Tibetan Book of the Dead

April 28, 2004 · updated February 15, 2022

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Tibetan Buddhist text that is most well known to the West. Written by a Tibetan monk, the Book of the Dead describes in detail the stages of death from the Tibetan point of view.

It chronicles the experiences and religious opportunities a person encounters at various stages: while dying, at the moment of death, during the 49-day interval between death and rebirth, and at rebirth.

The title "Tibetan Book of the Dead" was coined by the American editor W.Y. Evans-Wentz in imitation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The actual name in Tibetan is Bardo Todrol Chenmo, which means the Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Between. The Tibetan word bardo means "between," "gap," or "transition," and refers to the time between death and rebirth.

In Tibet, Nepal, and Mongolia, a lama will often recite the Book of the Dead to a recently deceased person in order to help him understand his experiences and gain enlightenment, or at least a positive rebirth.

The Book of the Dead is a product of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. According to Nyingma tradition, the book was composed in the eighth century CE by Padmasambhava, who then concealed the book because he knew the world was not yet ready for its teachings.

Concealing, rather than revealing, books immediately upon writing them is a distinctive practice of the Nyingma school. Concealed works are called terma ("treasure"), and it is believed that they will not be discovered until the world is ready for them.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead was rediscovered in the 14th century CE by Karma Lingpa, a monk of the Nyingma school.