Tag Archives: spirit

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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“Catching the Lizard by the Tail” by Nissim Amon

buddhastatue

This morning, after meditating, I perused a magazine called Watkins Mind Body Spirit and read an inspiring article on Buddhist meditation. The article tells the story of a monk named Potila who lived at the time of the Buddha. The Buddha encouraged the well-respected monk to seek guidance on meditating from a younger monk, who provided the following sage advice on how to be attentive to one’s thoughts:

The young monk then gave the following example: “Suppose you want to catch a lizard hiding in an anthill that has six entrances. The lizard can escape through any of them. The best way to catch the lizard is to block off five holes and wait patiently outside the sixth. The five blocked holes are the five senses. When we sit motionless in meditation with our back straight, we are not engrossed in sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch. Generally consciousness escapes through these openings.

“When the five openings are blocked, silence diffuses inside and it’s possible to hear the lizard running around. Then, when it tries to escape, we can catch it immediately.”

I love this analogy, and I can completely relate to the image of consciousness escaping through my senses. One of my biggest challenges when meditating is turning off the mind chatter, but during those rare moments when I do, and my senses are silenced, the experiences are profound.

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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 16” by Lao Tzu

LaoTzu

Attain to utmost Emptiness.
Cling single-heartedly to interior peace.
While all things are stirring together,
I only contemplate the Return.
For flourishing as they do,
Each of them will return to its root.
To return to the root is to find peace.
To find peace is to fulfill one’s destiny.
To fulfill one’s destiny is to be constant.
To know the Constant is called Insight.

If one does not know the Constant,
One runs blindly into disasters.
If one knows the Constant,
One can understand and embrace all.
If one understands and embraces all,
One is capable of doing justice.
To be just is to be kingly;
To be kingly is to be heavenly;
To be heavenly is to be one with the Tao;
To be one with the Tao is to abide forever.
Such a one will be safe and whole
Even after the dissolution of his body.

This passage seems to reiterate a common theme in the text, that one must clear his or her thoughts in order to become in tune with the deeper spiritual self. But there are a couple things that stand out in this chapter, particularly in the second stanza.

First, it appears that this passage is directed to rulers at the time Lao Tzu lived. I listened to a podcast recently that said China, in the time of Lao Tzu, was undergoing social instability and that the writings of both Lao Tzu and Confucius were in response to the social changes that were under way. So it seems that here, Lao Tzu is offering guidance to rulers on how to best govern the citizens, by tapping in to the deeper spirituality and using that as a guide for making decisions on how to rule.

The other thing that stood out for me was the final three lines, asserting that by becoming one with the Tao, you essentially attain immortality of the soul. I cannot help but wonder if this is more like maintaining consciousness once you pass on to the next realm of existence after death. I do not profess to know Chinese thoughts on reincarnation or the afterlife, but it seems that there is some belief in the eternal quality of the soul. If anyone has insight into this area, I would love to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment in the section below.

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you have a wonderful day!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 15” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

The ancient adepts of the Tao were subtle and
flexible, profound and comprehensive.
Their minds were too deep to be fathomed.

Because they are unfathomable,
One can only describe them vaguely by their
appearance.

Hesitant like one wading a stream in winter;
Timid like one afraid of his neighbours on all sides;
Cautious and courteous like a guest;
Yielding like ice on the point of melting;
Simple like an uncarved block;
Hollow like a cave;
Confused like a muddy pool;
And yet who else could quietly and gradually evolve
from the muddy to the clear?
Who else could slowly but steadily move from the inert
to the living?

He who keeps the Tao does not want to be full.
But precisely because he is never full,
He can always remain like a hidden sprout,
And does not rush to early ripening.

I had an unusual reaction to reading this. It was more like impressions, vague sensations, rather than insight. I felt a sense of the adept’s mind, the deep psyche, or the subconscious to use the western term, a part of us that cannot be fully comprehended. We know it is there. We see manifestations from it in art, inspiration, and mystical experience. But we cannot grasp it. It is something we feel, yet is totally intangible.

I almost see this passage as a mediation, the purpose of which is to shift your consciousness ever so slightly, so as to give you an impression of what is hidden just beyond the veil of perception.

If you have any different insights or impressions, I would love to hear about them. Please share them with us in the comment section below.

Have a blessed day!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 14” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Look at it but you cannot see it!
Its name is Formless.

Listen to it but you cannot hear it!
Its name is Soundless.

Grasp it but you cannot get it!
Its name is Incorporeal.

These three attributes are unfathomable;
Therefore they fuse into one.

Its upper side is not bright:
Its under side not dim.
Continually the Unnameable moves on,
Until it returns beyond the realm of things.
We call it the formless Form, the imageless Image.
We call it the indefinable and unimaginable.

Confront it and you do not see its face!
Follow it and you do not see its back!
Yet, equipped with this timeless Tao,
You can harness present realities.

To know the origins is initiation into the Tao.

I found this passage to be fairly simple, but still rich and beautiful. Here, Lao Tzu uses paradoxical phrases to describe the ineffable divine source. By referring to the divine as a “formless Form” and an “imageless Image,” a space is created that cannot be represented through words, because it exists beyond our capacity for comprehension. This is the divine source and the Eternal Tao.

But although we with our finite minds can never fully grasp that which is infinite and eternal, we should still endeavor to contemplate it, for by doing so we catch impressions of our divine origin and gain wisdom. This wisdom helps us navigate the challenging pathways of our existence.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 13” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

“Welcome disgrace as a pleasant surprise.
Prize calamities as your own body.”

Why should we “welcome disgrace as a pleasant
surprise”?
Because a lowly state is a boon:
Getting it is a pleasant surprise,
And so is losing it!
That is why we should “welcome disgrace as a pleasant
surprise.”

Why should we “prize calamities as our own body”?
Because our body is the very source of our calamities.
If we have no body, what calamities can we have?

Hence, only he who is willing to give his body for the
sake of the world is fit to be entrusted with the world.
Only he who can do it with love is worthy of being the
steward of the world.

So I struggled with this passage and had to read it a couple times. I’m still not sure I fully grasp what Lao Tzu is saying, but here is my interpretation. I think that disgrace and calamity may refer to failure. The old saying goes that there is no shame in failure, there is only shame in not trying. If you try to live a spiritual life and fail, or if you try to be a good steward of the world and fail, at least you attempted and did your best. We have no control over outcomes, only our efforts.

I also could not help thinking about Nietzsche, and how that which does not kill us makes us stronger. Adversity can often motivate us, and overcoming difficulties can sometimes lead to spiritual growth. Suffering can be a path to enlightenment; although, given a choice, I would probably choose the path of less suffering.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. If you have any insights into this passage, please feel free to share them in the comment section. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Cheers and blessings.

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