Understand the intermediate state (Tibetan: bardo) – demystifying death and reincarnation

May 13, 2020

Know the Intermediate State

Life is short-lived, the world is impermanent. Every living person, from the moment of birth, is marching step by step towards death, the unavoidable event for all living beings. Due to cultural stigma, most Chinese avoid mentioning or discussing in depth the topic of death. But avoidance cannot dispel people’s inherent fear and confusion of death – the perennial question, “Whence does life come, to where will death lead,” has troubled humanity for ages.

More and more scientific studies are making clear that death is not the end of life but a turning point between the present and future life. So what is the post-death state? How does reincarnation occur? Let us now unveil the secrets of death and reincarnation.

What is the intermediate state?

After the cessation of breath, the period between the moment one’s consciousness departs the physical body and the moment of reincarnation is called the intermediate state. It is called intermediate in the sense that the previous five aggregates (that of corporeality, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness that define a person’s mental and physical existence) has stopped functioning yet the next five aggregates (of the next life) have yet to emerge. The dissolution of the five aggregates means one’s life as a human being has ended; the future five aggregates having yet to arrive means re-incarnation has not yet taken place. Most people will experience such intermediate state after death. However, for those who have lived a life of exemplary goodness or extreme evil, there will not be an intermediate state. Those who have dedicated themselves to wholesome deeds, spiritual cultivation, and devotion to the Three Jewels and the Pureland do not go through the intermediate state. Instead they will be spontaneously reborn in the Pureland of Bliss. Those ascending to heaven or descending to hell also go just as quickly.

The being in intermediate state is also called the “intermediate aggregate body” or “intermediate aggregate existence.” As stated in the tenth scroll of the “Abhidharma-kośa-bhāṣya śāstra”, the period time starting from the instance of death to the instance of incarnation (meaning entering the womb of the mother) is the intermediate state of existence. In this state, there is solely consciousness, no physical body. This state of intermediate existence is manifested according to the activity of the discriminating consciousness. Because this state does not depend on the material contribution of parents (to create a physical body), it is called the “thought-born body”, “thought-created body” or “manifest body.” In this state, the four material elements gather instead of dissolve, as they did during the death process, and the four elements of wind, fire, water, and earth gather according to thoughts of greed, hatred, and delusion.

The intermediate state is prior to the settlement of good and evil karma

This thought-born body of the intermediate state is quite different from the thought-born body which is one of the ten bodies of the Buddha, according to the Flower Adornment Sutra. Since the Buddha has actualize the pure dharmakaya, the thought-born body arises instantaneously according to the power of his pure aspiration to liberate all beings in the ten directions.

When consciousness (of a deceased person) rises above the body at the time of death, it is able to see the physical body that it had inhabited previously. For many that passed away, their consciousness will linger by the side of the deathbed or the coffin, fixated on the corpse. (Recently scientific investigation of “Near Death” experience produce nearly identical account with that from the Buddhist scripture.) At this moment, the energetic forces of good and evil karma are gathering but yet to settle into a definite form or tendency, therefore the consciousness of the intermediate state enjoys a relatively high degree of freedom. The agility, sharpness and awareness of the consciousness during the intermediate state is seven times more powerful than during one’s physical existence. Some even possess telepathy, the ability to read other’s thoughts. This state can last anywhere from seven days, fourteen days, up to even forty-nine days.

The entity (consciousness) that breaks free from the physical body can perceive the external world and freely move about. For most people who had near death experience outside their bodies, they reported having the ability to change location without a gradual process of movement; all it takes is a thought and the arrival is instantaneous. In cases where there is a process of movement, they are able to freely penetrate through obstacles such as solid walls or closed windows, even passing through other physical bodies.

Sentient bings are confused by birth and death, as they cycle through the six realms of existence. Whether born of viviparity, oviparity, through moisture or manifestation, all beings are born according to the wholesome and unwholesome karma they have created through thought, body and speech. Wholesome karma leads to favorable states of existence; while unwholesome karma brings re-birth in woeful states of existence. Karmic laws is as such and is not subject to the dictate of any beings. Karma is the entirety of causes and effects. As causes and effects mutually perpetuate each other, the six realms of existence manifested. Therefore we can conclude that the thought-born body of sentient beings are the culmination of ignorance, karma, and causes and effects. The supernatural ability of the intermediate state is only a temporary result due to a short period of freedom from the constraint of the physical body.

