Tibetan Buddhism through the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Author: John A. Rush
Artist: Kim Forrest, Wild Bills Tattoo, Roseville, California


The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) contains many similarities with the Egyptian Book of the Dead suggesting a sharing of beliefs and practices that predate these traditions by many thousands of years. Buddhism was not introduced into Tibet until the 8thCentury CE (Current Era), with the Bardo Thodol only systematizing in the 14th Century CE. The Egyptian tradition predates Buddhism by several thousand years and certainly predates the Pyramid Texts (around 2500 BCE —Before Current Era), the first complete rendering of the Pharaoh’s journey to the Netherworld. It is my opinion that the point of origin for both Egyptian and Tibetan was a shamanic tradition that dates back perhaps 30,000 years with evidence in cave paintings dating to at least 13000 BCE with the image of The Sorcerer of Trois Freres (touch for picture) at the Cave of the Three Brother in south-central France. This same image is found in the Horned Phallic God from the Indus Valley dated to around 2500 BCE (probably the ancestor of Shiva) and more recently in the god Cernunnos of the Celtic tradition. Most anthropologists would agree that these traditions, as well as their modern inflections, developed around specialist priests who were closely aligned with the use of mind-altering plants and fungi, the conduit to God.

The role of the shaman is that of an “animal master.” What this means is that it is the shaman’s role to act as a conduit between the spirit world and the living for purposes of healing and to make sure that the animals they are hunting and eating remain plentiful.  In short, the shaman’s job—through communing with the spirits—is to secure benefits for the group. In the ancient Egyptian tradition, before the age of the Pharaohs, it is likely that the chiefs were shamans, and through their rituals and eventual death, they would insure that life continued and chaos kept at bay. In the ancient Bon tradition, that is, the system in Tibet before the introduction of Buddhism, there is a similar theme enacted through ritual for securing benefits for the living through the dead ancestors. Ancestor worship has a long season and is the underlying basis of both Western and Eastern beliefs and practices. Another similarity involves the Leopard-skin priest, imaged in a similar fashion in ancient Egypt and Anatolia (Turkey). The Anatolia images date to around 5500 BCE (Before Current Era), and are undoubtedly thousands of years older. The Vidyadhara (top-center of thangka), the “illusionists,” wear the Leopard-skin robe. I find it incredibly coincidental that a primary monster in human evolutionary development was the archaic leopard, Dinofelis barlowii, but it is accorded such high status in diverse areas of the world.  This connection has to have its origins in Africa. Of all the predators that ate our ancient ancestors this cat had it both ways; it would stalk you on the ground or greet you in the trees on a cool summer evening while you are grooming your mate. Our ancient ancestors prior to and including Homo habilis and Homo erectus of 2 million years ago were easy pickings, and I suspect that our big brains, tool making, ability to communicate silently over long distances, deceive, and even up-right posture might be directly linked to these ferocious leopards culling out the young, slow, diseased, old, and stupid. These animals represent death—they were eating our ancestors—but they also represented life, for they taught us how to hunt and they left scraps so we would not starve while reaching illumination.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol)

The Bardo Thodol translates as, “Liberation through Hearing in the In-between State.” Bardo is a concept that connects an individual’s death with rebirth. In the Bardo Thodol there are six kinds of in-between (liminal) states, which can be seen (although inflected differently) as counterparts to the Gates of the Underworld in the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld (Book of the Dead, or, Going Forth by Day, the AmduatThe Book of Caverns, etc.). There is first the bardo of birth, then the dream bardo, the bardo of meditation, bardo of the moment of death, bardo of supreme reality, and bardo of becoming.  The first three bardos represent life in sort of a suspended state, while the last three encompass the forty-nine day process of death and rebirth. As a general statement this is another inflection of life, death, and return; this is the universal journey of the shaman. Human consciousness promotes the building of a story to explain and at the same time direct our thoughts and behaviors so that a particular system of life, death, and renewal (culture) continues. And just as there is much to contend with in life the same is true in death. More importantly, one should have a proper death. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a proper death is dying in the service to God by following His rules to the letter.  In Judaism, by doing so, you obtain God’s blessing and entitlement to land and privilege.  In Christianity a proper death can only be obtained by being a servant/slave to God and/or accepting Jesus as your savior. And what do you get? A white cloak, a harp, and then you wander in a cloudy mist singing “Holy, holy, holy!”  In the Egyptian tradition, clean up your life before you die—stop lying, cheating, abusing others emotionally/physically, stealing, adultery, and so on so that when your heart is weighed against a feather your heart is not overburdened with guilt and remorse.  In short, be a decent human being and you get to the Field of Reeds, a very wonderful place. Islam’s proper death is similar to that of the Jewish tradition, that is, follow the rules, submit to Allah, and do His and the temporal ruler’s bidding. By doing so you enter into paradise where there are different levels of pleasure. Dying for God, at God’s request, or while in God’s service (martyrdom), although not a common theme in the Egyptian tradition, is important in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; God is always first and humanity second—a very dangerous situation especially when the tradition is imbedded in the politic. Dying in the name of God is probably the surest method in these traditions of being on the “right side” of God. There is a provision to this; all these traditions will remove barriers to a proper death with cash donations.

