Intermediate States

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Intermediate state (Sanskrit, antarābhava; Chinese, zhongyou; Tibetan, bardo) is the interim between death and the next birth. The term refers both to the postmortem state of transition and to the subtle entity that abides in that state. During the early period of Buddhism in India, the status of the intermediate state between lives was a subject of some controversy. The doctrine was not accepted by some early Buddhist schools, including the TheravĀda, Vibhajyavāda, MahĀsĀṂghika, and MahĪŚĀsaka. The schools that accepted some version of the theory were the Sarvāstivāda, SautrĀntika, Saṃmitiya, Pūrvaśaila, and Dārṣṭāntika.

The doctrinal controversy is described briefly in the Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy) of Moggaliputta Tissa (second century b.c.e.). There the problem focuses on how to properly interpret the expression "completed existence within the interval" (antarābhavūpagaṃ). Some argued that this phrase referred to the existence of an actual intermediate period between death and rebirth. Others held that such an intermediate period was never taught explicitly by the Buddha and thus does not exist. According to opponents of the intermediate state doctrine, since the Buddha taught that there are only three realms of existence—desire (kāmadhātu), form (rūpadhātu), and formlessness (arūpadhātu)—an intermediary realm cannot be accepted as valid. Even proponents of the doctrine were not always in agreement as to how this intervening realm should best be understood. There were a number of detailed early doctrinal expositions of the intermediate state written in India, such as the second-century compilation Mahāvibhāṣā (Great Exegisis), a Sarvāstivāda abhidharma commentary. Va-subandhu codified the doctrine in his fifth-century AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṢya, and this became the standard presentation and subsequently the basic model adopted in East Asia and Tibet.

In this monumental work, which represents essentially the position of the Mūlasarvāstivāda school, Vasubandhu compiled all previous arguments in favor of interim existence and offered descriptions of the intermediate state and the liminal entity who abides there. His presentation can be encapsulated in six basic points:

  1. The duration of the intermediate state is divided into seven short phases, each lasting no more than a week, for a total of up to seven weeks or forty-nine days;
  2. The entity that abides in this interim state is defined as a being that arises between the moment of death and the next state of birth on its way to a new existence;
  3. Because this being subsists on fragrance it is called a gandharva, meaning literally "that which eats (arvati) odors (gandham)";
  4. The shape and form of this liminal entity resembles that of the beings in the realm where it is to be reborn;
  5. Its senses are intact, though in subtle forms; no one can resist it, it cannot be turned away, and it can only be seen by those of its own class and by those with pure divine eyes;
  6. Rebirth occurs when the mind (mati) of the gandharva is troubled by the sight of its future parents having sexual intercourse and when the emotional quality of that mind propels it into a new existence. Accordingly, when the gandharva enters the womb it becomes male if it is attracted to its future mother and repulsed by its father, or female if attracted to its future father and repulsed by its mother. These agitated thoughts of desire and repulsion cause the mind to cohere to the semen and blood mixed in the womb just prior to conception. At the point of conception, the psychophysical skandha (aggre-gates) gradually become coarse and coagulate, the intermediate-state being dies, and a new life is conceived.

There are three conditions, therefore, necessary for conception: The mother must be healthy, the parents must be engaged in sexual intercourse, and a gandharva, an intermediate-state being, must be present. These six basic components of the Buddhist intermediate-state doctrine had been formalized by at least the fifth century c.e.

The doctrine is expounded also in a number of Buddhist MahĀyĀna sūtras influenced by Abhidharma interpretations, most notably the Garbhāvakrāntinirdeśa-sūtra (Sūtra on Entering the Womb) and the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna-sūtra (Sūtra on Stability in Mindfulness of the True Dharma). The Garbhāvakrāntinirdeśa-sūtra is extant in four recensions, the earliest being a Chinese translation. The later versions from the MŪlasarvĀstivĀda-vinaya detail the progression of the intermediate-state being from the final moment of death, to conception in the future mother's womb, and subsequently through each week of fetal development. This particular version of the Garbhāvakrāntinirdeśa appears to have been the primary source for the descriptions of the intermediate state found in the Yogācārabhūmi (States of Yoga Practice). The Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna-sūtra is noteworthy in that it includes elaborate discussion of as many as seventeen individual intermediate states. Some features of this exposition accord with earlier Abhidharma formulations, while others resemble later tantric descriptions similar to those found in Tibetan literature.

