents, thus preventing

sentient beings propel themselves endlessly, i.e.,

the realization of the ultimate truth of existence

returning to the “muddy swamp” of samsara.

and the attainment of nirvana. Realizing this

Tibetan art has a well-established iconographic

truth in practical terms is the sole concern the

pattern that depicts this cyclic transmigration

deceased is urged to pursue during that transit.

as a wheel of life and death (sipai khorlo) held

If the deceased fail to accomplish this, then

by the fangs and claws of the grimacing Yama

they proceed inevitably to the final stage of the

Dharmaraja. The six archetypal possibilities

afterlife—the Transitionary State of Existence

for rebirth in this context are explained as the

(sipai bardo).

realms of the gods, demigods, humans (the most favorable yet elusive realm), animals, greedy ghosts, and demonic beings. Tibetan exegetes complement the mythological description of the six destinies with a more sophisticated interpretation in which the six categories are analyzed in psychological and sociological terms (Fig 8).

Fig. 7

yama dharmaraja and yami (outer form) Mongolia; 18th century Gilt copper alloy, stone inlays, pigments; 19. 4 x 13 x 7.3 in. Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art When shown in his outer form, Yama, Lord of Death, is typically represented as having a fierce bull’s head, holding a club (here missing) in his right hand and a noose in his left, and wearing the macabre ornaments proper to his position. He is usually accompanied by his sister Yami, or by his consort Chamundi. In this magnificent sculpture, charged with strength and energy, Yama stands in the combatant’s pose astride a reclining buffalo. The buffalo is ravishing a human being, a scene that represents the fragility of our mortality.

Fig. 8

a visual compendium of the bardo thodrol Tibet; 18 or 19th century Natural pigments on cloth; 35.25 x 22 in. Rubin Museum of Art Purchased from the Collection of Navin Kumar, New York C2005.35.3 (HAR 65576) This didactic work of art is an excellent example of how painting has been traditionally used to illustrate elements of the doctrine and mythology associated with the Bardo Thodrol or other topics. Vajrasattva, the bodhisattva whose mantra purifies us of all negativities and downfalls, presides over the composition. Beneath him are the two mandalas of the peaceful and wrathful deities. The rest of the painting represents the judgment officiated by the Lord of Death, which determines whether the departed either descends into rebirth in one of the six realms of samsara– the worst one corresponding to the hell regions where the dead are subjected to all sort of tortures–or ascends the path to a pure buddhafield under the guidance of teachers.

A Reflection of the Moon All this is like a dream, a hallucination, an echo, a spectral town, a mirage, like a world of imaginary forms, an optical illusion. . . like the reflection of the moon on the water. It lacks of a whit of truth. Indeed, it is erroneous and false.11

Emphasis on the deluding nature of apparent reality and its substantial emptiness is established not only by the hermeneutics of Tantric Buddhism, it is a hallmark of all forms of the religion. One of the better-known sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita, known in translation as The Diamond Sutra, expresses this truth beautifully in the last chapter: Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightning in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.12



1 Giuseppe Tucci, To Lhasa and Beyond, Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1950, 35.

Cuevas, Brian J. The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

2 Giuseppe Tucci, Italia e Oriente. Milano: Garzanti, 1949; 198. Author’s translation.

Freemantle, Francesca and Chögyam Trungpa (a new translation from the Tibetan with commentary by). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo–by Guru Rinpoche according to Karma Lingpa. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1975.

3 Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 11, defines those states as “a series of constantly changing transitional realities.” 4 The Tibetan Book of the Dead–or The After-Death Experiences on the Bardo Plane, translated by Kazi Dawa-Samdup and edited by W.Y. Evans-Wentz. London: Oxford University Press, 1927. In this and its successive translations, this Tibetan text has since become the most widely read in Europe and America. 5 Author’s translation from the Tibetan. Cf. Prats, El libro de los muertos tibetano, 82-83. 6 Ibid., 60. 7 Ibid., 104. 8 Ibid., 42. 9 Ibid., 70-71. 10 Ibid., 79-80. 11 Ibid., 104. 12 Price and Wong, The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng, 74.

Lauf, Detlef Ingo. Geheimlehren tibetischer Totenbücher. Braunschweig: Aurum, 1994. Padmasambhava (composed by); Karma Lingpa, Terton (revealed by); Gyurme Dorje (translated by); Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa (edited by). The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States. New York: Viking Penguin: 2006. Prats, Ramon N. (traducción y edición). El libro de los muertos tibetano. La liberación por audición durante el estado intermedio. Madrid: Siruela, 1996. Price, A.F. and Wong Mou-Lam (translation). The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui Neng. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1969. Sogyal Rinpoche; Patrick Gaffney and Andrew Harvey (editors). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Calcutta: Rupa & Co., 1993. Brauen, Martin and Claudio Dal Pra (a DVD edited by). The Virtual Mandala. The Tibetan Book of the Dead/Das tibetanische Totenbuch. Part 1 & 2. Zurich: ArtAdventures GmbH, 2005 This brochure is published on the occasion of the exhibition Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife, organized by and presented at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, from February 12 through September 6, 2010, and curated by Ramon N. Prats and Martin Brauen. Brochure design by Evi Abeler.

BARDO AND THE RESURRECTION The Tibetan Book of the Dead scholar and translator Dr. Ramon Prats engages with a Christian priest on Eastern and Western understanding of the afterlife. Sunday, March 28, 4 p.m. ; $12

THE TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD BOOK CLUB A series of seven sessions explores this seminal guide to the afterlife from seven vantage points: Each week Dr. Ramon Prats, curator of the Bardo exhibition and distinguished translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead into Spanish, will engage with an expert from a different discipline: a neuroscientist, a dream analyst, an Egyptologist, etc., to explore in depth how this text, born out of one ancient culture, can be applied to our present. Members price for all seven sessions: $105 Individual sessions: $20 / Members $18 Wednesdays at 7 p.m. July 7, 14, 21, 28 August 11, 18, 25

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Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife  

Rubin Museum of Art February 12, 2010 - September 6, 2010

Bardo: Tibetan Art of the Afterlife  

Rubin Museum of Art February 12, 2010 - September 6, 2010

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