Thursday, November 2, 2017

Contemplating the suffering of the intermediate state (bardo)

article connected to this collection of teachings

After describing each of the six realms of samsaric existence, I find it important to also explain the intermediate state between death and the next rebirth (antarabhava in Sanskrit, bardo in Tibetan)[1]. All beings pass through this state, which is itself filled with various dangers and suffering, depending on the individual karma. But first, let me say a few words about the process of dying.

Not all beings die the same way. Those who cultivated virtue and who die with a virtuous mind, that is, while remembering their good deeds or focusing on good thoughts, may see various pleasant images as though in a dream. Their death is comfortable and do not feel too much pain in body. On the other hand, those who did evil deeds and who die with an unvirtuous and attached mind experience  immense suffering when leaving their bodies:

"When those who are currently cultivating nonvirtue die, they experience signs foretelling the effects of the nonvirtue they have engaged in. As if in a nightmare, many unpleasant images appear to them. [...] When those who have committed serious nonvirtuous actions observe these unpleasant signs, they experience physical pain and their hair stands on end. They shake their hands and feet, void urine and excrement, reach up toward the sky, roll their eyes back, drool, and more. If they have been moderate in their nonvirtue, then not all of these things will happen - some will and some will not."[2]


Those who were somehow neutral in cultivating virtue or non-virtue or their mind does not dwell on neither virtue and non-virtue at the moment of death, they have neither pain nor pleasure when they die.

The consciousness or the mind-stream leaves the body in different ways for different people:

"Among those who are currently cultivating nonvirtue, consciousness leaves the body coming down from the upper parts, which become cold first. When it reaches the heart, it leaves the body. The consciousness of someone who is currently cultivating virtue leaves coming up from the lower parts and the body becomes cold from the lower parts. In both cases consciousness leaves from the heart.
The point at which consciousness first enters the fertilized ovum becomes the body's heart; consciousness finally leaves the body from where it first entered. Given that, at first the heat of the body either descends from the upper parts and gathers in the heart or ascends from the lower parts and gathers in the heart."[3]

So, the consciousness or mind-stream leaves the body from the heart region, enters the intermediate state and then goes to his future place of rebirth. However, we should not think that going to a future place of rebirth is a voluntary process, that is, the bardo being does not look for its next birthplace as if chosing or deciding where to go. In fact, his own karma pushes him in the direction of his next birth, like a strong wind who cannot be resisted.

Bodhisattva Vasubandhu, our 2nd Patriarch, put great efforts in explaining and defending the existence of the intermediary state[4], by quoting various sutras and offering many logical Dharmic explanations. He said:

"Scripture also proves the existence of an intermediate being. [...] We read in the Sutra: 'Three conditions are necessary in order for a son or daughter to be born: the woman must be in good health and fertile, the pair must be united, and a gandharva must be ready.' What is the gandharva if not an intermediate being?"[5]

He also said:

"What is an intermediate being, and an intermediate existence? Intermediate existence, which inserts itself between existence at death and existence at birth, not having arrived at the location where it should go, cannot be said to be born. Between death - that is, the five skandhas of the moment of death - and arising - that is, the five skandhas of the moment of rebirth - there is found an existence - a "body" of five skandhas - that goes to the place of rebirth. This existence between two realms of rebirth (gati) is called intermediate existence."[6]

As explained at a previous chapter, all the physical and mental elements of a being are classified in five types of skandhas (“agregates”): 1) form (a generic name for all kinds of matter and the body), 2) feeling or sensation, 3) perception, 4) mental formations (mental states), 5) consciousness or mind.

A gandharva or a person passing through the intermediate state has all the five aggregates (skandhas). Although his body is not composed of flesh and bones like ours, we may definitely call his form a body as it has perfectly developed organs[7]. This body or form looks like the body he will have in his next rebirth. Vasubandhu said:

"What is the form of an intermediate being?
An intermediate being has the form of the being of the realm of rebirth to come after his conception[8].

