issue 20 summer 03
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Luminous Emptiness

Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Francesca Fremantle

Shambhala 2001, £23/$26.95h/b

Back in 1975, Francesca Fremantle, with her teacher Chogyam Trungpa, published a translation of the Bardo Thodol, better known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Commentators have been at pains to point out that the text's name actually translates as something like The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo; but ever since it was first translated into English by Evans-Wentz the text has been known by the title he gave it.

The Liberation through Hearing is a series of instructions to be given to someone after death, when, according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, 'their' consciousness will be journeying through three bardos or intermediate states between their last life and next rebirth, and envisaging a series of Buddhas in peaceful and wrathful form. Liberation through Hearing describes these visions in great detail, exhorting us to recognise them for what they are: manifestations of Reality itself, which could liberate us if we could only recognise them as such.

Twenty-five years later, Fremantle has written a book to explain and comment upon the teachings of Liberation through Hearing, and a lot of information is packed into its pages. The first half of the book provides a clear and reliable introduction to the main ideas, teachings, and symbols necessary to understand the text. Secondly, she comments on the text more directly, taking us along on the strange, visionary journey it describes.

The book is written from within the Nyingma Buddhist perspective, yet we are also encouraged to explore new associations of the text. Fremantle firmly puts forward the traditional Buddhist views on, for example, rebirth, but is aware that those from western backgrounds may not be able to accept these. She presents the text as 'a Book of the Living' containing much truth and psychological insight into our lives here and now. Nevertheless we are reminded that, traditionally understood, the Liberation through Hearing is not just allegory or psychology, but about how to escape from the rounds of rebirth altogether.

Despite my own agnosticism concerning Buddhist teachings on rebirth, I have always found Liberation through Hearing fascinating and greatly encouraging rather than alien or irrelevant. Taking the idea of the potential for transformation in everything to its highest possible pitch, the tantra encourages us to live in an imaginatively alive world in which the constituents of existence actually are the Five Buddhas. Likewise, Luminous Emptiness helps us to understand and appreciate this visionary approach to the path to Awakening.

Vajragupta is Chairman of the Birmingham Buddhist Centre