Rites of Passage: Attending a Bhutanese Funeral

Our bus winds its way down the narrow, rocky switchbacks as headlights cut through the dark. Caught within the selective beams are cutouts of the dense forest: mossy boulders and spindly pines here and gone as our bus passes. I gauge the changing climate by the air rushing in through the open window, the temperature rising, atmosphere thickening with moisture as we slowly descend. My fellow teachers and I are en route to a funeral, and yet there’s an undercurrent of celebration as we make our way. There’s great laughter and calling out, carrying on. The recurrent inside jokes that we love so well are repeated ad nauseam (I wonder… is this the only way that inside jokes are shared, the world over? Each repetition another blow to a dead horse that we still, miraculously, laugh at?). Maybe it’s the Saturday night that’s brought it out in us. I’m reminded of the absurd, overloaded party buses of my university days, although we aren’t drunk…yet. A Bolero 4x4 appears suddenly in our path, travelling in the opposite direction, and what ensues is a lively, collective effort to navigate the passage. Everyone gets involved. Folks are hanging out the windows, watching in amazement the sub-atomic gap between our bus and the Bolero. It’s all a lot of fun.

After a rattling descent we arrive eventually in the village of Lephu. It’s a small community strewn about the mountainside amidst the huge, agricultural stepping-stairs that are its terraces. Our party trundles out of the bus. Moonlight travels through clouds and banana tree fronds and all about is the silver-blue shadowplay of clear night. Above and below, near and far, are the star-like constellations of glowing villages that reflect the sky in beautiful symmetry.

With flashlights in hand, single file, we make our way up a steep trail toward a stone farmhouse. Before we see the assembled congregation of respect-givers and well-wishers, we hear their voices dynamic and buzzing. Further up there’s a host of torches and lanterns shedding warm, welcoming light. Smoke dances lazily. Inexplicably, I’m overcome by the bizarre sensation that I’m arriving at a good ol’ fashion barbecue, approaching the crowd in the backyard through the side gate, expecting to receive a warm welcome from friendly faces around the grill, folks drinking Molson Canadian and eating hamburgers. The sincerity with which this impression comes over me is unsettling. And yet it somehow makes the night’s proceedings more vivid, casting some kind of clarity of vision through the weird juxtaposition of it all.

This is the family home of Namgang, one of our school’s cooks. A big smile on his face, he’s the first to greet us, one at a time with the warm, two-handed clasping of hands that’s the Bhutanese way. His father has recently died and it’s in his honour that we’ve come together. We file past, offering kind words as we go, and make our way into the crowd. A hundred people or so surround the farmhouse. They stand here and there in various manners of conversation, and there persists the celebratory atmosphere. People speak loudly and laugh heartily. Children at play weave in and out of the legs of adults. Everything is spirited.

More so than ever before, I’m conscious of my status as foreigner. I decide this feeling arises, in all likelihood, from a fear of offending others or embarrassing myself during a ceremony of powerful spiritual significance. It’s my first Buddhist funeral, after all. I turn to my good friend Wangyel and express my concerns to him, ask him to keep me in line. He laughs and claps me on the back. The Bhutanese believe I think too much.

Soon we’re ushered into a nearby tent. Sitting along one side is a delegation of seven monks in the traditional robes of maroon and orange. They sit behind a vast array of bells and books of scripture, burning sticks of incense and ornate cymbals. Large, standing drums wait patiently, painted in intricate displays of auspicious signs. Leaning on their sides are brass horns of differing sizes and shapes. In the centre, on a raised dais, is the head lama. It is he who leads the recitation of mantras. He looks tired, I think to myself. Wise, compassionate, maybe a touch austere…and tired. From behind his spectacles, he glances ever so slightly at his fellow monks. They immediately sit at attention and begin readying themselves, unwrapping and arranging the mantras to be chanted from the long strips of rectangular parchment. Horns are lifted and brought into position. Attendants preside over the altar that sits opposite the monks, lighting butter lamps and wafting ceremonial smoke.

The altar itself is comprised of a dazzling assemblage of manifold offerings, gold lamps, and the vibrant intricacies of ritual cakes. Floral spires of flour and water, the ritual cakes are painstakingly coloured, sculpted, and pieced together, resembling the castles of some wild and vivid dream. Their colouration is delicate and complex and confounds the eye’s attempts to capture it. Before the ritual is over, the cakes will be torn asunder bit by bit. All that comes together falls apart.

