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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David Reigle, thanks for explaining all that... I recalled there was a Buddhist realm called Devachan but I did not know all the details. Maybe I misunderstand the Hindu/Theosophical devachan idea, but I am skeptical that the Buddhist idea has anything to do with the Hindu or Theosophical one. If I recall correctly, that idea of devachan is that it is the atmic plane. However, Buddhist cosmology seems to only extend from the material to formless mental plane, and omits the atmic plane and beyond. If these are both facts, then obviously the atmic plane and Amitabha's pure land (presumably on the mental plane) are not the same at all... or maybe as an early Theosophical writer wrote, there is some esoteric Buddhism that includes the idea of atman. However, every Buddhist I talked to this about seems to be against it because one of the three characteristics in Buddhism is anatman, or the idea that there is no permanent atman.


The three characteristics such as anatman are what one rinpoche or lama wrote a book on that if someone is not open to or does not believe or understand, then that person is not a Buddhist. I am skeptical that Madame Blavatsky knew much about Buddhism, unless there really is some sort of esoteric Buddhism that priests are not telling people, which seems rather far-fetched (Tantra that is for initiates seems to be about other things.)

Thanks, David, for your comments. I am not aware of a Hindu devachan, nor of the idea that devachan is the atmic plane. Perhaps you could elaborate. Thanks.

The more we go, the more Tibetan knowledge emerges and is given out to the public.

From a recent Institute of Tibetan Classics publication (Mahamudra and related instructions - Core Teaching of the Kagyü Schools, 2011 - ISBN 0-86171-444-X), one can read on the bardo realm, from Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1512-1587) the following :


"The Way the Bardo manifests.

At first, there are the momentary apprearances from the propensities of your past life. They become less and less clear until the appearances of the body of your next life arises. This is explained in the great commentary to the Kalachakra : The (bardo) body takes on the form it will have on being reborn; it has all sensory faculties; it can pass through anything except its future birthplace; it is endowed with miraculous physical powers; the body increases through eating smells; it can be seen by other bardo beings of the same class and by 'living beings) with divine sight; it moves around in search of smells and its birthplace; it has all kinds of perceptions because of good or bad karma; it has very little stability; the length of its lifetime can be up to seven days but this is not definite, for if it is not reborn, it experiences a "little death", which is lile fainting briefly, and then come back into the bardo for another "lifetime" of seven days. It it does nor encounter the accumulation of factors necessary for rebirth, this process can repeat until forty-nine days have passed, and then it will definitively be reborn."


Another reference is made to the Samvarodaya Tantra which in particular teaches the process of birth from a womb


This tradition is well alive : one of the greatest masters fro the Nyingmapa tradition passed away two weeks ago, and here is what the Sanga posted on their web site at this occasion :



Kyabjé Trulshik Rimpoché

  Parinirvana of Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche

We have received the sad news that Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche passed away on the 2 September at 8 o'clock in the morning, in his monastery at Sitapaila near Kathmandu.

Our teachers have reminded us that the days and weeks to come are an important moment for all Rinpoche's disciples. This is the time to practise as much as possible, to think of Rinpoche and to mingle our minds with his.

It is recommended that we continue with our own daily practise. Everybody who is free is invited to attend the practise of The Shower of Blessings, which will be performed daily beginning at 18h30 at Chanteloube, from the 7 September (the 10th of the Tibetan month).


And in the mail we received, they explained that it shall last for 49 days.

This is a reply to David Reigle. Maybe I got confused about if there is a Hindu devachan. Probably I assumed what I read in Theosophical literature was Hindu. Somewhere I read in Theosophical literature, such as from Leadbeater, Powell or others, that Devachan was the atmic plane. Since that cannot be true in Buddhism unless there is seriously another esoteric idea, I thought it was a Hindu idea... but I may have never actually read about it from a Hindu source, so I may be mistaken. I just wonder if it is Hindu or if Theosophists took the idea from wherever and made it their own. Another thing though, is when I was talking in a Buddhist chat room to some Buddhists who have practiced seriously over 20 years and I wrote 'devachan,' not 'dewachan,' they said I was off-topic and talking about Hinduism. I do not know if they knew or not.

