Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead

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by Francesca Fremantle

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Book of the Dead,

a best-seller for three decades, is one of the most widely read texts of
Tibetan Buddhism. Over the years, it has been studied and cherished by
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
is a detailed guide to this classic work, elucidating its mysterious concepts,
terms, and


Book of the Dead,

a best-seller for three decades, is one of the most widely read texts of
Tibetan Buddhism. Over the years, it has been studied and cherished by
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
is a detailed guide to this classic work, elucidating its mysterious concepts,
terms, and imagery. Fremantle relates the symbolic world of the
Book of the Dead
to the experiences of everyday life, presenting the text not as a scripture for the dying, but as a guide for the living.

According to the Buddhist view, nothing is permanent or fixed. The entire world of our experience is constantly appearing and disappearing at every moment. Using vivid and dramatic imagery, the
Book of the Dead
presents the notion that most of us are living in a dream that will continue from lifetime to lifetime until we truly awaken by becoming enlightened. Here,
Fremantle, who worked closely with Chögyam Trungpa on the 1975 translation of the
Book of the Dead
brings the expertise of a lifetime of study to rendering this intriguing classic more accessible and meaningful to the living.

features in-depth explanations of:

  • The
    Tibetan Buddhist notions of death and rebirth
  • The meaning of the five energies and the five elements in Tibetan Buddhism
  • The mental and physical experience of dying, according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1975, Shambhala published The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whose actual name is less catchy: The Great Liberation through Hearing during the Immediate State. (This misnomer originated with W.Y. Evans-Wentz's initial English translation in 1927, piggy-backing on The Egyptian Book of the Dead's popularity at that time.) The 1975 version of Padmasambhava's original eighth-century text, translated by Fremantle and Chegyam Trungpa, strengthened a bridge between Tibetan Buddhism and the West, and it stills sells briskly. To pay tribute to her teacher Trungpa, Fremantle offers this commentary to expound upon and clarify the spiritual classic. Her solo work here is a blend of high intellectualism, readability and spiritual gifts that successfully enhance the understanding of the bardos, or stages, between life and death. The commentary's first part examines the text's foundations, illuminating its rich concepts, while the second applies this clarified knowledge to newly translated excerpts. As Trungpa once observed, the text could just as easily be called The Tibetan Book of Birth; it is indeed a manual about death, the "process of dissolution, but also the process of coming into being, and these two processes are continually at work in every moment of life." Fremantle wrote this for "everyone who feels attracted to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, whether they are Buddhist or not." Except for the most dedicated students, this is not a book for beginners, but it will provide expert assistance for those who yearn to contemplate Tibetan Buddhism's deeper fathoms. (Dec.) Forecast: Fremantle's association with the 1975 translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and with Chegyam Trungpa, should help this become an enduring backlist title for Shambhala. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A scholar in Sanskrit and Tibetan, Fremantle is more than qualified to write this guide; she collaborated with renowned meditation master and scholar Chegyam Trungpa on a well-received translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1975. Nothing less than a careful explanation of the world and the ideas that surround that text, this new work is an excellent and plainly written manual to the complex mythologies, symbols, philosophies, and doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism. The West could hardly ask for a better primer. Highly recommended. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A deeply heartfelt guide to spiritual fulfillment through Buddhism, Luminous Emptiness provides interested seekers with a journey through the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Fremantle is an expert guide."—Los Angeles Times

"A scholar in Sanskrit and Tibetan, Fremantle is more than qualified to write this guide; she collaborated with renowned meditation master and scholar Chögyam Trungpa on a well-received translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1975. Nothing less than a careful explanation of the world and the ideas that surround that text, this new work is an excellent and plainly written manual to the complex mythologies, symbols, philosophies, and doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism. The West could hardly ask for a better primer. Highly recommended."—Library Journal

"In Luminous Emptiness, Francesca Fremantle provides a commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead that integrates its teachings with both the central topics of the Buddhist canon and with the ongoing experiences of our lives. Her illuminating exposition of the inner meanings and relevance of the text's tantric symbolism reflects many years of study, contemplation and practice. Luminous Emptiness is valuable in making the root text more meaningful and suggestive. It succeeds in enlivening our appreciation of the immense possibilities which we are offered now, moment to moment."—Shambhala Sun

"This is the most lucid and comprehensive exposition of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to appear in English. It illuminates the esoteric path and reveals the way to heal life's miseries—the projection of our minds."—Tulku Thondup, author of the Healing Power of Mind and Boundless Healing

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Understanding little of my guru's teaching,

Even that
not put into practice,

How can I write as though
has entered my heart,

Like a dewdrop dreaming
can hold the sun?

