The Fourth Way within the Nine Ways of Bön is called The Way of the Shen of Existence and is primarily focused upon rituals for the dead. From the perspective of Yungdrung Bön, the moment that the consciousness leaves the container of the physical body is a time of great potential. If someone has received the proper instructions and practiced, it is possible for them to achieve liberation from cyclic existence at that time. If not, there are methods to lead the deceased’s consciousness to liberation or at the very least, to guide them to the circumstances of a positive rebirth.
In general, once an ordinary person dies, they experience a kind of unconsciousness like falling into a deep sleep. “Awakening” from this state, it is possible for them to not realize that they have in fact died and therefore to continue to be attached to their family and life situation. Generally lasting three days, but possibly longer, this is the time when the lama tells the individual that they have died and instructs them to not be afraid and to release their attachment to family and friends. The fourth day after death begins a 49 day period of transition referred to as the “bardo” and literally translates as “in-between”. During these seven weeks, the individual both becomes less attached to the previous life and is drawn by the force of karma to the next life. While this is happening, each week the deceased is having experiences of each of the six possible destinies of rebirth. These six destinies of rebirth from lowest to highest are: the hell realm, the hungry ghost realm, the animal realm, the human realm, the demi-god realm, and the god realm. For example, during the first week, the person would have experiences related to the hell ream. During the second week, they would have experiences related to the hungry ghost realm, and so on. Therefore, prayers and rituals are done each week that emphasize antidotes and guidance for the particular obstacles and experiences that the deceased might be having. Additionally, offerings of light, prayers of aspiration and recitation of mantra for the benefit of the deceased are performed each day. On the 49th day, special rituals and prayers are performed in order to strongly influence the path of rebirth.
This is a general description. Whether someone spends a greater or lesser time in the bardo, or doesn’t experience it at all, is dependent upon many factors including their virtue or non-virtue and the strength of their awareness and spiritual development.
The lama performing the rituals must have both proper knowledge of the rituals as well as have developed great compassion for other beings. According to the words of the Enlightened Lord Tönpa Shenrap Miwo,
“The best of shen who is expert in meditation and who has aroused feelings of immeasurable compassion towards feeble living beings, and who possesses the four immeasurable qualities and who puts the good of others before himself..”
Preceding the preparations for the rituals, the lama will ascertain the details of the death such as the time and circumstances involved. Then, a divination and astrological calculations are performed in order to determine the proper day and place to perform the ritual and burial as well as any additional rituals that could be of benefit for the family. In this way, the natural process of death and rebirth is supported by the spiritual guidance and the ritual expertise of the lama. From the Bardo Thodal, “Liberation Upon Hearing”:
“Lama, from your compassion, bless me. Bless me to stop the deluded visions of the bardo. Bless me that I may prevent the possibility of rebirth in the lower destinies of rebirth. Bless me that I may achieve the five wisdoms.”