According to David Reigle in this thread devachan is equivalent to Sukhavati. However, this is the kind of detail that few people know, because the amount of people who know enough about theosophy and Tibetan Buddhism to make that kind of comparison is very small - in fact, probably limited to David and Nancy Reigle at present. 


As for it being a Hindu idea - in (exoteric) Hinduism there is nothing as elaborate and detailed as Blavatsky's scheme for the afterlife as far as I am aware. In Tibetan Buddhism there is: the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There may be all kinds of details different, but in general lines I think it's fair to say it comes closest to Blavatsky's story of any accessible work of Eastern philosophy. 


As for Buddhist tantra - it does include explanations of all kinds of things. The Dalai Lama told at least one Tibetan Lama (Dagpo Rinpche) when he went west that he should, where relevant, explain the tantric interpretation of the Tibetan doctrines, not the ones usually taught to Tibetan lay people: more logical and more likely to appeal to Westerners. 


Devachan has often been falsely etymologically split up as 'deva- chan' -place of gods, which sounds much more Hindu than Buddhist, though in fact Hinduism and Buddhism share a lot of cosmology. 


As for those Buddhists in that chatroom - they clearly had no idea about theosophy. And as such it was off topic. I didn't go to a Buddhist chatroom with my question either. 

@Jacques Do remember that when Tibetan Buddhists talk about rebirth and taking the body OF that rebirth, they're including all kinds of heavens and hells as a place one can be 'reborn' into. 

@John - Yes, human rebirth is definitely not something to desire, but it's only as a human that, according to Blavatsky, we have any chance of escaping from the rounds of rebirth. In Buddhism one can also gain enlightenment only from the human realm and from the higher heavens (more like meditative states). But not from the ordinary heavens or anything like that.

Oh and even people who become chela's in this life still have 7 HUMAN rebirths ahead of them, according to theosophical tradition. Less time in devachan in between though. 


According to Blavatsky once a consciousness has reached the human level of evolution it is unlikely to go back into an animal form, other than of course the body of a child. Only black magic and really bad actions and intentions would cause devolution in Blavatsky's view. She really is very explicit about that. 

Thanks, David Melik,for the additional information. Yes, it does seem that almost everyone, whether Theosophist or Buddhist, takes Devachan to be a Hindu term and idea because of the supposed "deva" beginning it. But it is not, and the Mahatma writers who introduced it into Theosophy were never confused about it. They brought it in as equivalent to Sukhavati (see Mahatma Letter #16), and that is exactly what it is. To spell this out more clearly, it is the Tibetan word transliterated as bde ba can. The initial b in bde is silent. The ba is usually pronounced something like va or wa. What is written as can is pronounced chan. So devachan is not a bad phonetic rendering of it. The Tibetan bde ba translates Sanskrit sukha, meaning happiness or bliss. The Tibetan can is the possessive suffix, translating the Sanskrit vat, or feminine vati. So it means possessing happiness. The Tibetan translations of Sanskrit were standardized more than a thousand years ago, and there is no mistake about this. In the Tibetan Buddhist canon, bde ba can or phonetic devachan always translates Sanskrit sukhavati.
@Jon - I have to admit, I can't find the source for that one. Somewhere in the Mahatma Letters perhaps? It's at times like this that I really miss Henk Spierenburg.

Since the Mahatma Letters are clearly the source of all details we have for spiritual evolution and devachan, I looked them up.


