The Tibetan Book of the Dead trs Gyurme Dorje

This version, translated by Gyurme Dorje and edited by Graham Coleman, is by far the most complete and comprehensive to date. It has been a long time (approximately 17 years) in the making, and has benefited from the close cooperation of a remarkable range of Tibetan masters. It contains an extremely authoritative introductory commentary from His Holiness The Dalai Lama. Indeed it was the Dalai Lama who, at the time of the book's inception, hooked up Graham Coleman with H H Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma is the oldest of the four schools; it came into being shortly after Padmasambhava, a highly accomplished master, introduced Buddhism into Tibet from India in the eighth century. Padmasambhava is considered to be the Second Buddha by the members of the Nyingma School. Indeed, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is just one cycle of the teachings of Padmasambhava, albeit a cycle that is both long and mighty.

Tibetan Buddhists classify the teaching as being of the "Highest Yoga Tantra". The Tantric path includes in its methods techniques that allow dissonant mental states, such as desire/attachment and hatred/aversion, to be transmuted into states of realisation, often through the visualisation of, and identification with, deities. This approach differs, at times radically, from the Sutra path (the original discourses that Sakyamuni Buddha taught publicly). However, it would be a big mistake to assume that these two distinct approaches of Tantra and Sutra are mutually exclusive. Both paths have the same ultimate goal, to achieve Buddhahood, not for the sake of one's own salvation, but rather to help all sentient beings to achieve liberation from the constant round of suffering induced by the Samsaric cycle of birth/ death/reincarnation. The crucial difference between the Sutra and Tantra paths is that the Tantric path is said to be much quicker, and therefore the successful Tantric practitioner can get to alleviate the suffering of others sooner than they otherwise might.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is basically an instruction regarding the various states and stages of consciousness that we may encounter after death. According to the instructions in the book, these states can be produced and experienced by the living, in preparation for death. The general idea is that these teachings are used in conjunction with instruction from a spiritual master or masters well-versed in this type of Tantric practice, to break free from the cycles of birth and death, by moving beyond relative and conditional states of mind, into the absolute and all-pervading nature of mind.

In the pivotal chapter titled "Introduction to Awareness", this is what the authors have to say about probably the most crucial of Padmasambhava's teachings: "This chapter is the essence of the esoteric instruction by which the student is introduced to the ultimate nature of mind. Prior to entering into this practice, which focuses directly on the nature of mind itself, this introduction should be received from an accomplished lineage holder. Then, whilst in solitary retreat, it is recommended that this text be read repeatedly as a guide between meditation sessions." This ancient practice is called Dzogchen (The Great Perfection) by Tibetan Buddhists.

This Dzogchen view is crucially different from that of the Tibetan schools of the so-called "New Translation" (roughly around AD850 onwards). The view of the New Translation is that the grosser and more illusory states of mind need to be dissolved, before we can experience inner radiance. However, in the Dzogchen view, as the Dalai Lama points out in his commentary: "All states of awareness or consciousness are thought to be pervaded by inner radiance, just as a sesame seed is permeated by oil."

I don't think that the Dzogchen approach is a thousand miles away from that of some Zen Buddhists, such as the late Shunryu Suzuki. Indeed, like Zen, the practice of Dzogchen is making great strides in the west, largely thanks to teachers such as Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the rather playfully titled The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The growing popularity of Dzogchen is perfectly understandable, because it is (ostensibly) such a profoundly simple and liberating practice, one that is truly universal and in essence unsullied by any form of dogma, religious or otherwise. All that makes for an attractive package in these secular times. However, the danger is that some people will see this path as a sort of "fast track" to spiritual enlightenment, thereby missing the whole point of the exercise. From my perspective, I can't imagine anybody aware of his or her own temporal humanity not wanting to find out what this book says.