Travel in the Spiritual Worlds
The Tibetan Buddhist and Spiritualist Views of After-Death States
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition has concentrated more attention on helping the dying person cross the borders of death than any other living religious tradition. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other sources give detailed descriptions of the stages of death and afterlife, as well as instructions about how the dying individual should confront and react to these mysterious places and events. Dealing with a tradition that contains so many lineages, deities, and philosophical subsystems in a short article will necessarily involve generalizing about the tradition. Though the material is complex and sometimes difficult to interpret for a Westerner who must rely on English sources, the author will describe the stages of death, and attempt to show how they are relevant to our discussion of spiritual travel.
The Bardos or Stages of Death and the Afterlife
The realm of the afterlife exists in a space which Tibetan Buddhist religious practitioners describe as a bardo. The term bardo is a general term which literally means "in-between place" and in this context denotes a transitional state, or what Victor Turner calls a liminal situation. The bardo concept is an umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation, and spiritual luminosity. We focus in this essay on the bardos of death and transmigration. For the dying individual, the bardo of transmigration is the period of the afterlife that lies in between two different incarnations.
In Tantric Buddhist cosmology, existence has a foreground which consists of the many worlds of incarnation, and also a background which is the space between these worlds which is called the bardo world. The stars are the many worlds, and bardo of the afterlife is like the night sky which is the backdrop or the space where the stars are hung.
The bardo of death follows the initial experience of the dissolution of the four elements of the physical body at the time of death. These consist of something similar to the concepts of earth, fire, water, and air in the West, and are related to the progressive dissociation of the soul from the physical body. This dissolution follows a prescribed progression: the senses fail and the muscles lose their strength as the body becomes inert and still resembling physical matter (earth), there is loss of control over bodily fluids (water), the body loses its warmth (fire), and the breath fails (air). All this is experienced in sequence by the dying person when the person is able to remain conscious during the entrance into the bardo of death.
Note here that the "soul" in Tibetan Buddhism is only a collection (or bundle) of karma (credits and debits based on previous actions which mold both the habit patterns of the individual and the kinds of conditions encountered in life). In Buddhism, the soul has no substantial nature but otherwise the soul and this "collection" seem very similar and are functionally equivalent for our purposes. We therefore use the term soul above even though it is not a Buddhist term.
The Bardo of Death
Following the process leading up to death, the person's experience of the bardo of death commences. However, for most individuals, it passes by in a split second and goes unnoticed. Only those who have undergone training in and practiced meditation, contemplative prayer, and similar spiritual disciplines will likely even be aware of the bardo of death.
One description of the kind of meditation done by advanced practitioners consists of a conscious effort to "dissolve space into light", which if successful will propel the dying soul into an a state of light and bliss beyond the continual cycles of birth and death to which most souls are subject. The way this bliss and light is symbolized will vary from individual to individual and from religion to religion.
For those less familiar with such formal meditation practices, the act of remembering very bright light (such as, for example, remembering an experience of staring into the sun) and seeing that light as a source of pure awareness or divine love could produce a similar effect. A series of meditations and understandings that can be helpful as one enters or prepares to enter the bardo can be found on our Death Meditations page.
The spiritual aperture that opens briefly at the time of death presents a wonderful opportunity to those who can remain conscious and control their thoughts as they enter the bardo of death. This is probably why there is a common folk belief in the Hindu tradition which puts much emphasis on controlling and directing the last thought of the dying person. If this thought is strong, clear, and of a spiritual nature, it may permit the person to enter through this doorway into a spiritual world immediately at the time of death, and thus avoid the confusion of the bardo of the afterlife (or transmigration). In India, Mohandas Gandhi was recognized as a great soul (Mahatma) following his assassination when he was heard by people in the crowd to say "Ram" as he fell to the ground after being fatally shot. His last thought was that of a devotee uttering the name of God.
