Three appearances

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The three appearances (Tib. སྣང་བ་གསུམ་, nangwa sum, Wyl. snang ba gsum) or appearance, increase and attainment (Tib. སྣང་མཆེད་ཐོབ་གསུམ་, nang ché tob sum, Wyl. snang mched thob gsum) are experiences which unfold during the inner dissolution process in the bardo of dying. They are:

  • white appearance,
  • red increase, and
  • black attainment.


The three experiences are usually said to unfold in the order mentioned above, namely white, then red, and then black. Patrul Rinpoche writes:

Firstly, the white essence obtained from the father descends from the crown, and when it reaches the heart there is 'appearance'. As an outer sign, this is accompanied by an experience of whiteness, as when moonlight fills a completely clear sky that is entirely free from clouds. As an inner sign, there is a clear experience of the self-clarity of consciousness devoid of coarse thought states focusing on perceived objects.
Secondly, as the subtle red element of the mother ascends from the base of the central channel, the wisdom of appearance fades into 'increase'. As an outer sign, a red vision unfolds like a cloudless sky pervaded by sunlight. As an inner sign, there is an extremely clear state of mind devoid of any coarse thought states focusing on the perceiving subject.
Thirdly, as the subtle white and red essences meet at the heart, the wisdom of increase dissolves into 'attainment'. Through this, as an outer sign, there is an experience of blackness, like the thick darkness when the sky turns completely black. As an inner sign, extremely subtle thoughts involving perceived objects and perceiving subject become completely absent, and all distinct concepts based on the appearance aspect of mind fade away, so that, as the ordinary dualistic mind ceases, the wisdom of attainment dawns.[1]

In some tantras however, it is taught that the red experience occurs first, followed by the white experience. This latter sequence is followed in Jikmé Lingpa's Training in the Pure Realms of the Three Kayas, for example: consciousness dissolves into appearance,
Like an eclipse in a cloudless sky,
The red experience dawns, and red essence rises to the heart.
In turn, as appearance dissolves into increase,
Like moonbeams slanting through a sky-light,
The white experience unfolds, and white essence descends.
Then, as increase dissolves into near-attainment,
Like the darkness at dusk on a clear and cloudless night,
The black experience draws in, and I sink into the alaya, the ground of all.


  1. A Brief Introduction to the Bardos (bar do'i ngo sprod bsdus pa)

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