TIBETAN VIEWS ABOUT 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.
Tibetan views about death are based on Buddhist belief in reincarnation. Tibetan people are not afraid of death. Death is viewed as a transformation not an end.Tibetans face death calmly because they believe death does not terminate a person's life, but indicates rebirth. 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.
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
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
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.”
Tibetan Funerals and Burials
Preparing the body for sky burial Greatly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and Bon Religion, Tibetans have five ways of disposing of a dead bodies: 1) Sky Burial; 2) Water Burial; 3) Fire Burial (cremation); 4) Earth Burial; 5) and stupa burial (internment) or 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. Cliff burial and tree burial are also practiced occasionally. The funeral services must follow the rigid hierarchy of ranks, sharp demarcation, and also mainly depends on the divination from Lama.
The Mustangese have added another 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]
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.
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.
Tibetan Funeral Practices
Tibetan burials are heavily influenced by natural environment: Distribution and evolvement of different funeral practices vary very much according to the natural conditions of the areas where they are performed. In the places where there is a lack of forests and wood, sky burials predominate while cremation is less practiced. In the dense wooded area in Southeastern Tibet, cremation prevails. In the places full of streams and rivers, water burial is performed as commonly as sky burials. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
Tibetan burials are deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Beliefs about death, the ceremonies, rituals and practices are in accordance with the Tibetan Buddhism and influenced by Buddhist concepts such as transmigration or rebirth. For smooth transmigration, there should be no trace left of earthliness (this is one reason why Tibetans don’t like their picture taken, as a photo could remain behind after they die). The body is no exception and should be thoroughly disposed of—either eaten by fish and vultures or incinerated.
Eminent monks are cremated in part because it is believed they do need to go through the procedures of rebirth like the commoners. Very high lamas such as the Dalai Lama and the Panchan Lama are feted to grand funerals and their remains are placed in a stupa.
When a person dies, the other family members fill the wooden bowl that he or she used for butter tea and place it before the corpse. On the seventh day after the sky burial, the family as well as relatives and friends follow the priest in charge to the bank of the Lhasa River to hold a ceremony wishing the dead person's spirit safety and peace. In the ceremony, they lay the wooden bowl in front of the dead person before them and repeatedly fill it with tea to wish the person a good voyage. Finally, they pour the tea out of the wooden bowl, clean it, and give it to the priest. After that, the bowl belongs to the priest. This is a rule in the burial custom: The priest in charge of the celestial burial possesses the bowl every time after the dead body is buried. If the family wants to keep the dead person's wooden bowl as a memento, they must buy it from the priest. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
According to the Chinese government:“Tibet is vast in territory, and there are diversified ways of burial, such as celestial burial [sky burial], pagoda burial [stupa burial], cremation, water burial and burial in the ground. In the past, the selection of burial way is connected closely with everyone's economic and social status. The most common form of burial in Tibet is sky burial, called Jator, meaning "feeding the birds." The bodies are taken to the Jator site in the mountains and fed to vultures.
Stupa Burial and Fire Burial (Cremation)
Stupa burial is the most noble and sacred funeral ritual in Tibet. Stupa is a Tibetan Buddhist religious monument and a sacred burial site. It is reserved for Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or the Living Buddha. After the nirvana of a high Lama, the embalmed corpse is dehydrated and wrapped with rare medicinal herbs and spices. Gold flakes and saffron are scattered on the body in some cases. Finally, the corpse is moved to the stupa and preserved for worshiping. Stupas can be elaborate or simple. It can be constructed of gold, silver, bronze, wood, or earth. The type of stupa selected is based on the ranking of the Lama. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
Cremation is considered less noble than stupa burial and is reserved for high monks and aristocrats. The corpse is seated on a stack of wood and straw poured with butter and burned. The ashes of the sainted monks are put in a wood box or an earthen jar and thus and buried in the earth at home or on the top of a hill or in a piece of pure land. Or the the ashes are taken to the top of a tall mountain and scattered with the wind or into the river. But the sainted Living Buddha or Lama's ashes usually is put into a small gold or silver tower some together with classical books, joss, musical instrument (used in Buddhist or Taoist mass), and treasures. The tower for worship is usually called mourning tower or mourning bone tower.