The First Bardo of the Afterlife
Following the bardo of death, the first bardo of the afterlife begins. For many souls including especially those fortunate souls who were spiritual seekers and have sought spiritual experience during life through religious practice, there will be several opportunities to meet with spiritual beings and enter the realms of enlightened beings. As such beings appear, they are sometimes frightening to the individual because of their spiritual power. Their appearance is accompanied by powerful lights and sounds that frighten and bewilder those who have not encountered intense spiritual states in the past. The spiritual light is described as having a terrifying brilliance and as luminous, clear, bright, and sharp.
The individual is also presented with a means of ending these encounters by paying attention to images and lights that feel comforting and familiar, and sometimes represent one of the passions that appeal to the person. This is where people's unconsciousness tendencies take control as they are variously attracted to jealously which can bring future lives of fighting and quarreling, pride which leads to another human rebirth, or aggression and violence which can lead to a rebirth in a hell world. Being attracted to these lights and images will cause the spiritual being to disappear and the opportunity to gain insight and enter their spiritual world will be lost. This is one of the important reasons for learning spiritual travel so that encounters with powerful spiritual states of consciousness become familiar and desirable instead objects of fear to be avoided.
For those experienced in spiritual travel who were able to enter spiritual states of light, sound, and emptiness during life, the first bardo may offer an opportunity to enter into these areas shortly after the time of death. Also, those with a devotional disposition who were able to develop a strong bond with a deity during life may have similar opportunities to enter into one of the heavens of that deity during the first bardo. The devotion must usually be intense and concentrated to draw the deity's attention in this circumstance. Also, those who were devoted to a guru or spiritual guide during life can call upon that being and ask for guidance. Although the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not primarily devotional, it like most of the world's great religious traditions contains devotional aspects where practitioners are encouraged to focus on powerful teachers or saints of the past or present as well as dakinis, bhairavas, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, and other helpful beings.
We should also note that the Near-Death Experience literature demonstrates that many people have guides and are not aware of them, and the guides appear as needed. So not knowing a guide does not mean one does not have one. These helpers and guides can appear as the person enters the bardo just as they commonly do when people have NDEs.
The traditional Western guides in the Catholic tradition were guardian angels with specific names and roles. The spiritual person could invoke and meditate on these angels during life, and they could appear to act as guides at the time of death if requested to do so. In addition, there are Kabbalistic angels that were part of older, more esoteric forms of Judaism who could also serve as guides to the dead.
While most angels are dedicated to specific gods, others can be independent and less focused on a single religious goal. However angels are now considered childish notions and fantasies which is an unfortunate loss to the culture. Angels are therefore no longer given serious consideration as spiritual helpers as they were in past centuries.
But from a Buddhist perspective, one can not depend on the good fortune of having a guide appear and should therefore make every effort to develop spiritually and not depend on others. People who fear death can read about how joyous and informative it is to encounter these guides during NDEs, and about how they often transform people's attitude towards death in the NDE literature.
The Second Bardo of the Afterlife
If the first bardo passes and attempts to access spiritual states were unsuccessful, the next bardo begins. The second bardo or the "bardo of becoming" is a stage in which the desires of the individual are said to carry the largely helpless soul through a great variety of intense emotional states. Good thoughts bring great bliss and pleasure, and hateful or negative thoughts bring great pain and desolation. The soul bounces from thought to thought as a torrent of thoughts and feelings come like a waterfall. Existing thought habits and desires are said to define the experience of the soul during the afterlife in this way. These extremes of confusion and disorientation are generally associated with more passionate and conflicted souls.
The focus of Buddhism is to limit desire and passion in individuals, and this goal becomes even more desirable because the negative results of such passion affects their experience in the bardo. There such passion and the negative emotions it may engender is magnified and becomes like a world that surrounds individuals and dominates their perception. However life experiences and memories of compassion, kindness, joy in other's good fortune and other Buddhist (or Christian) virtues will also influence their experience in the bardo. This motivates Buddhists to do good deeds and create good karma in life so that their experience in the second bardo will be more joyful.
