Death and the Uterus

The title of the Bardo Thödol, a.k.a. The Tibetan Book of the Dead i, literally means: « Liberation by understanding » (Thödol), « in the state after death » (Bardo).

This book sets out to describe what will happen to the « consciousness » just after death and during the next few days. It narrates with astonishing precision what happens during the agony, and then the passage of the « consciousness » of the dead person through the intermediate stage of the Bardo, during which he or she will have to strive to make the crucial choices still to be made: to attain ultimate enlightenment and become Buddha, or, failing that, to be reborn into the phenomenal world.

TheBardo Thödol belongs to the Buddhist tradition known as the « Great Path » (or « Great Vehicle »), Mahāyāna. It is remarkable that none of the other (Eastern or Western) great world religions can provide a text that is in any way comparable to it.

The Bardo Thödol is divided into three parts. The first, called Tchikhai-Bardo, describes the psychic processes that take place at the very moment of death. The second part, called Tchönyid-Bardo, deals with the state that follows actual death, a state during which the « consciousness » of the dead person must realize the definitive end of the illusions linked to his karma and the possibility that he is then given the opportunity to reach the state of Buddha. The third part, called Sidpa-Bardo, deals with the consequences of failure, which is always possible, and the impossibility of « consciousness » to enter the immutable Light of Amitābha Buddha, which implies the need to « come down » into the world of phenomena and « be born again ».

While the Tibetan Book of the Dead is unique in world literature, it does have some troubling analogies with the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

These analogies concern the way in which the « consciousness » of the dead person is confronted with her new « state » and the means at her disposal to try to come out of it, that is to say, to « divinize » herself.

The mere fact that we can speak of analogies between such apparently distant texts can be interpreted in two ways.

This may be evidence of a deep but hidden link between one of the essential foundations of the ancient Egyptian religion and the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which is still alive today. One might even surmise the existence of influences, direct or otherwise, of one of these traditions on the other in earlier times.

If we exclude the hypothesis of such influence or sharing of ideas between Egypt and Tibet, this would indicate that a similar, parallel but independent development of these two traditions (Egyptian and Tibetan) has been possible in very different circumstances and in very distant contexts. From this, we should deduce the existence of « anthropological constants », working tirelessly within humanity, and revealing themselves in a brilliant way here and there, in two particularly shining spiritual centers (one now disappeared and museumized, but the other still active, through the influence of Buddhism Mahāyāna).

The formula « anthropological constant » can easily be replaced, if one prefers, by that of « archetypes » emanating from the « collective unconscious », to use C.-G. Jung’s terminology.

C.-G. Jung read the Tibetan Book of the Dead very carefully and made a scholarly commentary on it, from an angle qualified as « psychological »ii.

What strikes him immediately is that the supreme intelligence and enlightenment, which opens up the possibility of penetrating the « Clear Light » and of identifying with the « Buddha », are offered to the consciousness during the agony of the dying person, even before actual death, and again immediately after death.

« The highest vision available to us does not occur at the end of the Bardo, but quite at the beginning of the Bardo, at the moment of death, and what happens afterwards is a gradual slide into illusion and confusion, until the decline into a new physical birth. The spiritual climax is reached at the end of life. Human life is therefore the vehicle of highest completion; in it alone is created the karma that allows the deceased to remain in the emptiness of luminous fullness and thus to ascend to the hub of the wheel of rebirth, delivered from all illusion concerning birth and death. » iii

But if, for one reason or another, this opportunity to attain this « highest vision » does not materialize at the moment of death, all is not yet lost.

There remains the entire subsequent period of the Bardo, which lasts seven weeks, or forty-nine days, and which is supposed to offer the « consciousness » of the dead multiple other opportunities to penetrate and, above all, to remain in the « luminous plenitude ». To do so, it must discover that « the soul is itself the light of the divinity, and the divinity is the souliv.

During these seven weeks, prayers and exhortations are pronounced by the living who surround the dead and assist him in his (last?) journey. It is a question of helping him to finally obtain his liberation and enlightenment, by removing « illusions » and false leads. Many opportunities are offered, perfectly described in the Tchönyid-Bardo.