According to the Chinese government:“Pagoda burial is a noble burial for virtuous and talent persons after they die. After famous Living Buddhas pass away, in addition to large scale of chanting and magic exercising, the intestines and stomach should be laved with mercury, "Sela" perfume, camphor liquid and saffron liquid, and the surface of the corpse should be cleaned with camphor and saffron liquid. Then wrap the corpse with silk, dress it up with kasaya and put it into the spirit pagoda to reserve the remains. The Lamas who are on guard light butter lamps to worship it day and night everyday. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~; China.org china.org *|*]
“Upon the death of a reincarnate living Buddha, a grand ceremony is held. Having been embalmed with spices and antiseptics, the body is wrapped in five-colored silk, and enshrined in a dagoba. The bodies of ordinary living Buddhas and higher lamas are usually cremated after being rubbed with butter, and the ashes are kept in a designated place as the last dedication to the monastery. But cremation is forbidden in the harvest season. All these forms of burial indicate that the deceased have gone to the next world. ~
“There are varieties of spirit pagodas, such as gold spirit pagodas, silver spirit pagodas, wood spirit pagodas, mud spirit pagodas. The rank of different pagodas is decided according to the status of Living Buddhas. Dalais and Panchens are put into gold spirit pagodas after they die, and other Living Buddhas only be put into silver, wood or mud pagodas. ~
“Cremation is another kind of noble burial next to pagoda burial, and it was restricted to living Buddhas, feudal lords and people with high status. After remains of Living Buddhas and eminent monks are cremated, their bone ashes are stored in relics pagoda or are put in coffin after being mixed with mud and rubbed into mud balls as big as eggs. Then the coffin is buried in a selected lucky day. The burying place is usually fixed. When cremating, pieces of specially chosen firewood are piled crisscrossly, the dead is put on the wood and "is seated" there with wood around supporting it. When the wood pieces are piled over the head, oil or wine is poured on the wood. Then the cremation starts and fire is lit up from the four directions of the lower part. The Lamas sit facing the dead and chant classics. At the same time, they narrate merits and virtues of the dead, and wishes the soul go up to heaven and be accepted by gods in heaven. When the fire is going out, people leave there in groups, and the ashes are collected and stored after three days. From that day on, Lamas are invited to chant and redeem the soul of the dead every seven days. After chanting for forty-nine days, the funeral is finally finished.” ~
Water Burial, Cliff Burial and Earth Burial in Tibet
Crushing the bones In water burial, the corpse is wrapped with white cloth and disposed into a river. There are two different views towards water burial. In areas where sky burial is the dominant practice, water burial is considered an inferior way to dispose of beggars and those with low social status. In places where vultures are not available for sky burial, water burial is widely adopted by commoners and the ritual follows a strict set of rules, sacredly and solemnly. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
To the Tibetans, earth burial is the inferior form. Earth burial was prevalent in ancient times and was widely practiced by many ethnical clans. However, with the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism, sky burial became the dominant burial rite. Earth burial is now rarely practiced. Only those who suffer from infectious diseases or those killed by robbers or murderers are buried in this way. According to Tibetans, these bodies are not clean enough to be presented to the vultures. Earth burial indicates two meanings: One is to eradicate the spread of murrain. The other is to act as a way of penalizing the dead by putting it into the hell. <>
Tree Burial is a burial for children. It is commonly practiced in Nyingchi, southeast of Tibet. To avoid being seen by other children, the corpse of the child is placed in a wooden case and hung on a tree in a remote forest. Cliff burial is practiced in southern Tibet. The embalmed corpse is placed in a wooden box. The box is then placed in the cave off a cliff. The caves are usually 50-300 meters above ground. There are also such things as multi-person burial and stone coffin burial. <>
"Sky burials” are the most common way of disposing of dead bodies in Tibet. A sky burial is simply the disposition of a corpse to be devoured by vultures. A monk or sky burial specialist eviscerates the human corpse, leaving the flesh as food for vultures and smashing the bones into a grainy dust. The process is supposed to liberate the spirit from the body for peaceful transport into the next life. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that sky burial represents the wishes of the soul to ascend to the afterlife. It is the most common way for ordinary Tibetans to be taken care after they die. Sky burials also have a practical side. They make sense in a land where fuel is scarce and the earth is often too hard to dig.
During a "sky burial”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.
Groups of cinereous vultures fly to fight and peck the food. It is the luckiest if the corpse is consumed totally by vultures, which means the dead have no sin and the soul has gone up the heaven safely. If there are some remains, they should be picked up and cremated, while lamas chant sutras.
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.