Proper death in the Buddhist tradition is somewhat different. First, the Buddhist emphasis is on ignorance and illumination rather than good versus evil. Eastern traditions, for the most part, promote illumination, while the Western tradition (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) promote ignorance by disallowing critical thinking in spiritual matters. Back to Buddhism. A proper death is one where the individual reaches “illumination” before physical death (this is similar to the Egyptian tradition). Dying in the name of a deity or better yet, dying in the name of Buddha would not make any sense. Illumination, in part, is the realization that you are the illumination, the god, the Buddha. Oh yes, money goes a long way in this tradition as well; people can cleanse their wealth (their ill gotten gains) with donations to the temple.

The Image of the Bardo Thodol

The following images were adapted from a Thangka on cloth dating to the 19th Century and coming from the Kam area of Eastern Tibet. All the images are faithfully rendered in the tattooing but the positioning of individual deities or demons has been changed slightly and there is a different background.  For example on the right side are seven Buddhas.  In the original they reside on the top of the cloth.  Also, the four Buddhas on the left side were originally at the bottom.  The coloring of all the Buddhas, Vidyadharas, lamas, and guardian deities is traditional, while the landscape is of the artist’s (Kim Forrest) own design using traditional Tibetan landscape renderings.

thangka is a rolled-up, portable picture painting that can represent numerous ideas and philosophical points of the Buddhist tradition. The tattooing also represents a thangka, not that it can be rolled up in its present state, but because it is portable. The thangka’s most important role is in one’s sadhana or perfection in meditation, for example, on one’s chosen deity (ishta-deva).  Essentially these are memory devices and, in a similar manner as the Egyptian Books of the Netherworld, the Bardo Thodol would be used as a “rehearsal.”  Moreover, and like the Books of the Netherworld, not everyone owned or had immediate access to these very sacred, magical pictures. Thus they were and still are a “teaching aid. Monks entering villages unroll a particular Thangka, for example, the wheel of life (pava chakra) and draw great attention.

The tattooing took many months to complete and is rendered here in sequence.

Mid-top are the Vidyadharas, or bearers of knowledge, each with his consort, dancing on a lotus. They are shown with the corresponding colors of the Transcendental Buddhas. Their job is to guide the deceased to paradise, but this only happens if the deceased recognizes that their blinding light is emanating from himself. Thinking that the light is coming from the Vidyadharas is a temptation. The Text reads:

Flanking the center image of Samantabhadra are the six Manushi (Mortal Manifestations) Buddhas. They are the past manifestations of the historical Buddha (Shakyamuni, which means sage of the Shakyas, the tribe to which he belonged). As you reincarnate, hopefully like the Buddha, you move up through successive stages of illumination. The Manushi guard the entrance to the six worlds of rebirth. Their job is to persuade the deceased to go toward illumination or Buddhahood and not enter into their realms; why invent the wheel. The first Manushi Buddha (middle Left-side on top of other two), holds a lute in his hands. He is in the realm of the gods.

The Buddha beneath him on the left is carrying a sword in his right hand and a representation of a bird, possibly a vulture, in his left hand. The Buddha on the right has his right hand in the Varada Mudra position indicating a summoning of Heaven to witness the Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, who is seated in a lotus position. This hand gesture (Varada Mudra) is also a manifestation of Ratnasambhava and wish granting.

Manushi Buddha right side, on top, is holding a khakkhara or hikkala in his right hand. This staff served three functions. First, as a walking stick, second to frighten away snakes and scorpions while walking on paths, and third, when shook it tells to others that they are in the presence of a begging Buddhist. In his left hand he is holding a begging bowl.

