Death and Rebirth in Tibetan Buddhism


Detail of center of Tibetan wheel of life, showing beings ascending and descending from life to life

Buddhist author, scholar, and practitioner Nagapriya shares insights into the Tibetan view of rebirth as a spiritual practice, in this excerpt from his acclaimed book, Exploring Karma and Rebirth.

The Tibetan schools of Buddhism place great importance on the death bardo — the intermediate state between death and rebirth — because they believe it provides a precious opportunity for spiritual awakening. For this reason, a good deal of their spiritual practice is geared towards preparing for it so that the death experience can be put to best use.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death. As we approach death, images of our past deeds supposedly flash across our minds. For instance, if our life has been skillful, then skillful volitions are most likely to be present at the time of death and lead to a favorable rebirth. These schools believe that in the bardo we are confronted by the white light of reality, which is nothing other than the true nature of our mind, but instead of recognizing it as such we become frightened and fall into a swoon.

At first, we don’t even realize we have died. We then undergo a series of experiences in which we are confronted by reality in the guise of different Buddha and Bodhisattva forms. These experiences offer us a series of opportunities to wake up to reality, but without adequate preparation we are likely to misunderstand their true nature, become terrified by the appearance of the angelic figures, and scuttle towards the nearest womb.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead could be described as an instruction manual for the living so that they can help the deceased to orient themselves through the death experience and attain spiritual liberation rather than rebirth. It describes in great detail the parade of Enlightened figures that will confront us in the after-death state. Over a series of “days” we will be faced with a choice between the startling light of reality as manifested through various Buddha figures and the dull light of rebirth that emanates from each of the six realms. The light of the Buddhas is intense, so bright that it frightens us, whereas the lights emanating from each of the six realms are dull and soothing. If we have an affinity with the god realm we are likely to be drawn to its dull white light. Similarly, the angry god realm emits a dull red light, the human realm dull blue, the animal realm dull green, the preta realm dull yellow, and finally the hell realm emits a dull smoke-colored light.

If we are able to embrace the light of reality, we may gain spiritual awakening in the bardo state; if not, then we will seek re-embodiment in whichever realm we feel most affinity with. One way of preparing for our encounter with the startling light of reality is therefore through regular meditation on a Bodhisattva or Buddha figure. During the first few days, the deceased is confronted by a series of peaceful Buddha figures whose beauty and purity may be so terrifying that they swoon again. As time passes, the deities that appear become more wrathful in aspect and in conventional appearance seem demonic, though they are traditionally believed to be less frightening than the peaceful figures.

Spiritual practice as a whole could well be described as a preparation for death.

It is considered important to remind the departing spirit of the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha — as he or she enters the intermediate state. For this reason, it is usual to place images of Buddhas around the dying person, to recite mantras, and even to read instructions from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. By doing this, the chances of the dying person recognizing what is happening to them as they enter the bardo and responding positively to the experience are greatly improved.

But the teaching of the bardo also has a more immediate, everyday relevance. Not only is death a valuable bardo; daily life also represents a continuing opportunity to embrace the light of reality. At every moment we can choose to understand and live according to truth, or reject the truth and perpetuate our delusion and evasion. At every moment we have a choice whether to embrace compassion, clarity, and equanimity or to reinforce petty selfishness, vagueness, and partiality. We don’t need to wait until the moment of death to experience the clear light of reality – it is present before us even now. It is through making this choice that we can begin to redirect the course of our lives and create a different future. Rather than be directed by what is worst in us, we can deliberately align our will with what is best and break free of the gravitational pull of unskillful habits.


4 Comments. Leave new

  • One answer please.
    I experienced death in a semi sleep state some three months ago.The death experience was like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.Then I started coming back to life and found myself in a position of a baby coming out of his mother’s womb.The position of my legs and hands were exactly like that of a baby during birth.I could not control my legs that kept kicking like a baby trying to push his way out of his mother’s womb.My question – Is death and rebirth possible when one is still living? Why did I experience death and rebirth? I practice the Vajrayana. Thank you. Om Mani Padme Hom

  • Hi Nirmal,

    I’d imagine that your experience was symbolic. To have a dream of dying and being reborn suggests that there was some kind of transformation going on: perhaps the death of an old habit or viewpoint and the birth of something new.

    “Is death and rebirth possible when one is still living?” Yes, it’s happening all the time. In every moment we are dying and being reborn. Everything is changing all the time, and so everything is dying and being reborn.

    All the best,

  • Jonathan Hissong
    November 26, 2021 5:14 am

    I had a dream. A most interesting dream, I am a very dedicated student of Zen Buddhism. I have been meditating every day at least an hour for 4 years, I of course have done many retreats as well.

    I had a very vivid dream, I’m a lucid dreamer by the way, where I was in some kind of ancient Buddhist temple.

    I was sitting upon a cushion and I saw my face in the mirror. I looked exactly like myself expect I was of Indian descent but I am Caucasian.

    I was being made offerings by servants and eventually I was carried deep into the temple where I was “tested” by 3 demons with many arms.

    It seemed as though they were trying to see if I was afraid of them, they swung their weapons at me and all I did was maintain meditating.

    The third one was a monstrous spectacle, he was in some sort of center chamber and it unlocked and released. He came out to face me but I did not falter.

    I was carried out into yet another part of the temple, it seemed a whole host of different spirits rejoiced as I was carried out by servants on several sides.

    I should mention I had been sitting in the meditative position and did not move once during the dream.

    Eventually I was carried out of the temple overlooking some kind of huge miasma. I became very heavy and a large “creature” strange but benevolent carried me at this point.

    All very strange, a woman servant to my right smiled at me though before we left out before the “universal void”. She smiled and called me Lama Yag Sal.

    Any ideas about this?

    Jonathan Hissong

    • Hi, Jonathan.

      You have interesting dreams, but I am afraid I’m not a dream interpreter and so I’m not able to help you with this.

      All the best,


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