Spiritual Travel and the Second Bardo
It is here where some experience and training in spiritual travel and out-of-body experience may be of greatest help. It may first help the individual maintain a state of detachment. The spiritual traveler who has experienced the inner world during life can take the whirlwind nature of inner world following death with more calm and detachment. Those who have read examples of the kinds of states encountered in spiritual travel located on other pages of this site will understand that some experimentation and discovery in the inner worlds may prepare the soul for many of the dynamics of the states it may encounter after death. The similarity of certain aspects of the near-death experience (a temporary bardo state) and elements of spiritual travel experience (the "tunnel" experience for example) show some common qualities between certain spiritual travel states and these bardo states.
The soul experienced in spiritual travel is less likely to be disoriented by this inner torrent of psychic experience. To put it another way, while the spiritual traveler or yogi swims through the ocean of consciousness, the inexperienced soul may feel more like it is drowning in that ocean. But as with a drowning person, the most important thing is to have a direction in which to swim to safety. The point of orientation or goal for the person in the second bardo may be a deity, a mantra, a prayer, a heaven, a guide, or some similar spiritual goal but the spiritual traveler must be able to focus and move towards that goal using meditative techniques learned and practiced during their former life in the physical world. This is the active approach of the spiritual traveler.
Ideally, the person who has meditated countless times in an effort to leave the body and travel in the spiritual world during life can enter into a final meditation as death approaches. In this final meditation, there will be no returning to the physical body but instead an extended meditation as one voyages into the bardo of death.
The spiritual traveler has an advantage because he or she has entered the waters of consciousness consciously on many occasions and is practiced at directing his or her experience in the inner worlds.
The greatest problems of the soul in the second bardo are negative emotions like guilt and fear (which results from a lack of familiarity with the inner worlds), and lack of conscious control over its own experience. Fear is particularly harmful because it fragments the self making concentration on one thing difficult or impossible, and this can lead to confusion and loss of conscious control.
The soul in the second bardo is many times caught in a dream state sometimes unaware that it has died, and incapable of taking action to raise its state of consciousness to a threshold level of awareness where it can direct its attention towards spiritual states.
This is one of the reasons it is important to do a regular spiritual practice during life. Doing meditation or prayer every day establishes a pattern of spiritual activity. It then becomes automatic and the habit of seeking after the divine reality continues during the after-death state where it can have powerful results. A daily spiritual practice differs from other more common spiritual practices such as going to church or temple because it is done more often than once or twice a week. Meditation therefore establishes a stronger habit pattern in the individual and is a valuable addition to group oriented spiritual activities such as attending church.
Regular meditation can also be more powerful because it is usually a less passive activity than church since it fully involves the individual in the meditative process rather than making a spectator out of him or her.
What the soul in the second bardo needs to do is "wake up", as in a lucid dream, and begin a meditation or mental exercise that draws it towards a desired stable and more conscious state of awareness where it can have some control and continue to evolve spiritually. The opposite of conscious control is a dream-like state where the individual experiences only the results of his or her previous actions, and mechanically moves from thought to thought based on thinking patterns developed during life.
Waking up within a dream is one of the activities the spiritual traveler practices when he or she leaves the body to travel the inner planes. Beyond this, the traveler is also always practicing and perfecting the art of directing his or her attention towards some desired state. Many or perhaps most Buddhist teachers claim that experience in the second bardo is completely determined by karma and deny that conscious control of experience is possible in this state. However it is the contention of the author that experience with meditation and actual spiritual travel experience during life can both be helpful in rising above the semi-conscious state characteristic of the second bardo, and moving into a more conscious and desirable state following physical death.
For those who practiced a devotional tradition in life, some will semi-consciously repeat a religious or a meditative ritual asking gods or intercessors to draw them out of the second bardo world. We see an example of an attempt to create such a ritual in the Catholic rosary, where Mary as intercessor is requested toPray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death ...This phrase is from the Hail Mary Prayer. One effect of the repetition of this prayer fifty times in the rosary is that such a prayer for help and intercession may become an automatic process, which will repeat itself in the bardo.
