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"Life after Death" in Traditional Tibetan Buddhism

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by Margaret Gouin

For a Tibetan Buddhist, death changes - or at least can change - everything, and it is because of this huge potential that death is by far the most significant life-cycle event. The importance of rebirth is a major influence on how Tibetan Buddhists approach dying and death and how they conduct the funerary rituals for a deceased loved one.

In Tibetan Buddhist belief, rebirth is central to the entire structure of existence. Death is the bridge between lives. It's the end of one life, but at the same time it's also the necessary prelude to rebirth in a new life, which will also eventually end in death - and so on, across a vast expanse of time, the cycle ending only when enlightenment is attained. Nor is it inevitable that a person will be reborn in human form: there are six realms of existence, and one's next life may be as a god or titan, an animal, a hungry ghost, or an inhabitant of the terrible hell realms. For a Tibetan Buddhist, death changes - or at least can change - everything, and it is because of this huge potential that death is by far the most significant life-cycle event. The importance of rebirth is a major influence on how Tibetan Buddhists approach dying and death and how they conduct the funerary rituals for a deceased loved one. There are many regional variations in the performance of these rites: this article will focus on certain common themes running through them.

The moment of death itself is an opportunity to attain enlightenment. It is believed that as the dying person finally relinquishes this life, he will for a moment see a clear white light. If the person is able to recognize this light - that it reveals the true nature of reality - he will immediately become enlightened and escape from the round of samsaric rebirths. The hope that this will occur for the dying loved one influences the activities of the living from the moment it's understood that death is inevitable. Every effort is made to ensure that the dying person is peaceful and undisturbed. The person is surrounded with reminders of any religious teachings he may have received and is gently urged to settle his earthly affairs so he won't be distracted from focusing on the Buddha's teachings as they move into the bardo (intermediate, or transition) state between death and their next life.

In case the dying person didn't recognize the clear white light, other steps must be taken to assist him in the transition to the next life. As soon as possible after death, a religious professional - a monk, a lama, or a yogin (female yoga practitioner) - will perform powa, a ritual that seeks to expel the deceased's consciousness from the body through the top of the head, sending it directly to a buddha's pure land, where it will reach enlightenment without any further samsaric rebirths.

After this, though, the rituals proceed as if powa had not succeeded. It is as if the survivors, while hoping for the best, also make provision for the worst-case scenario. From this point onward, their activities will primarily be directed toward promoting the spiritual well-being of the deceased in the new life. They will also seek to protect themselves from any supernatural harm arising from the death, in particular some hostile manifestation of the deceased. These activities will continue up to and beyond the disposal of the body, and the spiritual concerns of the survivors influence practical activities such as arranging the disposal of the body.

If the deceased didn't attain either enlightenment at the moment of death or rebirth in a pure land through the powa ritual, the next-best result would be for the person to obtain a fortunate rebirth as a human being who has the opportunity to practice the Buddha's teachings. For this to happen, first of all the deceased must die focused on the Dharma, and this is another reason that so much emphasis is placed on ensuring that the dying person is kept undisturbed, reminding him of any teachings he may have received, and surrounding him with holy articles and prayers. Second, the deceased must be helped to navigate the bardo period in such a way that the conditions for his next birth will be optimal.

The role of guide through the bardo is performed by a religious professional. A wide variety of texts is used (the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, familiar to Western Buddhists, is only one of very many), but they all contain the basic elements of informing the deceased that she is dead and instructing her on the phenomena she can expect to encounter in the bardo, and advising her on how to react. At every step along the way, she is urged to recognize the true nature of reality, which will take her to enlightenment (or at least to birth in a pure land), and enable her to escape the round of rebirths. Although it's recognized that the longer the deceased remains in the bardo state, the more likely she is to be reborn in one of the samsaric realms, it's still hoped that she will be able - even by such a small thing as recalling a fragment of the Dharma she heard in her last life - to improve her chance of finding a new life in which she'll be able to make more spiritual progress.

Another important mechanism for ensuring that the deceased will obtain a fortunate rebirth is for the survivors to perform meritorious acts and dedicate the merit arising from them to the benefit of the dead person. This is a major activity of the survivors, since it's accessible to all without the assistance of a religious professional. The practice of merit transfer - performing acts that Buddhism teaches are good (meritorious) and attributing the positive karma gained benefit not to the actor but to someone else - has a long history in Buddhism. Making merit (performing good actions) is central to the everyday practice of lay Tibetan Buddhists. The additional step of dedicating the merit of an action to another's benefit is itself meritorious, so the actor always adds to his or her stock of merit whether or not it is dedicated to someone else, such as a deceased loved one.

It is vitally important to perform all the funeral rituals properly, because otherwise the deceased may be unhappy. This will hinder his passage through the bardo, since he will be drawn by his distress to stay attached to the people who have upset him. It will also mean that the survivors will have a restless ghost on their hands who may cause all kinds of havoc. The fear of ghosts is very real, and every effort is made to ensure that the deceased has no reason to be discontented with how his passing was handled by the survivors. In addition to carefully following the directives of the death horoscope, the relatives of the deceased will "feed" him until the funeral rituals are completed. This feeding consists of offering various foodstuffs, usually vegetarian, and liquids (anything from water to alcoholic beverages), often by burning them. The smoke arising from the burned food is believed to nourish the being the deceased has become in the intermediate (bardo) state. This, of course, is also a meritorious act, and the merit can be dedicated to the deceased's benefit, thus accomplishing two ends in one action. In addition, a portion of the food may be offered to the hungry ghosts who are believed to be everywhere: often they are dead people who have been forgotten, or left unprovided for, by their survivors. Feeding the hungry ghosts generates even more merit, which can also be dedicated to the benefit of the deceased.

