Church in the Bardo

Church in the Bardo

Stuart Higginbotham

If you have read George Saunders fantastic book Lincoln in the Bardo, you will have been introduced to the phenomenally imaginative description of Abraham Lincoln’s life after the death of his son Willie.  Lincoln the father struggled to understand what could possibly come next in his life; indeed, he struggled and doubted that anything more could be possible, that his own life wouldn’t end in despair over Willie’s death.  

The descriptions of Willie’s own experience in an in-between state are gripping, with conversations with others in the graveyard, and they provoke us to wonder just what happens on the other side of death.  What awaits us?  Does it all end? Is there some sort of static reality, or is there…something else, marked by an enormous potential for further growth?  Imagining what happens after death is primal to us, as humans, and it lies at the core of the religious impulse, I think.  

Without ruining the book for you (it is no secret that Willie Lincoln died and that Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln struggled), I urge you to read the novel as a  fascinating experience in and of itself.  Specifically, the way the book ended with both Willie and his father moving into new spaces of life was very moving.  Lincoln in the Bardo invited me to reflect more deeply on the reality of grief and the hope found in transitions into new stages and spaces of being.

The image of the “bardo” has been meaningful to me since I first read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in my clinical pastoral education residency in 2005. It was our primary textbook as I wrestled as a hospice chaplain.  My old battered copy is the edition written by Sogyal Rinpoche, who set out to write a helpful expansion on The Tibetan Book of the Dead that was even more intentional about the possibility of seeing the bardo as a helpful way of understanding the potential for moving through transitional spaces in all of life.  If we can set the recent developments around Sogyal Rinpoche to the side, his effort at inviting a deeper reflection on the potential for growth in transitional moments can be very meaningful.  

The concept of the bardo is very important within Buddhism, within the Tibetan tradition in particular, and describes the intermediary state between death and rebirth.  As we read in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “In the Buddhist approach, life and death are seen as one whole, where death is the beginning of another chapter of life.”(1) Of course, the Christian tradition shares this understanding, doesn’t it?  When we share the Eucharist in a funeral service of The Book of Common Prayer, the priest places the experience of our grief and search for hope within the context of the Great Thanksgiving of the Eucharist, enfolding our personal story into the cosmic story of Jesus’ own death, burial, and resurrection.  The words “to you, O Lord, life is changed not ended,” help ground our own grief within a larger understanding of the movement into a new way of living and being.  

In the Tibetan tradition, as we read, “we find the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as the bardos.”(2)  And, to be sure, Sogyal Rinpoche emphasizes that the reality of transition is not limited to the one moment, as it were, from this physical life into the next stage of our consciousness or development.  “The word ‘bardo’ is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth, but in reality bardos are occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened.”(3)  

I think this is a very important point for us to hear, because it reminds us of the ever-changing reality of our own existence.  From a Christian point of view, we may give a passing assent to how “the Spirit blows where it will” (John 3:8), but how often do we feel comfortable being moved ourselves into a new space or way of being?  Go blow somewhere else and leave me be. 

The Tibetan tradition teaches us that “the bardos are particularly powerful opportunities for liberation because there are, the teachings show us, certain moments that are far more powerful than others and much more charged with potential, when whatever you do has a crucial and far-reaching effect.”(4)  Perhaps we can hear a resonance with the Celtic tradition’s image of “thin spaces” and moments when we feel a greater depth in our lives.  Liminal moments. 

And here we are, exactly at the point where we find ourselves as the church.  We are at a moment of enormous potential.  We cannot honestly say any longer that “we have always done it that way,” and that is simultaneously exciting and terrifying.  A level of intentionality and awareness is being called forth in us that will draw on the wisdom of the tradition and demand a new embodiment in our shared reality here and now.  We ask the same questions: Does this all end? What comes next? What awaits us?

As Rainer Maria Rilke described in the third letter in Letters to a Young Poet, “Everything is gestation and giving birth.”(5)  While hopeful, in the seventh letter, Rilke goes on to describe to Mr. Kappus the difficulty people have in engaging in the deeper, more reflective work that he felt was being called for in his day.  “People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy.  But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive.”(6) We struggle to embody what we so often desire in our hearts.  

The broader church is in a bardo state at the moment.  The truth is that we are always in a bardo state, a space of transition from one way of being to another; however, perhaps the reality of our condition has never felt more intense than it does now. We struggle to know what to do.  In fact, if we’re honest, we are plagued by a sense of grasping onto something “to do” as we face the pressure of anxious systems and communities who want so badly to have a predictable ground to stand on. But, or and, we are moving into a new way of being.  It is indeed a powerful opportunity for liberation, as Sogyal Rinpoche describes, where, if we dare, we can lick our finger, raise it high, and see if we can sense where we are being called to take our next steps.

  1. Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (New York, New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 11.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Boulder, Colorado: Shambala, 2021), 28.

6. Ibid., 56.

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