“Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos” by Chogyam Trungpa
Reviewed by Jacqui Dodds
Over the last few months I have been drawn to study the works of Ven. Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, scholar and founder of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. Accordingly, I plan to review at least two of his books in the next while.
oday I shall review ‘Transcending Madness: The Experience of the Six Bardos’ by Chogyam Trungpa. In this book Chogyam Trungpa discusses how the Tibetan Buddhist term, ‘bardo’ (usually associated with life after death), can be usefully explored and interwoven with another core concept in Buddhist psychology: the six realms of existence.
o do this, the first section of the book is a comprehensive exploration of what is meant by the term ‘bardo’ and how the six realms of being are also the six states of bardo. The second section of the book details the six states of being.
e uses the image of the water of a river as the background bardo experience flowing between the banks of the river and notes how this bardo experience changes according to the conditions the river runs through. The conditions, or environmental factors of the river, are our basic conditions of existence. Seen this way, the gentle flowing or turbulent nature of the water represents our psychological state of being under these constantly changing conditions.
ardo is both the gap between moments and can be divided into the six larger divisions of (1) the bardo of this life; (2) the bardo of dream (the gap between going to sleep and waking up); (3) the bardo of meditation; (4) the bardo of dying; (5) the bardo of dharmata (or reality — the seeing as it really is) and (6) the bardo of existence (or becoming). In addition, Trungpa Rinpoche describes bardo as “the sudden glimpse of experience which is constantly developing. We try to hold on to it, and the moment we try to hold on to it, it leaves us, because of the very fact that we are trying to hold on to it, which is trying to give birth to it”.
The grasping triggers a new psychological state. In interweaving these two core concepts of bardo and realms of existence, Trunpa Rinpoche discusses in some detail the textures and consequences of such powerful emotions as anger, greed, ignorance, desire, jealousy and pride, each of which are the dominant emotional texture of one of the realms of existence that we constantly cycle through in our human body, as well as in different births and life-forms. He draws our attention to how the present moment is always colored by one of the six psychological states that characterise each ‘realm’ of existence. Thus, the god realm manifests as bliss and spiritual materialism (or grasping); the jealous god realm as jealousy and restless lust for entertainment and competition; the human realm as passion and desire; the animal realm as ignorance; the hungry ghost realm as poverty and possessiveness; and the hell realm as aggression and anger.
he unsatisfactoriness – or confusion as to whether one is experiencing pleasure or pain – in each state propels one into the next emotion, or realm, or type of consciousness. He discusses at some length this confusion between pleasure and pain that we all experience on an every day level as well as at times of peak, or dramatic, experience and argues that it is a critical ‘double-take’ factor of bardo experience that we need to understand.
s an overall theme, Trungpa Rinpoche argues that when we are caught in one of these emotional states, or realms, we are in a state of insanity, otherwise known as madness. This insanity is based on the unconscious nature of the grasping for pleasure, or avoidance of pain, or compulsive ignoring that is in turn linked to our deluded view that we and all that we perceive with our senses are seperate entities to be protected, avoided or ignored. As the impermanent and dependent arising of all phenomena means there is no ego or seperate identity to be found, the compulsive drive for pleasure or avoidance of pain causes frustration and pain, without fulfilling the objective of protecting, avoiding or ignoring. It is instead the acknowledgement and acceptance of pain and pleasure, without expectation or grasping, that he describes as the sanity that brings freedom. The change to acceptance is based on recognition of impermanence and lack of seperate identity.
s you may be able to see from my attempted summary of some of the key points covered in this book, the content is pretty deep and complex. To help us understand the complex and sometimes paradoxical nature of these aspects of Buddhist psychology, question and answer sections (where students attending his lectures have the opportunity to question him) are added to each chapter. Some people may find this very useful but I found the questions somewhat fragmented and not always relevant to what Rinpoche had been discussing in that chapter (or lecture).
verall, this book – as the first of a series I have recently bought – has given me a new way of considering the concepts of bardo and the process of cycling through the six realms of existence, on both a daily, and life-to-life level. I find it has really helped me work with and understand my own experience of the destructive emotions of anger/hate; greed/lust; ignorance, desire, doubt, jealousy and pride and – through the lens of my direct experience – work more skillfully with the psychotherapeutic management of these emotions in others.