QUERY> Bardo in Taiwan?

Carl Yamamoto's picture

Dear colleagues,


I received a request for information from someone at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. They are sponsoring a theatrical presentation based on the Buddhist idea of "the Bardo." She was under the impression that this was a native Taiwanese notion, and I told her probably not but I would throw the question out to the forum in hopes someone with more expertise might comment. Does anyone know whether the idea of the Bardo has played any role in Taiwanese Buddhism? My first hunch was that, Tibetan Buddhism having become very popular in Taiwan in the last couple decades, the idea may have come from one of the many Tibetan lamas resident in Taiwan. But my knowledge of Taiwanese Buddhism is basically nonexistent, so I throw myself into the hands of the forum. Any help would be appreciated.




Carl Yamamoto

Towson University

Categories: Query

Dear Dr. Yamamoto,

A few thoughts in response to our query about "the Bardo" in Taiwanese Buddhism. As Dr. Forman has pointed out, the notion is certainly not of Taiwanese origin. Though this idea would not come to East Asia through the Kathāvatthu, as it has only very recently been available. I'm not sure if you communicated with the TECO in English or Chinese. If in English, perhaps using the term "Bardo" would create some confusion. While this term is perhaps the most common one used in English, due to its Tibetan origins, it tends (in my opinion) to make many think it is (purely) a Tibetan notion. If you used Chinese, which would be 中陰 (zhongyin), or 中有 (zhongyou), these translations from Skt. "antarābhava" are fairly common in Chinese Buddhism in general.

This idea comes to East Asia through the Northern Abhidharma and Mahayana traditions, the latter often using the former in general conventional terms. The antarābhava notion was used by the Sarvāstivāda, Sautrāntika and other Abhidharma schools, and also appears in a number of Mahāyāna texts, including popular texts, and even a text with this very name. I think perhaps, though I am no expert, that the general notion of some kind of incorporeal existence immediately after death may have found enough similarities with Chinese native (i.e. non-Buddhist) notions, and some kind of popular generalized idea would have easily been accepted by the general public. Buddhist exegetes would no doubt provide a more orthodox interpretation. Such ideas can be seen in a number of extremely common practices. Ancient and modern teachers have written a lot about this idea and related practices.

For example, the idea of "assisted recitation" 助念, reciting sutras, chanting the name of the Buddha, etc. immediately preceding and after death, often by monastics but also commonly by family members and co-members of Buddhist communities. This is predicated on the idea that after death some kind of incorporeal existence still remains, and can be influenced by the chanting. The deceased is thus encouraged to take rebirth in some or other Pure Land, or a good family if human rebirth is sought. There are even clips on YouTube talking about how these practices are done, for example.

Hope this is of some help.

As it has not yet been mentioned, I dare to add that in regard to this concept in East Asia (though not for the most modern periods, and therefore not directly relevant to the query), one should certainly see the article "Chūu" in the fifth volume of the Hobogirin (5: 558-663).

Dear Carl,

If the term being used is "bardo" or a Chinese phonetic version thereof, the source is quite definitely Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhism has grown astronomically in Taiwan in the past few decades, but the phenomenon has not been much studied. A recent collection that begins to rectify this may be found here: https://publications.efeo.fr/en/livres/913_the-hybridity-of-buddhism

The bardo traditions, however, are not addressed therein (though given the prominence of Nyingma and Kagyu teachers in Taiwan, one may assume that the bardo is not far behind....)


Matthew Matthew Kapstein, EPHE