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Bardo: Purgatory for Buddhists

A Reader writes:

I am 17 years old. I have been alone for the last few months, doing a lot of thinking. I am realizing that I am very different from all of the people around me, and that after I have finished my school I would like to leave western society and practice spirituality. I have been reading a lot from the Tibetan book of the dead, and a lot of writings by different authors about the stages of Bardo, which brings me to what I would like to talk about. I am worried I will have a unpleasant journey through the afterlife because I have killed innocent creatures in the past for no reason. I feel very remorseful of this and would devote my life to peace to make up for it, I know that what I did is not who I am, It was wrong and I feel terrible. It was almost a year ago, but I wish to make it right somehow.

However, I have read that no matter how experienced you have become in spiritual travel, if you have unethically harmed the innocent you will have a negative afterlife experience. But I think that if I show brightness to all, for the rest of my days, and be a good loving human, my horrible actions of the past can be overcome by love and happiness. But this is all my own research, I have never had the opportunity to speak with someone who is educated with this kind of stuff, I am the only person I know that thinks like this, therefore I have pushed away all my friends. So it is just me all day alone with my thoughts. And I’ve realized that I want to become a Buddhist. I really need to talk to someone who knows about this.

My Response:

It sounds like you have the right idea about harming innocents and making up for it. There’s no way to know exactly HOW karma works, but it is certainly possible to keep working at it and improve your karmic balance. It depends heavily on the “bad things” that you did, but where there’s life, there is always a chance to reverse things. You realize now that whatever you did was wrong, and that realization alone means a lot.
No matter what you did, no matter how bad it was, working toward positive outcomes and living a life of peace will move your karmic balance in a positive direction. Can you make up for what you did? I don’t know; maybe, maybe not. You’re definitely not past redemption, if that’s what you’re asking.
Now, onto specifics. You mention “Bardo,” and I should probably explain that to everyone. The idea of Bardo is, as you said, a Tibetan concept. It’s roughly similar to the idea of a “Purgatory,” or middle area between two rebirths. It’s an intermediate state between two lives.
Just keep in mind that this is primarily a Tibetan thing; many Buddhists reject the idea of an afterlife, just assuming that rebirth happens quickly and simply. This is my view. The whole idea of a staging ground to punish and purify souls just seems very complex and hard to support in my opinion. Is there an intermediate stage between lives? I can’t say, but it seems unlikely to me that it’s anything elaborate.

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