For those fortunate enough to be more conscious in these bardo states, a petition to a god, guru, guide, saint, or intercessor can be made in hopes that the individual will be lifted or guided out of the bardo worlds by one of those entities. But here again, the call must be concentrated and the ability to ignore the surrounding chaos somewhat developed. When such grace is given, it is a form of salvation where the individual is saved from the discomfort and confusion of the "outer darkness" of the bardo by a powerful entity - usually one that individuals formed a bond with in their former life. To use the swimming analogy, here the individual calls out to a lifeguard in hopes of being rescued from the turbulent waters of the bardo state. This is the more passive approach of the devotee.
We should also note that souls in this bardo are thought to be very sensitive to the thoughts and attitudes of those they knew during life. The Tibetans therefore put great effort into doing chanting, reading of sacred texts, and other religious rituals to help the dying soul on its journey in the afterlife. Praying for the peace and happiness of the dying person therefore has great value and provides a benefit to both the living and the dead. This process of sending good wishes to those who have recently died can create a positive spiritual atmosphere which can orient and bring peace to the person in the bardo realm, and can also counter some of the sorrow and upset that accompanies the loss of a loved one.
Humility in Death
Many religious and secular people engage in conscious or subconscious fantasies about the afterlife, and carry this weight of expectation with them into the bardo of the afterlife. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it becomes problematic if their expectations are not met. They can become aggrieved, disappointed, frustrated, and feel somehow victimized. They are being cheated or treated unfairly. They hoped to be congratulated for their piety and virtue or crowned as kings, or watch their enemies or those who believe differently from them suffer. This is especially true for certain forms of Christianity which say strong faith in God or Christ is a guaranteed ticket to heaven and that unbelievers and those of other faiths will be seen to suffer in hell. The extremely popular Left Behind series of books focuses on the happiness and self satisfaction of Christians associated with watching non-Christians suffer leading up to and during the "end times".
Traditional religious people sometimes believe they will be immediately rewarded in the afterlife. They expect a golden chariot or an angel to whisk them to heaven. They were told by religious authorities that the stronger their belief, the more likely they were to go to heaven. So the most dedicated and those with the greatest spiritual faith and confidence in their future salvation are likely to become the most confused and angry when these expectations are not met.
This expectation is associated with the popular belief that the soul undergoes some form of judgment prior to the "last judgment" (which occurs at the end of time) and goes to heaven immediately after death. The other approach is that the soul goes into a state of "soul sleep" in "the grave" (Hebrew: Sheol, see biblical passages Psalm 16:10 and Acts 2:27).
Sheol is often translated as "hell" but is actually the grave for the body of the dead person. Since there will be resurrection at a future time, they are considered to be unconscious or sleeping but the dead are actually fully dead rather than simply unconscious. When Christ returns, the "sleeping" faithful will rise from the dead (be resurrected), be judged, and ideally be given glorified bodies and eternal life.
This older resurrection of the body approach is a more orthodox position based on the Hebrew view of the afterlife that was supported in the Nicene Creed ("I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come."). This Hebrew doctrine opposes the "immortality of the soul" doctrine where the soul remains conscious after death which is a Greek view of the afterlife that became popular and accepted by many Christians and even some modern Jews.
When Jesus says to the repentant criminal next to him on the cross, "Truly I say to you today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42), one interpretation is, "I say today, one day you will be with me in paradise". This is consistent with the resurrection of the body argument. Another interpretation is, "Today you will be with me in paradise". This supports the immortality of the soul argument.
To return to different expectations of what occurs after death, both agnostics and "spiritual but not religious" people who lived a moral life or did good deeds sometimes expect a smooth passage to a new incarnation of their choosing or perhaps a joyous meeting with deceased family members and pets in the afterlife. Atheists and materialists expect an eternal, peaceful sleep and forgetting. They can resent and try to ignore or deny still being conscious and disembodied. They can rage against having to cope with an amorphous, shifting afterlife world that they in their former lives were sure did not exist.
