According to Tibetan Buddhism, all life and death take place in the gap, or bardo, between one state and another. While the most famous bardo is the one between death and rebirth, there are others that also shape our lives. Khenchen Konchog Gyaltshen presents a commentary on Milarepa’s song of realization “The Eight Bardos.”
Milarepa's style of teaching is called “direct pointing out.” This refers to instructions that pinpoint what should be rejected and what should be accepted, the causes of suffering and the causes of happiness, without a lot of intellectual argumentation. for centuries, people have benefited from study- ing his vajra songs. now we too have the good fortune to study the songs of Milarepa and be similarly inspired to practice dharma sincerely. even though we may not fully comprehend what Milarepa said, it is crucial to rejoice in the opportunity to read his words. If we can do that, we will make a connection with Milarepa and receive his blessings through his songs. This isn’t due to some magical power but rather is the natural result of understanding and practicing his teachings. In this song of the eight bardos, the profundity and vastness of his teachings are made clear to scholars and practitioners alike. If we keep them in mind, we will eventually arrive at buddhahood.
I prostrate to the saintly lamas.
In particular, I go for refuge to the one who was kind.
Son, in answer to your prayer
I sing this song about the bardos.
Milarepa begins by singing the praises of the saintly lamas, who are the great enlightened masters. Among them, Marpa was the one who was most kind to Milarepa because he is the one who gave Milarepa all the lineage teachings, which caused him to achieve complete enlightenment in a single lifetime. Gampopa is Milarepa’s spiritual son, and the one who requested these teachings.
Bardo is a Tibetan word. The first syllable, bar, means “in between”; the second syllable, do, means “two.” So together, they mean “place in between two.” While the bardo between lives is the most well known, the word can be used to indicate a state between any two things: hungry and full, happiness and suffering, delusion and enlightenment, laughing and crying, this life and the next, or between meditation sessions. Our life constantly plays out in between, in duality. This song is a teaching on how to transcend duality or, in other words, how to purify the concept of duality. Since Gampopa was highly accomplished in meditation and scholarship, Milarepa explained these bardo teachings from the point of view of Mahamudra. All appearances related to every subject manifest in dependence on causality from the Mahamudra state, and they dissolve back into Mahamudra. A great amount of wisdom based on meditation experience with nonduality is needed to capture the meaning of inseparable appearance and emptiness.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.