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Welcome to the Bardo

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Anam Thubten Rinpoche. From eventbright.com
Anam Thubten Rinpoche. From eventbright.com

Unquestionably, one of the most commonly used Tibetan Buddhist words is bardo, although its origin is from the Sanskrit scriptures. Its popularity started when an American man named Walter Evans-Wentz translated the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford University Press 1927), a terma or treasury teaching revealed by Karma Lingpa. Since then, many Westerners have read that book and the word bardo became spiritual lingo familiar to many people around the world. The etymology of the word is “between state,” indicating a period where you are not “here,” but you are not yet “there.” It might sound like spending many hours on an international fight where a traveler can feel stuck in a flying shipping container with a bunch of strangers somewhere in the sky, and where there is only one excitement: the periodic air turbulence accompanied by worried-looking, hurried air-stewards begging everyone to wear their seat belt, as if Armageddon is about to happen.

There are six kinds of bardos, and some of them are different periods of this life. In general, people do not feel that they are going through the bardo except in times of ground-shaking or tectonic shifts of life, caused by loss, separation, or existential crisis. Now and then, life can be so predictable and stable that boredom becomes an unbearable misery. This is why people intentionally do wild and risky things to get out of the comfortable shackles of the known; they play with the mystery of life that can take them on an adventure where anything can happen.

But something has changed within even the last few years. This might be the first time in the entire human history where the whole world feels like it is in the bardo, if we allow ourselves to tune into what is happening locally and globally. Boredom might be not the issue for many folks, but rather confusion and anxiety. There could be times we might even miss that lovely boredom where things were always okay. Can we reclaim our beloved old boredom?

The world is in chaos, facing a whole host of unprecedented changes and challenges, and no one knows what is in store. For quite a long time, there was a liberal internal order leading the West, especially the United States, which became a strong foundation for democracy to spread throughout the world, along with its universal values, such as human rights and freedom of speech. This order is now resting on rickety ground under the work of populist leaders who worship patriotism over globalization; border walls over open immigration systems; and protectionism over alliance. Above all, there are rising new powers from different parts of the world that are growing stronger every day, and moving to create a world run by multi-superpowers, which will change the existing structures. But the question is: what is that going to look like?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is already affecting our everyday lives; jobs are being automated, robots are performing many tasks better then we humans, who can be fallible with forgetfulness, fatigue, distraction, and many other shortcomings. AI is making our lives easier, but simultaneously it is taking something precious from us. Is it going to create a technopia where we’re going to be enslaved by technology? Or will it serve its human creators to achieve a utopian world where we just rest and eat, while AI does everything else that we can imagine? Some envision the worst scenario where AI takes over, as if the movie script for “Terminal” or “Matrix” was rewritten with humans losing the sacred war to the dark forces. Others argue that such a scenario is logically impossible, because we’re always going to be the master with our own mind that can think, feel, and be creative, while technology will never have its own consciousness and will always be mechanical. I hope the latter view is right.

Then there is climate change, which is already devastating the lives of many people everywhere. At least for the time being, people in the wealthy countries can afford to ignore the already-happening calamity by using resources to deal with natural disasters, continuing their high living standards. A strategy such as this will not work sooner or later. Many parts of the world are suffering from drought, hurricane, flood, and wildfire. The clock is ticking. Climate change is on its way to causing a whole list of problems: food shortage, social instability, and massive migration. It will become harder and harder to live in a bubble shielded from surrounding situations. How is the future going to look for our beloved human race?

Our culture is also rapidly changing to the extent that many find it hard to catch up. Some of the changes are good for humanity and worthy of praise, while others may or may not be good. Various existing customs and social institutions are dying out one after another, such as spiritual disciplines, ceremonies, and sacred practices. What is going to replace them, and will they be benevolent or not? One change that has already happened is that warm human connections have been replaced by smartphones, social media, and endless entertainment. It’s not unusual for people to be sitting around the same table but not talking to each other because they are busy looking at Facebook or junk news.

People are feeling that they are in the bardo without even knowing the term. This is also giving rise to fear, anxiety, and despondency. The bardo teachings contain profound insights that allow us to navigate these situations in the wisest way possible. It teaches us to find a place in our being that is called “nature of mind” where freedom and fearlessness are waiting for us. Of course, this is not something that can be figured out simply by hearing about it. But through the practice of meditation, this enlightened state of mind can be tasted and embodied. It is a state that is not bound by the play of the mind and its thoughts or emotions. From that state, we can respond to life with love and courage. It is time for the world to meditate.

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