People are often exceptionally talented at justifying and forgetting their occasional immoral, deceitful, or cruel actions in life and therefore think they are pure and deserving of the highest quality afterlife. This is a recipe for disappointment and a basis for resentment when they confront the results of their negative actions in the afterlife.
This sense of being wrong about the nature of the afterlife or being treated unfairly and deserving better can drag some people downward, and create an uncomfortable experience in the bardo of the afterlife. If one's afterlife expectations are not met, being humble and having an open mind as to what will occur is advantageous.
Being open to or requesting guidance from higher beings who are familiar with the geography of the bardo is a more desirable reaction to the confusion and disorientation that may occur.
For those without meditative skills or faith in guides, a simple faith directed towards a positive future might serve as a substitute. The notion of drifting on an ocean current slowly towards what is highest or holiest, or at least some positive outcome or state of happiness is a good approach. Being frustrated, aggrieved, and struggling as if caught in a rip current and drowning is something to be avoided. Patience and humility are required. This is the case if one does not encounter helpers, guides, family, or beautiful heavenly scenery immediately following one's death. Experiencing a gray area or some degree of confusion in the Bardo requires some preparation and a thoughtful and planned response to avoid the frustration that might lead to a downward spiral of fear and struggle.
Some dedicated and devoted souls will request that a deity or the supreme being take on their sins, and grant them salvation and a heavenly afterlife. They may be successful but nothing is certain in the complex world of the bardo of the afterlife. From a Buddhist perspective, heavens are not eternal but are basic components within a larger cosmos governed by reincarnation and its associated laws of causality. These in turn are based on a universal moral order. The actions of deities to save their devotees occur within this overarching system, and sins cannot simply disappear. They must be accounted for one way or another even when forgiven or suspended by a powerful deity.
The rational response to ignorance and helplessness concerning death is humility and admitting that one does not know much about the fundamental nature of reality. While we can talk in general terms about the afterlife, on an individual basis there is uncertainty and insecurity. As the song says, "the road is long ... that leads us to who knows where, who knows where" (from: He ain't heavy. he's my brother).
The recurring uncertainty, insecurity, and resulting suffering of humanity and all reincarnating beings is shown in the Buddha's observations below about the nature of existence. The Buddha's response to his insight was great compassion for all beings as he saw that they were bound to an unceasing cycle or wheel of death and rebirth. He saw that enlightenment was the only way to be liberated from this suffering.
Again and again they must leave the people they regard as their own, and must go on elsewhere, and that without ever stopping. Surely this world is unprotected and helpless, and like a wheel it turns round and round.
The repeating experiences of love followed by loss (because of death of a loved one or one's own death), creation and attachment followed by destruction and separation, and constant change leading in each life to sickness, old age, and death are considered to be woven into the tragic nature of life in Buddhism.
People who lived superficial lives primarily seeking pleasure, recognition, and power are usually out of their element when confronting great mysteries and the depths of existence.
But on the positive side, life offers endless opportunities for creating good karma by doing service to others which can give kind people wings to fly through the bardo of the afterlife. Parents support and love their children regardless of their limitations. People do difficult jobs well even when the pay is low and appreciation is nonexistent. People can choose to spread good will, kindness, and happiness to whoever they meet. Also, it is never too late to recognize the mysterious nature of life, and put one's feet on the path of seeking wisdom and the ultimate reality.
Adding Death to Your Bucket List
People sometimes have bucket lists (a list things they want to do before they die) towards the end of life that include activities like of skydiving, zip-lining, climbing high mountains, or facing other challenging physical tasks. Making the bardo of the afterlife into an extreme challenge (similar to preparing for and eventually doing an extreme sport) can be the last item on the list.
Seeing death as the ultimate adventure and an encounter with one of the greatest mysteries of the universe can sometimes help make the loss of one's life in the physical world more palatable. Entering the bardo becomes an exciting challenge rather than a burden to be feared and avoided.