The action that projects the gati or the realm of rebirth is the same action that projects the intermediate existence by which one goes to this realm of rebirth. As a consequence, antarabhava or intermediate existence has the form of the future realm of rebirth towards which he is going. [...]
The dimensions of an intermediate being are those of a child of five or six years of age, but his organs are perfectly developed.[9]

 Not only that the organs of an intermediate being (gandharva) are complete[10], but he can also move through any material object:

"His organs are complete. [...] No one can resist him. [...] Even a diamond is not impenetrable to him."[11]

He has other supernormal capacities too, like being capable of moving through space:

"He is filled with the impetus of the supernormal power of action.
He is a 'karmarddhivegavan': endowed (van) with the impetus (vega) which belongs to supernatural power (rddhi) - that is, the movement through space - which issues from action (karman). The Buddhas themselves cannot stop him because he is endowed with the force of action."[12]

Moving through space may seem a joyful thing, but in fact, it is very troublesome for the intermediate being. If when he was alive he could let his mind wander into any direction, but the body stayed in one place, during the bardo (intermediate state) if his mind thinks to a particular place he will automatically be there. Then again, just when he arrived, he can go to another place at the next thought. Thus, an unstable mind experiences a constant and painful changing of scenery. Being carried in many places like a feather blown by the wind, the bardo person might feel confusion, frustration and fear.

Another capacity of an intermediate being is seeing at a great distance and perhaps through various objects:

"It possesses, by virtue of its actions, the divine eye."[13]

This 'divine eye' should not be understood as a divine eye possesed by a Buddha or a very advanced Bodhisattva which is obtained through higher knowledge or purity, but just as a supernormal eye of the intermediary state. The Buddhas or Bodhisattvas can see him with their divine eyes, as Vasubandhu explaines:

"He is  seen by the pure divine eye, that is, by the divine eye that is obtained through higher knowledge (abhijna), for this eye is very pure. He is not seen by a natural divine eye or a divine eye obtained through birth, such as the divine eye of the gods."[14]
He is also seen by and can see other intermediate beings of his class, that is, other gandharvas who will go to the same places of rebirth as him:

"He is seen by the intermediate beings of the class to which he belongs".[15]

However, some gandharvas (intermediate beings) might see gandharvas from other classes, too:

"According to other masters, a heavenly intermediate being sees all intermediate beings; a human intermediate being sees all intermediate beings with the exception of heavenly intermediate beings, and so on."[16]

A gandharva can also eat:

"Does an intermediate being of Kamadhatu eat, like the other beings of Kamadhatu, solid food? Yes, but not coarse food. It eats odors.
From whence it gets its name of gandharva, 'he who eats (arvati) odors (gandham)'. The meanings of the roots are multiple: 'arv', if one takes it in the sense of 'to go,' justifies 'he who goes to eat odors' (arvati gacchati bhoktum). A gandharva of low rank eats unpleasant odors; a gandharva of high rank eats pleasant odors."[17]

The intermediate state appears differently to different types of intermediate beings. The Descent into the Womb Sutra says:

"For someone who is to be reborn a hell-being, the intermediate state is like a charred log; for one to be reborn an animal it is like smoke; for one to be reborn a hungry ghost, it is like water; for one to be reborn a deity of the desire realm and a human, it is like gold; for one to be reborn a deity of the form realm, it is white."[18]

The existence of a gandharva (intermediate being) is short, as Bodhisattva Vasubandhu explained:

"How long does an intermediate being exist?
There is no fixed rule. It lasts as long as it does not encounter the coming together of the causes necessary for its rebirth."[19]

However, all the sacred texts that treat this topic agree that it does not last longer than seven weeks (49 days) during which he certainly finds the conditions for rebirth.

