Tag Archives: philosophy

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This has been on my list of mystical books to read for quite a long time. A couple years ago, I found a copy at a garage sale and bought it. Of course, I felt guilty every time I saw it unread upon the shelf. But I finally got around to reading it, and probably right when I needed to.

This particular copy includes a large amount of introductory text. Usually, I skip introductions, but the commentaries here were very enlightening and I’m glad I read them, particularly Carl Jung’s introduction to the text.

Before embarking upon the psychological commentary, I should like to say a few words about the text itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thödol, 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, symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty-nine days’ duration between death and rebirth. The text falls into three parts. The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events.

 (p. xxxv – xxxvi)

Because the book deals primarily with what happens to one’s consciousness after death, the text is understandably highly symbolic. As Lama Govinda points out in his introductory section, whenever the subconscious is being explored, it must be approached through the use of symbols.

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.

(p. liii)

Lama Govinda then points out a common misconception regarding the Bardo Thödol. Many people may assume that the text is a set of instructions solely intended for the dead or dying. But this is not the only purpose. For people pursuing a spiritual path, there comes a time when they must symbolically die, essentially killing their former selves so that they can be reborn as an enlightened being.

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, to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.

(p. lix – lx)

During the 49-day period in which a person’s consciousness is in the Bardo, the individual experiences numerous visions. The text is very clear that these visions are nothing but illusion. The goal, then, is to recognize that what we perceive, in this reality as well as in the Bardo, is illusory by nature. Once we recognize that what we sense is illusion, our consciousness becomes free.

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsāric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvānic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.

(p. 35)

The text offers a great prayer which should be used when facing the terrifying visions associated with the Bardo state.

Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity]of achieving a great end,
I may not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

(p. 103)

Fear is a manifestation of our thoughts. While some fears may be justified, the fact remains that fear is pure thought, which then triggers a physical response to the mental visions. This is something that is carried on with us to the next stage of existence. When our consciousness moves to the next plane, it brings with it the capacity to generate fearful images which can then paralyze the progress of the spirit.

O nobly-born, whatever fearful and terrifying visions thou mayst see, recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.

(p. 147)

I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of this symbolically rich and complex text. But hopefully I encouraged you to read it yourself and explore the wisdom woven into the book. I suspect that this is something I will read again in the future.

Cheers!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 33” by Lao Tzu

He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.

He who knows when he has got enough is rich,
And he who adheres assiduously to the path of Tao is a man of steady purpose.
He who stays where he has found his true home endures long,
And he who dies but perishes not enjoys real longevity.

This is one of those passages where every word resonates with truth. I read this short section three times and found it so perfect in its brevity and wisdom.

The second line really made me think about the word “insight” in a way I never really did before. To have insight is to see beneath the surface, to peer deep within yourself, and grasp the true nature of your being. To have real insight is a tremendous accomplishment. I feel like this word has become trivialized through overuse. If you stop and think about it, very few individuals gain a deep understanding of themselves, hence very few of us ever gains true insight.

The first line of the second stanza also struck me as profoundly true: “He who knows when he has got enough is rich.” We westerners, ensconced in our consumer society, never seem to feel we have enough. There is always something else to strive for, something better which we desire. But how much material stuff do we need, and is real wealth measured by how much stuff or money you have? I suspect that to be rich in the way Lao Tzu is describing is to be content with having your necessities met, and being fulfilled spiritually.

Finally, I thought about the last line a lot. What does it mean to die, but not perish? At first I considered that it may mean becoming one with the divine source after leaving this mortal world. And this is still a valid interpretation. But then I wondered if death here symbolizes something else, something that is connected with the rest of the passage. I began to suspect that maybe to die, as Lao Tzu suggests in this passage, means to end the constant materialistic striving which defines the lives of so many of us. Maybe dying is letting go of our grip on the material world and embracing the spiritual. Doing so will fill us with wisdom, a treasure which remains with us after we free ourselves from the body.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 32” by Lao Tzu

Tao is always nameless.
Small as it is in its Primal Simplicity,
It is inferior to nothing in the world.
If only a ruler could cling to it,
Everything will render homage to him.
Heaven and Earth will be harmonized
And send down sweet dew.
Peace and order will reign among the people
Without any command from above.