The Third Bardo
The third and last stage of the bardo of the afterlife is the stage of reincarnation where the soul is pulled into another body to start a new life, often but not always in the physical world. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the most desirable world to be born in is the physical world, since it affords the most opportunity for spiritual growth and realization. The third bardo consists of a series of images determined by the soul's karma that lead to psychic vortices that draw the soul into a womb. The soul's reaction to the images (attraction or repulsion) determines which vortex the soul enters and in which womb the soul ends up. The Tibetan tradition gives detailed advice on which representations to choose and which to avoid in order to gain a desirable rebirth. Once reborn, the karma of impulse manifests to influence the person's actions and reactions in their new life.
The exception is being destined for a heaven or hell world does not require one be "born" there.
But for other worlds, this ability to choose a good incarnation requires discrimination, and a certain degree of conscious awareness. The New Age approach to reincarnation which claims we choose our new incarnation is idealistic and not always true from this vantage point. Many souls whose thoughts in life were tinged with or dominated by negative emotions, or those who have repressed and denied such emotion through lack of awareness or an unwavering commitment to "positive thinking" will likely be desperate to escape the confusion of the second bardo. They are therefore likely to grab on to the first opportunity that presents itself like a swimmer who grasps a log in dangerous rapids in hopes of making it to calmer waters. Choosing the first object (or incarnation) that comes along may not be the wisest choice.
The average person is said to spend a period of about forty-five days in the second bardo. However, passionate souls with strong desires or those responsible for evil acts in their most recent life are said to reincarnate almost immediately. In exceptional cases, the individual can stay in the bardo state for longer periods, and be drawn into its currents awaiting rebirth.
If the individual does not reincarnate in the physical world, he or she will go to one of the other five worlds of rebirth. These are the heaven worlds, the hell worlds, the world of hungry ghosts, the asura (demigod) worlds, and the animal worlds. Each of these is believed to be limited and inferior to obtaining another body in the material world. This is because they exist mostly to receive good or bad karma (the results of previous actions), and are not considered places to create new karma.
The least familiar of the above worlds is the asura world which is a place of conflict and struggle where kings, knights, and warlords battle each other for dominance. Persons who were fascinated with gaining and exercising power over others during life are said to be likely to incarnate in the asura realm.
The asura realm also offers the potential for rapid learning where the individual's actions produce clear and dramatic effects without generating the powerful karmic ripples that would normally occur in the physical world. It can thus be a kind of remedial world for those who are caught in negative repeating patterns which incline them to make bad decisions in the physical world incarnation after incarnation.
The hungry ghost realm is a place of need and desire where souls are denied fulfillment or given only small rewards. Here souls experience states of continuing anxiety and frustration.
The animal world is reserved for those whose extreme instincts for violence, gluttony, or sexual gratification dominated their previous lives in the physical world to the extent that they devolved into the instinctual and unreflective state of animal existence. One of the features of animal consciousness that is not usually mentioned is that animals often live in states of fear and agitation. This is because they must continually be on the lookout for predators. This can make devolving into states of animal consciousness less than ideal, and something that many would want to avoid.
The heaven and hell worlds have wide variations, but it is interesting that the Tibetan tradition has both burning hells (as in the Christian tradition) and freezing hells (present in Dante's Divine Comedy but not commonly known in Christianity).
Some people speculate about the basis and reason for different forms of punishment in the hell worlds. One Buddhist approach is that hells are based on extremes: isolation and crowding, starvation and revulsion to food or filth, hot and cold. People use different justifications when they cause harm to others. People in hell experience the extreme situations and suffering that they inflicted on innocent victims during life.
Hells are also the place where the attractive lies that people tell themselves about their immoral behavior and their denials of responsibility are eventually exposed and expiated. These intense hells are only relevant to a small number of people but with the rise of concentrated wealth and power, autocratic leaders and wealthy people can do great harm to large numbers of people.
