Bardo State and visions of deities
The Bardo of Dharmata
Along with the six realms, we should have some understanding of the basic idea of bardo: bar means in between, and do means island or mark; a sort of landmark which stands between two things. It is rather like an island in the midst of a lake.
The concept of bardo is based on the period between sanity and insanity, or the period between confusion and the confusion just about to be transformed into wisdom; and of course it could be said of the experience which stands between death and birth.
The past situation has just occurred and the future situation has not yet manifested itself so there is a gap between the two. This is basically the bardo experience.
The dharmata bardo is the experience of luminosity. Dharmata means the essence of things as they are, the is-ness quality. So the dharmata bardo is basic, open, neutral ground, and the perception of that ground is dharmakaya, the body of truth or law.
When the perceiver or activator begins to dissolve into basic space, then that basic space contains the dharma, contains the truth, but that truth is transmitted in terms of saṁsāra.
So the space between saṁsāra and the truth, the space the dharma comes through, provides the basic ground for the details of the five tathagatas and the peaceful and wrathful visions.
These expressions of the dharmata are manifested not in physical or visual terms but in terms of energy, energy which has the quality of the elements, earth, water, fire, air, and space. We are not talking about ordinary substances, the gross level of the elements, but of subtle elements.
From the perceiver’s point of view, perceiving the five tathagatas in the visions is not vision and not perception, not quite experience.
It is not vision, because if you have vision you have to look, and looking is in itself an extroverted way of separating yourself from the vision.
You cannot perceive, because once you begin to perceive you are introducing that experience into your system, which means again a dualistic style of relationship.
You cannot even know it, because as long as there is a watcher to tell you that these are your experiences, you are still separating those energies away from you.
It is very important to understand this basic principle, for it is really the key point of all the iconographical symbolism in tantric art. The popular explanation is that these pictures of different divinities are psychological portraits, but there is something more to it than this.
One of the most highly advanced and dangerous forms of practice is the bardo retreat, which consists of seven weeks of meditation in utter darkness.
There are very simple visualizations, largely based on the principle of the five tathagatas seen as different types of eyes.
The central place of the peaceful tathagatas is in the heart, so you see the different types of eyes in your heart; and the principle of the wrathful divinities is centralized in the brain, so you see certain types of eyes gazing at each other within your brain.
These are not ordinary visualizations, but they arise out of the possibility of insanity and of losing ground altogether to the dharmata principle.
Then an absolute and definite experience of luminosity develops. It flashes on and off; sometimes you experience it, and sometimes you do not experience it but you are in it, so there is a journey between dharmakaya and luminosity.
Generally around the fifth week there comes a basic understanding of the five tathagatas, and these visions actually happen, not in terms of art at all.
One is not exactly aware of their presence, but an abstract quality begins to develop, purely based on energy. When energy becomes independent, complete energy, it begins to look at itself and perceive itself, which transcends the ordinary idea of perception.
It is as though you walk because you know you do not need any support; you walk unconsciously. It is that kind of independent energy without any self-consciousness, which is not at all fantasy—but then again, at the same time, one never knows.
The Nature of the Visions
The visions that develop in the bardo state, and the brilliant colours and sounds that come along with the visions, are not made out of any kind of substance which needs maintenance from the point of view of the perceiver, but they just happen, as expression of silence and expression of emptiness.
In order to perceive them properly, the perceiver of these visions cannot have fundamental, centralized ego. Fundamental ego in this case is that which causes one to meditate or perceive something.
If there were a definite perceiver, one could have a revelation of a god or external entity, and that perception could extend almost as far as a non-dualistic level.
Such perception becomes very blissful and pleasant, because there is not only the watcher but also something more subtle, a basic spiritual entity, a subtle concept or impulse, which looks outward.
It begins to perceive a beautiful idea of wideness and openness and blissfulness, which invites the notion of oneness with the universe.
This feeling of the openness and wideness of the cosmos could become very easy and comfortable to get into. It is like returning to the womb, a kind of security. Because of the inspiration of such union, the person becomes loving and kind naturally, and speaks in beautiful language.