The Chinese artist Zhang Huan witnessed a sky burial when he visited Tibet in 2005.“Most people, when they see this ceremony, think it is gross and they cannot bear to watch,” he told the New York Times. “But, when I watch the ceremony, I feel this hallucination of happiness, and I feel free.” [Source: Barbara Pollack, New York Times, September 12, 2013]
Chinese Government View on Sky Burial
Adding flour 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."
According to the Chinese government: “Celestial burial is comparatively widespread burial custom among Tibetan, and it is also called "bird burial". People who believe in religion hold the idea that the celestial burial is placed with their dream of going up to "heaven". Tibetans think that the cinereous vultures in the mountains around the celestial platform are "magical birds": they only eat human corpses and don't hurt any small animals. This kind of burial is influenced by the spirit of "sacrificing oneself to feed the tiger" in biography of Sakyamuni, so it is still very popular now. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~
Sky Burial Customs and Taboos
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.
On the day before the burial, the family members take off the clothes of the dead and fix the corpse in a fetal position. At dawn on the lucky day, the corpse is sent to the burial site among mountains which is always far from the residential area. Then "Su” smoke is burned to attract condors, Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the soul, and a professional celestial burial master deals with the body. If the vultures come and eat the body, it means that the dead has no sin and that his/her soul has gone peacefully to the Paradise for Tibetans believe that the condors on the mountains around the celestial burial platform are "holy birds" and only eat the human body without attacking any small animals nearby. Any remains left by the holy birds must be collected up and burnt while the Lamas chant sutras to redeem the sins of the dead, because the remains would tie the spirits to this life. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
There are a lot of taboos associated with sky burials. Strangers are not allowed to attend the ceremony as Tibetans believe it could negate the efforts of the ascending souls. So visitors should respect this custom and keep away from such occasions. Family members are also not allowed to be present at the burial site. Despite all this, sky burials intrigue the morbid curiosity of many people. If you have an opportunity to witness a sky burial in Tibet, please respect local custom. Do not get close to the sky burial site and do not take photos, talk or ask any questions on site. Just stay quiet. <>
Preparation for a Sky Burial
Collecting all the pieces Pamela Logan wrote: “Tibetans believe that, more important than the body, is the spirit of the deceased. Following death, the body should not be touched for three days, except possibly at the crown of the head, through which the consciousness, or namshe, exits. Lamas guide the spirit in a series of prayers that last for seven weeks, as the person makes their way through the bardo--intermediate states that precede rebirth. [Source: Pamela Logan, “Witness to a Tibetan Sky-Burial, A Field Report for the China Exploration and Research Society, Drigung, Tibet; September 26, 1997, alumnus.caltech.edu /+/]
When a Tibetan dies, the corpse is wrapped in white Tibetan cloth and placed in a corner of the house for three or five days, during which monks or lamas are asked to read the scripture aloud so that the souls can be released from purgatory. Family members stop other activities in order to create a peaceful environment to allow convenient passage for ascension of souls into heaven. The Family members choose a lucky day and ask the body carrier to carry the body away to the celestial burial platform. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
The body of the dead is rolled and bent with the fead to the knees to make a sitting posture. It is wrapped with a white Tibetan quilt and put on an earth platform, which is on the right side behind the door, A lama chants soul-redeeming classics. The corpse-carrying man carries the body to the celestial burial platform in a luck day. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~
"Sang" (incense) smoke is first lit up to attract cinereous vultures, and the master of celestial burial dismemberments the corpse after the Lama finishes chanting. If the dead is a monk, a design with religious meaning should firstly be carved at the back of the dead. Then the master takes out the internal organs and throws them around. He smashes the bones and skull, and mixes them with Zanba.
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."