Any missed opportunity leads the « consciousness » gradually (but not inexorably) to a much less pleasant prospect, that of an imposed rebirth, a necessary reincarnation, involving a new cycle, a new karma.

Death puts us before a binary choice: either we become Buddha or we are condemned to be reborn.

In the latter case, one finds oneself in a womb, and one then understands, no doubt too late, that one is destined to be reborn…C.-G. Jung sums up: « Initiation takes place in the Bardo-Thödol as a climax a maiori ad minus andends with rebirth in utero. » v

He notes that the Bardo-Thödol process is the exact opposite of the analytical, Freudian process:

« In the analytical process, – awareness of unconscious psychic contents, the European crosses this specifically Freudian domain in the opposite direction. He returns in a way to the infantile world of sexual fantasies usque ad uterum. Psychoanalysis has even defended the point of view that birth itself is the traumatism par excellence; it has even claimed to have recovered memories of intra-uterine origin. » vi

But there is an absolutely essential difference between Jung’s analysis and that of Bardo...

For the Bardo-Thödol, the fact of being in utero is a sign of the failure of consciousness, which has not been able (or able) to leave the cycle of rebirths.

For psychoanalysis, the usque ad uterum is, on the contrary, the symptom of a successful analysis!

In any case, one cannot but be astonished by the powerful parallelisms that are possible through the comparative study of religions and myths as well as the psychology of dreams and psychoses, described by Jung as « veritable mines ».

The lesson to be drawn from the comparison between Bardo Thödol and Western theories of the unconscious is indeed of immense significance. Jung infers « the existence of a remarkable identity of the human soul at all times and in all places. In fact, the archetypal forms of the imagination are everywhere and always spontaneously reproduced, without the slightest direct transmission being imaginable. This is because these primitive structural relationships of the psyche present the same surprising uniformity as those of the visible body. The archetypes are, as it were, organs of the pre-rational psyche. » vii

Jung also points out in this regard that there is, in his opinion, no inheritance of individual prenatal memories. There are only fundamental, archetypical structures that can be transmitted by heredity. These structures are devoid of any subjective content, of any individual experience. But in certain circumstances, for example during existential traumas, such as birth or death, these structures can deploy all their hidden potential, and generate images, facilitate perceptions, provoke acts, and reinforce consciousness.

Thus, the state of Sidpa-Bardo, during which consciousness is confronted with the imminence of a « rebirth » and a « reincarnation, » can be interpreted psychologically, according to Jung, as the development of a « will to live and be born, » – a will to live that Jung absolutely values .

We are here, to say it emphatically, at the heart of the East-West difference.

We are here at one of these global crossroads, where flows of fundamental misunderstanding between « cultures », « worldviews » cross paths.

It is also here that we see how Western masters of psychological analysis (Freud, Jung) demonstrate their absolute inability to understand and even more so to accept the Buddhist point of view, as formulated by Bardo Thödol.

Let’s summarize.

Freud and Jung both find Bardo Thödol, rather strangely enough, in « the womb ». But they arrive there coming from different directions, – and they both want to get out, through different exits…

Bardo Thödol expresses the idea that it is necessary to come out of this uterine state at all costs, but above all not through the natural way. It is necessary to « close the womb » and try to « go back » to the previous states…

Freud and Jung, for slightly different but similar reasons, are pleased to have discovered through analysis « the origin of the world », and this discovery having been made, they hasten to want to come out of it too, but naturally, – i.e. through the vagina -, and they exalt in this respect the glory of « wanting to live » and « being born ».

For the comparatist, this primal, mythical place, in utero, thus appears as the absolute summit of the reciprocal incomprehension of the two cultures.

For Bardo Thödol, the fact that the « consciousness » has reached this special locus is the result of a form of descent. It is a sign that the soul has repeatedly missed its chance to become « Buddha » after death. Being in utero is a state of relative fall, especially in relation to the moments associated with agony and physical death. The only possibility of escaping the fatal fate (of rebirth) would then be for the individual soul to « categorically refuse to be reborn to the conscious world », as Jung puts it (here we feel the hint of disapproval that this perspective inspires in him…).

Jung radically reverses the process of death and the final choice (to be reborn or not), as described by Bardo Thödol.

It also absolutely reverses the valuation which it is advisable, according to him, to give to the choice to be reborn or not.