The form of the intermediate aggregate body

In the desire realm, the form of the intermediate aggregate body is about two feet tall, with appearance similar to five or six year-old children with sharp sense faculties. Even for those who suffered from some form of disability during human life, those disabilities will vanish during the intermediate state. Therefore whenever prayers and offerings were made on their behalf, they, in the intermediate state, will know for certain. Those who just passed away can possess clairvoyance and perceive the world over a great distance. Therefore the instance an incense offering is made, the spirit (or consciousness) can arrive instantly. If not for this, how would the folk religious practice of calling the deceased spirits have worked?

Why does one experience a state of coma just before death? This is because our consciousness has become so accustomed to and attached to the body that it feels great pain and delusion just prior to death. The intermediate aggregate body is like the brain and its nervous system. When the consciousness leaves the body, it is as if the nervous system loses all functioning, then there is no longer any notion of coma. Coma is a notion that applies only while living in a physical body. Once the breath ceases and consciousness departs the body, it is aware of any visitors that approaches. When surgery fails, the deceased patient know instantly who is at their sides. The consciousness floats up toward the ceiling. When the corpse is sent away, consciousness can follow the body as well.

The intermediate aggregate body often desires to figure out the causes and conditions for departing the world and seeking out the destination of its coming rebirth – this is also called “seeking birth.” After the dissolution of the body which is the basis of the previous existence, the intermediate aggregate body temporarily arises until the next birth, therefore we call the intermediate state as having “arisen” – this state can be as short as merely one instant! Only the desire realm and the form realm can have intermediate aggregate body. In the six realms, the intermediate aggregate bodies can vary greatly. According to the Mahā Ratnakūṭa Sūtra, the intermediate aggregate body of a being in hell realm is extreme ugly, his face is as dark as burnt charcoal.

In the animal realm, the intermediate aggregate body is like smoke, having no definite shape or form. This is the result of living a life of having no stable mind, no will-power, and ignorance. In the ghost realm the intermediate aggregate body is like water, its clarity or murkiness depends on level of merit. In the human or celestial realms, the intermediate aggregate body has a golden form. For the form realm (of the celestial realm) the intermediate aggregate body is of pure white color; due to deep meditative concentration and the clarity of mind, the body is transparent. For the intermediate aggregate body of the formless realm is not conceivable for ordinary beings such as us. When the Buddha enters pari-nirvana, the assembly of beings in the formless realm also weeped and rained down like rain. The intermediate aggregate body of the formless realm is of the most subtle four elements, they are imperceptible to human realm.

Bodhisattva manifesting intermediate aggregate body

Bodhisattva’s intermediate aggregate body as skillful means

For those having attained the fruition of Bodhisattva or accomplished spiritual realization, the intermediate aggregate body is simply a skillful means for liberating other beings in the intermediate states. Typical forms were one of middle age with strong and healthy constitution, tall and built. Due to superior wisdom, their bodily form is perfected and radiates light. When bodhisattva intends to enter an embryo, their light shines over countless worlds. Such body is made of wisdom and aspiration, different from the karmic body of ignorant, ordinary beings.

The diet of the intermediate aggregate body

In the desire realm, there are beings who feeds on very subtle fragrant smell called gandharva. Their thought-born bodies also exclusively feed on fragrant smell (due the discriminating consciousness, they still desire ‘food.’) When their descendants (surviving children and relatives) offers incense, it is because that they still desire food. In folk practices, channeling spirits or offering to gods all utilize burning incense because spirits and gods all feed on fragrance smells as food. For parents that passed away, when their children offer food, it is the smell of the food that is being received by the spirit. There are varying levels of quality for incense. Spirits of lessor karmic merit feed on low quality incense – they cannot ingest high quality incense offering due to lack of merit. For spirits with greater merit, they are able to feed on high quality incense. Good incense, when offered, will attract benevolent spirits and deities. On the other hands, low quality incense tend to attract mostly hungry ghosts.

Intermediate aggregate body has strong karmic force and speed with an open channel to supernatural powers – it also possesses high degree of concentration, supernatural ability, will-power, aspirational power, and merit power. However, once the karmic forces of a being in the intermediate state settled on the destination for future rebirth, these spiritual powers will vanish immediately. At this point, the consciousness follows its own thoughts, and will reincarnate wherever a thought leads. Therefore one ought to cultivate awareness of one’s own thoughts every moment. When a thought arising on the purity of the Buddha’s realm, then reincarnation will be in a lotus. (Note: re-birth in Pureland takes place in a metaphorical lotus, not a womb.) Therefore at the moment of death the most critical factor for re-birth is the causal circumstances – a positive circumstance lead to rebirth in wholesome realms; negative circumstances will lead to rebirth in woeful realms. Therefore the surviving relative and friends of a deceased person should establish a grand offering ceremony, make offering to the Three Jewels and rely on the meritorious blessings of the Three Jewels to support the spirit of the deceased for a wholesome rebirth. Alternatively, one can also recite the sutras of the Buddha’s teachings, or recite the Buddha’s name to invoke the blessings of the Buddhas to help steer the spirit away from negative re-birth.

