According to Buddhist scholar and translator Robert Thurman (father of Uma), The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, “organizes the experiences of the between—(Tibetan, bar-do) usually referring to the state between death and rebirth.”
While The Book of the Dead has, of course, a long and illustrious history in Tibetan Buddhist life, it also has its place in the history of the West, particularly among 20th century intellectuals and artists. In the 1950s, for example, there was talk among Igor Stravinsky, Martha Graham, and Aldous Huxley to turn the Bardo into a ballet with a Greek chorus. Huxley, who famously spent his final hours on an acid trip, asked that a passage from the book be read to him as he lay dying: “Hey! Noble one, you named Aldous Huxley! Now the time has come for you to seek the way….”
In another, less trippy, example of Eastern mysticism meets Western artist, the video above (continued below) features poet and troubadour Leonard Cohen narrating a two-part documentary series from 1994 that explores the ancient Tibetan teachings on death and dying. As Cohen tells it above, in Tibetan tradition, the time spent in the between supposedly lasts 49 days after a person’s death. During that time, a Buddhist yogi reads the Bardo each day, while the consciousness of the dead person, so it is believed, hovers between one life and another, and can hear the instructions read to him or her. The film gives us an intimate look at this ceremony, performed after the death of a villager—with its intricate rituals and ancient, unbound, hand-printed text of the book—and touches on the tricky political issues of Buddhist practice in largely Chinese-controlled Tibet. In this first installment above,The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life, the Dalai Lama weighs in with his own views on life and death (at 33:22). Before his appearance, the film provides some brief context of his supposed incarnation from the 13th Dalai Lama and his rise to governance, then exile.
The second installment of the series, The Great Liberation (also above), follows an old Buddhist lama and a thirteen-year-old novice monk as they guide another deceased person with the text of the Bardo. The National Film Board of Canada, who produced the series (you can purchase the DVD on their website), did well in their choice of Cohen as narrator. Not only is his deep, soothing voice the kind of thing you might want to hear reading to you as you slipped into the between realms (or just slipped off to sleep), but his own journey has brought him to an abiding appreciation for Buddhism. Although Cohen has always identified strongly with Judaism—incorporating Jewish themes and texts into his songs and poetry—he found refuge in Zen Buddhism late in life. Two years after this film, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk at age 62, at the Mount Baldy Zen Center east of Los Angeles (where Ram Dass, Oliver Stone, and Richard Gere also practiced). Cohen’s “Dharma name”? Jikan, or “Silent One.”