In Praise Of Wrathful Deities:
On the Great Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane
Words by Ken Hollings


 Image by Alba Giertz



I

On being declared dead


The night seemed to go on forever. Lay on my back in the artificial twilight, half-awake and half-asleep, until the dawn when the general anaesthetic loosened its grip on my pain. There were no nurses around — the last one had come by at midnight to check my blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. Everything seemed so tranquil and featureless, except for the pain, which continued as the sun pushed its way over the city lights outside the ward window — realise as I write this that my mind is starting to generate false memories.

The black-and-white image of brutal newspaper columnist J J Hunsecker jerks into life at his private table in New York’s ‘21’ club: a flickering memory from Sweet Smell of Success renewing itself at 24 frames a second. “You’re dead son, go get yourself buried”, he spits at scheming publicist Sydney Falco, a disembodied voice over a public payphone. Except that he’s right — Sydney Falco is dead. He won’t realise it until the cops come looking for himand this Times Square melodrama plays itself out. I can watch that moment over and over.  

The idea that there is some clear distinction between being alive and being dead is purely illusory. Death is always in the future — until suddenly it isn’t. How do you give up the habits of a lifetime so abruptly? How would you even survive the experience? “O nobly born (so and so by name)... thy breathing is about to cease”, are some of the first words addressed to the dying, as prescribed in the Bardo Thödol, better known in the west as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. After the soul has been separated from the flesh “by the high surgery of death” a white cloth is thrown over the corpse’s face; and no one is allowed to touch the body. It can take a few days for the nobly born to understand that they are now dead.



II

On the books of the dead


Time on the ward seems to have collapsed – like nothing had happened although that may have been the morphine and the oxygen — still hooked up to supplies of both, a catheter inserted into my penis draining urine into a clear plastic bag. No idea how long I have been like this — the notes I wrote do not clearly convey the passing of the hours. Convinced by my memory that strange things have been happening, either just this minute or very recently — presenting themselves as vague recollections rather than vivid hallucinations. They come with greater rapidity (and certainty) as the evening wears on.

As an apotheosis of the printed page, the book of the dead is a secret product of nineteenth-century industrial culture. Editions of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, more properly called Book of Coming Forth by Day, first appeared in Europe as early as 1842. Walter Evans-Wentz of Jesus College, Oxford, prepared the first English translation of the Bardo Thödol, more properly called Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane, in 1927. He named it The Tibetan Book of the Dead after its Egyptian counterpart. Each, he claimed, “is no doubt, the record of the belief of innumerable generations in a state of existence after death. No one scribe could have been its author and no one generation its creator; its history as a book, if completely known, could only be the history of its compilation and recording.”

By ordering these beliefs into the structure of a book, Evans-Wentz is tacitly acknowledging how fragmented and chaotic the afterlife experience can be for the recently departed. De Arte Moriendi, one of the earliest texts to be set in movable type, together with Dante’s Divine Comedy and Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen offer a similar library of guidance for the west. The dead are going to need it — how else will they understand what has happened to them?



III

On disposing of the body


According to the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, death offers a chance to break with the cyclic nature of existence on the physical plane: to escape the swamp of material illusion. “O nobly born (so and so), listen”, the recently departed is instructed. “Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality.” Few will recognise it, however; and most will flee from it in terror, only to fall into a dreamlike stupor. This is when the trouble really starts.

5.2.14 woke from a sleepless night that was  mostly hallucination — my body feels like a betrayal — recording dull physical facts — there were two men at the far end of the ward.  

For forty-nine days from the moment of death the Bardo Thödol is read aloud to the nobly born: first to the corpse itself and then to an effigy following its disposal. Traditionally the body is cut into pieces and left on a mountainside for birds to peck at — the bones are then hammered into a paste, which is also fed to the birds. Unaccustomed to being without a body, the nobly born is quickly caught up in a spiral of hallucinations.

As his wife Maria lay dying of cancer, Aldous Huxley read aloud to her from the Bardo Thödol.  He had quoted from it when describing the visions he experienced while taking peyote for the first time. Timothy Leary, in association with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert, would write a user’s guide to the LSD trip based on a reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. They later released a recording of The Psychedelic Experience on vinyl. “Die consciously” a quiet voice reminds the listener as a bell chimes, accompanied by the sound of turning pages.

6.2.14 woke after an empty sleep — had a bad day and a terrifying night — drugs stopped and catheter out — three men in the ward.



