Tibetan Buddhist Bardo's - comparable to Blavatsky's 'devachan'?

This question is really very specifically for David and Nancy Reigle, our resident Tibetan Buddhism experts, though of course anybody else who wants to chime in is welcome as well. 

I've been getting my baptism in TIbetan Buddhism recently (took refuge, followed a two week FPMT course, expect to be active in the Gelugpa movement a LOT from now on). 

Of course this leaves me with the issue of how to combine what I learned in theosophy with what I'm now learning from Tibetan Buddhist teachers. There are clear discrepancies. 

The main issue, given the importance of the topic, is karma and rebirth.

On the one hand the discrepancy doesn't appear as large as commonly reported, because these teachers insist that while there is no constant, unchanging something that is born again and again, they do insist that there is a stream of consciousness that goes from one life to the next. This is good enough for me, though fitting it on top of our theosophical terminology is perhaps hard. Still, our 'atma-buddhi-higher-manas' is not unchanging either, so perhaps the discrepancy really is only imaginary. Even 'atma-buddhi' isn't unchanging. It's only when we get to atma-proper that the suggestion of something unchanging starts to appear. But if you look at how Blavatsky talks about that, it's definitely at least an option to interpret even atma as changing. 

Anyhow - that's not my question for today. 

When it comes to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it's well known that rebirth is thought to take place within 49 days. What's less well known is that this rebirth is thought to usually NOT take place in the human realm. This is stressed as a stimulus for spiritual practice. After all, as theosophy too agrees, a human rebirth is the desirable kind. 

This rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism can take place in countless heavens, a few hells, as a human being and as an animal. The only disadvantage to those heavens is, as I understand it, (but I'm no expert just yet) that the stay there isn't endless. What if the stay there is generally a few thousand years? Doesn't that make the term of staying there a lot like our devachan? 

In theosophy rebirth (as a human) is said to often taken thousands of years too - because we spend most of our time contemplating the good of our last life (my interpretation of devachan). In short: a sort of self-created heaven. 

Blavatsky too stresses that it would be preferable to, as the real practitioners do, skip or shorten devachan and simply be reborn as quickly as possible - to not take a break, to go on working for the benefit of humanity. 

I wonder - does putting it like that put too much strain on theosophy or Tibetan Buddhism, or is it really a way to bring together two seemingly conflicting accounts of what happens after death? 

Tags: after, bardo, blavatsky, buddhism, death, devachan, life, rebirth, reincarnation, tibetan

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Devachan is a specific pure land or heaven realm in Buddhism. It is the Tibetan word spelled bde ba can, which is a translation of the Sanskrit word Sukhavati. There is a fair amount of information available in English on Sukhavati. I do not know if anyone has yet tried to correlate the Buddhist teachings about Sukhavati with the Theosophical teachings on devachan. This is something that would be worthwhile to do. The exoteric teachings about this pure land would have to be interpreted esoterically, and here the Theosophical teachings come in. To me, the teachings on Sukhavati then make more sense, and conversely, they may give a wider perspective to the Theosophical teachings on devachan.
Welcome back David. We missed you.

Interesting - brings us in the realm of Pure Land Buddhism, not the kind of Buddhism I would have first associated with esoteric teachings. 

I think I have to walk before I can run, but I'll put this on my list of 'look into' topics within Buddhism. 

For those who want to dive in straight away, here's more about this Sukhavati:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukhavati

http://www.lapislazulitexts.com/T12_0366_shorter_sukhavativyuha_sut...

http://www.amazon.com/dp/9834087934

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/572230/Sukhavati

http://web.mit.edu/stclair/www/larger.html

It might be of interest here to refer to pp. 78-79 of the esoteric teachings vol. xi from G. de Purucker.

Dealing with the subject of death and kama-loka, he refers to Dr. Evans-Wentz's book Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines (1935), p. 242, fn 4. There, Evans-Wentz shows that  in the particular treatise he is discussing,  the Bardo is construed as being divided into three parts: Chikai-Bardo, Chönyid-Bardo and Sidpai-Bardo.