Please grant your blessing so that beings such as I

May drink the nectar of the Ocean of Dharma.

The true fount of inspiration behind the writing of this book is Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche. It was he who introduced me to the
Book of the Dead
and established my lifelong connection with it by asking me to translate it with him. It is he who is the source of whatever understanding I may have of it. To my deep regret, I was unable to fulfill his expectations and intentions for me while he was alive. This book is my offering to him. With it, I hope to share some of the riches I received from him and carry out at least a small part of his wishes.

Rinpoche was probably born in 1940 and was recognized at an early age as a reincarnation in the lineage of the Trungpa Tulkus. He was the eleventh in a line of highly realized teachers and abbot of the Surmang group of monasteries in eastern Tibet.
"emanation body," which we usually call an incarnation;
is the name of his lineage, meaning literally "one who is in the presence";
is an abbreviation of one of the many names he received during his training,
meaning "Ocean of Dharma"; and
is a title meaning "precious jewel," generally used for all respected teachers.

Following the invasion of Tibet by China, he escaped to India in 1959 and came to England in 1963. While living in Oxford, he began teaching a few students, and then moved to Scotland where he founded Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the United Kingdom. In 1970, he was invited to North America, where his teaching attracted a tremendous response. The United States and Canada remained the bases of his teaching activities until his death in 1987.

Trungpa lineage belongs to the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, but many of
Rinpoche's teachers were from the Nyingma school. In his own life and teaching,
he combined the characteristic qualities of both traditions. However, for practical purposes, there are significant differences between the methods of the two schools. With his first students in England, he taught primarily from the Nyingma perspective, but after his move to America, he emphasized the Kagyu style of practice. In later years, he developed his own unique presentation,
known as the Shambhala teachings, whose basic principles he discovered as
"mind treasures"
Shambhala teachings are drawn from ancient Tibetan and other Asian wisdom traditions, as well as Buddhism; they bring the sacred vision of the tantras into everyday life without the need for any religious affiliation or the use of specifically Buddhist terminology. Thus, three great rivers of his inspiration and blessings have flowed out to the world from the Ocean of Dharma.

first met Trungpa Rinpoche in the spring of 1969. At the time, I was engaged in research for my doctoral thesis on the
at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Feeling discouraged by difficulties with the text, I hoped that he might be able to help. I had begun studying Sanskrit in the early 1960s because of my love of Indian civilization and philosophy, and soon came across works on tantra in the university library.
I felt an immediate attraction to it as a spiritual path that relied on direct experience rather than belief and that gave genuine respect and equality to women. It revealed a transforming vision of a sacred world not to be looked for elsewhere but to be discovered here and now, embracing the whole of life. As I
had been brought up with the poetry of William Blake, tantra seemed to embody the philosophy of my favorite work of his, The Marriage

especially its closing words: "For everything that lives is Holy."

As part of my undergraduate studies, I was fortunate enough to spend six months at the Government Sanskrit College in Calcutta. While in India, I met several remarkable Hindu teachers, but none with whom I felt a very strong personal connection. On gaining my degree, I planned to return to India to pursue my interest in Hindu tantra, but by auspicious coincidence, as Trungpa Rinpoche would have said, Professor David Snellgrove persuaded me that the Buddhist
would be a suitable subject for my dissertation. This led to my learning Tibetan in addition to Sanskrit and becoming immersed in the classical world of vajrayana.
However, I did not realize that there was any access to vajrayana as an authentic living tradition outside Tibet, where it was rapidly being destroyed.
It was not until about halfway through my research that I learned of the existence of a genuine master living in my own country and decided to visit him.

