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.

Power Transition: Are we still waiting for a philosopher-king, or a wheel-turning monarch?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

History tells us that the transition of power from one ruler to the next is not always smooth and peaceful, but is often brutish and violent. The brutish and violent transition of power from one ruler to the next is amply illustrated by what happened to the three successive emperors of the Roman Empire. The reign of Caligula, the third emperor, came to a violent end when he was assassinated in a conspiracy among senators, courtiers, and even members of his own imperial bodyguards. Claudius, the next emperor, met a similar fate when he was poisoned to death, possibly by instigation of his wife Agrippina. Nero, the fifth emperor adopted by Claudius, was spared from death by assassination but took his own life amid the chaos he created with his cruel deeds, which included the killing of his mother Agrippina and the savage treatment of Christians.

Among students of Buddhism, King Bimbisara of Magadha is known as one of the royal benefactors of the Buddha and his Sangha. King Bimbisara’s rein came to a tragic end when he died imprisoned by his own son, who would become King Ajatasattu. Remorseful of his act of parricide, King Ajatasattu would later become a royal benefactor of the Buddha and his Sangha, and was the patron of the First Buddhist Council held after the Buddha’s passing. Despite his good deeds as a generous supporter of the Buddha and his Sangha, King Ajatasattu, too, could not escape a tragic end of his reign, for his son Udayabhadra is said to have assassinated him. King Pasenadi of Kosala, another royal benefactor of the Buddha and his Sangha, also met a similar tragic end when he died of exposure because he could not return to his capital Shravasti as his son had taken over the throne while he was away.

Hereditary inheritance is one way to avoid the brutish and violent transition of power from one ruler, or leader, to the next, which has been widely adopted not only by empires and kingdoms but also by families, businesses, and organizations. The Tokugawa Shogunate was a hereditary transition scheme in which the seat of the Shogun was passed on from the father to his eldest son. While such a hereditary transition scheme was transparent as it made it clear who the next Shogun would be not just to the immediate members of the Shogun’s family but also to the people who supported the Shogunate as ministers and vassals, it was not without controversies and power struggles, especially when the eldest son was deemed unfit to become the Shogun for one reason or another. For example, Hidetada was able to become the second Shogun after Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, passed away because his two elder brothers were not available to inherit the throne: the eldest had committed hara-kiri due to his conflict with Ieyasu and the next eldest had become an adopted son of another influential samurai family. The transition of Shogunate from the Second Shogun Hidetada to the Third Shogun Iemitsu was also not without controversies. While gaining the status of the successor after the death of Hidetada’s first son, Iemitsu was regarded by many around him, including his own father, as unfit to be a Shogun for his erratic behavior and frail constitution.

Choosing the successor by election, in contrast to these historical examples, seems to be a safe and uncontroversial system of power transition that is free from the pitfalls that accompany the succession of emperors, monarchs, and shoguns. This explains why most countries of the world today adopt the electoral system to choose their political leaders, including the United States. In that the country’s leader is chosen every four years by nationwide voting, the presidential election system in the United States appears to be the model of smooth and peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. That even this system is not without controversies is made abundantly clear by the turmoil that the United States is going through after the 2020 presidential election, with the outgoing president refusing to concede defeat in the election, thus preventing the smooth transfer of responsibilities from the old to the new administration.

The events unfolding in the United Sates show that having the democratic form of government is no guarantee for the smooth and peaceful transition of power. It was Plato who characterized democracy as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder.” (Republic, Book VIII, 558) And it was the disorder aspect of democracy that prompted Plato to argue for a philosopher-king, where “political greatness and wisdom meet in one”: “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” (Republic, Book V, 473) The Buddha also expressed a similar idea in his conception of raja cakkavatti, or “wheel-turning monarch”: “A wheel-turning monarch, a just and righteous king, who thus provides lawful protection, shelter, and safety for all, is the one who rules by the Dhamma only. And that rule cannot be overthrown by any hostile human being.” (Anguttara Nikaya, 3:14) Looking around the world, we must say that we are still waiting for such a philosopher-king, such a wheel-turning monarch. But waiting for such a philosopher-king, such a wheel-turning monarch, would be futile unless we all become philosophers, Dhamma practitioners.