De Purucker further compares these Bardos, or three states of the general Bardo, with theosophical ideas as follows:


"(a).  The chikai-Bardo, or first Bardo, is both the time-period and the state of consciousness of the excarnate being from the moment of death until it definitely enters the Devachan;

(b) the Chönyid-Bardo is both the devachanic time-period of such an entity and the various  changings and ringings of the different states of consciousness that the devachani experiences while in the Devachan; and

(c) the Sidpai-Bardo is both the time-period and the different adventures or states of consciousness of the entity from the moment it definitely has left the Devachan until the time when it actually finds itself a growing embryo in a human womb - or until reincarnation.

It is thus evident that these three divisions of the Bardo are merely exoteric yet convenient manners of dividing the after-death state, or states, into three periods, ending at rebirth on Earth."

The forty-nine days duration of the Bardo are exoteric embroidery, according to De Purucker. It reminds one of sevenfold cycles, so often mentioned in the SD.

What I would like to know from David is the following:

1. De Purucker says that Bardo means "between two" (between two successive stages of  the disembodied entity, or more general, the time period and various states of consciousness of the peregrinating monad between death and its next  reincarnation).

Does this square with your knowledge of the translation(s) of Bardo?

2. Kama-Loka is equated with Tibetan Yuh-Kai. Did you encounter this term Yuh-Kai (in whatever form or transliteration) in Tibetan literature?









Yes, that's the standard interpretation - take the number of days as exoteric and follow the Tibetan interpretation as to the rest of it. However, that leaves us with this small problem: the chances of getting a human rebirth. According to Blavatsky the chances of a human rebirth are pretty high, even if you may have to rest up a bit in devachan for a few thousand years in between. According to the Tibetan lamas the chances of reincarnating as a human being are pretty slim. 

 

Curiously, when you look at the higher practitioners there's no difference at all: Blavatsky says they skip devachan and get reincarnated (obviously as a human being) almost immediately. So in that case suddenly 'exoteric' Tibetan Buddhism and Blavatsky agree. Which made me think that the difference might be in the interpretation of what happens to more ordinary human beings in between. Both agree they don't get reincarnated immediately, the time periods between human births are also large in both cases - except that in Tibetan Buddhism the rebirth in a heaven, a hell (or as an animal) are seen as rebirths instead of as a resting places (aka devachan). 

There are certainly differences between Tibetan Buddhism and Theosophy regarding the afterlife. One of the more important is that humans are not reborn as an animal, except in rare occasions where loss of soul has occurred. The information in Theosophy about the afterlife is a bit fragmented, especially as to the role of spirit guides and details of the kama-loka. Buddhism I take to be rather exoteric. I am rather interested in the mystical sections of religion, like Sufism and the like, and the Neo-Platonic and Hermetic tradition. As to rebirth in a sphere, be it heaven or hell, one could say that in a certain sense the transition into the after-death spheres is a kind of rebirth, certainly as to transition of state of consciousness. But that is a matter of interpretation.
Thank you, Captain Anand, for the welcome back.
On bardo, Martin, in the 1927 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, W. Y. Evans-Wentz says in a footnote (p. 28): "Bar-do literally means 'between (Bar) two (do)', i.e. 'between two [states]' -- the state between death and rebirth -- and, therefore, 'Intermediate' or 'Transitional [State]'.
The Tibetan word bar-do is usually understood to stand for of be a translation of the Sanskrit word antarā-bhava, the "intermediate state," or "in-between state." However, bar-do is actually an abbreviated form of the translation of antarā-bhava. The full translation of antarā-bhava is bar ma do'i srid pa. The word bar do is an abbreviation of the first part of this, bar ma do, which translates the Sanskrit antarā, "in between," or "intermediate." The "bar" or "bar-ma" by itself means this, and the "do" was apparently added for clarity. The "do" is not much used in Tibetan, and does seem to mean "two" or a "pair" here. But the normal Tibetan word for "two," used everywhere, is "gnyis." The latter part of this compound, bhava, "state," Tibetan srid pa, is only implied or assumed as part of the meaning of the word bar-do. The teaching on the antarā-bhava is given extensively in the third chapter of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosa with his own commentary thereon.
The word "Yuh-Kai," quoted from the Mahatma Letters, is not Tibetan. It is apparently Chinese, as may be seen in Samuel Beal's 1871 book, A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, p. 83. This is clearly what the Mahatma Letter is quoting from. Beal, in this pioneering work, had given the presumed Sanskrit, Kama-loka. Now that Buddhist Sanskrit texts have become available, we see that the actual word is kama-dhatu, Tibetan 'dod khams, or 'dod pa'i khams. It is one one the three realms, the "desire realm," that along with the form and formless realms make up the Buddhist cosmos.

