In Tibet, many people adhere to the Buddhist afterlife beliefs of resurrection. According to these beliefs, there is no need to preserve the body after death, because it is considered at that point an empty vessel.
Whatever your beliefs, there are common threads binding the varied interpretations of life beyond death, many of them offering valuable lessons.
Buddhist ideas on reincarnation
Consider what reincarnation means to you.
- Is it an opportunity to live life over?
- To do better the second time around?
- A chance to have everything you never got to experience before?
For many people, reincarnation is a romantic notion, dispelling the natural fear of death. Yet traditional Buddhism could not be further from this pop culture creation.
The ultimate goal of reincarnation is not to find greener pastures but to achieve “nirvana” or a sense of enlightenment defined by the cessation of desire and thus the end of suffering. The better you do, the kinder and more charitable your deeds, the faster you move toward the ultimate truth.
Isn’t this what many of us strive for, to do and be better? To leave a better world for our children and all future generations? Whether we call it “karma” or being a “good Christian,” the message is essentially the same: be a good person and you will reap the rewards of your goodness.
Death is not something we seek, but is an ultimate truth nonetheless? Who among us would choose to be immortal and watch the life we have built slowly wear down and break? How could we appreciate the beautiful and fleeting moments of our lives if we did not also know of their impermanence? We may not wait for it, but we accept death as a necessary part of life. We learn from it and teach by it.
As you reflect on the life of a loved one who has passed or consider your own existence, take comfort in the commonalities that bind us and the lessons we can learn from each other.
Burial in the sky
While cremation is very common among Buddhists, burial in the sky is the typical method of disposing of the bodies for common folk in Tibet. A sky burial is a ceremony where the corpse is offered to the elements and animals, specifically birds of prey.
In preparation for the sky burial, the deceased is left untouched for three days, while monks chant around the corpse and other ceremonial activities take place. The body is then cleaned, placed in the fetal position and wrapped in a white cloth.
At the burial grounds, monks begin the sky burial by chanting around the body and burning juniper incense to summon the birds. The corpse is then unwrapped and either a monk or rogyapas (“body-breakers”) work to disassemble the body. With vultures circling above, the corpse is cut in specific locations.
There is a definite and precise manner in which this must be done. During this process, rogyapas talk and laugh as they would during any other type of physical labor. In Buddhist teachings, it is said that laughing and talking makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move onto the next life (according to Buddhist teaching).
Upon completion, the rogyapas all fall back allowing for the birds to rush in and cover the body. Following this process, the bones are then reduced to splinters by the rogyapas and mixed with barley flour. Other birds of prey then complete the process.
The ceremonial process of Tibet is very sacred and is not open to visitors or foreigners. Tibetans strongly object to the viewing of a sky burial from outsiders for reasons of curiosity. This sacred ceremony is the most common way to be sent into the next life in the Tibet culture.