A deep and ominous resonance fills the air. The long brass horns, finely engraved and embellished with silver, are being blown. Their tones fill the body and the mind; all that exists is vibration. Crying out overtop the solemn bass notes enter the alarming shrieks of the higher-octave horns. Their players’ fingers move in incomprehensible patterns, producing a warbled fanfare of screeching, crashing sound. Drums, cymbals, bells. It’s a music both freakish and reverent.

We are seated cross-legged almost immediately in front of this wall of sound. As it rumbles and wails, clangs and resounds, I recognize that it bears the remarkable ability to both jolt and soothe. While at first it comes upon you very much an assault, it conjures up a surprising stillness from the depths within. As if all your loose or wayward components, enveloped in vibration, are jostled at last into their respective slots. And into the midst of this sudden alignment there floats the droning repetition of chanted mantras. The monks, led by the head lama and bolstered by drums and cymbals, recite in low and throaty tones the prayers that lie before them. It is only then that the significance of what I am witnessing is explained.

In the Tantric Buddhist tradition, it is believed that during the moment of death the human spirit will confront an astonishment never before experienced. At the gates of eternity, the spirit will, in all likelihood, balk at the phenomena it as of yet cannot comprehend. As opposed to racing with a childlike exuberance into the great source of everything and nothing, it will flee. It’ll turn-tail and run deep into the comforting bosom of the familiar: the habits and mechanisms of its life before death. And so the spirit will blindly immerse itself in the trappings of a life that no longer exists. It will rise in the morning and prepare for the day to come. It will busy itself with the tasks that at one time were a life’s work. It will return to rest so that the same fruitless, lifeless routine can be resumed the following day. Perhaps it will visit friends and family. Perhaps it will refresh itself with the same old hobbies and pastimes. And all the while, it will remain naively oblivious to the violent or peaceful or unexpected passing of the body that was at one time but a temporary refuge. Beckoned forth on the unfathomable voyage, the spirit pretends to live.

Enter the monks. It is their noble responsibility of gently awakening the spirit to the curious fact that it’s no longer alive. The ancient mantras, the elaborate rituals, the blaring horns, they all serve to gradually demystify the truth of what has transpired. From morning ’til night the rites will be meticulously carried out, just so, compassionately, incrementally showing the spirit the proverbial door. In the manner of concerned friends they urge it to move on. The ease with which it does so depends on the spirit’s attachment to its life, its unwillingness to let go. I’m told that the more enlightened might pass within twenty-one days. For Tantric Buddhism is a way of life very much concerned with preparing for death. Yet it’s certainly not some morbid or macabre fixation. It comes from a place of honesty and truth, recognition and grace; it’s the readying for the great letting go. The monks are guides in this timeless pilgrimage.

Alongside this grand endeavor, favourite meals, favourite drinks will be prepared and set out at regular intervals so that the spirit’s non-existent stomach will not go unfilled. And for what duration does this shepherding last? From morning ’til night, dutifully, for the course of forty-nine straight days. Small wonder the head lama appears to be so tired, I think admiringly.

Call it the power of suggestion, call it the collective consciousness, call it what you will, but I can’t help feeling a vague, amorphous presence. As if the spirit of Namgang’s father is not far off. There certainly is a peculiar, beautiful sympathy one feels for a spirit yet to surrender. A kind of gentle chastising. And from what I understand, this is the form that the ritual takes. Go in peace, the monk’s seem to be saying, there’s no place for you here anymore, wonders await you, go now. There’s also a profound privilege one feels in bearing witness to such a happening. Perhaps it’s the greatest gift possible to give, its ramifications impossible to understand. Whatever it is, I think to myself, it’s damn noble.

Later, we’re fed, sitting in a large circle atop a carpet of pine needles, eating with our hands, drinking generous cups of local wine and whooping largely into the night. I look about myself during moments of quiet and see, really see, where I am and what it is I’m doing. These people have taken me in, lifted me up, brought me back down to earth. And I realize in a flash that buried deep in the evolutionary coding of my blood, our blood, is an inherited kinship with village life. It’s in our genes. It’s the nucleus of all human expansion. The world as we know it owes its very existence to its villages, big or small, past or present. And for a time, at least, I’ve found mine.