The Buddha underneath on the right has his right hand in the Abhaya Mudra or “don’t be afraid,” fearlessness mudra exhibited by Shakyamuni when he reached enlightenment under the Bo tree. His right hand is clutching a book or a long bone, perhaps a femur. The Buddha to the left is somewhat of a puzzle. The Left hand appears to be clutching a long bone (femur) with a brain on top, while the right appears to be in the Abhaya Mudra but with a flame issuing forth and almost sitting on his right shoulder. This represents the impermanence of all.

Right and Left Sides

The figures on the right and left sides are symbols representing the antiquity and philosophy of the artist who painted this thangka along with deities of protection. The right side contains seven figures: In the center is another manifestation of the primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra (the center large figure). Thus there are three Samantabhadra representations, that is, Samantabhadra, Vairochana, and Vajradhara.

Vajradhara is of central significance in the Mahamudra School, which represents the higher spiritual teaching in this form of Buddhism. Vajradhara refers to the “three bodies” (trikaya): Dharmakaya, which is the unity of the Buddha with everything existing, but it also represents the law (dharma) or the extensive rules of living connected to Buddhist monks in general. Next is Sambhogakaya, which is the “body of delight”—sort of a Buddha paradise. And Nirmanakaya, or the “earthly body in which Buddhas appear to men in order to fulfill the Buddhist’s resolve to guide all beings to liberation.”

On the top and under Vajradhara are lamas wearing peaked red hats indicating that they represent the Nyingma order. This is the school of the ancients or the oldest Buddhist traditions of Tibet brought to Tibet by Padmasambhave and the monks Vimalamitra and Vairochana in the 8th Century. There are some hidden texts connected to this tradition which, according to tradition, will be brought forth at the proper time. The Bardo Thodol is one of these.

On the top and bottom of these lamas are a black-hated lama (on the top), belonging to the Karmapa Kagyu, and a red-hat lama of the Shamarpa Kagyu. The black hated lama is the “man of Buddha-activity,” the spiritual authority of the Karmapa Kagyu and the oldest tulku lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Tulku refers to “transformation body” or reincarnation body; several tests are used to determine that this is the reincarnation of a previously deceased person. Some of these tests are shown in the movie, The Littlest Buddha. The red-hat lama or Shamarpa Kagyu belongs to a similar school as the Karmapa, that is, direct teaching from master to student. This school represents a special “Mahamudra” (great seal) type meditation. This is the meditation of emptiness and is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Zen and contains three aspects: 1) View—insight that the timeless nature of the mind is emptiness and luminosity. 2) Meditation—the direct, effortless experience of the nature of the mind. 3) The action of spiritual freedom leaving behind all convention. In other words, you realize that all is illusion.

In the top and bottom of the right side and top and second down on the left, are the krodha guardian deities. Top right is Yama (yellow) and bottom right is Hayagriva (red). The wrathful krodha are top left, Takkiraja (white), followed by Vajrapani (blue). On the left, third from the top, is Mahakala (Black Time), a guardian of the teachings. He also protects against anything that obstructs spiritual development. On the bottom left side, green in color, is another manifestation of Vajrapani. Vajrapani is the embodiment of the Buddhas’ infinite power. He is green in color and wears a tiger-skin cloth representing fearlessness. His right hand is in a threatening mudra for overcoming hindrances. In his right he holds a vajra (diamond-headed scepter) which, like the thunder bolt of Zeus, symbolizes power, the enlightened power of full spiritual awakening.

The Eight Auspicious Items

In the original Thangka the eight auspicious symbols are displayed at the base of Samantabhadra (center Buddha) and to the right and left of Vairochana.

Background and Coloring

The background for the thangka has been applied and then the coloring completed. Ratnasambhava was colored first, and the Vidyadhara, second.


This is one of the five transcendental Buddhas whose name means “Born of the Jewel.”  Ratnasambhava is a meditation on arrogance. He has a ghanta (bell) in his left hand, and a triratna in the right.  The Ghanta is a Tibetan Buddhist ritual prop representing feminine power and the wisdom to receive the word of the Buddha. The triratna is a Buddhist emblem symbolizing the three “jewels,” (or refuges) of Buddhism, that is the Code (Buddha), the Creed (Buddha-dharma), and the Sangha (the community of believers or Cult). A ritual gesture is performed by crossing the ghanta and triratna over the chest, representing union of the male and female principles. In other depictions Ratnasambhava holds his right hand in the Varada Mudra or wish granting posture.


Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light).  He works with the energy of delusional attachment and turns it to compassion. His right hand is in the vitarkamudra (reasoning hand gesture).  His prajna is Pandaravasin, his color is red, his mount is a peacock, and his element is fire. Amitabha is very important in Mahayana Buddhism (Large Vehicle Buddhism in which all can ride), the central focus around Pure Land Buddhism. Amitabha is the Lord of the Western Paradise or Sukhavati. I suspect that, just as in the ancient Egyptian Field of Rushes or Reeds, these were thought of as real, geographical places.  Over time, however, they became states of awareness.  In both cases this state of consciousness is a realization that you are the light, the illumination. Some history.

Amitabha is said to have been a king who encountered Buddhist teachings and dropped out, became a monk, and took on the name, Dharmakara. For the most part, illumination is something you have to work for—you have to sit in a corner and meditate on it for several years, or cook and sauté yourself in a Bikram Yoga class. Amitabha, however, is a little different.  He determined that when he became a Buddha he could acquire a paradise to which, through his will, all would be assigned a lotus, in that large pond, far away to the West.  You sit inside that lotus and the lotus is open to your level of spiritual awareness (illumination) at death. With this paradise he endeavors to stop the endless cycle of life and reincarnation.  This is the simple and quick method of reaching paradise, and all that is required is the invocation of Amitabha (Namu Amida Bustu or Namoo-mi-to-fo in Mandarin), in the simplest practice of this tradition at least.  It is particularly important the say Namu Amida Butsu (Veneration of the Buddha Amitabha) at the moment of death, which might be hard to do.  So, you better say it and say it until it is the first and last thing on your mind.   Amitabha Buddhism is not too dissimilar to many Christian groups, who, through interpretation of passages in the New Testament believe that to be saved and go to paradise all one has to do is accept Jesus as your savior and you are in.  You bypass hell and go straight to heaven where you will be issued a white gown, a pair of wings, and a harp.  And because there is nothing but light all around, you cannot see a thing. But, of course you have your harp to hold on to. At least in Sukhavati there is much to see as you look out over the lotus petals open to your level of illumination at death.

The Four Deities on the Left***

There are several kinds of deities represented on the left side.  The First, Takkiraja (white), and second, Vajrapani (blue), are krodha deities. The word krodha translates to “anger.” These deities represent polar opposites and contradictions; these are angry, wrathful, but protective deities—they drive away anger and wrath. Meditation on this contradiction leads to transformation and a turning of one’s anger into more useful pursuits. Vajrapani is a Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, or an enlightened being, who, although close to nirvana, chooses instead to enlighten others and not step over until all beings are illuminated.  He is a being of action ready and willing to take on the sufferings of others. Vajrapani represents the energy of the enlightened mind. He is shown dancing madly within a halo of flames, which represent transformation. He holds a vajra (thunderbolt) in his right hand, which emphasizes the power to cut through the darkness of delusion. Vajrapani looks wrathful, but as a representation of the enlightened mind, he’s completely free from hatred. Vajrapani means “wielder of the thunderbolt,” and a meditation on this deity helps to gain access to the irrepressible energy that Vajrapani symbolizes. Notice that these deities are on the margins and thus symbolize points of transition between the tangible and spiritual universes.

Third down from the top is Mahakala or Gonpobernaktsan (The Black-Robed one). This is Black Time or Great Time and a representation of Shiva in his destructive character. Mahakala is also one of the twelve great Lingas or phallic stones “Maha-kala, Maha-kaleswara.” This was the patron deity of Ujjain, a sacred city in India. Upon the capture of Ujjain during the reign of Alamsh, 1231 A.D., Mahakala was carried to Delhi and smashed in the name of Allah. This form of Siva is represented with eight arms holding various objects, for example, a human figure, skull cap with brains, heart, banner, khatvanga with vajra-flames coming from the top, and, using an arm or two he draws the veil of time over the sun, thus, Black Time. Mahakala is likewise chief of the Ganas (Fates) or attendants on Siva, and his consort’s name is Kali, the destroyer goddess with her tongue lapping up blood while she stands on her mate (Shiva) eating his guts—the perfect marriage. Mahakala wipes the slate clean sort of like the bar-keep who sprays disinfectant on the bar, polishes it to a mirror shine, waiting now for the next round of customers.