Among the actions undertaken to ensure the spiritual well-being of the deceased, one of the most important is to ensure that the mortuary rituals are properly performed - and in particular that the body is disposed of in an appropriate manner. This requires the casting of a death horoscope, based on the time and date of death and also on the deceased's birth horoscope. The death horoscope will indicate the best form of disposal, as well as the proper day and time, and may also provide information on who should carry the body, where it should be disposed of, and what the deceased's prospects for rebirth are. If the forecast for the person's rebirth is not auspicious, this will call for remedial steps, which may also be indicated by the death horoscope and may include such meritorious actions as commissioning the painting of a holy picture (thangka), copying a religious text, or paying religious professionals to recite particular prayers or perform special rituals.

The disposal of the body also has connotations of merit making, since the gift of one's body to feed other beings is regarded as highly virtuous. In exposure, the body is consumed by scavengers, including birds, wolves, foxes, dogs, and even pigs. By feeding these animals with her body, the deceased is saving them from the bad karma of having to kill other animals in order to eat. In water, the body nourishes fish, and in earth disposal (either in a grave or under a cairn), it provides food for worms. In cremation, as in feeding the dead, the smoke from the burning body is believed to provide nourishment to hungry ghosts and thereby to ease their suffering.

Following the disposal of the body, the deceased will continue to receive "feeding" and guidance through the bardo until the completion of the funeral period. Another important activity at this time is purifying the karma of the dead person. The person's name is written on a card, and her consciousness is summoned into it by a religious professional, who then conducts various purification rituals to free her from negative karma accumulated in her recent life or more-distant past lives. At the conclusion of the rite, the deceased's consciousness is dismissed and the name card is burned. The ashes may be made into a small clay figure called a tsatsa, which will be placed in some location of special holiness or purity (for example, on a mountain or at a shrine).

The practice of generosity is considered to be one of the most basic Buddhist virtues, accessible to anyone. A common merit-making activity following a death is to distribute food to everyone in the village. This may be a very elaborate feast if the family is sufficiently wealthy. But whatever the extent of the meal, the most important element is its impartiality. Every single person in the village, irrespective of age, gender, or social standing, must be invited, and each must receive the same quantity of food. Some survivors go so far as to weigh out the individual portions to eliminate any possibility of inequality. If the family is poor, they may simply brew up a batch of chang (beer), go to the edge of the village, and give some to anyone who passes until it's all gone.

Although the formal teaching is that the deceased may remain in the bardo for up to forty-nine days, in practice the rituals are rarely continued for so long. They are expensive both monetarily and in lost work time, and only very wealthy families can afford seven weeks of expenditure. High religious teachers may also receive the full length of ceremonies from their followers. But often a layperson's mortuary rites will conclude just a few days after disposal, with a final round of merit making and purification rituals.

The influence of Tibetan Buddhist belief in the cycle of life, death, and rebirth is pervasive. Tibetans are taught early on to meditate on the brevity of life and the certainty of death and are warned to live in such a way as to be ready to die at any time. The most feared death is the unexpected death - by accident or violence - since a person who is not prepared to enter the bardo is unlikely to succeed in finding a fortunate rebirth. It is somewhat fashionable at the moment, particularly in the West, to psychologize afterlife beliefs as simply coping mechanisms meant to help people deal with the death of those they love, with no basis in reality (however that may be construed). But the effect of Tibetan Buddhist belief in the cycle of rebirth also extends beyond any psychological effect of helping the survivors cope with the fact of loss to having an impact on some very practical aspects of Tibetan life. Merit-making activities such as food distributions are expensive, at a time when the family is barred from doing income-earning work by mourning rules and the requirements of the mortuary rituals.

The number of monks (or other religious professionals) who perform the funeral rites also reflects the amount of benefit gained for the deceased: having more religious professionals generates more merit. But they come at a high cost: they must be housed and fed for the duration of the ceremonies and provided with all the necessary materials for preparing ritual items - and everything must be of the best quality the family can afford. Commissioning the painting of thangkas and the copying of religious texts is also expensive. In fact, such activities, which must be carried out by religious professionals, can form a significant element of monastic income, as do the fees paid for the performance of religious rituals both within the flow of the mortuary rites and as supplementary merit making to improve the deceased's chances of a fortunate rebirth.

It is generally accepted that the more money that is spent, the more meritorious the death rituals are, and therefore the more beneficial for the future state of the deceased. In order to promote this future well-being - and also to avoid the possibility of the deceased's returning as an unhappy ghost to protest any perceived inadequacy in the activities of the survivors - it is quite usual for families to go deeply into debt in order to defray the costs of a suitably meritorious funeral.

Moreover, friends and fellow villagers are expected to contribute to the well-being of the deceased's family at this time by providing gifts of money and food, thereby setting up a system of reciprocal indebtedness within the village. In some cases this may be formalized in the shape of a ledger of entries indicating exactly what has been donated by whom in the case of each death, so that when a villager dies, the person's family will be sure to receive the equivalent to whatever they had donated to other local families for earlier deaths. The economics of death are complex and deeply woven into Tibetan society, reinforcing the social cohesion engendered by the shared belief in rebirth that is foundational to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism.

Margaret Gouin received her doctorate in Buddhist Studies from the University of Bristol. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Theology, Religious Studies, and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (Lampeter, UK) and the author of Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices (Routledge, 2010).