Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion

Living Edition
| Editors: David A. Leeming

Tibetan Book of the Dead

  • Renee FordEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27771-9_200114-1


Intermediate State Future Generation Psychological State Transformative Process Qualitative Difference 
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The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States (bar do thos grol chen mo) or most commonly known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guiding instruction for a dying person who moves through the three states of living, dying, and intermediate states (bardo). These instructions are read so that the dying focuses on particular events that do not cause further suffering but lead the dying to either a good rebirth or Buddhahood. The text also offers ways to practice in daily life, prepare for the process of dying and afterlife states, and help those who are dying (Coleman and Jinpa 2007).

Padmasambhava introduced these teachings in Tibet during the eighth century and established these teachings as “treasure teachings” (gter-chos) so that the literature would be preserved for future generations. In the fourteenth century, Karma Lingpa (b. 1326) discovered The Profound Dharma of Self-liberated Wisdom Mind (kar gling zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol), a “treasure teaching” of the Nyingma (rNying ma) lineage. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a piece of this literature.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead fits within a genre of literature of Tibet called the Cycles of the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities (zhi-khro) and developed from the symbolism and iconography of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. The Guhyagarbha Tantra originates from the Nyingma (rNying ma) lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. The framework of this tantra is a psychological map that describes the natural pure nature of the ordinary mind. It does this through practices that incorporate the maṇḍala of the 42 peaceful deities and 58 wrathful deities with the natural pure nature and the mundane psychological states, respectively (Coleman and Jinpa 2007). In this same way, The Tibetan Book of the Dead integrates peaceful and wrathful deities into practices for the dying.

Psychological Interpretations

Chögyam Trungpa (1040-4-1987) explains that The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not only for the dying but a resource for daily life (Fremantle 2001). The text describes the process of moving through different states – bardo – where pain and pleasure are experienced simultaneously. In this way, the bardo is any experience where one has the feeling of groundlessness and uncertainty. He also explains that the bardo experience correlates to the six realms of existence – hell, hungry ghost, animal, human, jealous god, and god realms. These six realms represent particular psychological states, positive and negative. The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers meditative methods to work with one’s psychological states through relating them with the bardo experience and six realms.

First translated into English in 1927 by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is widely known by Westerners. In Evans-Wentz’s translation, Carl Jung discusses how the text can be read backward as a psychoanalytical tool. Jung attributes The Tibetan Book of the Dead as “the antinominal character of all metaphysical assertions, and also the idea of the qualitative difference of the various levels of consciousness and of the metaphysical realities conditioned by them” (Evans-Wentz 1960). In this way, Jung adapts the instructions into his framework of conscious and unconscious and the need to work with both in achieving “individuation.” He understands that the text shows parallels between Eastern metaphysical thought and discoveries of modern psychology (http://www.iaap.org/resources/academic-resources/abstracts-of-the-collected-works/53-abstracts-vol-11-psychology-and-religion-west-and-east 2016).

To conclude, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a set of practices that guide a person through bardo experiences, whether from dying, intermediate, and rebirth or through psychological states. Either way, the individual works through a transformative process.

See Also


  1. Coleman, G., & Jinpa, T. (Eds.). (2007). The Tibetan book of the dead, first complete translation. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  2. Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1960). The Tibetan book of the dead (3rd ed.). London: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Fremantle, F. (2001). Luminous emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan book of the dead. Boston: Shambhala Publications.Google Scholar
  4. Gimian, C. R. (Ed.). (2004) The Tibetan book of the dead commentary. In The collected works of Chögyam Trungpa, volume six. Boston: Shambhala Publications.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Rice UniversityHoustonUSA