And since there may be infinite numbers of universes in this vast cosmos, there should be plenty of room for everybody. This vision of infinity is sort of like the plight of Sisyphus, doomed to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity only for the boulder to come rolling back down again over and over. But this isn't a fault of Sisyphus—it's an action set in place by the gods and destined to repeat an infinite number of times, completely out of his control.
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In Buddhism, on the other hand, it's possible to make some forward progress without having the boulder roll backwards each time. As long as we're diligent in our pursuit of wisdom and enlightenment, the boulder won't roll backwards on us—the only problem being that the hill itself is infinitely large, and will never end.
Nietzsche, the God-killing Buddha. Image left : F.
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Hartmann in Basel. Image right : Sisyphys —49 by Titian. The key difference: the Sisyphean circumstance is set in place maliciously by some higher power, whereas the Buddhist circumstance is simply a recognition of the nature of reality. In Buddhism, we're not cursed by any higher power; the curse is the nature of existence and therefore suffering itself.
This makes Buddhism a humanistic philosophy—the responsibility is all on us—whereas god-based morality says that our fate is out of our control. Your preferred belief system is a matter of taste; different people find different belief systems more comforting.
Listen to the entire Tibetan Book of the Dead here in English:
But I'm of the opinion that the god-based morality is counter-productive, because it suggests there's nothing we can do to avoid global catastrophes. For example, the Book of Revelations predicts a future apocalypse in which every human being will die and go on to either burn in hell or live in a heavenly paradise.
The reality, of course, is that there's a lot we can do to avoid such a scenario from ever taking place—and that we should also be ethically obligated to do avoid such scenarios wherever possible. Now, let's finally get into what the thousand-year-old Tibetan text actually says about death, reincarnation, and achieving liberation from suffering.
The basic tenets are this: through careful lifelong practice, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism can achieve liberation from suffering after death and become a Buddha.
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If this is not possible if one has not practiced sufficiently , then one may otherwise achieve a favorable rebirth reincarnation in a body of one's own choosing the book even discusses 'how to choose an ideal womb'. However, each outcome is dependent on the deceased having studied the Bardo Thodol while alive.
Both of these options—liberation or reincarnation in an ideal body of one's choosing—are exponentially better than the worst options: being reincarnated as a lower life form or, if you're a really bad sinner, ending up in a sort of Tibetan Hell which is by far the worst thing one could imagine. The hierarchy of sins here follows a pattern.
Cover and pages from a Tibetan Book of the Dead Manuscript
If you lived a life driven by hate, you'll end up trapped in Tibetan Hell. If you lived a life of greed, you'll end up as a sort of ghost, trapped between realms.
If you lived a life of ignorance and stupidity, you'll be reincarnated as some kind of animal, which all have limited faculties of understanding and thus are unable to achieve liberation. After that comes humans, which are said to be unshackled from the extremes of hate, greed, and ignorance. Being born a human is thought of as a hard-won treasure, having taken perhaps billions of former lifetimes of slow momentum down the path of enlightenment in order to achieve.
It's only once one is reincarnated in a human form that they're finally able to begin practicing Buddhism in earnest. Interestingly, these three deadly sins of Tibetan Buddhism are also what lead to most of the problems for our civilization here on Earth.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Hatred leads to wars and potentially the use of nuclear weapons, which could effectively render Earth uninhabitable. Greed leads to unabated capitalism and the environmental destruction we see around the world today, and which just might kill us all off within a few generations. And perhaps worst of all, ignorance renders us unable to look at our actions as a civilization objectively, unable to see the error in the current status quo. Another Mandala depicting Buddhas of the Tibetan canon.
Perhaps it makes more sense to imagine Tibetan Hell as a place we create here on Earth—a world filled with suffering—if we're unable to overcome our destructive instincts which are supposed to be the driver of animals, not enlightened humans. Perhaps we can imagine future generations of humanity as ghosts, wandering in some apocalyptic between-realm of a hopeless future. And perhaps our extinction as the only species on the planet capable of attaining wisdom and enlightenment would once again give Earth back to the animals, who are incapable of following the path of Dharma.
Perhaps the most important thing in the entire cosmos is the ability to seek wisdom, because that's the only true path to enlightenment. As Thurman states,. The intellect is a vehicle of liberation; it is the source of wisdom, after all, and wisdom is the only faculty that can enable you to achieve liberation. Meditation, love, ethics, none of these alone can bring about enlightenment without wisdom.
As humans, we're extremely lucky because we're the only creatures on this planet capable of attaining any sort of wisdom and cosmic understanding at all. And this enables us to potentially change the course of the entire universe around us, given cosmic time-spans. Practictionersr of Tibetan Buddhism believe that it takes an incredible number of reincarnations in order to achieve enlightenment, or Buddhahood.
Tibetan Book of the Dead
But the fact that one has been born a Tibetan, or a human in general, and especially if one is already predisposed to pursuing Buddhist practice, means that one has already completed the vast majority of their long journey towards Buddhahood. Every being alive today has already gone through countless lives, and many still have countless lives to go before attaining the ultimate perfection. This isn't too different from the evolutionary force that got life to where it is today, and which has enabled our human bodies and minds to exist at all.
It started with the simplest, single-celled life forms at the time of the primordial Earth. Then, untold millions of generations later, the steady change of evolution over time resulted in the world we see around us today—more than 7 billion conscious humans, each capable of comprehending at least some of the world, however big or small that understanding may be.
When it comes to the actual substance of the Bardo Thodol, we can ignore the woo-woo stuff about gods and demons and hell-realms and choosing an ideal womb for rebirth, and instead focus solely on what's useful to us. The Tibetan concept of the between stage of life and death allows us to take a step back and examine our own lives from afar. I think that's the hidden purpose of this Book of the Dead: to help us think about our own mortality so that we can overcome our fears and live our lives well and purposefully.
A 13th-Century depiction of Akshobya and the other five Wisdom Buddhas repeated in the background. This is also something we should do as a civilization. We need a Book of Death by Cosmos in order to come to grips with the possibility that our entire civilization might die off, just as many civilizations have done in the past.
The colors relate to basic elements such as fire, air, and earth, and the animal heads are derived from Central Asian species of wild game along with some iconic Indian animals such as the elephant and boar. Mobile Menu Button. Cover and pages from a Tibetan Book of the Dead Manuscript 19th century.
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