"The Bhadanta Vasumitra[20] says: An intermediate being lasts seven days. [...] Other scholars say that it lasts seven weeks. According to others, if the causes have not come together, the intermediate being is born in conditions analogous to those where he would have been reborn. Cattle are not born during the rains, nor black bears in winter, nor horses in summer. But on the other hand, there is no season for buffalos, etc. The intermediary being who, if it is the season of rains, would be reborn a cow, is reborn a buffalo; in the same way a jackal instead of a dog, a brown bear instead of a black bear, or an ass instead of a horse."[21]

Also, if an intermediate being "does not find the conditions of rebirth within seven days, he can assume another body witthin the intermediate state."[22]

His karma and his destination can change, too: "a being of the intermediate state that is to be reborn as a deity, for instance, may die after seven days and either again reach the intermediate state of a deity or else reach the intermediate state of a human or some other form. This is possible because a change in its karma can transform the seeds for its intermediate state. The same holds for other beings of the intermediate state as well."[23]

This aspect is extremely important because it shows how unpredictable the intermediate state can be. One never knows what winds of karma will blow on the poor gandharva (intermediate being) and change his course from a pleasant to an unpleasant rebirth. His own thoughts but also the thoughts and actions of others surrounding his dead body can become great obstacles during the intermediate state. An outburst of anger when seeing his relatives doing something against his wish or the arise of various attachements  may generate the seeds of going in the direction of the lower realms.

When the bardo process begins, the conscience gets out of the body, of course, but this does not mean he is always aware that he is dead. The bardo can be better understood if we compare it with the dream state. When asleep we sometimes know we are dreaming while otherwise we don't know and act like that dream is reality. In the same time, during bardo we can realize we are dead and some other time we forget. Also, just like in a dream, the appearances and experiences change many times, and anything can disturb the intermediate being. Thus, if the environment surrounding one's death is very emotional with people crying, remembering him and his life's events with strong attachement, calling his name, or criticizing and hating him, then the consciousness might be affected by giving rise to negative thoughts. This is very dangerous for the bardo being and may be a great obstacle for a good rebirth. It is exactly because of this that relatives must maintain a peaceful and religious atmosphere arround the body of a dead person when it's still held in the house and also during the entire 49 days of bardo. If the dead person was not a faithful devotee of Amida Buddha during his lifetime and he was not born in the Pure Land immediately after death, then his karmic destiny is very insecure.

The rebirth (reincarnation) appears in the following way for those who are to be born from egg or womb:

"How does reincarnation take place?
The mind (mati) troubled by defilements, goes, through its desire for sex, to the place of its realm of rebirth.

An intermediate being is produced with a view to going to the place of its realm of rebirth where it should go. It possesses, by virtue of its actions, the divine eye. Even though distant he sees the place of his rebirth. There he sees his father and mother united. His mind is troubled by the effects of sex and hostility. When the intermediate being is male, it is gripped by a male desire with regard to the mother; when it is female, it is gripped by a female desire with regard to the father; and, inversely, it hates either the father, or the mother, whom it regards as either a male or a female rival. As it is said in the Prajnapti, 'Then either a mind of lust, or a mind of hatred is produced in the gandharva (intermediate being).'

When the mind is thus troubled by these two erroneous thoughts, it attaches itself through the desire for sex to the place where the organs are joined together, imagining that it is he with whom they unite. Then the impurities of semen and blood[24] is found in the womb; the intermediate being, enjoying its pleasures, installs itself there. Then the skandhas harden; the intermediate being perishes; and birth arises that is called "reincarnation" (pratisamdhi). [...]

It is in this manner that beings who are born from wombs and eggs go to the places of their rebirth (gati)."[25]

Rebirth for hell beings and hungry ghosts (pretas) may also occur like this:

"If the being of the intermediate state does not have a desire to go to a birthplace, it will not migrate there, and having not done so, will not be reborn there. Take, for example, the case of those who have committed and accumulated karma for rebirth in a hell, like those who have no vow against activities such as butchering sheep or poultry or marketing hogs. In these peoples' intermediate state they see, as if in a dream, sheep and such at their future birthplace, and rush there, driven by their delight in their former habits. Then anger is aroused at the forms which attracted them to the birthplace, at which point their intermediate state ends, and they are reborn.

Hungry ghosts with goiters, and others who are similar to hell beings, take rebirth in a like manner.