The life span of the intermediate aggregate body

The life span of the intermediate aggregate body is based on cycles of seven days. Within each seven-day cycle there is an opportunity to re-incarnate. Because of this, we chant Buddhist scripture, commence a memorial or repentance ceremony, or recitation of the Buddha’s name on behalf of the deceased once every seven days to enhance the positive karma and pray for a positive rebirth. If the deceased has an abundance of wholesome karmic roots due to his own spiritual practice, it is possible to achieve liberation through the merit of reciting the Buddha’s name and be reborn in the Land of Bliss. But the so-called seven-day cycle is not definitive since there are exceptions. There are those who reincarnate within three or four days after death; there are also those who did not take rebirth for months.

If after seven cycles – a total of forty-nine days – has passed and one has not yet taken rebirth through the power of positive merit, then they will generally descend into the realm of the hungry ghost. In folk religion there are the practices of “extradition of lost souls” – to save the spirits from this state. If the practice is able to attract the spirit after a few years, it means that the spirit has descended into the hungry ghost realm. Since the intermediate state lasts no more than forty-nine days, those who did not take rebirth but instead had descended into the hungry ghost realm will have great difficulty leaving that state.

Since the hungry ghosts belong to a particular realm with its own way of life, it is difficult to switch to another modality. Therefore within the forty-nine days of the intermediate state one should engage in many meritorious activities in order not to fall into this state. But of course this is a practice of last resort. One should practice diligently before one’s own death and focus on the realization of the purity of one’s own essential nature and combined that practice with wholesome work of charity. Do not rely on relatives or surviving children to practice on your behalf after death, the degree of benefit is not even comparable.

Modern scientific investigations

Western science has recently investigated the so-called “near death” experience. It has discovered that among those who have “died” and resurrected there are many different perceptions – some reported encountering Buddhas, heavenly saints, king of the hell realm or other spirits. It is evident that the world after death experienced by each person is not of a single destination.

Kubler-Ross said, “The near-death experiences reported by various people is not that of an “After-World” but rather a transitional process from life to death. In terms of physics, the notion of existence is taken as both an objective and a shared principle. However, from the psycho-spiritual perspective, existence does not require these two factors. The creation of a self-nature is a subjective existence – the so-called “reality” is still a subjective perspective. The reality of near-death experience, being the creation of the experiencer, is therefore variable according to the individual.”

Scientists have stated that, “Let us suppose that an after-world does exist, then this world is most likely not a singular, monotonic world. Instead, it is more like the current reality of our world, one of myriad experiences.” This statement confirms that the experiences of the intermediate aggregate body are subjective manifestations of individual being’s own karma.

Reincarnation of the intermediate aggregate body

How the intermediate aggregate body enters the womb

The first twenty-one days of the intermediate state, the consciousness still retains vivid recollection of its life prior to death. Therefore during this period, dedication of meritorious practices will be the most beneficial. After this initial period, it will become increasingly difficult to make an impact due to the growing strength of the individual karma that is beginning to take form. According to description, the intermediate aggregate body will go through the mental state of the death process once every seven days. Those who passed away in peace will re-experience that peaceful state of mind. Same for those who had a turbulent and troubled mental state, they will also re-experience that state. Many intermediate aggregate bodies will gather around man and women engaging in sexual intercourse, looking for potential parents with karmic affinity. When one of the intermediate aggregate body finds fulfillment of its karma with the parents, the rest of the intermediate aggregate bodies will experience despair and re-experience death. This re-experiencing of death is the manifestation of birth and death in the ignorance mind, not the death of the physical body.

Due to a desperate and strong desire to find rebirth, the intermediate aggregate bodies will be attracted to situations that appears to be safe. However in their confused state of consciousness, opportunities for good rebirths are often mistaken as bad, while path toward bad rebirths were regarded as good. In that state of confusion, they may hear attractive singing or music, the calling of relatives, and often ended up in the three woeful realms, namely, animal, hungry ghost, and hell. The karmic force pushes the intermediate aggregate body to the place where potential parents are engaged in sexual intercourse and depending on the degree of past life karma, they will develop incredibly strong attachment. If the consciousness has strong desire for the mother and the emotional urge to replace the father, the spirit will re-incarnate as male. For the reversed situation, the reincarnation will be a female. Some may ask about test-tube babies where there were no sexual acts by the parents, how can re-incarnation occur? The answer to that is as long as there is the union of the sperm and the egg, it is sufficient to attract a spirit in the intermediate state.