The ideals associated with neoliberal economics and rugged individualism many of which are supported by "religious" people create a form of institutionally-sanctioned selfishness and moral myopia that justifies almost any action in the name of success and wealth. Powerful people must make every effort to avoid using the levers of power to harm others because the results of such harmful action can be truly horrid in their afterlife and future lives. Claims that the wealthy and powerful are "chosen by God" (based loosely on John Calvin's reformation theology) are often quite the reverse because their good fortune in their current life when used wrongly easily becomes more like a curse in the long run. See the biblical passages Luke 16:14-31 for an opposing Christian view where the rich, selfish man is punished after death rather than rewarded as one who is supposedly chosen by God.
We will also note here that the hell normally described by Catholic and Protestant clerics is based almost entirely on folk tradition. Their descriptions of hell as a fiery place of punishment are taken mostly from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha or "false writings" (specifically, the Book of Enoch), Dante's Divine Comedy, various Catholic monks writing of their personal visions of hell during the Middle Ages, and the Book of Revelation with its "end of the world" prophesy. This folk view of hell as a place of burning punishment is unsupported by the Bible except for a few apocalyptic passages in the last six chapters of the Book of Revelation (no devil, underworld space, or complex mythology of the levels of hell mentioned here). As a result, these passages in the Book of Revelation are very inconsistent with the most of the concepts of hell presented in the rest of the Bible.
Reading what the bible actually says about hell and punishment may reduce the anxiety of some Christians about the afterlife.
The author also argues that this misreading of the biblical text has justified our current state of perpetual war, and our focus on security, secrecy, and terrorism to the exclusion of civil and constitutional rights. Using the Bible to idealize war and then falsely claiming that we are "at war" also justifies, excuses, and even praises dishonesty as a tactic of war. This has resulted in the corruption of the political discourse that we currently see. We see this corruption in all manner of false stories in the alternate media, in the torrent of false claims by politicians, and in the willingness of religious people to support and even seek out false stories and clearly biased sources to justify their chosen world view. As with the communist system and its reliance on propaganda and misinformation, many Christians now believe that God and his representatives must rely on strategic dishonesty to bring about his chosen Christian world order.
These false Christian doctrines that focus on fighting evil as well as hell and punishment are used to justify eternal war. The false doctrines of hell and eternal punishment and their negative effects on society are explained further on the page titled Confronting Mistaken Concepts of Christian Hell.
Returning to Buddhism, we note that heavens are not entirely desirable in many Buddhist traditions because they are places where little learning takes place, and they do not allow for much creativity or compassionate action. They are thus viewed as vacation spots that promote happiness for the inhabitants but accomplish little in the way of spiritual maturation. Dependency on a deity is more likely to be viewed as a personal limitation rather than an ideal state of being. But those who choose the path of devotion to a deity obviously see it differently and find that salvation brings them to the best of all possible worlds.
There are different degrees of dependency on the deity in heavens which makes it difficult to determine the degree of self determination of the souls who exist in these heavens. Surrendering one's self completely to the will of a deity can mean giving up one's autonomy, independence, and freedom in return for the happiness and joy of heaven. But after living lives of suffering, violence, and betrayal, heavens can provide a welcome shelter and respite from the often troubled worlds of incarnation and war. For the true devotee, the god in the one and only beloved and the source of all that is good. Devotion rather than knowledge brings him or her closer to the beloved and to heavenly salvation.
The Freedom to do Spiritual Travel in the Afterlife
One factor that helps the soul achieve the freedom of conscious control and spiritual travel during the afterlife is acceptance of death. Those who have not accepted death will resist the process of dying and introduce conflict into the bardo stages. This is why it is important for people to take care of any unfinished business as they near death so they can let go of life completely.
In Brahmanical Hinduism, there is a stage of life called the forest dweller or vanaprastha stage in which the older individual who has finished raising a family is supposed to begin letting go of pleasures and attachments to life in preparation for death. However, in the West the goal is to keep spending money and maximize enjoyment up to the end of life. This makes it difficult for many to make a graceful transition into death. Intense attachment to the material world makes it difficult to do spiritual travel both during life and after death.
