When travelling, it’s important for me to try and wipe my slate clean of the majority of my past experiences and enter the country as an alien to Earth; brand new. Don’t expect what you’re used to – you’ll be disappointed that you don’t find it whether it’s familiar foods, a clean toilet, hot water and someone that even speaks English. Don’t expect the world to be your servant and instead, think about the amount you can give back to others by understanding a new situation and opening your mind….and heart. I reviewed all these things as I witnessed an event more drastically different than I’d ever witnessed in my life in regards to the human body, death and wild animals.
I was granted the honor to witness and document a Tibetan sky burial ceremony while visiting a small town called Litang. In sharing this, I was initially concerned that it may offend some and even create anger/disgust toward the people involved as well as the animals; animals that are just doing what is natural for them to survive. I am sure this won’t agree with everyone but my desire to share comes from the joy that my hosts expressed in me photographing and witnessing it and to help others understand and explain an aspect of their culture. If you know anything about Tibetans, they are an incredibly proud people (as well as heroically affable!). I hope these photos can at least live up to my hosts’ expectations of providing an interesting and eye-opening ceremony to the world outside of theirs.
A bit of background on the tradition of this ceremony: Tibetans live in various environs but from “ancient” times (well, in this sense, the 12th century; as documented from the book, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”), the largest population of Tibetans lived in high-altitudes that are associated with winter weather; snow and ice – hard rocky ground and few, if any, trees due to the lack of oxygen and location over the treeline. The Tibetan people’s strength is apparent as they still manage to make these types of regions a place to call “home”. As in all villages, towns and living situations, both birth and death come upon the citizens. As a villager living in a barren and severe environment without running water, an abundance of wood and perpetual winter weather conditions, one of the considerations has been, ‘When one dies, what will we do with the body?’. Keeping the body preserved is not important to Tibetans due to their spiritual beliefs that once the body dies, the soul, the most immenently important part of a human, leaves a body that has finished its job. Now where to put the body? Organic material doesn’t break-down quickly – it freezes. Imagine walking about town and constantly seeing your preserved relatives still mixing among society? Also, it’s an incredibly hard, if not an impossible task to bury them ……digging below the top soil to be greeted by hard, iced rubble and rockbed. You may think burning is an option, however, do you think maybe the scarce wood would serve to be more precious to use for cooking food and heat? Thus, the sky burial was born. The sky burial is now a tradition and an honorable ceremony to give one’s body back to nature – to feed animals who don’t find food so readily, and an answer for the call to be ferried to the heavens, all the while watching over the towns they once called home.
As you observe the following images, I suggest to try something different. When you see a vision of a knife or an axe, don’t associate it with harm or a weapon but rather a tool. Instead of visioning exposed flesh and bone as scary or unnatural, see it as part of what creates our body as a whole. It is pieces of our beautiful temporary shell (and being buried doesn’t mean other creatures won’t breakdown organic material – such as creatures that live in the soil). Imagine the vultures’ possibly intimidating claws and beaks as natural tools they use for survival in the same manner we may use a fork or knife. We attach meaning to these tools as “scary” or as “weapons” when they can also have other meanings. Look at your own hands; hands that can tear apart meat, or shake a hand or give someone a hug in love. We don’t hold stringent judgements of ourselves and our bodies. Keep your mind ajar, your judgements unleashed for a minute and be conscious of what you are thinking and why.
I will not delve into more of the religion too deeply but I do want to share the following excerpt from Soygal Rinpoche’s book, ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” because I believe his thoughts explain it best.
Sogyal Rinpoche –
“When I first came to the West, I was shocked by the contrast between the attitudes to death I had been brought up with and those I now found. For all its technological achievements, modem Western society has no real understanding of death or what happens in death or after death.
I learned that people today are taught to deny death, and taught that it means nothing but annihilation and loss. That means that most of the world lives either in denial of death or in terror of it. Even talking about death is considered morbid, and many people believe that simply mentioning death is to risk wishing it upon ourselves.