Quite possibly some form of divine vision could be perceived in such a state, or flashes of light or music playing, or some presence approaching.
In the case of such a person who relates to himself and his projections in that way, it is possible that in the after-death period of the bardo state he might be extremely irritated to see the visions of the tathagatas, which are not dependent on his perception.
The visions of the tathagatas do not ask for union at all, they are terribly hostile; they are just there, irritatingly there because they will not react to any attempts to communicate.
The first vision that appears is the vision of the peaceful divinities; not peacefulness in the sense of the love-and-light experience we have just been talking about,
but of completely encompassing peace, immovable, invincible peace, the peaceful state that cannot be challenged, that has no age, no end, no beginning. The symbol of peace is represented in the shape of a circle; it has no entrance, it is eternal.
Not only in the bardo experience after death alone, but also during our lifetime, similar experiences occur constantly.
When a person is dwelling on that kind of union with the cosmos—everything is beautiful and peaceful and loving there is the possibility of some other element coming in, exactly the same as the vision of the peaceful divinities.
You discover that there is a possibility of losing your ground, losing the whole union completely, losing your identity as yourself, and dissolving into an utterly and completely harmonious situation, which is, of course, the experience of the luminosity.
This state of absolute peacefulness seems to be extremely frightening, and there is often the possibility that one’s faith might be shaken by such a sudden glimpse of another dimension, where even the concept of union is not applicable any more.
There is also the experience of the wrathful divinities. They are another expression of peacefulness, the ruthless, unyielding quality, not allowing side-tracks of any kind.
If you approach them and try to reshape the situation they throw you back. That is the kind of thing that continually happens with emotions in the living situation.
Somehow the feeling of unity where everything is peaceful and harmonious does not hold final truth, because whenever there is a sudden eruption of energies in terms of passion or aggression or any conflict, suddenly something wakes you up; that is the wrathful quality of the peacefulness.
When you are involved in ego-manufactured, comforting situations of any kind, the actual reality of the nakedness of mind and the colourful aspect of emotions will wake you up, possibly in a very violent way, as a sudden accident or sudden chaos.
Of course there is always the possibility of ignoring these reminders and continuing to believe the original idea.
So the concept of leaving the body and entering the luminosity, then waking up from the luminosity and perceiving these visions in the third bardo state could be seen symbolically
as being delivered into that open space—space without even a body to relate to, such open space that you cannot have the notion of union because there is nothing to be united with or by.
But there are flashes of energy floating, which could be either diverted or channeled in; that is the definition of mind in this case, the gullible energy which could be diverted into another situation or turned into a rightful one.
The possibility of freeing oneself into the Sambhogakaya level of the five tathāgata realms depends on whether or not there is any attempt to go on playing the same game constantly.
At the same time as these vivid and colourful experiences, there is also the playing back of the six realms of the bardo experience. The perception of the six realms and the perception of the five tathagatas are one state, but they have different styles.
It seems that the perceiver of the tathagatas, this kind of mind, has tremendous ability to keep the link between physical body and mind, very spontaneously.
There is no division between the spirituality of the mind and the spirituality of the body; they are both the same, so there is no conflict.
The book says that the first time you awaken from the unconscious absorption in the body, you have a visual experience, minute and precise and clear, luminous and terrifying,
rather like seeing a mirage in a spring field, and also you hear a sound which is like a thousand thunders roaring simultaneously.
In the mental state there is looseness and detached feeling, while at the same time overloaded with intelligence, as though the person had a head without a body, a gigantic head floating in space.
So the actual visual experience of this bardo state, the preparation for perceiving the visions of the tathagatas, is clear and intelligent and luminous, but at the same time intangible, not knowing where you are exactly;
and that sensual experience is also happening in the audible sphere, a deep sound roaring in the background, earth-shaking, but at the same time there is nothing to vibrate.
Similar experiences can also happen in life, although the absence of a physical body makes the bardo experience more clear and more hallucinatory.
In a life situation there is not the extreme aspect of the mirage, but there is a basically desolate quality, loneliness and flickering, when the person begins to realize that there is no background area to relate to as ego. That sudden glimpse of egoless-ness brings a kind of shakiness.