“Hey ! Now when the dream between dawns upon me,
I will give up corpselike sleeping in delusion,
And mindfully enter unwavering the experience of reality.
Conscious of dreaming, I will enjoy the changes as clear light.
Not sleeping mindlessly like an animal,
I will cherish the practice merging sleep and realization!”
(The Root Verses of the Six Betweens, page 115)
Dale Cooper’s interest in Tibet is well-established. He discusses the fate of the Himalayan nation right from the outset in season 1, and in season 2, at the moment of Leland’s death, he borrows images from Padma Sambhava’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol) to guide Laura’s father towards the other world. The fate of Twin Peaks and Tibet appear inextricably interwoven, and it is not difficult to notice some similarities between the Great Northern Hotel and the Potala Palace in Lhasa, where the Dalai Lamas (the Oceanic Masters) used to live prior to the Chinese invasion. Both dwellings are perched at the summit of a hill, overlooking a valley.
The structure of season 3 owes a lot to many works of art and mythological/religious texts – from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (James Joyce) to the Ramayana (Valmiki), from the Bible to Arthurian legend and literature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is also key in The Return, as will be made apparent in the following essay – especially when it comes to the eight stages of death described in the sacred text. Its reinterpretation by Timothy Leary in 1964 as The Psychedelic Experience also seems to have influenced the season.
The original title of The Tibetan Book of the Dead is closer to The Book of Liberation Through Understanding in the Between or to Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane. The “Between” or “between-state” in question (the Bardo) refers to the state between death and rebirth. Tibetans are indeed Buddhists, and they believe in reincarnation. The idea of the Bardo, the existence of a reality between, echoes the famous words uttered by MIKE in Twin Peaks: “One chants out between two worlds”. The two worlds in question might well be the one of the living on the one hand, and the one of the deceased on the other – a strange realm, a Purgatory of sorts, through which one needs to travel during the process of reincarnation.
The book is meant to be read to the lost souls who hover near their corpses after death as “subtle bodies”, while they go through various dreamlike experiences. According to Tibetans, dream consciousness is a precursor of sorts to the between-consciousness, and one can convert the process of falling asleep into a rehearsal of the death dissolutions. The Between experiences lead souls to what awaits them next – from Buddhahood enlightenment for those who achieve liberation, to rebirth/a return to one of the six realms (divine, human, animal, etc.) for the others, depending on their karma and ability to die lucidly (i.e. to remain self-aware, conscious of “dreaming”) during the Between. A good knowledge of the book is said to accelerate this process towards desired forms of rebirth or liberation – a return to one’s deepest essential reality – as it is a road map of sorts to this unknown territory, a guidebook for the between.
During the process, the consciousness of the deceased floats around the room within hearing range, while lamas or spiritual mentors recite The Book of the Dead to guide it towards the white light (the rainbow light) synonymous with liberation. They help the deceased understand that the sounds and visions encountered are in fact emanating from their own consciousness and that there is nothing to fear from them. Interestingly, Timothy Leary makes the following addition: “The relevant sections of the instructions can be spoken in a low tone of voice in the ear”. One may wonder if this is what Laura does to Cooper in the Red Room, relaying instructions about the way to travel in the Bardo in which he is trapped? Also, could the ecstatic radiance that wins immediate illumination be the one revealed by Laura when she opens her face to Cooper in part 2? If so, he could have likely avoided all of the ensuing hallucinatory struggles and sufferings in The Return had he awakened right away to the ultimate truth of this clear light. The Tibetan book explains that “he should be able to recognize the Clear Light without being set face to face with it”. Unfortunately, though he sat right in front of it, Cooper was unable to reach for that light.
According to Tibetans, the death process is composed of eight stages of dissolution to which certain experiences are linked. The first four stages are connected to the five main elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space. In the first stage, earth turns to water; then water turns to fire in the second; fire becomes wind in the third; and finally, wind leads to consciousness in the fourth. The opening credits of the season mirror this process: we begin with a view of a mountain (earth) that turns into a waterfall (water), followed by a dissolve to a red curtain (fire) blowing in the wind (air), turning into a vision of the Red Room floor – chevron motifs reminiscent of multiple parallel EEGs (consciousness).
But the links don’t stop there, they run much deeper. The aforementioned elements correspond to various senses that play a central roles in the first four parts of The Return:
- earth corresponds to the eye sense and sights: in part 1, the observation of the New York glass box is of paramount importance
- water is linked to the auditory sense and sounds: it’s in part 2 that Laura whispers in Cooper’s ear
- fire is connected to the sense of smell: in part 3, the stench of Mr. C’s vomit sends a policeman to his knees
- and wind corresponds to the tongue, taste and bodily senses: in part 4, Dougie experiences the taste of coffee for the first time since his arrival in Las Vegas
The next four stages correspond to senses of the mind and are connected to different experiences, to the dissolution into subtle consciousness:
- stage five is linked to a clear moonlit sky: in part 5, Mr. C utters the sentence “the cow jumped over the moon”.
