The Evans-Wentz edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol -- as it is more properly titled -- was first published in 1927, but it gained enormous attention in the 1960s and 1970s when interest in Eastern philosophy was rising in the West. Traditionally, the text is believed to have been composed by Padmasambhava, an 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar who was among the first Buddhists (if not the first) to bring Buddhism to Tibet. Anticipating the persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century, Padmasambhava is believed to have hidden numerous texts to be uncovered by future generations. In the 14th century, Karma Lingpa is said to have discovered one of these texts, titled Peaceful and Wrathful Deities, the Natural Liberation of Intention, part of which is the Bardo Thodol or Great Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State. This English translation of the title is apt, as the text describes the experiences of a recently deceased person as he or she passes from one life to the next. Furthermore, the text is read ritually in the presence of the deceased in order to focus his or her disembodied consciousness on liberation with the hope of achieving a more fortunate rebirth or escaping the cycle of rebirth entirely.
The intermediate period (bardo) between lives is said to last 49 days. This period is divided into three stages: the Chikhai Bardo, the Chonyid Bardo, and the Sidpa Bardo. During the Chikhai Bardo, the consciousness of the deceased is confused. Consequently, the reading of the Bardo Thodol in the presence of the deceased's body is intended to focus his or her attention on the Dharma, allowing the deceased to achieve immediate enlightenment. Immediate (or sudden) enlightenment is thought to be possible by Tibetan Buddhists and it is particularly possible during the bardo between death and rebirth. The Chikhai Bardo is known as the Bardo of the Moment of Death. Enlightenment and liberation come to the deceased if he or she is able to recognize the clear light of reality that appears during this stage. If, however, the deceased becomes frightened of the clear light, he or she will go on to experience the Chonyid Bardo, known as the Bardo of Reality.
During the Chonyid Bardo, the deceased is visited by peaceful and wrathful deities. In the first five days the deceased is visited by peaceful deities, namely, the five dhyani buddhas: Vairochana, Vajrasattva, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi on successive days and each accompanied by their consorts and retinue. With the appearance of each dhyani buddha, the deceased has the opportunity to recognize reality and attain enlightenment. If, however, he or she fails to do this, then all of the deities, their consorts, and retinues appear on the sixth day, presenting another opportunity for enlightenment. Failing this, the deceased is presented on the seventh day with a final chance for enlightenment by peaceful deities: the "Knowledge-Holding Deities" from the "holy paradise realms."
The deceased then experiences seven days of wrathful deities (or hekula). The first five of these deities are in fact the same peaceful deities that appeared earlier, but now appearing in their wrathful forms. On the 13th day, eight other wrathful deities appear to the deceased and on the 14th day, four female "door keepers" appear along with numerous additional wrathful deities. In the Tibetan tradition, hekula are guardians, representing a person's determination to defeat the obstacles to enlightenment. So while they appear fearsome, they offer the deceased additional chances for sudden enlightenment.
Failing (or fearing) to recognize reality when presented with it face-to-face during the 14 days of the Chonyid Bardo, the deceased enters the Sidpa Bardo, known as the Bardo of Seeking Rebirth. Here, the deceased flees from the terrors of the previous bardo and seeks escape from the terrible face of reality that appears to the person encumbered with bad karma. The deceased is attracted to wombs out of which he or she might be reborn into the realm of samsara. The text explains how the deceased should go about closing wombs to avoid rebirth in particular bad circumstances and how to choose a womb out of which to be reborn. One's karma, however, will tend to determine where one is reborn. One might be reborn in any of the six realms as a denizen of hell, a hungry ghost (preta), an animal, a human, a demi-god (asura), or a god (deva) depending upon one's karma.
The Bardo Thodol is considered among a genre of literature known as a tantra. These works are central to the form of Buddhism common to Tibet known as the Vajrayana. Tibetan Buddhism is often considered a form of Mahayana Buddhism, but the veneration of the tantras justifiably separates Tibetan Buddhism from Mahayana Buddhism. The Vajrayana emphasizes a number of ideas that make this clear. First, the possibility of sudden enlightenment distinguishes Vajrayana from the Mahayana tradition which emphasizes the need for numerous reincarnations to build up the necessary merit to achieve enlightenment. Second is the veneration of the lama or teacher. All forms of Buddhism recognize the importance of respect for the Buddha and other spiritual guides, but the Vajrayana takes this veneration much more seriously. The trisarana, or "three refuges" which Buddhists embrace, are composed of the Buddha, the dharma (the teaching), and the samgha (the community of Buddhists). Taking refuge in these three "jewels" is something like offering a basic profession of the Buddhist faith -- that is, committing the Buddhist to an intent to gain enlightenment. In the Vajrayana, a fourth jewel is sometimes recognized, i.e., the specific teacher who initiates the follower to the path. Third, the Vajrayana is characterized by an elaborate set of symbols that is used to educate and focus the attention of the Buddhist on the path to enlightenment. This has generated a rich body of art used in its rituals. Fourth, throughout India and the cultures it has influenced, there is a belief in the magical, superpowers of enlightened beings called siddha. Such beings play a prominent role in the Vajrayana. Much of these aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are consonant with the shamanistic beliefs of the Bon religion that had been practice in Tibet prior to the coming of Buddhism.
The Bardo Thodol exemplifies the importance of many of the above distinguishing features of Vajrayana Buddhism. Upon death, sudden enlightenment is the goal of the elaborate rituals conducted by the "spiritual friend" (or lama) who reads the text in the presence of the deceased's body with the expectation that the disembodied consciousness of the deceased is capable of hearing the guidance the lama is offering. These practices seem like so much superstition to a materialist way of thinking; however, adept practitioners of the Vajrayana emphasize the symbolic nature of the seemingly magical elements of their tradition. The symbolism in the Vajrayana is, of course, lost on many lay practitioners. Consequently, the tradition is characterized by both common teachings and esoteric teachings. The former is meant for the layperson while the latter is meant for the adept. In light of this, one can see the importance of the rituals and descriptions in the Bardo Thodol in two ways. First, one can understand them literally as efforts to assist the deceased in achieving liberation or a preferable rebirth. Second, one can understand them as disguised (symbolic) efforts to manage the grief of survivors and remind them of some of the basic tenets of Buddhism: life is temporary, attachment to it produces suffering, and the acquisition of merit and an clear understanding of reality will bring about a better future circumstance or even final liberation.
The Bardo Thodol is a fascinating window into a much misunderstood tradition of Buddhism. Much of the text is gripping and colorful. Unfortunately, it will be rather puzzling to anyone without a fairly good background in Buddhism and particularly Vajrayana Buddhism.