A young robin dances on a fallen headstone

In the between of who we are: contemplating the bardo

A sidebar to an interview with George Saunders about his novel Lincoln in the Bardo explains the Tibetan idea of bardo as “the intermediate state or gap we experience between death and our next rebirth.” It goes on to say, “More generally, the word bardo refers to the gap or space we experience between any two states,” including “the bardo of dreaming, the bardo of meditating, and even the bardo of this life—which is, after all, the intermediate state between birth and death.” Our lives, at least in this peculiarly Buddhist way of seeing things, amount to little more than a gap, a state of betweenness marking a time before us and a time after we are gone.

A young robin dances on a fallen headstone
A young robin dances on a fallen headstone (Photo by T.S. Bremer, 2018)

In this place of “between” that is the here and now turns the pivot of our being. Betweenness traces a boundary, an edge-state that delineates what was and what will be. In its multiple meanings, between both separates and connects. The author Gregory Blake Smith in a recent interview with Bonnie Nadzam  notes the “double meaning” of the word “between.” In his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” Walt Whitman asks, “What is it then between us?” Smith explains, “On the surface the lines seem to be asking simply what is it that separates us,” but, Smith realizes, “in the context of the overall poem, that ‘between’ also means its opposite: what is it that unites us, what is it that we share?”

The moment of “between,” that instant of bardo in dreaming, in meditating, and in the pause between every breath we take, always quivers with ambiguity. In the bardo between people awaits a double potential. “What is it then between us?”

It can be the boundary that separates, the wall that stands between us. Or it can be a shared connection, the spark of a chemistry between us. In the betweenness of the bardo that comes with death, that empty moment between the here and the hereafter of Tibetan Buddhism that Saunders explores with the young Willie Lincoln, we are both connected to and separated from the lives we have known and the realities we will become.

[Daily post 017 of 260 in my year-long challenge.] ♨

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