Bardos: Opening to the Sacred

“Everything changes.”
Suzuki Roshi when asked what is the heart of Buddhism.

I am here, nestled in my home in the woods. Outside my window there is a snow of falling pink and white blossoms as the spring breeze gusts through the trees. Snug inside, fingers tap the computer as I contemplate the world-wide pandemic which has turned our known lives upside down and has brought us each such deep recognition of this life’s uncertainty and impermanence. There are exquisite endings and losses. So many things crumble each day. What we have counted on, what we ordinarily take for granted, withers and disappears each day. There is ever widening recognition of our world-wide fluidity and non-separation. Culturally we are challenged at every turn as we pause into the not-knowing of what will be next.

Our spiritual practice kindly reminds us that these times are no different, really, from how it’s always been. We have never really – really – been truly separate from one another or able to depend on the permanence of any of the things of this world for our comfort and well-being. “Only love is real” is the fundamental teaching of every spiritual teaching. The forms that arise always then pass away. I am drawn in to the truth and tenderness and wonder of it all as this fluidity and not-knowing resonates deeply just now in my eyes and ears and mind and heart.

I think of the Tibetan teachings on the bardos of dying: ancient teachings on what will happen for us each after death in the transition between this earthly life and what comes next. “Bardo” is not just a reference to the afterlife, however. The word simply means a gap between the completion of one situation and the onset of another.   These gaps, moments of not knowing, are, by definition, confusing; they are moments of “don’t know.”  Andrew Holecek speaks of a bardo as a time of stress and vulnerability and bewilderment, but also of “… opportunity…when…all kinds of miraculous possibilities can materialize, a time (inviting)… a complete openness to whatever arises…(when)…surrender is more important than control. ”   Similarly, Mingyur Rinpoche speaks of confusion and uncertainty as a blessing: “… the beginning of understanding, the first stage of letting go of the neuronal gossip that used to keep you chained to very specific ideas about who you are and what you’re capable of.” Bardos: in every sense, these are sacred moments. We are invited to learn to make good use of them.

Often, however, these transitional states can seem so very wrong. As moments of emptiness, suspense and uncertainty, they are times when our conditioned forms, perceptions, fictional stories and habitual strategies no longer work in quite the same way. Unless we recognize these bardos for the uncertain transitional states that they are, we can stumble impulsively into old patterns. We can relentlessly remember what was and what is now lost. We can obsessively imagine possibilities and dwell in fear for the future. We can even grasp and try to take refuge in despair, anxiety, restlessness, hopelessness and unwholesome speech and action, simply because they seem familiar and are something for us to do. Nevertheless, as in all bardos, the invitation is to pause and let go of reliance on the familiar and to allow ourselves to rest with curiosity and care in the emptiness of these transitional states themselves. We are invited to take refuge in an ever-deeper faith and patience and clear-seeing, and to let these moments of uncertainty open to the sacred.

I think that the minutes and hours and days after the 9/11 tragedies offered just such a bardo on an international scale as beings around the planet deeply connected with one another’s hearts and minds in a spontaneous outpouring of universal love and care. But we don’t have to look just to these moments of colossal and earth-shattering disruption. Bardos are happening all the time, inviting us into their mystery. We can give up on trying to control our circumstance or other people or ourselves. We can give up on what we think is supposed to be. What is left is the bare fact of opening our hearts and just being. Just…this.

So the invitation of a bardo is into fierce and fearless and simple and loving presence with the unknown, a presence that allows us to see things as they are but to not be carried away into habitual struggle or unwholesome thought or activity. Presence allows us to remember our intentions to live in what most deeply matters. Both spiritual and secular teachings remind us that the gaps of the bardos are moments in which the possibility of awakening is heightened and especially available. We are invited to relax and make the best possible use of these moments of not-knowing.  The poet TS Eliot many years ago spoke of these transitions:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought…
So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness the dancing…”

Similarly, the Tibetan Book of the Dead invites us to remember and trust and let go “…into the clear light, the pure clear light, from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns.   (It is) the original nature of your own mind, the natural state of the universe unmanifest. Let go into the clear light. Trust it, merge with it.  It is your own true nature, it is home… no matter where or how far you (or others) wander, the light is only a split second, a half a breath away.  It is never too late to recognize the clear light. ” 

What, though, I wonder, does this mean for me, practically, today? For one, it means, I think, to not indulge in mental agitation or unwholesome activity as a way of trying to fill the unknown space. It means to abandon the familiar extremes of trying to deal with uncertainty and confusion by ignoring or attempting to shut down or “fix” my experience at one extreme, or by wallowing in it at the other. May I remember and practice and let go into the light of loving awareness. May I simply know the experience of confusion and uncertainty – my own and others’ – as a normal aspect of our so-very-human minds. May I yet continue to remember all of our basic goodness and wholesome speech and action. May I – may we each – rest in our own and others’ most worthy intentions for our days and our relationships and our lives and in our open minds and hearts. May we know that others’ mental agitations, often reflected in the day’s newspapers, may be not so wholesome to engage, but rather might gently be noticed as the “stuff” of many collective conceptual minds that are simply, in their own ways, trying to help. May we open our own good hearts and rest in appreciation and gratitude and generosity and patience and compassion and letting go, and yes, in love.

As I glance up and out the window, the wild cherry blossoms continue to dance in a lush and glorious symphony from tree to ground. The wilting garden daffodils are collapsing into their final moments of spring glory. Delicate green leaves and tiny seeds sprout from branches that have long seemed dead. Frogs in my neighbor’s pond chant their hearts out in this early morning dawn, eagerly searching for the mates with whom they will create this season’s new life. My heart opens with the tenderness of it all.

Pause.  These are sacred times, even now.


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