 

Martin Euser said:


What I would like to know from David is the following:

1. De Purucker says that Bardo means "between two" (between two successive stages of  the disembodied entity, or more general, the time period and various states of consciousness of the peregrinating monad between death and its next  reincarnation).

Does this square with your knowledge of the translation(s) of Bardo?

2. Kama-Loka is equated with Tibetan Yuh-Kai. Did you encounter this term Yuh-Kai (in whatever form or transliteration) in Tibetan literature?

The idea of rebirth as an animal is, as you say, standard in Tibetan Buddhism. The Theosophical teachings are pretty clear on this, as you know. For an entity that has evolved to the human stage to regress to the animal stage would hardly be possible. The logic here is convincing to me. So I must regard this as an exoteric teaching that I cannot accept.


Katinka Hesselink said:

Yes, that's the standard interpretation - take the number of days as exoteric and follow the Tibetan interpretation as to the rest of it. However, that leaves us with this small problem: the chances of getting a human rebirth. According to Blavatsky the chances of a human rebirth are pretty high, even if you may have to rest up a bit in devachan for a few thousand years in between. According to the Tibetan lamas the chances of reincarnating as a human being are pretty slim. 

Thanks, David, for explaining these foreign terms.

@David - the reason for presenting it this way seems to be mostly didactic: in order to get people to practice the dharma, they want to stress the risks of NOT doing so, one of which is being reborn as an animal. As a teacher I can relate to the reasoning, but since it doesn't work on Westerners (who have a holy dislike of being scared without reason) I suspect the truth is more important than the reality for us at this stage. 

That said, I can't pretend to understand the intricacies of the Tibetan version well enough to be able to judge just yet. 

On the original question raised here, of whether the Tibetan Buddhist bardos are comparable to Blavatsky's devachan, here is the short answer as I see it. Devachan as understood in Theosophy is the third or srid-pa'i bar-do taught in the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.
 
There can be no doubt that the Theosophical devachan is in fact the sukhavati of the Buddhist texts. In the famous "devachan" letter (Mahatma letter #16, or #68 in the chronological edition), the shorter Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra is quoted at the beginning, adapted from the 1871 translation by Samuel Beal in A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, pp. 378-381. In the adapted translation, as the Mahatma letter progresses, Sukhavati is replaced with Devachan. As we know, this is the Tibetan word spelled bde ba can, which is in fact the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word sukhavati. It was available in the phonetic spelling "devachan" in Emil Schlagintweit's 1863 book, Buddhism in Tibet, pp. 84, 101. It is there described in the section, "Sukhavati, the abode of the blessed," pp. 98-102. Similarly, it was described in Beal's book in the section, "The Western Paradise," pp. 378-383.
 
What is known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches six bardos, three of which pertain to a person while living, and three pertain to a person after death. These latter three are the ones normally spoken of. Of these, the third is the srid-pa'i bar-do, in which the person is reborn in a mental body (yid lus) in this new state of existence. This is called more fully, "the mental body of apparitional experience in the intermediate state," in the 2006 translation by Gyurme Dorje, p. 274. This is the only complete translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and is quite the most accurate one. De Purucker's interpretation, cited above, does not agree with the Tibetan Book of the Dead, nor with Mahatma Letter #16's explanation of Bardo, given on p. 103 of the 3rd edition, or on p. 105 of the second edition, of the Mahatma Letters. It is not the second bardo that would correspond with devachan, but rather the third. The Mahatma letter's explanation of the three bardos matches the explanation given in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. What the Mahatma letter adds is that this third bardo where the person is reborn is devachan. The Tibetan Book of the Dead does not speak of devachan, which comes from the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra.
 
I cannot post much more for a few weeks yet, as I try to meet a job deadline. However, I should add that for the six destinies or realms that one may be reborn in after devachan, HPB gives an esoteric interpretation of a couple of them in her entry in the Theosophical Glossary under "gati."
Thanks for the many references - that will make studying the topic much easier.

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