The last deity on the left is another manifestation of Vajrapani but green in color.  One cannot have too many Vajrapani on your side.

The Manushi Buddhas

A Manushi Buddha is one who has temporarily taken the shape of a man in order to bring others to illumination. The motive stems from compassion for the suffering of living beings. There are six Manushi Buddhas displayed, three on the left and three on the right. These Buddhas preceded Shakyamuni and were already in the Hinayana texts.  They are Vipasyin, Sikhi, Vishvabhu (left), Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kasyapa (right), with the seventh being Shakyamuni (Gautama). The last four belong to our present Kalpa or world time period.

Akshobhya (Lower left)

He holds in his right hand the Vajra or Diamond Scepter.  His color is blue and his prajna is Mamaki.  His mount is the elephant. Akshobhya, who represents all encompassing wisdom, turns one away from stupidity. A meditation on Akshobhya would be useful meditation for certain politicians. His element is space. Akshobhya means “Immovable;” he reigns over the eastern paradise Abhirati.  As a monk Akshobhya vowed never to feel disgust or anger towards any being.  He maintained his vow—he was “immovable,” and as such he symbolizes overcoming destructive passions and stupidity.***

Samantabhadra (Center)

Here we see (partially colored), in the center of the Tankga, Samantabhadra (“Complete God”) in tight embrace with his consort Samantabhadri. He is a manifestation of Adibuddha (“One Absolute”) originally portrayed as a tongue of flame issuing from the center of an open lotus. Adibuddha represents the idea that there is one god who creates/manifests in many ways, and some suggest (and I think wrongly) that this was borrowed from monotheism. In fact Samantabhadra and Adibuddha can be seen as manifestations of Brahmanthat energy, that everything and nothing happening in the same space, except there is no space.  In modern science this is the singularity that preceded the Big Bang.  In the ancient Egyptian tradition this energy is Amun.

Samantabhadra (not to be confused with a Bodhisattva of the same name) represents the potential for beginning. Here he sits naked in meditative posture—his legs in the lotus position (padmasana) and hands in the meditation mudra (dhyani)—holding the very beautiful Samantabhadri in tight embrace. Her face is pointed upward with lips pursed waiting but ready to move to the field of action, while Samantabhadra looks serenely ahead contemplating without fear or desire.  This is the lamb sleeping with the lion in Christian mythology.  Rest assured that the lion will eat the lamb, but right now, nothing is happening; we are not in the field of time.

Above Samantabhadra dance the Vidyadhara, and below is Vairochana, one of the Transcendental Buddhas.

It took over four hours to complete both Samantabhadra and Vairochana. Vairochana (white in color representing water), the Illuminator, is in tight embrace with his consort Lochana. Unlike Samantabhadra Vairochana is in the field of time. When water is clear you can see with depth and clarity, but when muddy you can only have an imagination. Anger muddies the water and allows our imagination to often get the better of us. Vairochana helps us see that anger is only a possibility and often muddies the water. The underlying energy, however, can be used in positive or negative ways.

Coloring the Right Manushi Buddha, Amoghasiddhi, and Images on Right Side

These images, described earlier, were colored on December 20, 27, and 28, 2005, respectively. Usually there is more pain sensation when coloring because the artist has to ink in large areas of flesh unlike outlining. However, my experience is that there is more pain sensation left of the spinal column than on the right. The pain, however, can be eliminated or at the very least moderated by relaxing into the pain. That is to say, by relaxing all muscles, the pain changes in intensity (see Rush – Spiritual Tattoo, 2005).

Beginning the Background (January 3, 2006)

Coloring the background took some time to complete. The background around Ratnasambhava (left corner) was completed first. During this process Kim touched up parts of Ratnasambhava where the ink didn’t “take” (see Rush – Spiritual Tattoo, page 130, for technical reasons why this happens).

Background finished (March 16, 2006)

The border (Right Border) was also completed on March 16; finishing the border will take another session.  Tattooing will now proceed to the front piece, which will look like a patch-work quilt with each square depicting a major mythological theme from various areas of the world.  A discussion of the Bardo Thodol is also found in The Twelve Gates (2007), by John A. Rush.

Except for some touch up this brings the tattooing to an end. However, I have many dreams and prophecies to render in a future publication (see dreams connected to The Twelve Gates).