TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH
Sky burial site Tibetans believe that the cessation of breathing is only the first stage of death. Afterwards, they believe, the soul separates out of the various “subtle elements.” First, the earth elements dissolve into the water elements. As this happens the dead loses his sense of sight and feels like he is shriveling up. As the water elements dissolve into the air element the dead losses his hearing and feels surrounded by smoke. After the soul separates from the body, various levels of consciousness disappear and the deceased emerges into translucent light. This is when Tibetans believe that true death has occurred.
Death is viewed as a transformation not an end. Tibetan are encouraged to witness death and the disposal of bodies so they do not fear death or are in awe of it. This is one reason why ritual objects are often made from human bones. After death, the body is kept in a sitting position for 24 hours while a lama recites passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to help guide the dead to the afterlife. Three days after death the deceased is blessed with morning prayers and taken to a monastery for the funeral.
Tibetans believe that an individual’s souls remain in bar do, a special zone for the newly dead, for 49 days after death, during which time they enter a new body (that of a human, a hell being, a god, or an animal) to start a new cycle of life, death and rebirth. On each of the 49 days the deceased passes through a new level.
After true death has occurred the dead begins his journey towards rebirth and this may involve communion with gods, demons, hungry ghosts or a trip to hell. All this occurs with the understanding that post-death experiences are not real, but projections of consciousness that causes birth, death and rebirth.
Preparing the body for sky burial Links in this Website: FUNERALS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; IDEAS ABOUT DEATH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN PEOPLE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; FOOD, DRINK, DRUGS AND CLOTHES IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN HEALTH AND MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN FUNERALS AND DEATH Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN NOMADS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MINORITIES AND TIBETANS ABROAD Factsanddetails.com/China
Good Websites and Sources on Tibet: Central Tibetan Administration (Tibetan government in Exile) www.tibet.com ; Chinese Government Tibet website eng.tibet.cn/ Wikipedia Wikipedia Tibetan Resources phayul.com ; Open Directory dmoz.org/Regional/Asia/China/Tibet/ ; Snow Lion Publications (books on Tibet) snowlionpub.com ; Photos Tibet Photo Gallery Tibet Gallery Terra Nomada Terra Nomada ; Tibetan Cultural Sites: Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture tibetanculture.org ; Tibet Trip tibettrip.com ; Tibetan Cultural Region Directory kotan.org ; Tibetan Studies and Tibet Research: Tibetan Resources on The Web (Columbia University C.V. Starr East Asian Library ) columbia.edu ; Tibetan and Himalayan Library thlib.org Digital Himalaya ; digitalhimalaya.com ; Tibetan Studies Maps WWW Virtual Library ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies ; Center for Research of Tibet case.edu ; Center for Advanced Tibetan Studies amnyemachen.org ; Tibetan Studies resources blog tibetan-studies-resources.blogspot.com ; News, Electronic Journals ciolek.com/WWWVLPages
Tibetan Book of the Dead
Crushing the bones The Tibetan Book of the Dead has traditionally been used to help guide the dead while in a state between death and their next rebirth. Texts are usually read to the dying as they are dying and in the days after they are dead. The title in Tibetan is best translated as something like “Liberation Through Understanding the Between.”
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is believed to be loosely based on the 14th-century mortuary texts read at funerals. Newsweek described it as "the most popular faux Buddhist volume in English." Over the years it has been offered as proof of spiritual evolution, as a justification of the use of psychedelic drugs like LSD, and as empirical evidence of the "science of death."
According to the book itself The Tibetan Book of the Dead was composed by an 8th-century lama named Padma Sambhava, who is perhaps a mythical figure. He is credited with predicting that Buddhism would be persecuted in the 9th century, which it was, and had the texts hidden in cave. The texts were reportedly found by the Tibetan scholar Karma Lingpa, who is credited with spreading and popularizing the them.
Texts From the Tibetan Book of the Dead
Adding flour The Tibetan Book of the Dead texts vary from place to place. They consist mainly of preparatory prayers, instructions on how navigate the complicated death process and exhortations to the deceased to be clearheaded and alert during the death process. The various prayers are addressed to a wide range of gurus, guides, and bodhisattvas that are supposed to provide assistance.
The main body of the text begins with the exhortation: “Hey! Noble One...Now the time has come for you to seek the way. Just as your breath stops, the clear light of the first ‘between’ will dawn as previously described to you by your teacher. Your outer breath stops and you experience reality stark and vivid like space, your immaculate naked awareness dawning clear and void without horizon or center . At that instant, you yourself must recognize it as yourself, you must stay with that experience.”
The goal is to attain the best possible realm. “Choose your continent for rebirth....Using your clairvoyance, enter a womb in a place where Buddhism has spread. Caution is required, for even if you are reborn magically in a heap of dung, you would get the notion that impure mass smelled delicious and you would be reborn in it by the force of your attraction. Therefor you should not adhere to whatever appearance occurs, and you must discount any signs that trigger attachment or aversion. Then choose a good womb...as the child of a holy man, an adept, or of a clan with impeccable Buddhist lineage.”
