Tibetan Book of the Dead

Manuscript of Bardo Thodol

It’s dying to take you away..turn off your minds, relax and float down stream maybe quintessential Beatles or trippy mantra but some of these words connect to an ancient text via Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience.

But it was Aldous Huxley who introduced the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Leary via Walter Evans-Wentz’s translation of the Bado Thodol (1927, Oxford University Press). Evans-Wentz chose the title because of parallels he saw in the Egyptian book of The Dead.

The intention of the the text is to guide one through the experiences of consciousness after death and intermediary stages between death and rebirth. These transitional stages are known as Bardos. The text also includes rituals to undertake for the dead or dying.
The 3 Bardos are, 1) the Chikhai Bardo or Bardo of the moment of death or the clear light reality, 2) the Chonyid Bardo or Bardo of the experiencing of reality or the experience of visions of various Buddha forms and 3) the Sidpa Bardo or Bardo of rebirth hallucinations leading to rebirth and karmically impelled hallucinations.

Tibetan Book of the Dead

According to Leary, the Tibetan Book of The Dead is a key to the innermost recesses of the human mind and a guide for initiates and for those who are seeking the spiritual path of liberation.

The Psychedelic Experience

The Psychedelic Experience (1964, University Books) attempts to explain the symbolic nature of the hallucinatory experience when taking LSD. It’s not surprising those who’ve taken the drug describe experiences of intense white light & letting go of the ego, hallucinations of a karmic nature and another stage liken to rebirth or re-entry.

Whether or not this is the same as the inner journey as outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead is debatable.

John Lennon wrote Tomorrow Never Knows (1966) having read The Psychedelic Experience but felt LSD only exacerbated his personal problems. Other initiates weren’t so lucky stranded in permanent psychosis, the casualties of a drug phenomenon.

Egyptian Book of the Dead

You have awaken me

Whispers by the sycamore tree

Transparent veil, remotest beckoning

You have spoken

From the path beyond

Reaching out toward infinite stars


Flung from eternity

Of the departed

You have awaken me

Whispers by the sycamore tree

The path is clearer now

You have awaken me..

What a journey I have made, the things I have seen. I am but one of you. In my hand I grasp the sailing mast, while my left hand trails in the water. The trees are heavy with figs and olives. A coconut drops to the ground. I have separated myself from myself to sail again on the green Nile waters. I sail to the temple where the gods have gathered to gaze at their faces in deep pools. In my boat the souls of the years sail with me. The hair stands on my head in the wind. I hear the splashing of oars like the cracking of a thin blue shell. Horus keeps one hand on the rudder. What a journey I have made, the things I have seen. We glide to the middle of the lake. Give me a cup of milk and cake or bread. Give me a jug of water and human flesh. Give me air to breathe and a strong sailing wind when I rise from the underworld. A sycamore rises white from the river, filling itself with water and air. Fill me with water and air. I am the blue egg of the Great Cackler and I sniff the air. I grow and live. I breathe and live. On the banks of the Nile, the sky fills with birds and the sails of boats swell like lungs.

While the above extracts differ in their expression they perhaps share similar inspiration. The first is an anonymous Western poem inspired by the Egyptian Book of the Dead while the other is an actual translation from Normandi Ellis’ translation, Giving Breath to Osiris, Phanes Press, 1991.

Egyptian civilisation had an extremely complex set of beliefs and rituals relating to the afterlife but it was the social elite that could afford the scribes to write the elaborate texts, spells & instructions to prepare their deceased. These were written on papyrus scrolls and placed in the burial chamber of the tomb.

The first modern edition (facsimile) of Egyptian funerary text was published in 1805 in Europe after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt but it wasn’t until 1842 that Karl Richard Lepsius published a translation of a series of funerary texts of the Ptolemaic era that they were formally deciphered. The German anthropologist called them The Book of the Dead and identified a spell numbering system to decipher at least 165 different spells. The number has since increased to 192 spells relating to mystical knowledge and the protection of the deceased from unforeseen and hostile forces. They include elaborate illustrations and instructions.


judging the dead


The illustration taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead shows the weighing of the heart of the deceased in the underworld so as to judge their worth. The heart was seen as the most important organ. (C. 1550 – 50 BC).