Birth, Death, and the Bardo Plane
by Kyogen Carlson
Editor’s Note: This is an edited transcription of the first talk given after we moved from the southeast Madison St location to meeting at the Jason Lee Elementary School cafeteria June 15, 2014. Kyogen died suddenly September 18, 2014. Transcribed by Jeff Stookey, and edited by Genko Rainwater.
We have many people to thank for help with the move from there to here. It’s just amazing. We’ve reconstituted in this new location almost seamlessly and very quickly. Thanks to the organizational team who worked on the logistics of getting this all together. I heard people make the comment, “It’s like we’re back home. This is like where we’ve been.”
It’s wonderful to see everyone here. I meant to say that at breakfast, too. We were all there…the same teapot, the same bowls, and the same wonderful people. Oh, we’re all still here. So thank you all for making this happen so nicely.
Today’s talk is “Birth, Death, and the Bardo Plane.” This week’s bulletin had a description of the fact that we’d left the Madison Street place, and we were starting this place, and we had a matriculation ceremony [high school seniors from Dharma School to the adult Sangha] and I thought, “Well, there you are, ‘Birth, Death, and the Bardo Plane’ and you can figure out which is which.”
Birth and Death. These are concepts that we know. Any adult knows what birth and death is. We all experience them all around us. We see them happen. One thing that’s true is that nobody really understands them. We see them, we know what they are, but nobody really understands it. It’s a mystery. In addition, Buddhism and Zen have a particular understanding of it, and I’ll get to that a little later.
The Bardo Plane, however, is more mysterious. Plane here is a realm or a state. Bardo is a Tibetan word. And it’s now commonly used in American Buddhism. One thing I like about American Buddhism is that it has taken terms and expressions and practices from all these different traditions, so all the different lineages refer to Bardo even though it’s a Tibetan term, and most lineages use Sanzen and Zafu which are Japanese and most also use the term Metta which is Pali from Southeast Asia. Bardo is a Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word antarabhava. That’s the original, and it means “in between state.”
So we look around. Our old life, our old venue is gone; our new life, our new venue is under construction. So that’s death and birth, and here we are, in the Bardo plane. In between.
Now, if you look on the wall over here, there’s a big leopard [a mural of the Jason Lee Leopards]. One of the things about Bardo Plane the way it’s often described, is that there’s a phase when wild beasts start nipping at your heels to propel you on, you know, to get you moving. So we’re well afoot.
I’m going to give a little historical information about how the antarabhava, the Bardo, the in-between state, has been viewed. It’s got a long history. I’m quoting here from Wikipedia.
Used loosely, the term ‘Bardo’ refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable…
This is that letting go. The end of something. There’s a cessation. We talk about the first pure precept of cessation [Cease from Evil, Release All Self-Attachment]. That’s complete cessation. So there’s a moment of real clarity there.
…and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions.
Now this sequence is significant and I’ll come back to that.
For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the Bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth.
That is how the Bardo Plane is generally understood. I should mention that the Tibetan Buddhist view of the Bardo is very elaborate and it built up over time. But much earlier in India, different Buddhist schools debated this concept of intermediate existence. So that the Sarvastivadans and four other major schools accepted this intermediate state, while the Theravadins and the Mahasamghikas did not. But it is upheld in Vasubandu’s Abhidharma Kosha.
This is Wikipedia quoting Fremantle:
Originally, bardo only referred to the period between one life and the next. And this is still its normal meaning when it is mentioned without any qualification. There was considerable dispute over this theory during the early centuries of Buddhism, with one side arguing that rebirth (or conception) follows immediately after death, and the other saying that there must be an interval between the two. With the rise of Mahayana, belief in a transitional period prevailed. Later Buddhism [particularly tantric and Tibetan] expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states [bardo states], covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that lies between two other states. Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, is the prototype of the bardo experience, while the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods.
So by that teaching, it’s right here. It’s right here.
By refining even further the understanding of the essence of bardo, it can then be applied to every moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a continual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future.
This is close to a Zen perspective, although Zen says let’s not get so complicated about this – life is flow. That’s it.
Here’s a quick description of the classical Bardo experience. At the moment of death there is a radiant light that appears. It’s like this tunnel, this white light, and this goes back to early Buddhist teaching. There’s this radiant light that is a portal directly into nirvana. If we can let go and move forward completely, completely, at that moment, we can enter. However, karma and habit energy make it difficult. So it means that you have to be well prepared, already dropped a lot of baggage. If you’re hauling a lot of baggage you just can’t get through that hole. So we slip past.
Then beneficent beings come forward, very gentle and loving beings come forward, and try to encourage us into beneficial rebirth. But again if karma and habit energy make it difficult to accept this offering, we slip past. So working on our karmic entanglements is really important for making this work smoothly.
It continues like this until we get to the wild beast stage kind of ripping and clawing at us which propel us into rebirth on base desire and so we find parents that match our karma and, voila!, conception and where karma leads us. We’re whipped around by karma instead of directing ourselves in a more conscious way.