Collecting all the pieces The Tibetans have five ways of disposing of a dead bodies: 1) Water Burial; 2) Sky Burial; 3) Fire Burial; 4) Earth Burial; 5) and Embalming. Corpses are still mummified using an ancient technique in which the corpse is but in a large box and packed in salt for about three months.
In the “water burial," the body is dumped in a lake or another body of water. Fish sometimes eat the bodies which partly explains why Tibetan don't eat fish. The "fire burial," or cremation, is a luxury only the rich can afford (firewood and fuel are expensive and in short supply in Tibet). The "earth burial" is practiced by Tibetans who have been assimilated into Han, or Chinese culture. Embalming and mummifying the body is a practice reserved for revered lamas.
The Mustangese have added a sixth choice. A man who dies, leaving behind neither sons nor grandsons, can be enclosed in the walls of his house until a male heir is born. After the birth takes place the body of the deceased is removed to a hill where his body can be traded to the demons in return for a long life for the newborn boy. [Source: "Mustang, Nepal's Lost Kingdom" by Michael Peissel, October 1965]
After the death of a lama, the lama's body is cremated and placed in a mound at the crossing of four highways to symbolize the "universal reign of his teachings.” At most funerals there are often few signs of outward grief for the attendants are often deeply religious and believe the soul has already departed. When expressing grief, some monks bang their heads against a wall until it is stained with blood.
"Sky burials” are the most common way of disposing of dead bodies in Tibet. The body of the deceased is carried to a monastery on the backs of close friends and cut into little pieces by monks or members of a professional caste, and the pieces are fed to vultures who carry the spirit skyward to heaven. Family members of the deceased are often nearby but not actually at the site of the burial.
When a body arrives the hair is cut off, the body is cut into pieces and the bones are pulverized and mixed with tsampa for the vultures to eat. Before stripping the flesh off the bones the monk who does the deed usually sharpens his knife on the sides or a rock, walks around a monument and says a prayer.
In Lhasa sky burials are performed at dawn at special burial grounds, near a temple, that have been used for such burials for centuries. The rituals are closed to outsiders. In remote areas of Tibet the burials can sometimes be observed by outsiders. Participants of funerals regard ogling tourists as invasions of their privacy. Taking photographs is considered to be horrible manners.
Communists officials banned sky burials in the 1960s and 70s. As part of tolerance for Tibetan customs and religious practices, sky burials were allowed again in the 1980s. The vice governor of Tibet told the New York Times in 1999, "We encourage cremation but we allow sky burial. It’s a Tibetan custom...Tibetans feel very strongly about sky burial. A few years ago, a Chinese soldier shot a vulture and was stoned by Tibetans. It was understandable. if vultures are fair game, who us going to do sky burial."
Sky burial are usually performed in places where wood is scarce and the climate is cold. Tibetans can’t bury their dead because the ground is often frozen, nor can they burn them because there is little wood. The bones are collected and taken home and scattered. For important lamas the bones are mixed with mud and made into a chorten.
Description of a Sky Burial
Describing a sky burial held around noon near a Buddhist temple in the remote town of Lirong, in a Tibetan area in Sichuan, Seth Faison wrote in the New York Times, "The body of a 67-year-old woman was stiff after three days of transport from her home more than 200 miles away...Lobsang, the monk who performed this sky burial, tied a burlap bag around his waist like an apron. Working methodically, with the dispatch of a professional, he stripped the flesh from each of the woman's limbs." [Source: Seth Faison, New York Times, July 6, 1999]
"He took one bone after another, placing them on a flat stone. Raising a small sledgehammer over his head, he smashed them into small pieces...so small they could be devoured by vultures...separating the yield into two small piles, flesh and bone...next to last came her skull, which burst into pieces with a sharp crack, when the hammer came down."
When Lobsang finished cutting the body, he looked up at the vultures on the hillside. He signaled them, with a flick of the wrist, that it was feeding time. On cue the birds descended in a mass of flapping wings and pecking beaks, devouring the remains in minutes...No trace of the woman's body remained...The vultures, about of 50 of them, ambled slowly up the hill and took to the air with evident difficulty, overfed as they are from the daily ritual."
Lobsang told the New York Times he disposed of 10 to 15 bodies a week and was paid about $5 for each one. "I come here every day, and its about the same. Some bodies smell worse. Some are bigger, heavier. No big deal."
Environmental and Spiritual Aspects of Sky Burials
Vultures fights over pieces A monk who observes sky burials told the New York Times, "When the body dies, the spirits leaves, so there is no need to keep the body. The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing parts of life's cycle.”
Environmentalists say that sky burials are good for the environment because no wood is burned, no water is fouled and no space is used up. A British writer pointed out, "What better way for the body to be returned to earth than directly as vulture droppings?"
Sometimes the bodies are eaten by wild dogs rather than vultures. In a National Geographic article, Chinese scholar Wong How-Man described a monk who couldn't get vultures to come to his "sky burials" so he hired a man who knew how to attract the birds with a special whistle.
Vultures have been driven away from sky burial sites in Lhasa by all the development.
Image Sources: O Rotem, Global Hopkins
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated April 2010