The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol)

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Readings

The Tibetan Book of the Dead offers nothing less than a comprehensive guide to the dying process. A pre-eminent work of Tibetan literature and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Bardo Thodol (as it is originally called) articulates Buddhist cosmology regarding the nature of reality and human consciousness. It does so while offering empathetic, practical assistance to the dying, dead, and bereaved.

This must be read as a work of funeral oration, designed to be recited daily in the presence of the dying and dead to ease their consciousness and aid them in a favourable rebirth. Indeed, the intended audience is the corpse: the Bardo Thodol provides gentle counsel regarding the bardos or liminal states the dead traverse before rebirth, and it encourages all to shake off the illusions that trap us in cycles of rebirth and suffering so we can instead move closer toward a more enlightened self.

Since its publication in English in 1927, the Bardo Thodol has become perhaps the most influential and beloved work of Buddhism in the West. One of history’s great religious texts, the magnitude of its contemporary global influence is truly striking – its impact can be found in Carl Jung’s psychoanalysis, Timothy Leary’s psychedelics, novels by Aldous Huxley, songs by The Beatles and Leonard Cohen, and new age spiritual movements. More than this, it has become an essential text for hospices and a source of comfort for so many facing their mortality.

This masterclass will explore the many facets and legacies of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a work of cosmological exposition, funerary oration, and global cultural artefact.

As death and dying loom large in the public consciousness of recent years, we approach this book not just a compassionate guide to death, but more fundamentally, a guide to living well in the light of our own mortality.

Dr Hannah Gould

Dr Hannah Gould is a socio-cultural anthropologist working in the areas of death ritual, Buddhism, and material culture. Her research is focused on processes of death and divestment, in regard to both the human dead and material artefacts.

Dr Gould currently holds the Melbourne Postdoctoral Fellowship in the School of Social and Political Sciences in the Faculty of Arts for the project ‘Mobile Mortality: Transnational Futures of Deathcare in the Asia Pacific’. Her forthcoming book When Death Falls Apart (2023) explores how cultural traditions around death can themselves ‘die’, be replaced, or be transformed. Dr Gould currently serves as President for the Australian Death Studies Society and is a member of the Academic Reference Group for the Centre for Contemplative Studies.