Here are some everyday life versions of Bardo, and what life and death, or birth and death in a general Buddhist sense, is. For example, the loss of a relationship, that’s a death of a self. The self that’s in a relationship is disintegrating as the relationship disintegrates, and we feel this loss of self. A loss of a job does that. Any kind of loss, there’s a self entangled with the condition and that is just deteriorating.
In Zen terms, death is every moment, every moment a self dies. Birth is every moment a self appears. Letting go of one moment and stepping into the next is life and death. Birth and Death. So it’s a dramatic change we feel as the loss of a self that’s wrapped up with a circumstance or a condition.
I use this example of someone habitually in bad relationships. That’s a habit pattern, habit energy that’s very difficult to break.
When someone who does this is coming to the end of one bad relationship, that’s a death and it’s traumatic and difficult, dramatic, and eventually the relationship dissolves. At that moment, there’s the light of liberation which is available if they want to walk through it. But karma and habit energy make it very difficult – they can feel a certain liberation there but they’re dragging all this baggage along so they don’t really take the steps that they could.
So then beneficent beings come forward, all their friends, all the people who commiserate and maybe offer advice. “Why don’t you do something different this time?” “I know a nice guy.” “Here’s a nice birth, try this one.” But habit energy is really strong and people are inclined to go back to what they know. So they don’t take these suggestions, and maybe they’re not so good anyway, but they have an opportunity to do something different, and they don’t.
Eventually things get worse and get difficult and people stop coming around, stop being so kind, and pretty soon this compulsion towards rebirth appears. They want this rebirth of the self in relationship. This is a strong impulse, karma and habit energy, so they look for someone who matches their previous incarnation, the self, and they’ll find that same pattern again. That’s the Bardo Plane and how karma and habit energy work in this transition we call Bardo or intermediate state.
An important point here is that beings can move on at any point in the transitional period and sooner is better than later. There’s more liberation there, although some people can choose to make a bad decision just like that [snap] so that’s not always the case. But as far in terms of this Bardo description, when we take the options quickly, we’re more likely to make a good choice.
Our Zen tradition doesn’t go into a whole lot of discussion about this sort of thing; it’s more simple. Daily life practices die completely each moment. Say “Yes.” If something falls apart, don’t hesitate, just “Okay, it’s gone.” Be born without hesitation. Say “Yes.” But always with open hands. This is immediate transition, without an intermediate state. The kind of birth and death I’m talking about is every affirmation that we experience, every success, every word of praise, there is the birth of a self. We receive it. Sometimes it’s very difficult to receive this praise or this affirmation. Receive it completely, but with open hands. No attachment. It’s just what it is.
Sometimes we’re very busy trying not to notice this affirmation. We should notice it. Appreciate it. But not be caught in it.
Every negation, every word of blame, every failure is a death. Every loss is a death of a self. Our expectation, our hope is dashed and there’s a self bound up in it that’s gone. Accept it completely. No resistance. But no regret either. You know, just let it be.
And what we do with these two things, birth and death, affirmation and negation, even as we accept it, is still up to us. We choose how we respond, we just have to accept that it is. So it’s not fatalism. It’s just what it is, and we respond to it as whole-heartedly as we know how. Wisdom arises from this. We let both come, we let both go. Each moment new, but we need to be clear exactly what each moment brings, what the truth of it is. And then we can take the best action within that state. Resisting one and grasping the other is like the Bardo Plane, we don’t move on to the next clear moment, we stay in this resistant stage, this fighting it, this “if-only” stage of all that stuff. So we are dragged by our stubbornness into whatever comes next instead of choosing.
Looked at this way, this room, this moment of the flow of Dharma Rain is not a Bardo Realm at all, it is our next rebirth. This is it. Here we are. If and when we fully embrace it – and we’re doing really well, I appreciate that – here we are.
You can think of this as positive thinking without expectation. Which is different from wishful thinking, being positive to try to get what you want. You know, the power of positive thinking is close, but no cigar. There’s birth attachment, or death aversion in trying to manipulate circumstance by being real positive about it. That kind of works; I mean, if you’re really positive, good things tend to happen. But if you’re open handed you can actually see what’s there much better, see the opportunities that are really there. If you have your eye on a particular thing, you can miss what’s there, trying to get something else. Just be positive. Just say yes.
So practice leads to a balance of birth and death, joy and disappointment, and this is liberation.
Here’s a koan, the famous Baizhong’s fox which is Case 8 in the Book of Serenity. Also Case 2 of The Gateless Gate.
Baizhong is a famous Chinese Ch’an master [Zen master] in the Tang dynasty, in the classical period. He established the monastic rules, and his temple is venerated for that, because it freed the Ch’an tradition from Imperial and noble interference and allowed it to become more independent.
The story is that for a period of time he gave his morning talk to the assembly, and he would notice that there was an old monk at the back of the assembly who he didn’t recognize. The old monk turned up every morning for a period of time and then as the assembly broke up, he disappeared. He was just gone.
But one morning after the assembly dispersed, he was still there. And he came forward to Baizhong and he said, “I have a question. In an age in the past I was the priest of this mountain [mountain is often used as a term for a temple]. While I was the priest here, a monk asked me ‘Is an enlightened person bound by cause and effect, bound by karma?’ and I answered ‘No.’ We can free ourselves from our karmic entanglements, but when he asked this question ‘is he still bound by karma?’ I said no, and because of this answer I have been born as a wild fox over and over for 500 years. I’ve been listening to your teaching and I hope you can say the turning word for me and liberate me.”