Others look on death with a naive, thoughtless cheerfulness, thinking that for some unknown reason death will work out all right for them, and that it is nothing to worry about. When I think of them, I am reminded of what one Tibetan master says: “People often make the mistake of being frivolous about death and think, ‘Oh well, death happens to everybody. It’s not a big deal, it’s natural. I’ll be fine.’ That’s a nice theory until one is dying.”
Of these two attitudes toward death, one views death as something to scurry away from and the other as something that will just take care of itself. How far they both are from understanding death’s true significance!
All the greatest spiritual traditions of the world, including of course, Christianity, have told us clearly that death is not the end. They have all handed down a vision of some sort of life to come, which infuses this life that we are leading now with sacred meaning. But despite their teachings, modern society is largely a spiritual desert where the majority imagine that this life is all that there is. Without any real or authentic faith in an afterlife, most people live lives deprived of any ultimate meaning.
I have come to realize that the disastrous effects of the denial of death go far beyond the individual: They affect the whole planet. Believing fundamentally that this life is the only one, modern people have developed no long-term vision. So there is nothing to restrain them from plundering the planet for their own immediate ends and from living in a selfish way that could prove fatal for the future. How many more warnings do we need, like this one from the former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, responsible for the Amazon rain forest?
“Modern industrial society is a fanatical religion. We are demolishing, poisoning, destroying all life-systems on the planet. We are signing lOUs our children will not be able to pay… We are acting as if we were the last generation on the planet Without a rad- ical change in heart, in mind, in vision, the earth will end up like Venus, charred and dead.”
Fear of death and ignorance of the afterlife are fueling that destruction of our environment that is threatening all of our lives. So isn’t it all the more disturbing that people are not taught what death is, or how to die? Or given any hope in what lies after death, and so what really lies behind life? Could it be more ironic that young people are so highly educated in every subject except the one that holds the key to the entire meaning of life, and perhaps to our very survival?
It has often intrigued me how some Buddhist masters I know ask one simple question of people who approach them for teaching: Do you believe in a life after this one? They are not being asked whether they believe in it as a philosophical proposition but whether they feel it deeply in their heart. The master knows that if people believe in a life after this one, their whole outlook on life will be different, and they will have a distinct sense of personal responsibility and morality. What the masters must suspect is that there is a danger that people who have no strong belief in a life after this one will create a society fixated on short-term results, without much thought for the consequences of their actions. Could this be the major reason why we have created a brutal world like the one in which we are now living, a world with little real com- passion?
Sometimes I think that the most affluent and powerful countries of the developed world are like the realm of the gods described in the Buddhist teachings. The gods are said to live lives of fabulous luxury, reveling in every conceivable pleasure, without a thought for the spiritual dimension of life. All seems to go well until death draws near and unexpected signs of decay appear. Then the gods’ wives and lovers no longer dare approach them, but throw flowers to them from a distance, with casual prayers that they be reborn again as gods. None of their memories of happiness or comfort can shelter them now from the suffering they face; they only make it more savage. So the dying gods are left to die alone in misery.
The fate of the gods reminds me of the way the elderly, the sick, and the dying are treated today. Our society is obsessed with youth, sex, and power, and we shun old age and decay. Isn’t it terrifying that we discard old people when their working life is finished and they are no longer useful? Isn’t it disturbing that we cast them into old people’s homes, where they die lonely and abandoned?
Isn’t it time also that we took another look at how we sometimes treat those suffering with terminal illnesses like cancer and AIDS? I know a number of people who have died from AIDS, and I have seen how often they were treated as outcasts, even by their friends, and how the stigma attached to the disease reduced them to despair, and made them feel their life was disgusting and had in the eyes of the world already ended.
Even when a person we know or love is dying, so often people find they are given almost no idea of how to help them; and when they are dead, we are not encouraged to give any thought to the future of the dead person, how he or she will continue, or how we could go on helping him or her. In fact, any attempt to think along these lines risks being dismissed as nonsensical and ridiculous.
What all of this is showing us, with painful clarity, is that now more than ever before we need a fundamental change in our attitude toward death and dying.”