Over time the doctrine of the intermediate state was reformulated and embellished within the soteriological framework of Tantric Buddhism. A distinctive feature of the tantric reinterpretation of the doctrine was the proliferation of the intermediate state, originally a single period, into a series of distinct and separate phases. Some Buddhist tantric systems enumerated as many as three, four, five, and even six individual intermediate states. This expansion of the concept of interim existence was derived in part by a conflation of the earlier Abhidharma doctrine of the intermediate state with the Mahāyāna idea of a buddha's three bodies (trikāya): truth body (dharmakāya), enjoyment body (saṃbhogakāya), and emanation body (nirmāṇakāya). The combination of these conceptual elements was grafted onto an advanced twofold yogic system, which the Tibetans were later to classify as Supreme Yoga Tantra (Sanskrit, anuttarayoga-tantra; Tibetan, rnal 'byor bla na med pa'i rgyud), involving the successive stages of generation (Sanskrit, utpannakrama; Tibetan, bskyed rim) and completion (Sanskrit, sampannakrama; Tibetan, rdzogs rim). This particular tantric program does not appear to have been introduced into China or Japan, but it did enter Tibet as early as the eleventh century through the efforts of Tibetan disciples of Indian tantric adepts (siddha).

One of the most famous and influential of these Indian siddhas was NĀropa (1016–1100), who codified a diverse system of tantric instruction that would come to be widely known in Tibet as the "Six Doctrines of Naropa" (Tibetan, Nā ro chos drug). In Nāropa's system the intermediate state was expanded to include three separate states:

  1. The long period between birth and death, which was identified as the "intermediate state of birth-to-death";
  2. The interval between sleep and waking consciousness called the "intermediate state of dreams";
  3. The intervening period between death and rebirth identified as the "intermediate state of becoming."

The tradition argued that all three intermediate states provide particularly fruitful opportunities for tantric practice leading eventually to buddhahood itself. The aim of such practice was to actually become embodied as a buddha using special tantric techniques of yoga and contemplation to mix or blend (Tibetan, bsres ba) one's experience with the three bodies of a buddha during each of the three transitional periods—in meditation during life, in dreams during sleep, and in the interim state after death. In Tibet this practice of blending the intermediate states with the three embodiments of buddhahood is commonly referred to as "bringing the three bodies to the path" (sku gsum lam 'khyer).

In Tibet the tantric reinterpretation of the intermediate state inspired even further innovations. In time there emerged several Tibetan religious systems that posited multiple intermediate states beyond the three separate interim periods developed previously by Indian siddhas like Nāropa. The ritual and literary tradition of the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar do thos grol chen mo, pronounced Bardo thödol), for example, enumerates six individual states, including the three described in Nāropa's scheme and adding:

  • 4. The intermediate state of meditative stabilization;
  • 5. The intermediate state of dying; and
  • 6. The intermediate state of reality-itself, wherein the deceased encounters the true nature of reality manifest as a radiant display of one hundred peaceful and wrathful deities.

In particular, the concept of the intermediate state of reality-itself is derived from the unique doctrines of the Great Perfection tradition that began to emerge in Tibet in the eleventh century and became fully systematized by the late fourteenth century. The Tibetan Great Perfection tradition was promoted largely by the Rnying ma (Nyingma) and non-Buddhist Bon orders.

As for the formal doctrine of the intermediate state in its ritual dimension, Buddhist funeral rites in Tibet and East Asia are timed ideally to coincide with the forty-nine days of postmortem intermediate existence, although it is not uncommon for this prolonged period to be abbreviated depending on the resources and influence of the deceased's family. In Tibet the fully developed liturgical sequence, inscribed in specialized texts such as those belonging to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, consists of a variety of offerings for generating merit, tantric initiation rites for the ripening of virtues, prayers of confession and reconciliation in the purification of nonvirtuous karma, and guidance rites for leading the deceased through the perilous intermediate state into the next life.

In East Asia the doctrine of the intermediate state is linked to bureaucratic notions of the judgment of ten postmortem kings and to rituals performed for the benefit of the deceased presumed to be undergoing a kind of purgatory, a period in which the good and bad deeds of the departed are put under judicial review. The ritual actions performed by the living for the penitent dead include the dedication of merit, almsgiving, and the recitation of Buddhist scripture. The general assumption underlying the intermediate-state funeral rites in Tibet and East Asia is that actions performed by the living affect directly the condition of the dead. Buddhist funerals are thus designed to provide for the dead a means of expediting safe passage over death's threshold and of ensuring an auspicious future destiny.

See also:Cosmology; Death; Mainstream Buddhist Schools; Rebirth; Sarvāstivāda and Mūlasarvāstivāda


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