According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol, in Tibetan), as we die, we descend through the seven realms of spiritual trials. Each of the realms corresponds to one of the chakras. We are mostly unenlightened beings and fail most of the tests. Each time we fail a realm’s test we sink to the chakra below and undergo its trials. The chakra whose tests we finally pass determines the realm into which we will be reborn. The dying person’s own spiritual advisor sits at the deathbed, waits, his hand on the jugular to detect the exact moment of death. He recites the soul’s passage through the seven realms to guide the individual through the intermediate state of bardo. Hence the book’s English title, Liberation through Hearing During the Intermediate State.

The Five Buddhas as Virtues and Vices

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in Transformations of Myth Through Time, discusses the experience of the fifth chakra, the throat center. There we encounter Akshobhya, the benevolent manifestation of the meditation Buddha whose name means “cannot be moved.” Akshobhya embraces his shakti Mamaki in the ecstatic posture Yab Yum.

In embracing the shakti, Akshobhya is “‘turning about’ his energy, his shakti to the aim of illumination. Your vice is your virtue. The quality here is tenacity, and the negative aspect of tenacity is stubbornness. If your virtue is stubbornness, hold it, don’t lose it. This is one of the problems of renovating one’s character.” (Joseph Campbell p 178)

The fifth chakra transforms one’s animal nature into a vehicle for the transcendent. Campbell says that “God created the world in order to enjoy himself, and the world must turn toward him.” (Joseph Campbell p 166) The throat chakra is the place where we first utilize our energy to conquer ourselves, rather than the world, in contrast with the lower chakras of animal desire and domination. 

The secret is not to suppress our conquering energy but to turn it on our weaknesses. After Akshobhya, there appears the most enchanting of the five meditation Buddhas:

“…Ratnasambhava, ‘born of a jewel.’ Embraced by his shakti “Buddha-Eyes,” his quality is beauty. And what’s the vice? Pride. If your pride is in your beauty, hold to it, but turn it about, so that the beauty that you are proud of is your spiritual beauty. Then you will cultivate that. Do not get rid of your vice. If it’s pride, make the pride work to your illumination, not to your degradation.” (Joseph Campbell p 178)

If we fail to achieve union with Ratnasambhava, the Buddha of the western quarter appears, named Amitabha, or Amida in Japanese. He is linked to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva embodying compassion, and manifests on earth in the person of the Dalai Lama.

“Embraced by his shakti, known as the ‘Woman in White,’ his quality is mercy, compassion. And what do you suppose the vice would be? Attachment–attachment to that being for whom you feel love. If you die with that attachment you will be reborn in the world of the hungry ghosts. They have ravenous bellies and pinpoint mouths, so they can never eat what they desire.” (Joseph Campbell p 180)

If we are unable to hold to the Amitabha, the ominous northern Buddha, Amoghasiddhi, appears. His name means “he who will not be turned from the achievement of his aim,” and his “virtue is tenacity of purpose, not simply holding to where you are but holding with conscious intention. The negative aspect is belligerence, and if you die in this context, you will be reborn in the realm of the antigods, the demons, the fighting gods.” (Joseph Campbell p 181)

The lesson Joseph Campbell draws from the Tibetan Book of the Dead is universally applicable. Whatever our chief vice, we should instead nourish its flip side, its associated virtue. In fact, Campbell goes as far as to consider it undesirable to destroy our vices, as they may be the key to our entire character. They are what drives us. “I think it’s Nietzsche who said, ‘be careful, lest in casting out your devil, you cast out the best thing that’s in you.’ Many people who have been psychoanalyzed are like filleted fish. Their character is gone. If you are nasty, be nasty, but turn around the energy, the shakti.” (Joseph Campbell p 178)