It also usually helps to have faith in something beyond the material world at the time of death. Those with a strong faith in Jesus or another religious figure will be more calm and relaxed as they enter the bardo realms. While the religious person can look forward to heaven at the time of death, the spiritual traveler who has been trying to do spiritual travel all his or her life can also look forward to death in certain respects. This is because the opportunity for exploration and spiritual travel will hopefully be greatly expanded after death when the physical body and its needs will no longer be a major distraction. Of course the areas the spiritual traveler wishes to explore are the heavenly areas and beyond, and in that sense, he or she has much in common with other more conventional religious people.
Both have a distinct advantage over the secular individual because they expect to enter into a positive afterlife (heaven), and expectations have great power in the inner worlds. This expectation combined with love and devotion towards some religious ideal can propel the religious individual towards a heavenly state just as the practice of spiritual travel does. The secular individual with no faith or expectation of heaven is more likely to flounder after death and get stuck in some intermediate gray area surrounded by thoughts and emotions from the past waiting for something to happen.
A brief mention of ethics is appropriate when discussing the state a person enters at death. In general, both the state of mind of a soul and the world it inhabits is presumed to be the result of its past thought patterns and actions (karma). Trauma and intense pain whether experienced by the soul, or inflicted on another during life will tend to fragment the self and make conscious control after death difficult. Violence, cruelty, and hatred expressed towards others in life will almost certainly have a limiting effect on the soul's freedom both in the after death state and in subsequent existences . This is true even for souls who have become proficient in spiritual travel during their life. Unethical actions during life seem to separate the soul from the knowledge and wisdom attained while living, and leave it helpless to experience the results of its actions in the afterlife.
Interestingly enough, some of the Western ideas of heaven and hell can be accounted for by the Tibetan notion of the second bardo. The saint or righteous soul will find itself in places of bliss, happiness, and light based on the kinds of thoughts it was in a habit of thinking, while the evil person will lead an existence of fear, anger, and torment in the afterlife. However, the second bardo is a temporary transitional state that actually precedes the longer term experiences of heaven, hell, or rebirth in the physical world which can occur following the third bardo.
Spiritualism as an Alternative View of the Afterlife
The focus of Buddhism in the afterlife is similar to its approach to earthly existence. The emphasis is on passion, and its restrictive and destructive consequences. It is therefore not surprising that the Buddhist view of after death states concentrates on desire as the mechanism which turns the dead into machines who must live out a karmic destiny in the afterlife. These individuals will exist in a depleted state of awareness with little freedom of choice during the bardo.
As an alternate and competing view of the afterlife, we will briefly examine the Western tradition of spiritualism which has been around for more than one hundred years, and is still popular in some quarters today.
The central conclusion of the data provided by the spiritualists and trance mediums is that dead people have scarcely more insight and wisdom in death than they had while alive. Such a proposition emphasizes the importance of learning spiritual skills such as spiritual travel while alive instead of hoping for spiritual redemption and transformation after death. Though the spiritualist's view differs from Buddhism in the specifics, it supports the contention that people should not wait until death to begin learning since such a delay can result in a very limited and routine afterlife. We examine the spiritualist's view on the page titled A Spiritualist's Approach to After-Death States.
Kabir, the Hindu-Muslim poet of India, talks about the afterlife in an ambiguous way describing it as the "city of death" which could be consistent with either the Tibetan or Spiritualist's view of the afterlife. He offers the following words which support the notion that a person who is limited in life will also be limited in death.O friend! Hope for Him whilst you live, know while you live, understand while you live:
for in life deliverance abides.
If your bonds be not broken whilst living, what hope of deliverance in death?
It is but an empty dream that the soul shall have union with Him because it has passed from the body:
If He is found now, He is found them,
If not, we do but go to dwell in the city of Death.
If you have union now, you shall have it hereafter.
Bathe in the Truth, know the true Guru, have faith in the true Name.
It is the spirit of the quest that helps;
I am the slave of the Spirit of the quest.
Songs of Kabir (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1991), pps. 46-47
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