My first glimpse of Trungpa Rinpoche was at early morning meditation at Saniye
Ling. The sun had not yet risen, and in the darkness, the room was lit only by candles on the shrine, above which hung a glowing gold and red thangka of
Amitabha. As he walked into the room and prostrated three times in front of the shrine, his movements were filled with a grace, dignity, and awareness that were overwhelmingly impressive. He radiated a sense of profound stillness and presence that I had never seen in anyone else. During my visit, not only did he give me the help and inspiration to continue with my research, but somehow,
without actually saying very much, he transmitted an insight into the real spiritual meaning of tantra.

About a year later, he moved to America, and in the following year I went there to join him. In 1971, he gave three seminars on subjects relating to the
Book of the Dead.
One of these formed the basis for his commentary to our translation and the other two were later published in his book
1992). During these intensive periods, his teaching produced extraordinary effects on the participants. As he explained the inner meaning of the bardos and the six realms of existence, many of us experienced a roller-coaster ride through those various states of mind, as well as the flashes of openness that accompany their extremes of tension. The vivid emotions of the six realms, the enlightened qualities of the five buddha families, even the process of dissolution that leads to death and the experience of emptiness and luminosity became for that short time much more than beautiful and profound metaphors. It was both terrifying and wonderful—a glimpse into a totally new way of looking at life.

For the seminar most directly based on the text of the
of the Dead,
Rinpoche used a Tibetan blockprint while the audience tried to follow him in the only available English version, translated by Kazi Dawa-Samdup and edited by W. Y. Evans-Wentz. Although he had great respect and appreciation for their pioneering work in publishing this and other very important texts, he was less happy with the actual translation. That is why he suggested that we should produce a new version together, which was first published by Shambhala
Publications in 1975.

When work on the translation was finished, I came back to England to live in London,
fully intending to return frequently to the United States. But at that time I
was not committed enough to be able to follow a single path, and too many other interests absorbed my attention; in particular, a deep karmic link with Bengal and Hindu tantra needed to be resolved. However, the connection with Rinpoche was never broken, so eventually, after a long, roundabout journey, I came back to the practice of vajrayana, thanks to the influence and example of my dharma brother, Rigdzin Shikpo.

Michael Hookham, Rigdzin Shikpo was one of Trungpa Rinpoche's earliest Western students. He had already been practicing various types of Buddhist meditation for ten years when they met in 1965, so he was exceptionally well prepared.
Rinpoche gave him the teachings and transmission of the Nyingma lineage and later authorized him to establish the Longchen Foundation, which at

present is based in Oxford and North Wales. In 1993, Michael completed a three-year retreat under the direction of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and was given the name Rigdzin Shikpo, by which he is now known.

With a deep knowledge of Buddhism, he has an extraordinary gift for expressing it in vivid and poetic ways and for creating links with many aspects of Western culture. Above all, he has an attitude of complete devotion, so that his mind has become one with the mind of the guru. Listening to him talk about dharma, I
often feel as though Trungpa Rinpoche is speaking through his voice. Without him, I would never have gained the experience or the confidence to write about these profound teachings. With regard to this book, he has answered my innumerable questions with endless patience and interest. I am particularly grateful to him for his help in understanding the practices and terminology of dzogchen, and especially for sharing the insights of his yogic experience.

The idea of writing such a book has been growing slowly for a long time. Ever since the publication of the
Book of the Dead,
the same questions have been put to me again and again. These questions mainly concern the meaning of the visions of the deities that arise after death and the reason for such an elaborate system of symbolism. There are also many questions about reincarnation and the significance of the six realms of existence in which one may be reborn. My original idea was to produce a fairly short work centering on the iconography and symbolism of the deities, but it soon became apparent that, in order to do this properly, they would need to be related to the basic concepts of Buddhism.