When once the Primal Simplicity diversified,
Different names appeared.
Are there not enough names now?

Is this not the time to stop?
To know when to stop is to preserve ourselves from danger.
The Tao is to the world what a great river or an ocean is to the streams and brooks.

Sometimes when you are reading, you come across a small snippet, maybe a line or two, that really strikes something deep within you. That happened to me as I read this passage. The section that really resonated with me is:

Is this not the time to stop?
To know when to stop is to preserve ourselves from danger.

I’m a runner, and as much as I want to run every day, I know that I need to stop and rest in order to prevent injury to myself. As a collective, humans have not developed this skill. We constantly strive for more and more and more, pushing ourselves and plundering the earth’s resources and not stopping to allow ourselves or the environment time to replenish and rejuvenate. We can even apply this concept to our current political situation. The right and the left are at constant odds, fighting each other tooth and nail relentlessly. We need to stop, take a step back, and approach our differences from a place of respect and then begin working together to address the challenges we face as a global society.

If we choose to continue at this frantic pace, we do so at our own risk. I for one will continue with my commitment to meditate regularly, read, go for walks in the woods, and take the time I need to keep myself healthy and centered. I hope you will do the same.

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“Promethea: Book 5” by Alan Moore: On Consciousness and the Apocalypse

This is the final book in the series and the focus is on the shift in human consciousness that accompanies the apocalypse. In order to fully grasp what Moore is expressing, it is important to understand that the apocalypse is a symbolic end of the world. It is the end of reality as we perceive it and signifies the crossing of the threshold into the new stage of human evolution.

“It’s like she’s had some massive breakdown in her sense of what’s real. Maybe that’s what ‘end of the world’ means.”

Reality as we know it is only a shared perception. We are taught that a table is a table and a building is a building, and we filter our sensory input accordingly. The apocalypse, therefore, will be a collective shift in how humans perceive the world around us.

“Yes, space and time, our selves, our whole world… these things only ever existed in our perceptions. Now those perceptions are changing.”

There is a conception that when the apocalypse occurs, that it will signal the end of humankind, that we will all be magically transported from the earth to a heavenly place. This will only occur symbolically. We will still exist on this physical plane, we will still have to deal with life, but our perceptions will be vastly different.

“”I mean, it’s not like there weren’t going to still be questions and choices after the apocalypse. What, did we just think we’d all just go to heaven and there’d be no more problems, or diseases, or earthquakes? No, we all woke up one day after the world ended, and we still had to feed ourselves and keep a roof over our heads. Life goes on, y’know? Life goes on.”

The final chapter in this book goes deep into the exploration of consciousness and the symbols used to express it. Since it is impossible to study consciousness using the scientific method, we must turn to art and mysticism as ways to explore this aspect of ourselves.

“Both angels and imaginative thoughts, being phenomena not highly reliable under laboratory conditions, are equally outside the province of empirical science. Consciousness, unprovable by scientific standards, is forever, then, the impossible phantom in the predictable biologic machine, and your every thought a genuine supernatural event. Your every thought is a ghost, dancing.”

Moore goes on to assert that consciousness is dependent upon language and symbols, that without these tools, we as unable to grasp and understand our conscious selves. Words and symbols actually give our consciousness form and shape.

“Consciousness is an astonishing gift, too precious to be squandered on material concerns alone. And consciousness, modern theory maintains, is built on language. Before we’re conscious of something, we must have a word for it. The only reality we can ever know is that of our perceptions, our own consciousness, while that consciousness, and thus our entire reality, is made of nothing but signs and symbols. Nothing but language.”

I’d like to conclude by saying I have read a fair amount of comics and graphic novels so far in my life, and this series is by far the best that I have read. And the genre is perfect for conveying this type of deep metaphysical information, because, as Moore points out, the genre naturally communicates with both aspects of the psyche simultaneously.

“Pentagon studies in the 1980s demonstrated that comic strip narrative is still the best way of conveying understandable and retainable information. Words being the currency of our verbal ‘left’ brain, and images that of our pre-verbal ‘right’ brain, perhaps comic strip reading prompts both halves to work in unison?”

