The Tibetan word bardo has begun to enter common usage in the West. Bardo means “gap,” “in between” or “intermediate state.” In Buddhism, bardo generally refers to the time following death and preceding rebirth, a time of disembodied passage and vivid encounter with both one’s enlightened nature and one’s karmic accumulations and psychological projections, some blissful, others disturbing if not terrifying.
Buddhist practitioners often use the term bardo to describe any period of groundlessness and potential confusion: an illness, a relationship breakup, a lost job, even single moments of unsettledness, anxiety or depression. These usages are actually quite apt, since the bardo after death is not considered fundamentally different that these bardos of waking, human experience. In fact, as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and many other teachers have pointed out, it is precisely through awareness and training in unconditionally opening ourselves to these uncomfortable moments that we prepare ourselves for the more demanding journey of bardo after death.
So pervasive is the experience of bardo – the in between state – that every second of our life can be considered a bardo, a moment of nowness sandwiched between the past and future. This state of existence is what is meant when Buddhist teachers speak of the world as dreamlike, merely apparent, without the solidity we impute upon it. That the world is only apparent is a phenomenology found not only in Buddhism but also Sufi teachings (and other systems of spiritual wisdom). The great 12th Century Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi wrote about “existence” this way:
“For the world’s existence is the instance of its nonexistence. Thus the Manifest imposes manifestation upon the first hiddenness, and the world is produced. Next the Hidden imposes hiddenness upon the first manifestation, and the world vanishes. Then the authority returns to the Manifest – and so forth, ad infinitum. This is what is called “renewed creation”. The imaginary prolongation which seems to result from this flowing of similitudes is Time and motion is its measure.” (Ibn ‘Arabi, Journey to the Lord of Power)
Historically, there are a number of different bardos; the bardo of our human life, from birth until the dying process begins is called the kyenay bardo. Contrasting to this is the chikhai bardo or the process of dying itself, the generally uncharted “undiscovered country.” In Tibetan Buddhism, as in all systems of Buddhism, the process of death is seen as a dissolving of the elements—not to be taken literally—beginning with the gross and ending with the most subtle: the body loses the earth element and becomes weak and immobile; it loses the water element and circulation becomes labored; it loses the fire element and begins to become cold; finally it loses the air element when one takes one’s last breath.