Leonard Cohen Narrates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Featuring the Dalai Lama (1994)

Accord­ing to Bud­dhist schol­ar and trans­la­tor Robert Thur­man (father of Uma), The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bar­do Thodol“orga­nizes the expe­ri­ences of the between—(Tibetan, bar-do) usu­al­ly refer­ring to the state between death and rebirth.” While The Book of the Dead has, of course, a long and illus­tri­ous his­to­ry in Tibetan Bud­dhist life, it also has its place in the his­to­ry of the West, par­tic­u­lar­ly among 20th cen­tu­ry intel­lec­tu­als and artists. In the 1950s, for exam­ple, there was talk among Igor Stravin­sky, Martha Gra­ham, and Aldous Hux­ley to turn the Bar­do into a bal­let with a Greek cho­rus. Hux­ley, who famous­ly spent his final hours on an acid trip, asked that a pas­sage from the book be read to him as he lay dying: “Hey! Noble one, you named Aldous Hux­ley! Now the time has come for you to seek the way….”

In anoth­er, less trip­py, exam­ple of East­ern mys­ti­cism meets West­ern artist, the video above (con­tin­ued below) fea­tures poet and trou­ba­dour Leonard Cohen nar­rat­ing a two-part doc­u­men­tary series from 1994 that explores the ancient Tibetan teach­ings on death and dying. As Cohen tells it above, in Tibetan tra­di­tion, the time spent in the between sup­pos­ed­ly lasts 49 days after a person’s death. Dur­ing that time, a Bud­dhist yogi reads the Bar­do each day, while the con­scious­ness of the dead per­son, so it is believed, hov­ers between one life and anoth­er, and can hear the instruc­tions read to him or her. The film gives us an inti­mate look at this cer­e­mo­ny, per­formed after the death of a villager—with its intri­cate rit­u­als and ancient, unbound, hand-print­ed text of the book—and touch­es on the tricky polit­i­cal issues of Bud­dhist prac­tice in large­ly Chi­nese-con­trolled Tibet. In this first install­ment above, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life, the Dalai Lama weighs in with his own views on life and death (at 33:22). Before his appear­ance, the film pro­vides some brief con­text of his sup­posed incar­na­tion from the 13th Dalai Lama and his rise to gov­er­nance, then exile.

The sec­ond install­ment of the series, The Great Lib­er­a­tion (also above), fol­lows an old Bud­dhist lama and a thir­teen-year-old novice monk as they guide anoth­er deceased per­son with the text of the Bar­do. The Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da, who pro­duced the series (you can pur­chase the DVD on their web­site), did well in their choice of Cohen as nar­ra­tor. Not only is his deep, sooth­ing voice the kind of thing you might want to hear read­ing to you as you slipped into the between realms (or just slipped off to sleep), but his own jour­ney has brought him to an abid­ing appre­ci­a­tion for Bud­dhism. Although Cohen has always iden­ti­fied strong­ly with Judaism—incorporating Jew­ish themes and texts into his songs and poetry—he found refuge in Zen Bud­dhism late in life. Two years after this film, he was ordained as a Zen Bud­dhist monk at age 62, at the Mount Baldy Zen Cen­ter east of Los Ange­les (where Ram Dass, Oliv­er Stone, and Richard Gere also prac­ticed). Cohen’s  “Dhar­ma name”? Jikan, or “Silent One.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Cohen Plays a Spell­bind­ing Set at the 1970 Isle of Wight Fes­ti­val

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

The Dalai Lama on the Neu­ro­science of Com­pas­sion

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (13)
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  • Selene says:

    Just was watch­ing this the oth­er day! Though I rec­om­mend read­ing the actu­al Bar­do Thodol first. It’s a beau­ti­ful and (for­give the cliché) time­less.

    This ver­sion of the book has some excel­lent notes before the actu­al text which add anoth­er dimen­sion to it.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for the rec­om­men­da­tion, Selene! I’ve only read the Thur­man trans­la­tion. Have to check this out.

