Unlike the views held by Western society, Tibetan death is not something with which one should be fearful. It is part of the ongoing cycle of life. Buddhists hold the view that people are born, they die and are reborn.
Death and Reincarnation
Buddhists in Tibet believe a person should be prepared for death. We all live with the knowledge that death is a certainty, even though the exact time of our passing is not known to us. Since life is short, it's important to make the time spent here meaningful. Buddhists are encouraged to visit a graveyard as a way of facing their own death.
It is important for Tibetan Buddhists to face death without fear, since this will ensure a good rebirth. They believe that the most advanced students of the faith should have neither fear nor regrets at the moment of their death.
The Next Life
The human mind is the only thing that survives to go on to the next life; we are unable to take things from this world with us. Tibetan death teachings hold that we must not hold on to these worldly concerns:
- One's position in life
Friends and family members cannot prevent us from dying, no matter how much they care for us. They are not able to accompany us on our journey to the next life, either. Our bodies must also be left behind, for they are no longer of use to us.
After the person dies, the soul or consciousness is not immediately reborn. Instead, it travels to bardo, which is a transitional place. The consciousness remains there for as many as 49 days before being reborn.
Tibetan Death Rituals
After death, the body is handed over to monks, who recite prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Food and drink are set out as offerings.
Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, also known as the Bardo Thodol, contains a description of the three states that the consciousness passes through or experiences between lives. These three states are as follows:
- The moment of the person's death (the "chikhai bardo")
- Experiencing reality, in which the newly-deceased person sees visions of Buddha (the "chonyid bardo")
- Rebirth (the "sidpa bardo")
These bardos may be compared with near-death experiences in that the person dies, sees a religious figure corresponding to his or her religious faith, and returns to life again (albeit in the same body).
Disposal of the Body
The timing and method of disposal are determined by the use of astrology. Since very little ground is available for internment for a Tibetan death, other options are used in that country. Two body disposal methods used following a Tibetan death are cremation and exposure to the elements (also known as a Tibetan sky burial).
If the body is to be cremated, the mourners form a procession and accompany the deceased to the cremation grounds. Mantras are chanted along the way.
In the case of a Tibetan sky burial, the body is transported to a cemetery. The clothing is removed before the body is tied to a stake. Preserving the body is not considered important, since the body is simply an empty vessel. Instead, the deceased person's body provides food for animals and birds of prey. This is considered a very generous gesture made by the dearly departed and his or her family.
Although sky burials were banned by the Chinese in the 1960s, the practice was once again allowed starting in the 1980s. It is a disposal option only available to native Tibetans.