- stage six to a sunlit red-orange sky: in part 6, Dougie and Janey-E sit around an orange lamp
- stage seven to pitch-darkness and unconsciousness: in part 7, Mr. C and Ray leave the Yankton Prison at night
- and stage eight to a predawn sky and new consciousness: in part 8, the White Sands Trinity Test takes place right before 6 a.m.
Unfortunately for them, most souls will not understand what is happening to them and fail to rest in the clear light that corresponds to liberation from the samsaric life-cycle – the wheel of reincarnations – into nirvanic bliss – i.e., liberation from that wheel. As a result, the deceased’s soul rises back up into a physical form through the eight dissolutions in the reverse order. This is what happens in The Return (appropriately titled). This time, the soul first goes through the four stages leading from a subtle consciousness to the realm of the senses:
- stage eight’s new consciousness corresponds to Laura’s birth as an orb in part 8
- stage seven’s unconsciousness is manifested by Johnny Horne when he rushes headfirst into a wall in part 9
- stage six’s red orange sunlit sky is portrayed in the sunny weather forecast watched on television by the Mitchum brothers in part 10
- and stage five’s moonlit sky is depicted on Hawk’s map of Twin Peaks in part 11.
The series continues with the four first stages, those of the senses:
- stage four (taste and textures) corresponds to the wine shared by Albert, Gordon, and Tamara in part 12
- stage three (nose and smell) explains why Mr. C punches Renzo’s nose into his face in part 13
- stage two (sounds) enables one to understand why Gordon has such a bad time with the noises produced by the window cleaner in part 14
- and stage one (sight) explains why part 15 starts with Nadine Hurley’s eye-patch.
Interestingly, Cooper finally “wakes up” in the next part of season 3 (part 16), having completed the above-described process of dying and resurrection through the Bardo. The two times eight stages of dissolution and back have been achieved, and Cooper is then able to leave the Bardo – or at the very least the second Bardo. The Between is indeed composed of three phases:
- the first between, the “death-point between”, is the one in which liberation through the clear light is the easiest
- the soul that does not manage to see the light then wanders to the “reality between” of the mild and fierce deities
- if one is still unable to see the light, the soul finally goes to the “emergent existence between” (called the “Period of Re-Entry” by Timothy Leary). In it, the soul arises in the likeness of its former body – a “mental body”, akin to a ghost. It’s at this point that it meets Yama, the Lord of Death. He acts as lord of the underworld and judges the deeds of the deceased, assigning them their future destiny. His minions, the Herukas – cannibalistic blood-drinking ghouls reminiscent of the Woodsmen – are there to torment the lost souls towards negative evolution, wandering downward.
All the deities encountered in the Between are truly unincorporated, repressed elements of the psyche, visions turned into devils lacking true substantiality. They can all be dispelled with the right outlook: “When reality crashes with a thousand thunders / May they all become OM MANI PADME HUM!”. This is probably what takes place at the end of part 18, when Laura/Carrie emits a shriek in front of her house. She releases the power of “a thousand thunders”, blowing out the fake electric light of her own repressed memories, sending Judy/Yama back into the void. Buddhism tries to lead humans to the cessation of suffering realized by enlightened beings in Nirvana, a word that literally means “blown out” – the “blowing out of the flame” of selfish game desires, to quote Timothy Leary. The return of the repressed (Laura’s shriek) constitutes the point of no return. The electric fire in the house gets blown out like a candle.
In order to remain as long as possible in the Bardo and reach liberation, the soul must avoid “the door of the womb”, synonymous with rebirth. It has visions of couples making love, and unless it deeply understands cosmic reality, the soul needs to choose a womb, that will appear “magically transformed into a divine palace”. One can guess that this is what takes place in part 18: Dale and Diane’s act of “sex magick” in the motel provides a rebirth for Laura’s wandering soul, which then comes back to life as Carrie Page.
The version of the Book of the Dead written by Timothy Leary – once labelled “The Most Dangerous Man in America” by Richard Nixon – is an exploration of non-ordinary states of consciousness through chemical means (psychedelics such as LSD, i.e. “experimental” drugs) and is reminiscent of the worldview of people who are returning characters in Twin Peaks: people such as shamans, seers, those with second sight (think the Log Lady, or Gordon Cole). The drugs they use to reach these interior visionary territories are mushrooms that echo the one produced by the atomic explosion in part 8. The blast itself is immediately followed by a “trip” that takes us inside the mushroom, through the colorful kaleidoscopic visions of a spiritual illumination. Such wild images can of course become scary for the non-initiate. This is why Leary warns that, “whenever in doubt, turn off your mind, relax, float downstream”. Several characters in Twin Peaks, “psychonauts” journeying towards the antipodes of the mind, gladly do that – as Doctor Jacoby, for instance. Laura, who used to be fond of drugs of all sorts, also ended up floating downstream… wrapped in plastic.
