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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the only good book on Purgatory

Purgatory is a strange idea in Catholic theology—and Protestant and Orthodox Christians for the most part don’t buy it (excepting a kind of appropriation found in the “Toll House” notion that pops up among some Orthodox, especially with those killjoy Ephraimites). As a kid, I could never get my head around it. When I asked my dad to explain it, he said, “It’s when you burn—but not forever.” My intro to theology. As a young man I read Dante’s Purgatorio which didn’t seem so much as “Hell Light” as it did being placed in Cosmic Timeout or in Heaven’s Waiting Room where the gluttonous, for example, are condemned to read the same issue of Bon Appetit for centuries without getting to sample any of the recipes. All this while waiting to hear the long-anticipated words: ”Dr. Martin, the Lord will see you now.” Sounds pretty boring.

It was not until I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in the W.Y. Evans-Wentz translation in my mid-twenties that I started to actually understand Purgatory. It is one of the books that has stayed with me through the decades, forming the way I see the world. Very few other books have done that for me—Steiner’s Agriculture course, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the Odyssey (outside of the Bible) being the only three (not including various poets) that come immediately to mind. I have even had the pleasure to teach The Tibetan Book of the Dead to undergrads at a Catholic liberal arts college in a gen ed philosophy course.

What still strikes me about the book is the way it describes the inherently merciful structure of the cosmos—or, for the Christian, of God. The text, which is to be read over the body or imaginatively to the deceased over the course of forty-seven days, is, for me, a brilliant study in human psychology—a psychology that persists in the Bardo the space after death between expiration and either enlightenment or reincarnation.

On the first day, the dead are instructed to recognize the Clear Light:

O nobly-born, that which is called death being come to thee now, resolve thus: ‘O this is now the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act, for the good of all sentiient beings, peopling the illimitable expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards [them, and my entire effort to] the Sole Perfection….

O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it. O nobly-born, thy present intellect, in real nature void, not formed of anything as regards characteristics or colour, naturally void, is the very Reality, the All-Good.”

So far so good! Unfortunately, according to the text, it usually doesn’t work out at this point, and the dead one proceeds to the Bardo in which the karmic apparitions appear. Think of these as one’s sins or attachments or bad habits (which Dante explores in both Inferno and Purgatorio). Since most of us are not up to the liberation of the Clear Light, we need the crutches of images and the Bardo states increasingly collate images of physicality/materiality—starting with color and sound, but progressing through images of various deities and, eventually if one isn’t fortunate (and most aren’t) to images of demons. But as the text reminds us, even these are only projections of our own psyches (which is why so many people have drawn comparisons between what we find in The Tibetan Book of the Dead and various iterations of psychedelic experience—both the good trips and the bad).

Throughout the Bardo experiences, fear comes in to straight sour the vibe of potential liberation. For example, on the fourth day, when the deceased sees the Divine Mother Gökarmo, a pesky little dull red light appears:

Be not attracted towards the dull red light of the Preta-loka. That is the light-path proceeding from the accumulation of thine intense attachment which hath come to receive thee. If thou be attracted thereto, thou wilt fall into the World of Unhappy Spirits and suffer unbearable misery from hunger and thirst. Thou will have no chance of gaining Liberation.”

Even though every stage on the Bardo journey offers a chance of liberation through recognition, it gets more and more difficult to resist attachment and fear. For instance, on the fourteenth day, the deceased encounters the

“thirty wrathful deities, Herukas, the twenty-eight various-headed mighty goddesses, bearing various weapons, issuing from within thine own brain, [who] will come to shine upon thee. Fear that not. Recognize whatever shineth to be the thought-forms of thine own intellectual faculties.”

Of course, as on this side of the grave, not everyone is up to the task.

Eventually on the journey through the Bardo, the deceased will see visions of a couple making love—the parents of his or her next incarnation. And here we go again.

Even if one doesn’t accept the possibility of reincarnation, there is much wisdom in the journey that The Tibetan Book of the Dead outlines. Blake also intuited it when he wrote, “They became what they beheld,” which we might also phrase as “they beheld what they were,” a fair take on confirmation bias.

So I don’t think Purgatory is God’s penalty box, but a real purgation in which we are healed of our infirmities. I’m not sure it has to end in reincarnation—I don’t think the goal is to live a perfect life, which is impossible. And I don’t think God is a cosmic lawyer or banker waiting until our interpersonal and existential debts are paid off before entering the Kingdom. And we don’t necessarily need to wait until we die to come to this realization.

Classic Beatles song inspired by The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine. There are also a few spots open in the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening as Christian Path course being offered at the end of April. See more here.

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Mar 14, 2022

Regarding the Orthodox not really "buying" Purgatory, in addition to the "Toll House" thing, I've always thought the relative prominence of Universalism among the Orthodox (quite faddish in recent years, especially among Western converts to Orthodoxy, thanks to the Universalist proselytizing of David Bentley Hart and Fr. Aiden Kimel) was a way to sneak Purgatory in through the back door without actually calling it Purgatory (lest one be taken for crypto-Catholic or something). From what I've read of Universalism, it basically seems to just convert Hell into Purgatory - Hell, instead of being a place of eternal damnation, just becomes a temporary state of punishment from which all will ultimately be saved.

But I've still yet to find a Universalist…

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