What follows are a few quotes that speak to me, though they don't speak on the topic I originally started the thread on. Still, relevant in a broad way:

p. 65, letter 18 (chronological version)

>> At that point the great Law begins its work of selection. Matter found entirely divorced from spirit is thrown over into the still lower worlds - into the sixth "GATI" or "way of rebirth" of the vegetable and mineral worlds, and of the primitive animal forms. From thence, matter ground over in the workshop of nature proceeds soulless back to its Mother Fount; while the Egos purified of their dross are enabled to resume their progress once more onward. It is here, then, that the laggard Egos perish by the millions. It is the solemn moment of the "survival of the fittest", the annihilation of those unfit. It is but matter (or material man) which is compelled by its own weight to descend to the very bottom of the "circle of necessity" to there assume animal form; as to the winner of that race throughout the worlds - the Spiritual Ego, he will ascend from star to star, from one world to another, circling onward to rebecome the once pure planetary Spirit, then higher still, to finally reach its first starting point, and from thence - to merge into MYSTERY. >>


I think it's fair to say that the black magician gets rid of all connection to his spiritual ego, so he would logically descend 'to the very bottom of the "circle of necessity"'. 


Do remember that to the adepts matter is more than just 'matter', it includes everything that has 'form': emotion, even thought. 

Yes, I think you'll have to take that as 'according to Katinka's understanding of Blavatsky and the Mahatma Letters'. 

The idea that we can't go back really is up for reexamining, IMO. I don't think you'll find a Blavatsky quote for that one either. 

But perhaps we can meet in that last paragraph: if a criminal or a black magician lives without a connection to his Higher Self, doesn't that mean that the part of him that is manifestly him - his personality - moves in a different direction from that Higher Self? That, in other words, it is meaningless to say that 'his' Higher Self moves on to higher spheres, if in fact he hasn't contributed anything at all to the evolution of that Higher Self? 


Still, I have to say - the whole reasoning does become so convoluted now, it makes me almost prefer the simple (and perhaps simplistic) classic exoteric Buddhist version. 

I haven't made up my mind yet about the buddhist vs the theosophical version. 

As to your quotes - they do make it clear that you can't find Blavatsky categorically denying rebirth in animal forms in extreme cases. Since we're agreed on the average human being: definitely does reincarnate as a human according to Blavatsky, I think we're talked out. 

Except to stress that my point is that what reincarnates lower in case of the very debased criminal or black magician is the SKANDHAS - which are life atoms in de Puruckers interpretation of Blavatsky and which (I think) even with Blavatsky are said to sometimes pass into lower life forms. I remember an explanation of a Buddha sermon in which he said that the lazy sweeper got reincarnated as the grass that was turned into a sweep (is that English?). The theosophical response (I think Blavatsky, but you've made me more careful) was that it was only his lower skandhas that reincarnated as such. The higher self would go to devachan and then return as a human being.

The problem with this interpretation is that it seems to split the stream of karma into several eddies, which does not really make a lot of sense. 