One of the unique aspects of Trungpa Rinpoche's communicative skill was his ability to make connections across the whole range of teachings, which are traditionally kept in separate compartments. He not only linked the various components together, but also explained how each of them relates to everyday life in a very practical way. With this as my basic inspiration and guideline,
I have tried to incorporate all the most relevant aspects of the teaching into the first part of
in a manner that will illuminate the text.

Coming to the text itself, I have retranslated all the excerpts that appear in the second part of this book. The revision is mostly a question of style, which has become rather more free and less literal, although I also discovered some mistakes that I have taken the opportunity to rectify. As the quotations included here are quite extensive, it is not really necessary to refer to a complete translation of the
Book of the Dead,
but if readers wish to do so, it should not be difficult to follow the explanations with any of the current translations.

Rinpoche was unusual among Tibetan lamas in speaking excellent English, and he greatly enjoyed the challenges of translation. He was very open to suggestions,
but he also had firm views on certain issues. For example, he wanted to avoid any hint of theism or theosophy, and he was determined not to use words that suggested the sense of guilt and blame prevalent in much of conventional religion, whose effects he saw in his students. In fact, he originated many terms that were later adopted by other Buddhist teachers and have become part of dharma language, especially in America. However, those were very early days in the transmission of vajrayana to the West, and with hindsight I feel that not all of our decisions in the 1975 translation have stood the test of time.
Especially in the area of dzogchen texts, there have been some excellent translations during the intervening years, through which several of its key terms have become widely accepted in English. Although in a certain sense all of Trungpa Rinpoche's teaching was imbued with the flavor of dzogchen, he did not go into many of its technical details at that time, and I did not possess enough knowledge to ask him the necessary questions while we were working together.

In common with many scholarly Tibetans, Trungpa Rinpoche had great respect for the
Sanskrit language, and he often used Sanskrit as well as Tibetan words in his teaching when he could not find a suitable English equivalent. He always preferred to use the Sanskrit names of deities. In Tibet, the names of the more important and well-known deities—the five male and five female buddhas for example—are generally translated into Tibetan, although in some texts they are simply transliterated into Tibetan script. In this text, we find a combination of both methods, but I have kept to Trungpa Rinpoche's practice of rendering them in Sanskrit and giving English translations. A very few are referred to mainly by English names when the meaning is particularly relevant and the
Sanskrit is particularly unwieldy.

Rinpoche was always concerned with how best to express the true spirit of Buddhism, and his interest extended into every area of its presentation. For instance, he had strong opinions about what he saw as the overuse of initial capital letters,
which he related to an underlying theistic attitude. He felt that it produces a false impression by making too much of concepts that should be presented as simple, accessible, and unpretentious. He wanted to put across the idea that enlightenmentis no big deal—it is our natural state. Readers who are not accustomed
his style may be surprised to find words such as
not capitalized. Even
is lowercase, except with reference to a specific buddha, like Buddha Shakyamuni.
(Neither the Sanskrit nor Tibetan script possesses capital letters, so it is often difficult to tell whether a word is a proper name, a tide, or an epithet.) Words such as
and so on are names of distinct schools or traditions, so they are treated as true proper nouns. But the three yanas, tantra mahamudra, and dzogchen are stages on the path or styles of practice, so
are not capitalized. In this I have followed Trungpa Rinpoche's guidelines with a few exceptions. I have decided to use capitals for the names of the five families of buddhas (Buddha, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, and Karma), treating them just as if they were family names in English so as to avoid confusion with the alternative meanings of buddha, vajra, and karma. I am very much indebted to
Larry Mermeistein, of the Nalanda Translation Committee, for clarifying these issues, drawing on his long experience of working with Trungpa Rinpoche in this field.

Apart from proper names, I have tried to reduce the use of Sanskrit and Tibetan in this book to a minimum. However, there are some examples of rather specialized terms that I felt I should keep, and I have explained the reasons where such terms first occur. There are also a few words that I do translate, but where an examination of the original Sanskrit, and sometimes the Tibetan as well, helps to illuminate their meaning. I have perhaps indulged my fascination with words and their meanings too much in these passages, but I hope that some readers may find these digressions interesting; those who do not may skip them without much loss.