When I say that it « radically reverses » the process described by Bardo Thödol, we must take it literally.

Indeed, Jung takes the text of Bardo Thödol from the end, and decides to read it backwards…

To justify this, Jung claims that it was the Bardo Thödol who in fact « reversed » the initiatory path, taking the « eschatological expectations of Christianity » completely in the wrong direction.

« The book [the Bardo Thödol] describes an inverted initiatory path [sic] that prepares the descent into physiological becoming, thus in a way opposing the eschatological expectations of Christianity. The European, intellectualist and rationalist, being a total prisoner of the world, it is preferable to first invert the Thödol and to consider it as the description of oriental initiatory experiences, since the deities of the Bardo Tchönyid can be freely replaced by Christian symbols. » viii

Jung is perfectly aware of the handling he recommends.

« The inversion of the succession of chapters, which I propose in order to make it easier to understand, certainly does not correspond to the intention of the Bardo-Thödol. » ix

Nevertheless, he pushes this « inversion » even further, once again placing himself in exactly the opposite perspective to that described by the Bardo-Thödol.

Regardless of the Buddhist significance of the passage from the Tchönyid-Bardo state (the torment of karmic illusions) to the Sidpa-Bardo state (i.e., the in utero confrontation with rebirth), Jung considers what the passage from Sidpa-Bardo to Tchönyid-Bardo would imply « psychologically », to condemn it, by decreeing its « danger » and « insecurity ».

« The transition from the Sidpa state to the Chönyid state is thus a dangerous inversion of the aspirations and intentions of the conscious state, a sacrifice of the security offered by conscious egoism and an abandonment to the extreme insecurity of an apparently chaotic game of fantasy figures. When Freud coined the expression that the self is « the true locus of anguish, » he expressed a true and profound intuition. » x

Translated into Western vocabulary, if the disinherited soul decided to face the « danger » of returning to the Chönyid state, she would have to offer desperate resistance to the prejudices of reason, to renounce the supremacy of the ego, and to consent, as it were, to the end of conscious, rational and morally responsible conduct in life: « In practice, this is a surrender, fraught with consequences, before the objective forces of the soul, a kind of metaphorical death which corresponds to the passage of Sidpa Bardo devoted to the Last Judgment. » xi

What must be understood is that there is only one « rational » way, the one that leads from Sidpa Bardo to birth. Any other path would be nothing more than a psychic illusion propagated by the collective unconscious, as Jung asserts.

« Even Buddha’s five dhyani are psychic data, and this is what the deceased must understand, if he has not yet understood in the course of his life that his soul and the giver of all data are one and the same thing. The world of gods and spirits » is nothing but « the collective unconscious within me. But to invert this sentence so that it says: the unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside of me, it does not take any intellectual acrobatics, but a whole human life, perhaps even a plurality of increasingly complete lives.»xii

Again, the inversion!

On the one hand, « the world of gods and spirits » is nothing more than « the collective unconscious in me. »

On the other hand, « the unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside of me ».

What to choose? What is the ultimate reality? The self? The collective unconscious? The world of gods and spirits?

Who’s right? Jung or the Bardo?

After having denigrated it and copiously « reversed » it, Jung concludes lapidary that the Bardo is in reality a « useless » book…

« The Bardo-Thödol was an occult book and has remained so, no matter what we say about it, because to understand it requires an intellectual faculty that no one possesses naturally and that is only acquired through a particular conduct and experience of life. It is good that there are such « useless » books from the point of view of their content and purpose. They are intended for those people who have come to regard the usefulness, purpose and meaning of our present « cultural universe » as no longer important.»xiii

The fact remains – and we can testify to this – that this « useless » book can still be extremely « useful » to any person who has reached the point of no longer attaching much importance to the ends and meaning of our present ‘cultural universe’.


iBardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Following the English version of the Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, French translation by Marguerite La Fuente. Available online:

iiSee C.-G. Jung Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead: Das tibetanische Totenbuch, ed. W.Y. Evans-Wentz, 1935, reprinted 1957. French translation: Éd. Albin Michel S.A., 1985. En annexe de Bardo Thödol, le Livre des Morts tibétain, Suivant la version anglaise du Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, French translation by Marguerite La Fuente.