  • Kmkmiller says:

    When pas­sages of the bar­do thodol are lift­ed and used in a show like Twin Peaks, its pret­ty safe to say this text has per­me­at­ed more than the intel­lec­tu­al milieu… But also the pop cul­tur­al one as well. Thanks for post­ing this!!!!

  • Josh Jones says:

    I’d for­got­ten about the Bar­do in Twin Peaks! I’d hard­ly call that pop cul­ture these days, but great point!

  • kmkmiller says:

    for some­thing more cur­rent, there’s always that TV show LOST where the cen­tral con­tro­ver­sy among fans is “Were they dead the whole time?” but now i’m just get­ting whacky (even if there is a whole backstory/mythology devot­ed to this thing called the Dhar­ma Ini­tia­tive).

    Cards on the table, what I think is the first video above is titled “A way of life” which is awe­some, but I think The Bar­do Thodol is also “A Way of Telling Sto­ries,” a way that is immense­ly mys­te­ri­ous and enter­tain­ing. A sur­re­al­ists man­i­festo. The first west­ern text to unwit­ting­ly tell this kind of sto­ry is actu­al­ly The Pil­grim’s Progess.

    Anoth­er is An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge. You don’t have to be writ­ing a sym­pho­ny or a bal­let to be influ­enced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you can also be writ­ing a Twi­light Zone episode. I think any­way.

  • Johnny Claw says:

    Just sur­prised nobody has men­tioned Tomor­row Nev­er Knows, by The Bea­t­les (Revolver final track, 1966) .… Paul McCart­ney’s most avant garde sound record­ing with John Lennon’s lyrics based direct­ly of the TBotD which begins: “Turn off your mind, relax and float down­stream … it is not dying, it is not dying” (based on Prof Tim­o­thy Leary’s trans­la­tion)

  • Jonathan Hoffman says:

    Anoth­er impor­tant cul­tur­al debt the West owes the Tibetan book of the dead, is the Grate­ful Dead­’s Skull & Ros­es motif.

  • Hunter Peck says:

    Jonathan Hoff­man; the famous skull and ros­es was by an illus­tra­tor for a vol­ume of the writ­ings of Khalil Gibran, done around 1900 +/- 15 years. Oth­er famous illus­tra­tions in that work include the hour­glass with wings.

  • mujeeb bhatti says:

    & so like chris­tian­i­ty this is bud­dhism per­ceived from the dis­tort­ed lense of tibetan view twist­ing turn­ing gen­uine search for the nature of real­i­ty into anoth­er series of habit­u­at­ed over glo­ri­fied reli­gious &almost mean­ing­less rit­u­als car­ried over from their own ear­li­er tra­di­tions And the fact that this hap­pens to be more exot­ic east­ern & there­fore not euro­pean & not so dif­fer­ent from reli­gious rites of catholi­cism or the oth­er hebrew tra­di­tions does not make this pre­dom­i­nant­ly west­ern fas­ci­na­tion for bud­dhism any more authe­ic­n­tic nei­ther know­ing or not direct­ly the death­less ..

  • Baillee Serbin says:

    This is so well done, and includes many of the con­cepts of death and life. I hope my fam­i­ly will read it all the way through, there are five parts.
    These are some of the con­cepts that we are study­ing with Oscar Icha­zo and the Ari­ca School
    Best to all, those liv­ing and dyi­ing and are reborn.

  • Someone you dont want to know about says:

    It is amaz­ing how Tibetan bud­dhist kiss ass with all the famous peo­ple. But if not famous, there are more abuse than Bud­dha going on.

    I am loos­ing faith in the art-world as well.

  • Michael Austin says:

    Inter­est­ing and good reel. Thanks for post­ing it :-)

  • Bobby Joe says:

    Evans-Wentz trans­lat­ed oth­er Bud­dhist txts besides the Bar­do Thodol. He trans­lat­ed the sto­ry of MilaRepa, and the text of the Great Lib­er­a­tion, and also Tibetan Yoga And Secret Doc­trines. You used to be able to buy all 4 of them in book­stores, but nowa­days you are lucky if you can find the TBOD.

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