IV

On Wrathful Deities


Lost in a long fearful night. Experienced my body as a bloated weight I could no longer control. Convinced the cancer surgery has been a failure — sweating and sick with a distended stomach. Something crawling inside my bowels: ready to force its way out.  Whatever my mind is capable of doing, it is no good at dealing with this. Began to realise there are no deals to be made. Any god you can make deals with is not a real god. Nothing can save me, and this is something I will have to live with for the rest of my greatly shortened existence.

“You must fear God”, Don Quixote advises Sancho Panza before the latter sets off to govern his own island, “For the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The Knight of the Sad Countenance is quoting Proverbs 9:10 to his faithful squire. The phrase kept repeating itself all night as my stomach continued to swell, and my sleep gave way to pain. It inserted itself into every waking moment. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”  It felt like I was giving birth to a nest of lizards, their legs and tails writhing beneath my skin.

First come the Peaceful Deities, rising like a new dawn on the after-death plane. Each offers the nobly born another chance to break with the endless cycle of rebirth — but they radiate a light so pure it is dazzling to look upon them, and their presence fills the sky. Except that there is no sky and no Peaceful Deities —and no eyes to protect from the sight of them. The recently departed is being confronted with projections from their past life, from the heart of the body that has been left behind. Then come of the Wrathful Deities. Haloed in flames, treading corpses underfoot, they represent different aspects of the same Peaceful Deities. Time is now running out for the nobly born. With each terrifying dawn they rise, adorned with human skulls, their shoulders draped with a flayed human hide to which the head, feet and hands are still attached. The Wrathful Deities couple with their female counterparts, a girdle of human heads hanging from their waists.  They stare down at the nobly born with bulging eyes. The recently departed is being confronted with memories of their own thinking, reasoning and imagining.



V

On the Magic Mountain


Don Quixote’s advice to Panza has nothing to do with divine vengeance or judgment, but expresses a vertiginous kind of awe in which pain and suffering become part of a greater work that we understand only partially and fleetingly and not at all in terms of purpose. Which is why the Wrathful Deities are worthy of praise: they represent the deified principles that the human eye and mind are too narrow to comprehend. They exist in the slaughterhouse and the graveyard, in sickness, decay and corruption. They preside over storms and disasters and the vast distances between stars. Finally they embody the belief in a god that dances upon a mountain of skulls. Death is always in the future — it is the only future. Live with it.

7.2.14 awoke reborn — tearful and new

Realising at last that they are dead but still believing that they possess a body, the recently departed starts to panic. Ghost limbs twitch and spasm: cut and crushed or burned and frozen in atonement for past sins. Furies appear dragging sinners to their punishment. Visions of judgement persist. Finally the nobly born comes face to face with Dharma-Rāja, the King and Judge of the Dead. The Evans-Wentz translation captures the moment:  “Then the Lord of Death will place around thy neck a rope and drag thee along; he will cut off thy head, tear out thy heart, pull out thy intestines, lick up thy brain, drink thy blood, eat thy flesh and gnaw thy bones; but thou wilt be incapable of dying.”

The blinding clear Light of Reality shines through the illusory body like the beam of a projector through the frames of an old movie, throwing up images of past sins and experiences. Death means focussing not on the screen but on the projector beam itself — you are the film. Similarly, the 1927 Evans-Wentz’s translation of the Bardo Thödol is a projection of western fantasies and assumptions upon an ancient Tibetan text – a cultural hallucination that happened to coincide with the arrival of cinema as the great new art form of the twentieth century. Published in the same year as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the first English edition of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain contained a passage that described the impact of early biograph screenings on the first movie audiences: “Life flitted across the screen before their smarting eyes: life chopped into small sections, fleeting, accelerated; a restless jerky fluctuation of appearing and disappearing.”  Mann could easily have been describing the after-death plane:  “It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation; full of cruelty, appetite, and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner’s arms.”

Aldous Huxley died blissfully, high on LSD and guided by readings from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, departing from this plane on the same day that John F Kennedy took an assassin’s bullet to the head. The Wrathful Deities have always been with us.


Ken is a writer and broadcaster and lectures on art and design. His latest book is The Space Oracle published by Strange Attractor Press. Follow his personal blog at kenhollings.blogspot.co.uk


This feature was first published in Issue Two of SATORI. To explore issue one further click here.


Created by Duncan Woods & Seb Camilleri