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Home Archives Tibetan Beliefs On Death and Beyond – Part 2 of 2

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The The Disposition of the Body 

Upon drawing the “I” to the top of the head where it leaves the body and ensures the future well being of the deceased, death is achieved. When the dying person has breathed his last breath, he is dressed, putting his clothes on backward. Then he is tied up, with his legs crossed, his knees bent and touching his chest. In small villages, the body, dressed in this way, is placed in a cauldron. As soon as the corpse has been taken to the cemetery, the cauldron is quickly washed and a soup or tea is prepared for the funeral guest. The funeral ceremonies occupy many days and because of the high altitudes decomposition is slow and corpses are kept a week or so until it emits a putrid odor.

Some uneducated people in Tibet believe that these discarnate “ghosts” must go to a sandy place and see his footprints on the ground. If these footprints are reversed, that is if the heels are in the front and the toes are turned backwards, he will know that he is dead.

How can a ghost have feet? Like the Egyptians, the Tibetans believe in the “double.”

It is the ethereal double who has the feet to which he is still attached. This “double” during life is attached to the material body. The “double” can leave the material body and appear in different places or become invisible. It can accomplish various things.

Although separation from the “double” can be involuntary, it is a feat for which one may train himself. The separation however, is never complete for a strand will remain to link the body to the “double” much like the golden cord that westerners are familiar with.

This link remains for a period of time after death. When the body is destroyed, the destruction of the double is not certain for there are many cases where the “double” will survive its companion.

The officiating “trapas” will advise the dead, telling him what roads he should take, and those he should follow as well as those who they should avoid. They take their meals facing the dead saying, “Spirit, come here, immediately, and feed yourself”

If the bodies are cremated as they are in the wooded regions of Tibet. In the barren north and central parts of Tibet where the only fuel is cow dung, the corpses are left to the wild animals either in cemeteries near the villages or anywhere on the mountainside.

If the deceased is a dignitary; the corpse is preserved by the process of salting and cooking in butter. These mummies are called “mardong.” They are swathed in clothes, meaning tightly wrapped like westerners wrap a new-born infant. Their faces are painted with gold and they are placed in mausoleums of massive silver, studded with precious stones. A pane of glass is placed over the casket so their faces can be seen.

Methods of disposition include taking the body to the top of a mountain and dismember the four limbs and putting the entrails, the heart, the lungs on the ground where wildlife and birds feed upon it. The body may be thrown into a sacred river where fish and otters eat the flesh and the fat. The body may be burned where the flesh, bones, and skin are reduced to ashes or the body may be put into the earth where the flesh, bones, and skin are sucked by the worms. 

Monks are paid to repeat a religious service daily for six weeks following the funeral. An effigy is then made with a light frame of sticks supporting the clothes that belonged to the deceased and a paper drawing of his face. The name of the departed is written under the portrait. At the close of the ceremony, the Lama burns the paper and the clothes in which the effigy is made are given to the Lama as part of his fee.

Tibetans want complete separation from the dead and will tell the deceased that they are dead and to stay away from them as they leave the funeral. They tell the deceased that their house is burned, that their wife ran away or that some horrible fate will befall them if they come near the living.

Are the dead “alive” at their funeral? Can they see and hear what is being said? 

The Journey of the “I”

As the body is dressed and disposed of, the “I” has begun its strange journey. Some feel that the journey goes through lands that really exist and they see people that they know but the learned Lamaist consider the journey as a dream that the “I” himself weaves according to the influence of his character and his past actions.

Certain Lamaist teach that immediately after the “I” has left the body, it has an intuition, a bolt of lighting that shows him the “truth” of the Supreme Reality. If the “I” can grasp this “enlightenment,” it is set free from the circle of successive births and deaths. It is called the state of “nirvana.”

This does not happen often for generally the “I” is dazzled by this sudden “bolt of lightning” and shrinks from it. He isn’t ready to leave; he is not ready to give up his property and his pleasures, all of which are attachment that tie him to the physical realm.

Or it may be that he doesn’t notice the “bolt of lightning” because he is self-centered, is preoccupied with what has happened to him.

If a man dies while unconscious, he does not immediately understand what has happened to him and will wake up, talking to people who are living and not understanding why they do not respond. Through the use of a pawos or medium, the dead may contact the living. The dead may become irritated that they are not able to do what they could do when they are alive. The “I” is disoriented and confused. The idea that he is dead may come to him slowly.

The “I” is told to move forward and not to look backward. Most of the dead listen to the messages delivered by their families and friends at their funerals. However, those that don’t’ listen will appear to their family members in dreams and strange things will happen in their former house. Tibetans believe this is the “I” that is unhappy and calling for help.

At this point a Lama diviner is called in. They act as a medium to give voice to the deceased. Unlike the Western spiritualistic séances, neither darkness nor silence is required and they are sometime held outside. The “pawo” begins with chanting with the accompaniment of a little drum and a bell. He dances, starting off slowly and then faster and faster until it is evident that the deceased has taken possession of him. He speaks in broken sentences conveying what the deceased wants to be heard. Families will honor what is told to them through the medium to aid the deceased.

During the funeral, the “I" travels through the “Bardo.” Here he sees colored paths and crowds of strange visions. There are apparitions that frighten him as he wanders among them. If he can hear the Lama, he can take a road that will lead him to be reborn into pleasant circumstances just as the initiate who enters consciously into the Bardo has carefully studied its “map.”

The deceased who is attached to the material and enter the Bardo cannot hear the Lama so they miss the opportunity to escape the consequences of their action. They find themselves without a road to celestial happiness and are deceived by their hallucinations and they believe they are in a place that they are not. They come back into life in less than perfect circumstances.

Not unlike the Egyptians weighing of the human heart with a feather after death, the Tibetans believe the dead who do not get the “light” when it is offered to them will wander through the “Bardo” and they will be judged for their past action in a mirror or their actions weighted with black and white pebbles. According to the score, the “I” will be reborn and gifts or handicaps will be given to him as he re-enters the world of the living and a new life.

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