If the being of the intermediate state is to be reborn as an animal, hungry ghost, human, desire-realm deity (kammadathu), or form-realm deity, it observes at its birthplace delightful beings similar to itself. Then, conceiving a liking and a desire for that place, it migrates there and becomes angry upon seeing the birthplace, at which time its intermediate state ends, and it is reborn."[26]

Bodhisattva Vasubandhu also said:

"For other beings, say the masters of the Abhidharma, the modes vary according to the case.
Other go in their desire for odor or in their desire for residence. Beings which arise from moisture go to the place of their rebirth through their desire for its odors: these are pure or impure by reason of their actions. Apparitional beings[27], go  through their desire for residence there.

But how can one desire a residence in hell? The mind of an intermediate being is troubled by lust and hatred, as we have seen, when it goes to be reincarnated in a womb. In the present case, an intermediate being is also troubled in mind and misunderstands. He is tormented by the cold of rain and wind: he sees a place burning with hot fires and through his desire for warmth, he runs there. Or he is tormented by the heat of the sun and hot winds: he sees a cold place of frozen fires, and through his desire for coolness, he runs there. According to the ancient masters, he sees these things in order to experience the retribution of actions that should be retributed in hell; he sees beings similar to him and he runs to the place where they are.

Intermediate heavenly beings - those who go towards a heavenly realm of rebirth - go high, like one rising up from a seat. Humans, animals, pretas, and intermediate beings go in the manner in which humans, etc, go. Beings in hell hang from their feet. As the stanza says, 'Those who insult sages (rishis), ascetics and penitents fall into hell head first.'"[28]

Following the explanations of Bodhisattva Vasubandhu, Master Tsong-kha-pa says the same:

"In his commentary on this, Vasubandhu explains that if the being of the intermediate state is to be reborn from heat and moisture, it craves smells, while if it is to be reborn spontaneously, it desires a place and is subsequently reborn there. It further explains that if this being is to be reborn in a hot hell, it craves warmth, while if it is to be bom in a cold hell, it longs to be cool."[29]

*

We should contemplate on the above descriptions of the intermediate state and imagine ourselves there. Even during our present life we wander in all directions with distracted minds, thus causing ourselves various psychological problems. However, the power of every thought and delusion becomes ten times stronger when in the bardo, so imagine the danger we may experience there.  Let’s pretend that some can be succesful in achieving liberation in the bardo, but can you, the reader of these lines, be so sure that you are one of them? Even for very advanced practitioners who prepared themselves all their lives to practice in the bardo, there is still plenty of room for errors. But there is no possibility for failure to become a Buddha in the Pure Land if you rely on Amida, because there is not even the slightest trace of your own limited personal power involved in this process. If you have entrusted yourself to Amida Buddha during your life, then His Infinite Power has been at work all the time, destroying the roots of your karma, and now, when dying, it continues to be active and it will take you safely to His Pure Land. Thus, while every unenlightened sentient being has to pass through bardo when they die, the Amida devotees don’t experience this intermediate state. Shinran Shonin said:

"Through the karmic power of the great Vow, the person who has realized true and real shinjin (faith in Amida Buddha) naturally is in accord with the cause of birth in the Pure Land and is drawn by the Buddha's karmic power; hence the going is easy, and ascending to and attaining the supreme great Nirvana is without limit."[30] 

He also said in one of his Letters (Mattosho):

“I, for my own part, attach no significance to the condition, good or bad, of persons in their final moments. People in whom shinjin is determined do not doubt, and so abide among the truly settled. For this reason their end also - even for those ignorant and foolish and lacking in wisdom - is a happy one.”[31]

These blessed words should give us true relief and assurance when we think to death and the intermediary state. No matter if we die well, in our bed, or in the street like homeless persons, no matter if we feel good or bad, if we smile and die peacefully with the appearance of wise people or we cry because of pain, no matter if our death makes a good impression or not, no matter if we die of old age or in our youth, we are accepted exactly as we are and we will be born in the Pure Land because of Amida’s Compassion.