Leary uses the Tibetan book to guide those who travel through chemical mind-expansion and reminds us that “this is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn” – which essentially describes Cooper’s experience in The Return. This “pre-mortem death and rebirth rite” should begin, at the time of initiation, by a recall of the guru’s mantras, i.e. the words of the mentor. In the prologue to season 3, the Fireman says: “Remember: 430 – Richard and Linda – two birds with one stone”. Those are mantras for Cooper during his inward trip. The Fireman’s famous “listen to the sounds” can also be understood as a warning, meaning that Cooper needs to focus on the incantations from The Book of the Dead during his trip through the Bardo. They will help him on his journey. The mysterious sounds coming from the gramophone correspond to those produced by the Log Lady’s phone when she sets it to loudspeaker during a call to Hawk. They stress the direct link she has established with the otherworldly entities from the White Lodge thanks to her Log (a receptor of sorts). When this link with the reality beyond, the one from which the chants emanate, gets severed – as when Cooper loses Laura to the forest in part 17 – the Fireman’s sounds resonate. The line goes dead.
The fact that Leary quotes Carl Jung on the subject of The Book of the Dead, and more precisely on the question of thought-forms is noteworthy: “The reality experienced in the Chönyid state is, as the last section of the corresponding Bardo teaches, the reality of thought. The ‘thought-forms’ appear as realities, fantasy takes on real form, and the terrifying dream evoked by karma and played out by the unconscious ‘dominants’ begin”. Needless to say, this quote mirrors what takes place in season 3, in which “thought-forms” abound, and where the importance of dreams is constantly stressed.
Also resonant with Twin Peaks is Leary’s warning that “if the voyager reacts with fear to the powerful flow of life forms… a nightmarish hell-world may ensue”. He adds: “you have frozen the dance of energy and committed yourself to one incarnation and have done it out of fear”. Cooper was warned that fear was the enemy when he entered the Lodges, and it’s because he was assailed by this emotion that his doppelgänger was able to leave this four-dimensional realm instead of him. A better knowledge of the inner workings of the Between might have helped him understand that he was his worst enemy.
Coming back to the clear light displayed by Laura in part 2, the one that may have led Cooper to liberation had he grasped it, Leary explains that it “probably involves basic electrical wave energy”. Indeed, he adds, “all sensations and perceptions are based on wave vibrations”. This is why, he argues, “the world around” the one who goes through the Bardo, “has an illusory solidity” which is “nothing more than a play of physical waves”.
These reflections lead him to claim that the soul of the voyager “is involved in a cosmic television show which has no more substantiality than the images on his TV picture tube”, because “the world of phenomena exists in the form of waves, electronic images” and “everything is experienced as consciousness”, the radiations of which “should be recognized as productions of your own internal processes”. He goes on: “all apparent forms of matter and body are momentary clusters of energy. We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen… Everything you can experience is ‘nothing but’ electrical waves… a ‘retinal circus’… a ‘Magic Theatre’”.
These lines resonate strongly with what takes place in The Return, this cosmic dream in which Maya (the cosmic illusion in Hinduism) plays the fore role. Cooper, seated as he is in the Red Room, appears to watch his own life taking place in front of him, on the television screen of his own retina. The complex play that he dreams being part of in the world of Twin Peaks echoes the one described by Leary: “The play of forms and things becomes the play of heroic figures, superhuman spirits and demigods… the concrete embodiments of aspects of the person’s own psyche”. The Fireman and Judy are demigods if not more, and Cooper certainly dreams of himself as a heroic figure, trying to save the day against all odds (beyond death, even). It is all the more interesting that Cooper truly exists inside a television show called Twin Peaks, that he really is nothing more than a momentary cluster of energy on our screens. The opening credits of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me come to mind when reading these lines, premonitory of the real essence of the universe described in the series. Nothing but electromagnetic snow, really.
But whether we study Cooper’s journey through the lens of The Tibetan Book of the Dead or through The Psychedelic Experience, something goes wrong in the end, and Laura seems to be the one who saves the day, not Cooper. She has traversed a Bardo of her own and achieved illumination, contrary to Cooper, too focused on his earthly mission as an FBI agent to undergo the inner transformation expected from the souls in the Between. This is likely the curse of the knight of the Red Room, doomed to eternally lose himself trying to save others, a 21st Century version of Sir Perceval (Dale etymologically means “valley”, while Perceval can be translated as “piercing through the valley), trapped in the marshes of the Fisher King.
He probably did not pay enough attention to the sounds…
 « There is not one person, indeed, not one living being, that had not returned from death” (Lama Anagarika Govinda).
 « The visions described here, in which the person sees mother and father in sexual intercourse, corresponds to the ‘primal scene’ in psychoanalysis” (Timothy Leary).