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Leonard Cohen narrates the history of ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’


In this documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Cohen, together with practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, elucidates what this ancient book does for people who pass away.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is one of the greatest works to have ever been created by any culture, and it is the most meaningful one in the Buddhist tradition of the West. It is said that book was composed by Padmasambhava, the Indian guru, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century. Like hundreds of his other teachings, the text was supposedly transcribed in a cryptic language and hidden as a sort of “treasure text”, to be discovered in the correct for its transmission. Karma Lingpa, a Terton “seeker of occult teachings”, found it hidden in a Tibetan mountain and, according to legend, he deciphered it in order to be able to orally transmit it to his son. It took several generations for it to finally be transferred onto paper, and it became one of the central teachings within the canon of Tibetan Buddhism.

The first translation into English appeared in 1927, edited by Walter Evans-Wents, a North American theosopher, who found the text during a trip to India. He decided to call it The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Widely speaking, Bardo Thodol, as it is known in Tibet, is a guide for those who have recently passed away, and it was created to be read while the dead are passing through the intervals of one life to the next.

Narrated by Leonard Cohen himself, the series eloquently shows how after someone’s death in the Tibetan tradition, it takes 49 days for them to pass through the “interval” or “bard”. For that entire time, a Buddhist practitioner —usually a loved one— reads a section of the text every day (repeating these three to seven times) in the most personal room for the deceased, usually their bedroom. The body does not necessarily have to be present, since, according to this philosophy, their mind will constantly be visiting their home, especially the first few days.

Everything is explained with great detail in this two part documentary, made in 1994, which gives us an intimate glimpse at the tradition’s death ceremony. The National Film Board of Canada, that produced the series, made the perfect choice by picking Cohen as the narrator. Not only is his deep voice the one you wish would read these texts out loud when you die, but after narrating this documentary, the musician embarked on a spiritual journey that two years later would lead him to become a monk of the Zen Buddhist.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead has always presented one fundamental problem, which is perfectly resolved in the series: the eagerness to compare it to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which in the words of the Lama Chögyam Trungpa: “is not based on death as such, but in a completely different concept of death”. It is a “Book about space,” Trungpa points out, “which contains birth and death”. This is why it is such an enormous and transcendental text.

This documentary is definitely worth watching and listening to, especially for those who wish to know more about the Bardo Thodol, and, perhaps more importantly, to think about death consciously again.

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