Death exerts a profound grip over our innermost thinking and emotions, we spend our life (pun intended) running away from the thought of the grim reaper, becoming masters of evasion, denial and indulgent escapism to avoid facing the thought of our demise. Some seek refuge in the comforting arms of passion and relationships, others follow a path of orgiastic excess, a few find solace in accruing untold millions, more indulge in the pleasurable ephemera of material comforts. A minority choose religion or philosophy, to either wrestle with or accept, the cold truth of our fleeting moment on this good earth. Not all such traditions however deal with death in a sane or realistic manner, it seems that condition is so dreadful that an alternative is required to provide the emotional and spiritual comfort to enable us to begin to accommodate our extinction. Hence over the passing centuries we have developed a number of fantastical promises of eternal life, paradise or heaven, balanced with a less pleasant option for those who enjoyed life to the full. Such dualism found its most fertile ideological soil within European thinking, although its origins are traced back to ancient Persia and beyond. Since the black and white promises of Judaeo-Christian thinking entered Western culture the fascination with death has not been diluted, despite the emergence of the Enlightenment, Empiricism and the rational thinking proposed by Science. We are still asking the same questions, continually looking for some hope of continuity beyond that gaping black hole. With such visceral anxieties it is no accident that Buddhism, with its notion of reincarnation has attracted a large following among certain social groups (usually of a more financially secure nature). Perhaps after all there is some opportunity that some small part of ‘me’ has an eternal nature, or mind itself will spin on through millennia, inhabiting, though seemingly ignorant of previous lives, numerous bodies. Such thinking of course misses the point entirely and Buddha would no doubt be utterly amused to hear questions from today’s Buddhists on the subject.
However as reflected in the attention and discussion invested by Tibetan Buddhist Lama’s, the subject of death and dying is central to our experience and an opportunity to experience transformation, surrender and impermanence. Unfortunately it is far easier to embrace that reality in an intellectual manner, the thought of it in terms of our mortality is still far too emotionally and psychologically precious. This may perhaps explain an event some years ago in which a prominent Tibetan Lama was giving a teaching in the West on the very subject of death. The auditorium was packed with folks all too eager to find some revelatory comfort or enlightenment that would perhaps lessen the painful truth of our ephemerality Having paid not inconsiderable entrance fees people sat in electric expectation as slowly the Lama made his way to a single chair positioned center stage. Sitting down he offered a brief prayer, cleared his throat, and then looked out into the darker reaches of the hall. After what stretched into a seeming eternity the silence was broken as he offered the following remarks; “Death…much ado about nothing”. At which point he raised himself gently from the chair and exited the stage. That teaching was a beautiful and intelligent response to a western obsession with death and also an expression of the earthed sanity in which death is considered within Tibetan culture and thinking. In many ways death has been sanctified and venerated within Western society, it has also of late been thoroughly industrialized and somewhat sanitized too, the disposal of our loved one’s remains concealed with graceful and respectful finery. Of course there is much needed comfort and relief in such ritual, yet in gentrifying the true nature of our demise, or those we love, there is societal, emotional and psychological avoidance too.
Tibetan culture has a radically different approach to death, one thoroughly based upon the realism that all is indeed impermanent and empty of itself, that once dead a body is simply a vacuous shell, part of the cycle of decay and growth. The ritual and process for disposing of the dead in Tibet has been determined by both religious culture and also the landscape and climate. For millennia a nomadic society, Tibetans roamed the grasslands and alpine deserts of Tibet, very much exposed to the elements and mindful of the transitory nature of life. Informed by, and devoted to, profound and complex philosophical teachings, that emphasized impermanence, while stressing the preciousness of mind, funerary customs developed that reflected those factors. To the fossilized and fragile traditions of Judaeo-Christian thinking that prevails in the West such practices may appear somewhat distasteful or sacrilegious, however the traditions of disposing of the dead by cutting up a corpse and offering the remains to Tibet’s sacred birds (Editor’s note: contains graphic images) is perfectly understandable within the social, philosophical and geographic context which has operated in Tibet since ancient times.
Of course it is shocking to see such practices, raising all sorts of emotions indeed, yet Tibetan culture has evolved a complicated and precise form of ritual to honor and aid the dying and to respect their mind and future lives over mortal remains. It recognizes that death is indeed “much ado about nothing” and that whether a body is consumed by fire, worms, maggots or vultures does not measure a culture or people as being inherently irreverent or brutal. Recently however on a number of social sites, most prominently Twitter, images of Tibet’s funerary practices; taken following the tragedy of the earthquake in Kham, Eastern Tibet, have been posted to extract pleasure, from either a sense of morbidity or to shock others. Yet such postings are not simply the work of those diminished by some twisted sense of the macabre but are being promoted via communist China’s unsleeping supporters to frame Tibetans as somehow heartless primitives, a distortion which the communist Chinese authorities have been peddling for many years. All part of an imperialistic thinking that pushes the bogus legitimization of ‘liberating’ Tibetan culture and introducing progress and modernity. Such crude propaganda is unconcerned with the facts, nor with the cultural, geographic and religious traditions which have resulted in this form of funerary rite, Neither are the malicious agents of communist disinformation able to balance their poisonous actions against the fact that while such practices may well have understandable impact upon western thinking, these very specific rituals upon cadavers are nothing in comparison to the machinery of violence, cruelty, oppression, torture and suffering which communist China’s illegal occupation of Tibet inflicts upon the living. Our repulsion, distress, shock and anger is better served at responding to the brutal injustices and human rights atrocities that characterizes communist Chinese rule, than an understandably astonished reaction to funeral practices and religious traditions alien to Occidental culture.