Witnessing a Sky Burial in Tibet
Pamela Logan wrote in “Witness to a Tibetan Sky-Burial”: “On the steps in front of Drigung Monastery, a dozen monks chant. Before them on the courtyard flagstones lies a body, wrapped in white cloth, which was carried in on a stretcher an hour ago. The monks are praying for a spirit that was once present here, but now is emancipated from its former home. It is the third such visitor today, for Drigung Gonpa has a profitable but gruesome specialty: disposal of the dead. [Source: Pamela Logan, “Witness to a Tibetan Sky-Burial, A Field Report for the China Exploration and Research Society, Drigung, Tibet; September 26, 1997, alumnus.caltech.edu /+/]
“My team and I arrived here last night, after a long day's drive from Lhasa to Meldor Gungkar County in Central Tibet. Drigung monastery is on a steep hill, overlooking our camp. Above the religious complex is a site for "sky burial," a term meaning disposal of a corpse by allowing it to be devoured by birds. The birds, which are summoned by incense and revered by Tibetans, cast their droppings on the high peaks. Sky-burial is practiced all over the plateau, but Drigung is one of the three most famous and auspicious sites. For me, this is an extraordinary opportunity, for these days not one visitor in five hundred is privileged to witness the ceremony I'm about to see. But I am apprehensive, too, wondering how I will stomach the sight of death. /+/
“After the chanting is over, we walk up a well-trodden path to a high ridge, keeping a respectful distance behind the funeral party, which has come all the way from Lhasa to discharge this final duty to their departed friend. The charnel ground, or durtro, consists of a large fenced meadow with a couple of temples and a large stone circle of stones at one end where the ceremony takes place. Prayer flags hang from numerous chortens, and scent of smoldering juniper purifies the air. Vultures circle overhead, and many more are clustered on the grass, a few meters from the funeral bier. /+/
“Men in long white aprons come out, and unwrap the corpse, which is naked, stiff, and swollen. The men hold huge cleavers, which are in a few strokes whetted to razor sharpness on nearby rocks. The bright sun and clear blue sky diffuse somewhat my ominous feeling. The coroners themselves, are not heavy or ceremonial, but completely businesslike as they chat amongst themselves, and prepare to start. /+/
“As the first cut is made, the vultures crowd closer; but three men with long sticks wave them away. Within a few minutes the dead man's organs are removed and set aside for later, separate disposal. The vultures try to move in and are prevented by waving sticks and shouts. Then, the cutters give a signal and the men all simultaneously fall back. The flock rushes in, covering the body completely, their heads disappearing as they bend down to tear away bits of flesh. They are enormous birds, with wings spanning more than 2 meters, top-feathers of dirty white, and huge gray-brown backs. Their heads are virtually featherless, so as not to impede the bird when reaching into a body to feed. /+/
“For thirteen minutes the vultures are in a feeding frenzy. The only sound is tearing flesh and chittering as they compete for the best bits. The birds are gradually sated, and some take to the air, their huge wings sounding like steam locomotives as they flap overhead. Now the men pull out what remains of the corpse--only a bloody skeleton--and shoo away the remaining birds. They take out huge mallets, and set to work pounding the bones. The men talk while they work, even laughing sometimes, for according to Tibetan belief the mortal remains are merely an empty vessel. The dead man's spirit is gone, its fate to be decided by karma accumulated through all past lives.” /+/
“The bones are soon reduced to splinters, mixed with barley flour and then thrown to crows and hawks, who have been waiting their turn. Remaining vultures grab slabs of softened gristle and greedily devour them. Half an hour later, the body has completely disappeared. The men leave also, their day's work finished. Soon, the hilltop is restored to serenity. I think of the man whose flesh is now soaring over the mountains, and decide that, if I happen to die on the high plateau, I wouldn't mind following him.” /+/
Environmental and Spiritual Aspects of Sky Burials
Vultures fight 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.
Vulture, Sacred Bird of Tibet
The bearded vulture, Eurasia's biggest raptor, has traditionally been regarded as a sacred bird in Tibet because it usually does not prey upon living animals, but feeds on dead animals or body. sacred vulture in tibet. In a Tibetan sky burial, the corpse is offered to these vultures. It is believed that the vultures are Dakinis, the Tibetan equivalent of angels. In Tibetan, Dakini means "sky dancer". It is said Dakinis take the soul into the heavens, which is understood to be a windy place where souls await reincarnation into their next lives. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014 <>]
The donation of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food. Sakyamuni, one of the Buddhas, demonstrated this virtue. To save a pigeon, he once fed a hawk with his own flesh. Drigung-til Monastery in Lhasa is famous for its sky burial site and vultures. <>
Vultures in Tibet are also respected as nature’s sweeper and protector. Every year, countless animals are killed by Tibet’s harsh climate and lay on the snow, where they can potentially contaminate the water supply. The Himalayas and Tibet are the water sources of the rivers throughout the South and East Asia, like Yellow River and Yangtze River of China, the Ganges River of India. These rivers are Asian’s main drinking water source. Vultures do their part to keep human and animal remains from polluting drining water sources. Wish humans could do their part better. <>
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 September 2016