As far as I know, no one has published an identification of the Buddhist text that is quoted at the beginning of Mahatma letter #16 (chronological #68), the "devachan" letter. I had hoped to do so earlier, when I said on Sep. 10 that it is the shorter Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, but could not until now. As I then mentioned, the translation given in the Mahatma letter is adapted from the 1871 translation by Samuel Beal in A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, pp. 378-381. Beal prefaces this with "Translated from the Chinese version of Kumarajiva, as it is found in the Shan-mun-yih-tung" (p. 378), and this latter is the title quoted in the Mahatma letter. Beal had earlier (p. 374) said that this extract is to be given "from the Sutra known as the Wu-liang-sheu-king, in which we have a full account of the Sukhavati, or Paradise in the West, over which Amitabha is supposed to preside." Before that (p. 373), Beal had said about Amitabha that "his title is 'Wu-liang-sheu,' and a Sutra bearing this title was one of the earliest translated into Chinese." So we can easily deduce that the Wu-liang-sheu-king is the Amitabha Sutra. It is this that is found in the Shan-mun-yih-tung, from which Beal translated it, and from there it was quoted and adapted in Mahatma letter 16. So what are these texts?
Today it is common knowledge, findable even on Wikipedia, that the Amitabha Sutra is a popular name for the shorter Sukhavati-vyuha sutra. But this was not known when Beal wrote. He had earlier published his "Translation of the Amitabha Sutra from Chinese" in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, for 1866 (pp. 136-144). There we learn what the Shan-mun-yih-tung is. Beal begins his translation by saying: "The Amitabha Sutra. Extracted from the work called "Shan Mun Yih Tung," or Daily Prayers of the Contemplative School of Priests" (p. 140). He had a few pages earlier introduced it as follows (p. 136): "The following translation of the Amitabha Sutra is made from the Chinese edition of that work, prepared by Kumarajiva, and bound up in a volume known as the 'Daily Prayers of the Buddhist Priests belonging to the Contemplative School' (Shan-mun)" (p. 136). In other words, Beal had translated the shorter Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, popularly called the Amitabha Sutra, as it is found included in a prayer book called the Shan-mun-yih-tung. Since the Mahatma letter had quoted and adapted this material from Beal's 1871 Catena, this letter naturally quoted this material as from the Shan-mun-yih-tung:
"The Devachan, or land of 'Sukhavati,' is allegorically described by our Lord Buddha himself. What he said may be found in the Shan-Mun-yih-Tung. Says Tathagata:--"
But of course, Beal does not use the word "devachan," because this is the Tibetan translation of Sukhavati, and Beal was translating from Chinese. The writer of the Mahatma letter put the word "devachan" in Beal's translation as it was there adapted: "there is a region of Bliss called Sukhavati . . . This, O Sariputra is the 'Devachan.'" So this Mahatma writer knew that devachan translates or is equivalent to sukhavati. He added this word to Beal's translation in place of sukhavati.
Now, critics like William Emmette Coleman might say that this Mahatma writer, i.e., HPB in his view, copied this knowledge from Emil Schlagintweit's 1863 book, Buddhism in Tibet, where we read on pp. 100-101:
"The happy region Sukhavati, where thrones Amitabha, lies towards the west. In Sanskrit it is called Sukhavati, 'abounding in pleasures;' in Tibetan Devachan, 'the happy;' . . ."
However, HPB seems to have been unaware of the fact that devachan is a Tibetan word. In The Key to Theosophy, in answer to the question, "what is Devachan?" she replies, "The 'land of gods' literally" (p. 100), and gives in the glossary to this book: "Devachan (Sans.) The 'Dwelling of the Gods.'" This same definition, also citing it as a Sanskrit word, was repeated in The Theosophical Glossary by HPB, published posthumously three years later. This idea apparently came from another Mahatma letter, #69, in which we read: "The meaning of the terms Devachan and Deva-loka, is identical; "chan" and "loka" equally signifying place or abode." This Mahatma writer, perhaps in fact HPB here, does not show knowledge of the equivalence of devachan and sukhavati, as in Mahatma letter #16.
HPB told us clearly, in a letter first published by Jinarajadasa in the Introduction to the 1923 book, The Early Teachings of the Masters, that she did the actual writing of most of the Mahatma letters. She put in them what the Mahatmas told her to write; and in some cases, she explained, she was asked to answer for them or on their behalf. This could be such a case. There are many such in the Mahatma letters. It is not true that "chan" means "place" or "abode." As I have earlier posted, the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit word sukhavati is the Tibetan word "bde ba can." The "can" or "chan" is the possessive suffix, meaning "having" or "possessing." It translates the "vat" or "vati" in sukhavati. There is no Sanskrit or Tibetan word "chan" that means "place" or "abode." It is unfortunate that the actual derivation of devachan was not made clear to HPB by the Mahatma writer of letter #16, who knew at very least that devachan translates or is equivalent to sukhavati. Now, this error has been perpetuated by Theosophists who followed her in this, right up to the present.
The original Sanskrit text of the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra was discovered in China and was first published in 1883. A considerably improved edition was published in 1965. Both of these Sanskrit editions are posted on this website. The first English translation made from the Sanskrit, by F. Max Muller, was published in the book, Buddhist Mahayana Texts, as Sacred Books of the East, vol. 49, in 1894. This is no doubt available online now. In 1996 a new translation was published, made by Luis O. Gomez, under the title, The Land of Bliss: The Paradise of the Buddha of Measureless Light.


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