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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