As this is not an academic work, I decided rather regretfully not to use the accepted transliteration, with diacritics, of Sanskrit words. This system is obviously preferable for those who already know it and provides the only reliable guidance to correct pronunciation; but it can be a real barrier for those who do not understand it and requires quite an effort to do so. There is a different problem with Tibetan, because the correct transliteration generally creates even greater difficulties in pronunciation. Where Tibetan words occur in this book, I give approximate phonetic versions, with the full spelling in brackets or in the endnotes. As an aid to the pronunciation of Sanskrit words,
it helps to imagine that one is speaking Italian rather than English,
especially with regard to the vowels. Another point to note is that, in both
Sanskrit and Tibetan,
is never pronounced as in "other," but as in "hothouse."
is not equivalent to
but is an aspirated
as in "uphold."

I should explain a little about my own approach to translation. Since my introduction to Buddhism came about through Indian studies, I am always very much aware that Buddhism grew out of Indian thought and culture, and that its expression is very closely linked to the Sanskrit language. I feel it is absolutely essential to keep returning to the Sanskrit roots of Buddhist terminology. Some of the work that has been done purely from Tibetan sources,
apparently without any reference to Sanskrit, seems to me to depart occasionally from the original meaning.

Translation of Buddhist texts into English presents entirely different problems than those faced by the early translators of Sanskrit into Tibetan. This is because our language has been formed by so many diverse influences. As a result, it contains a huge number of synonyms and many alternative ways of saying the same thing. With so much variety, our individual choice of words and expressions is extremely subjective. All translation is interpretation, and there is no perfect translation, least of all in this field. I sincerely hope there will never be a standardized code of translation for Buddhist literature. Any such attempt would have a deadening influence. Even though such a great variety of different versions may seem confusing to students of Buddhism, it can also be regarded as an opportunity. By comparing translations, those who do not know any Sanskrit or Tibetan may be able to look at these elusive concepts from different points of view and gain greater insight into them.

Westerners are at a disadvantage in that our whole background of philosophical and religious thought is very different from that of Buddhism. This means that certain English terms, which might at first appear suitable, are too heavily loaded with inappropriate implications. All the same, it is perhaps surprising that some translators are not content with the incredible richness of the language of Shakespeare and feel the need to invent even more new words or to hunt out obscure ones. In keeping with the Buddha's own attitude toward teaching, the great majority of dharma texts, whether in Sanskrit or Tibetan,
use ordinary, everyday language. In the context of dharma, this simple language is used to express the most profound ideas and experiences, yet the Buddha and his successors did not choose to use complex or obscure words to express themselves, and I believe we should try to follow their example. An exception to this would be in the study of philosophy and logic, where technical terminology is entirely appropriate. However, this affects only a very small area; it does not apply in most cases, and especially not to tantric literature.

In any language, we can understand these ordinary words in a special way according to their context. If further explanation is required, it can be given in commentaries or notes, but I believe that it should not intrude into the translation itself. Some teachers say that because the experiential meaning of certain words such as
changes at different stages of the path, especially in dzogchen, they should be translated differently. To me, the important thing is that those words were not changed. The great masters of long ago had plenty of choice, but they chose to retain the same terms. Part of their effectiveness is that they can be understood on many levels. It is for the reader to imbue them with meaning according to the context and in light of his or her own experience.

Above all, translation is an art. As translators, we must remember that the same words that give us so much trouble in trying to pin down their meaning are not just technical terms but are used in poetry, spontaneous songs, and liturgies whose purpose is to inspire and arouse the imagination. Sadly, it is sometimes impossible to find a solution that is both accurate and aesthetic, but we should try, as far as possible, to retain the spirit of the original. Beside the depth and beauty of texts such as the
Book of the Dead,
am only too aware that my own work is clumsy and confused, and I apologize for its defects. Nevertheless, I feel that I have been blessed with tremendous good fortune in being able to produce this book. It has given me great joy in the writing; may it bring joy and benefit to all who read it.

Meet the Author

Francesca Fremantle received her doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. She is a scholar and translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan works and was a student of Chögyam Trungpa for many years.

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