I just returned from the Dance Brigade (of San Francisco) performance of their new piece entitled “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing,” which, for those of you who don’t know as I did not, is the original literal title of what the Western world refers to as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead.” It is also referred to as the “Bardo Thodol.” I know very little about Eastern religions and so did not know that the “Bardo Thodol” is read aloud to the dead from the time they are dying, through death, and during the time between death and reincarnation.
Tibetan religion teaches that we progress through many lives in the process of liberating ourselves from our negative karma so that we can ultimately become enlightened and liberated from the constant return to the earthly plane that happens when we are reincarnated. Interestingly, this very week I am reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of my Familiar, which I read many years ago and forgot so am rereading. One of the characters in Walker’s book, Lissy, remembers many lives through which she has passed. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Lissy explains that when people get old and approach death, they are in the habit of looking at death as a resting place, as peace. They imagine that they will finally put down the burdens of this world and move on to the spirit realm. But Lissy does not let us off the hook. She says that we do not escape the tangle in this world so easily. We are destined to be reincarnated and to return to continue figuring it out, reversing the damage, cleaning up the environment, and all the rest of the hard work that needs to be done. We cannot so easily escape the mess the world is in. Lissy goes on to say that what scares her most is not death but what she will find going on in the world when she is reincarnated back into it, i.e., how much worse the situation will be.
The “Bardo Thodol” is read aloud to the dead because it is thought that when someone is newly dead, their awareness is confused and that they need help and guidance to advance to enlightenment and liberation or else to their return to the earthly realm through reincarnation. The Dance Brigade’s performance was a representation of one spirit’s journey from death, through the afterlife, and back through the doorway of entry for reincarnation. Walker’s character Lissy basically tells us that we are not allowed to throw our hands up and give up, to grow old and die in peace. One way or another, we will have to work through this mess, make sense of it, heal what has been damaged, in order to come to enlightenment, which occurs when we recognize the luminosity of awareness. Not when we simply see the luminous, for the Tibetan Buddhists believe that we always see it upon death each time around, but when we recognize it, for we don’t often recognize what we are seeing.