In His Primal Vow, Amida Buddha did not mention a special condition in which we have to die in order to be born in the Pure Land - He just promised that those beings who entrust to Him, wish to be born in His land and say His Name will be born there.  

In Jodo Shinshu we are saved during this life, that is, we enter the stage of non-retrogression (“truly settled”) or the stage of those assured of Nirvana, in the very moment we entrust ourselves to Amida Buddha, and after death we are born in the Pure Land where we become Buddhas.

Even after we receive shinjin (faith in Amida Buddha) we continue to live our lives like ordinary people, filled with blind passions and illusions, and we can die like ordinary people because of the problems of ordinary people. But this very ordinary person is already “received and never abandoned” by the Compassion of Amida Buddha and so his end becomes a happy one.

Question:
Can a person who did not entrust to Amida Buddha during his life, change his mind and entrust while in the intermediate state?

Answer:
I do not recall any passage from Shinran, Rennyo, Honen or other Patriarch of our lineage in which liberation through faith while in bardo was mentioned, but I think its possible. If the intermediate being hears about Amida Buddha's salvation from a Dharma friend who stays near his dead body and encourages him to take refuge in Amida or if he remembers a teaching about Amida he received during his life and decides to entrust to Him, say His Name and wish to go to His Pure Land, then I am sure he can reach that land [32]. However, I do not advise anybody to wait until bardo to entrust to Amida Buddha, when he can do it so easily here. One can never know what karma and ignorance can manifest during the intermediate state that may prevent a person without faith to remember or hear about Amida Buddha. So please, do not misunderstand my answer and try your best to solve your doubts while you are still alive so that you can automatically reach the Pure Land when you die.

Namo Amida Bu





[1] In this article I do not intend to offer a complete and detailed explanation of the dying process and the subsequent intermediary state, but only to point out some of its basic aspects and to encourage my readers to avoid it by entrusting themselves to Amida Buddha since this very life, thus entering from now in the category of those assured of birth in the Pure Land after death. 
[2] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 292-293. It should be noted that Tsong-kha-pa was greatly inspired by Bodhisattva Vasubandhu in his explanations of the intermediate states that I quote in this chapter. 
[3] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 309
[4] See for example, Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 383-401
[5] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 386
[6] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 383
[7] The consciousness cannot stay without a body, so it assumes a bardo body, which is very similar to a dream body. When dreaming we are not just naked minds, but also have a body, and the same happens in the intermediate state.
[8] Some Masters say that the intermediate being looks very similar with his previous life at the begining of bardo and then, as the time passes, he starts to look more and more with the being he will become in his future birth.
[9] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 390
[10] It is said that if a being was blind or death during life, in the bardo he can see and hear, etc. All his sensory faculties are complete. 
[11] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 392
[12] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 392
[13] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 394
[14] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 392
[15] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 392
[16] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 392
[17] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 393
[18] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 310
[19] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 393
[20] Vasumitra (or Sumitra,Vasumitra 世友 (n.d.) (Skt; Jpn Seu or Seyu): The monk who led the Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir around the second century and helped compile The Great Commentary on the Abhidharma. Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia, http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Vasumitra
[21] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 393-394
[22] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 311
[23] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 311
[24] This should be read as the union of male sperm with female egg (ovum). According to the Buddha Dharma life in human form starts at the moment of conception when the conscience of a being in the intermediate state (Gandharva) enters the cell formed after the union of male sperm with female egg.
[25] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 394-396
[26] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 313
[27] Apparitional beings are hell dwellers, pretas (hungry ghosts) and gods or heavenly beings.
[28] Abhidharmakossabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p 396-397
[29] The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, volume I, by Tsong-kha-pa, Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, p. 313
[30] Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls - The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p. 496-497
[31] Notes on the Inscriptions on Sacred Scrolls - The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p. 531
[32] I suppose that a bardo being who entrusts to Amida Buddha dies in the bardo state and is instantly reborn in the Pure Land

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