And Baizhong said “Ask me the question.” And the old monk said, “Master, is the enlightened person bound by karma, or not?” And Baizhong said, “The enlightened person is not deceived by karma.”
And at that moment he was awakened and he told Baizhong, “I’m not really a monk now at all, I’m the ghost of a dead fox and you’ll find my body on the other side of the mountain in a cave. Please give me the burial of a monk.” And so the next day, Baizhong at the assembly had the monks go out into this particular place where they found the fox and they gave him this funeral of a monk inside that fox cave. We saw that cave on a pilgrimage there in 2012.
I use this story a lot with people. Do not be deceived by karma, just see it clearly, understand it. That’s the first step. Sometimes in the story instead of “not being deceived by,” it’s translated “do not be blind to,” or “karma is not obscured to.”
Here is some of the commentary in the Book of Serenity:
On Baizhong Mountain in Hong prefecture every time Ch’an master DaiJi [an honorific title for Baizhong] ascended the high seat there was always an old man listening to his teaching. The old man had dwelt on this mountain in the time of Kashapa Buddha. Because he had answered a student mistakenly, up to the present he had degenerated into a wild fox being. Indeed it was because he himself leaned on a fence and stuck to a wall, sending people off to fall into a pit and plunge into a ditch.
That’s grasping, grasping attached to purity and his own answer.
Baizhong based his answer on actuality. Not falling into cause and effect, his forced denial, a nihilistic view. Not being blind to cause and effect, his finding the wondrous along with the flow. Here causality is accepted and there is a natural and even flow with it.
Causality is there. We flow with it. Not being blind to cause and effect is finding the wondrous along with the flow.
Have you not heard it told, how when Ch’an Master Juan was in the assembly of Ch’an Master Wei, he heard two monks bring up this story. One monk said, ‘Even if he is not blind to cause and effect, he still hasn’t shed the wild fox body.’
That means he has to stop being a wild fox. He has to act otherwise, in order to be born otherwise. You know you can accept but you’ve got to take that step. Step into the rebirth.
The other monk replied, ‘Just this is not falling into cause and effect, and when has he ever fallen into cause and effect?’
Now this means that having the body of a wild fox is not the problem. Being stuck is. Being trapped in it is.
The master was startled and considered these words unusual. He hurried to the bamboo cluster hermitage on Mt. Huangbo. As he crossed a valley stream he was suddenly enlightened. He saw Master Nan and told what had happened. Before he finished tears were streaming over his jaws. Master Nan made him sleep soundly on the attendant’s bench. But suddenly he got up and wrote a verse. ‘Not falling, not blind, for monks or lay folk there are no taboos. The bearing of a freeman is like a king’s. How can he accept the enclosure of a bag or covering by lid? One staff can be horizontal or vertical. The wild fox leaps into the company of the golden lion.’
“Not falling, not blind, not deceived. For monks or lay folks there are no taboos.” No traps. No snares.
“The bearing of a freeman is like a king’s.” Liberation is nobility.
“How can he accept the enclosure of a bag or covering by lid?” No labels. No roles. It’s not about that.
“One staff can be horizontal or vertical.” High and low is of no concern. Fox body is of no concern.
“The wild fox leaps into the company of the golden lion.” Golden lion is an epithet of the Buddha.
“Hold no distinction between ordinary beings and sages.” No distinctions between foxes and lions.
Just do not be trapped.
So think about the Bardo story of bad relationships. Five hundred years of bad relationships. Oy! I think that’s far worse than a fox. Being stuck over and over is like Groundhog Day. This is a Bardo Plane.
Our practice is to let go completely. No avoiding death. Step forward completely without hesitation. Embracing birth. No resistance. No Bardo.
So it occurs to me about this argument early on in India: is there a transitional stage or not? Both sides are right. Done really well with no grasping or aversion, there is no intermediate state. Moment [snap]. Moment [snap]. Moment [snap].
What’s grasping and aversion Bardo? And just so, any relationship could be fine. You know, this person in a bad relationship stepping out of their own role, may find they can be in it. You understand? They may be able to be in that relationship just fine. That’s rare, but it’s possible, if one has the bearing of liberation within it.
The last word goes to Dogen. This is from Shushogi:
“The thorough clarification of the meaning of birth and death, this is the most important problem for all Buddhists. Since the Buddha dwells within birth and death, enlightenment exists within birth and death. The latter do not exist. Simply understand that birth and death are in themselves nirvana, there being no birth/death to be hated, nor nirvana to be desired. Then for the first time you will be freed from birth and death. Realize that this problem is of supreme importance.”
Just this. This is not about concepts or abstractions, it is about practice. Each day, each moment, non-opposition to the flow of change, to what we like and what we do not like, clinging to neither, resisting neither, but also, whole-heartedly stepping into each moment. Then birth and death are nirvana itself. And this hall is already the Buddha realm.