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 31” by Lao Tzu

Fine weapons of war augur evil.
Even things seem to hate them.
Therefore, a man of Tao does not set his heart upon them.

In ordinary life, a gentleman regards the left side as the place of honour:
In war, the right side is the place of honour.

As weapons are instruments of evil,
They are not properly a gentleman’s instruments;
Only on necessity will he resort to them.
For peace and quiet are dearest to his heart,
And to him even a victory is no cause for rejoicing.

To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter of men!
Hence a man who rejoices over the slaughter of men cannot expect to thrive in the world of men.

On happy occasions the left side is preferred:
On sad occasions the right side.
In the army, the Lieutenant Commander stands on the left,
While the Commander-in-Chief stands on the right.
This means that war is treated on a par with a funeral service.
Because many people have been killed, it is only right that survivors should mourn for them.
Hence, even a victory is a funeral.

Although this text was written in the 4th century BC, it is sadly relevant today. When I see the news, I am frequently dismayed by the obsession world leaders still have with weapons. The percentage of the federal budget that is used to build “fine weapons of war” is staggering. And every time we use them, we “rejoice over the slaughter of men.”

I do hope that one day we will evolve and reach the point where we can hammer our swords into plowshares. We’re definitely not there yet, but someday.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 30” by Lao Tzu

He who knows how to guide a ruler in the path of Tao
Does not try to override the world with force of arms.
It is in the nature of a military weapon to turn against its wielder.

Wherever armies are stationed; thorny bushes grow.
After a great war, bad years invariably follow.

What you want is to protect efficiently your own state,
But not to aim at self-aggrandisement.

After you have attained your purpose,
You must not parade your success,
You must not boast of your ability,
You must not feel proud,
You must rather regret that you had not been able to prevent the war.
You must never think of conquering others by force.

For to be over-developed is to hasten decay,
And this is against Tao,
And what is against Tao will soon cease to be.

This passage is very clear and really doesn’t require much interpretation on my part. In the United States, our leaders love to declare war on anything that they want to change: War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on _____. You can basically fill in the blank. And in spite of the failures of these self-proclaimed wars, we continue to wage war against that which we want to change. It never works out the way we hope.

So how does one foster change? Because there are certainly things we need to change in our society and in the world. I believe that in order to change the world, you need to change yourself. Then allow the ripples to spread outward and affect others. For example, rather than railing against others about environmental issues (a cause that is very dear to me), I teach through example. I drive a fuel-efficient car, I buy energy-efficient appliances, I compost, I grow my own vegetables when I can, I buy organic, I recycle, and so forth. I cannot force others to believe what I believe, or do as I do, but I can perhaps inspire others to take the first steps in becoming more conscious of their actions, and if I do that, then I have been successful.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 29” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Does anyone want to take the world and do what he wants with it?
I do not see how he can succeed.

The world is a sacred vessel, which must not be tampered with or grabbed after.
To tamper with it is to spoil it, and to grasp it is to lose it.

In fact, for all things there is a time for going ahead, and a time for following behind;
A time for slow-breathing and a time for fast-breathing;
A time to grow in strength and a time to decay;
A time to be up and a time to be down.

Therefore, the Sage avoids all extremes, excesses and extravagances.

I feel that this is a passage that every politician, every corporate CEO, and every Wall Street banker should read. It is essentially the same idea as expressed in the sayings “Live simply so that others may simply live,” or “The Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth.” As I look around at the mania associated with the frantic quest after more and more, I cannot help but acknowledge that this mindset is totally unsustainable. If we continue to tamper with our world and strip it of its resources, we will ultimately initiate our own demise. Lao Tzu, who lived in the 6th century BC, already understood this. Why is it so difficult for people to grasp today?

The other thing that struck me as interesting about this passage is its similarity to Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which was put to music in the song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I am not sure whether there was a sharing of ideas between the east and west in antiquity, or whether the authors had both tapped in to the same source of divine inspiration, but the parallel is something worth pondering.

Today, I will avoid all “extremes, excesses and extravagances.” If we all made a conscious effort to do this, what a change it would make in the world.

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