Bardo: Turning Rupture into Rapture

 Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

There is a Buddhist term that refers to an intermediate state that exists during the period of transition from one state to another. In Pali, the term is antarabhava, which combines two words: anatara, which means “intermediate” or “transitional,” and bhava, which means “existence” or “state.” The corresponding Tibetan term is bardo, and it refers to the intermediate period, lasting up to 49 days, between the time of death and the time of rebirth. The teaching of bardo forms the core of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and is widely accepted in Mahayana schools, being incorporated into a series of ceremonies that are held by family members following the death of a family member.

Beyond such specific meaning in Tibetan and Mahayana schools, bardo has a more general, important message for all Buddhist practitioners. This is so because, as Pema Khandro Rinpoche reminds us, bardo does not just refer to the period after death: “The Tibetan term bardo, or ‘intermediate state,’ is not just a reference to the afterlife. It also refers more generally to these moments when gaps appear, interrupting the continuity that we otherwise project onto our lives. … But to be precise, bardo refers to that state in which we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us.” (“Breaking Open in the Bardo”, Lion’s Roar, July 15, 2017)

The state in which we find ourselves having lost our old reality happens all the time in our lives. Some intermediate states appear as parts of the growing-up process of individuals. In fact, the intermediate period for students that lasts three years from the end of elementary schools to the start of high schools is called the intermediate school years in some countries. After graduating from colleges and universities, people find themselves in the intermediate state before they start working for companies and organizations. While some intermediate states are happy occasions like the engagement period for young couples, there are other intermediate states that are tragic and traumatic. People who have lost their family members in accidents or to illnesses find themselves in the intermediate state with the continuity of their lives being ruptured by the loss. People who have lost their jobs for one reason or another also find themselves in the intermediate state and experience the rupture in their lives, the reality of promising career and secure livelihood being taken away from them.

The death in the family and the loss of jobs are two examples of major ruptures that happen in the lives of individuals. But the fact of the matter is that there are all kinds of ruptures happening in our lives at all times. What these ruptures happening in our lives remind us is that things are always in transition, as nothing stays the same. And because of these constant changes we see in the world around us, bardo points to the new state that will open up inevitably sooner or later. If so, instead of feeling lost in the rupture of bardo, we need to embrace it as a prelude to something new that will unfold around us, as Pema Chodron suggests us to do: “Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.” (When Things Fall Apart, Shambhala, 1997, p.10)

An even more encouraging message about what bardo can do for us comes from Pema Khandro Rinpoche. In the same article quoted above, she states: “There is an incredible reality that opens up to us in those gaps if we just do not reject rupture. In fact, if we have some reliable idea of what is happening in that intermediate, groundless space, rupture can become rapture.”

Rupture turning into rapture! Considering what rupture means in such cases as the rupture of a blood vessel, that of a fuel tank, and that of a cordial relationship between nations, the statement by Pema Khandro Rinpoche may sound too far removed from the bad connotations we find in this word. However, what she is trying to convey is that it is up to us whether rupture is turned into rapture. Indeed, the teaching of bardo is something we need to embrace in our practice, especially now when people all around the world are going through one of the most serious ruptures in their lives in the form of a pandemic.