Chapter 10: The One in the Cave
Yuramay received news that a hermit who lived in a cave near the village had passed away.
He learned that this hermit was known as Crazy Uncle. Crazy Uncle was not a well-known person. Only a few of the very oldest people in the village knew of him, but their accounts of his past varied. Some also believed Crazy Uncle to be a tantric practitioner, but he had barely talked to anyone in years. Yuramay and the others were now given the task to decide how to treat his body, uncertain of how to go about the process since they knew very little about the type of person he was.
Yuramay was at home with his brother as he thought about who Crazy Uncle could have been. He thought it was a difficult task to provide someone he did not know too well a burial that would suit the type of person he was when he was alive. The burial would adhere to his practices, showing that they would be respecting the way he chose to live his life and to follow it even in his time of death.
According to Tantric teachings, preparation for death, cremation, and so forth had been organized into cycles. These teachings provided not only instruction for recognizing death, but also for perpetuating the process of merit making. This process of merit making allowed the Buddhist to accumulate merit for the purpose of spiritual improvement and then to transfer the merit to beings who were unable to accumulate merit for themselves. This act of selflessness can be seen through the two models Tara and the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, two deities who were often sought to in times of peril for their continuous displays of selfless compassion.
“Many of these titles teach people how to avoid an evil rebirth,” Yuramay said as he flipped through the pages of a book he borrowed from the library to help learn about Tantric teachings. Dechen was also sprawled across the floor with books opened around him as he too skimmed the pages.
“There are some cycles that have been studied and published as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” some of which include sections on ‘cheating death,’” he continued.
Yuramay pondered to himself for a moment. What had it meant to “cheat” death?
“Dechen, did you know that Tantra has been practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism for centuries?” Yuramay asked his brother.
“It is actually based on two principles. The first is physiology — ‘the body exists on a series of vibrational levels, and our physical body is the lowest of these levels’. To summarize what I just read here, our physical bodies also might have what they call a subtle body. Through the subtle body flows our life energy and our consciousness. We can understand our true nature when we fully grasp control over the elements water, air, fire, earth and space. These elements are typically that which we are and our consciousness are made up of… according to Tantric teachings.” Yuramay explained.
“The second principle here is referred to as ‘a system of macrocosmic and microcosmic correspondences’ in which it is said to allow ‘the yogin to escape human finitude by understanding that both his body and the cosmos are rued by the same processes,’ Yuramay took another pause to try and understand the principles.
“Of course there are traditional ways of treating a body after death in Buddhism, but in our culture one of the ways that I can see would be best for Crazy Uncle is if to offer the body back into the elements in which it was made of…”
“What do you mean, Brother?” Dechen asked.
“I think that there are so many ways to treat the body as there are many different cultures that have many different customs… I feel in order to send off Crazy Uncle, who probably had no one around during his deathbed, we should do our best in choosing a proper method…”
“At first I was reluctant about “sky burial”, but because of the concept behind it it made me think about the Tantric teachings and the connections it had between the individual body and the cosmos. It demonstrates that the body is in a way one with the universe and through this method the body of Crazy Uncle would be taken to higher grounds where it will be exposed to the elements.”
“How does sky burial work?” Dechen asked.
“I’m not quite sure if you want to hear the details as it may sound a little morbid…”
“I think I will be alright.”
“Well, as I said, a corpse is brought and laid out. The rogyapa, or “breaker of bodies,” is tasked with separating parts of the body. As this is being done, vultures or birds tear into the meat, while he continues to pulverize the remains.”
“That… does not sound great.”
“It may not seem like the best method, but it is said that within Tibetan culture it is the perfect fate for the body humans leave behind in death. Since we do not know much about Crazy Uncle, we could offer him this much at least.”
“What other practices have you come across?”
“In Tibet, there are of course normal burials, although rare, cliff burials, cremations, stupa burials, tree burials and water burials. Cliff burials are only found in the southern part of Tibet. The corpse, preserved in ghee, is placed in a wooden casket and transported to a cavern. Cremation is of course, the burning of the body. Depending on who is being burned, a commoner or a noble person, the ashes are either scattered or preserved. Stupa burials in Tibet are for past Dalai Lamas and incarnations of the Buddha. For Tree burials, there are trees with small wooden boxes and baskets that contain the remains of a deceased child or aborted fetus. Lastly, the water burial follows a similar process to that of the sky burial. The corpse is offered to the fish either in a whole form or in pieces. Water burials are more frequent in southern Tibet than in Northern for lack of vultures.
In addition to these customs in Tibet, I did read about different deathbed ritual practices such as that in Early Medieval Japan. The practices helped in tending to the sick and sending off the dead. For instance, the body of the dying would be moved into a chapel of impermanence. In that way, he would not generate any thoughts of attachment if any objects of familiarity were in sight. A Buddha image would then be placed facing west while the dying was placed behind the image. They are then made to hold a pendant that is tied to the image’s hand. This was said to help generate thoughts of following the Buddha to his pure realm. Those who are present would burn incense, scatter flowers, and promptly care to dying by removing any vomit or excrement. There are different variations to this of course, but that was one.”
“In any way, I think it would be best that Crazy Uncle undergo the sky burial. It is one of the Tibetan traditions and of course believed to be the greatest fate for one who has faced death. Why not have the best for Crazy Uncle despite not knowing who he was.”
“Are you sure, Brother? Do you think that would be better?”
“I think it is better than not sending him off at all. We learn in Mahayana Buddhism that the goal in achieving enlightenment is realizing the Buddha in all of us. In the similar view, Crazy Uncle may have had that belief too but through Tantra. The nature of the Buddha is in all of us as seen through the two. Honestly I cannot say if the sky burial is the best method to send off Crazy Uncle, but considering where we live as well, we cannot possibly give him a grave when much of the land is rocky and frozen.
We would be sending his body back into nature through the sky rather than the ground.”
Dechen pondered the words of his brother and thought to look more into the sky burial. He wondered the meaning behind it and thought if he could find more about the process that he could understand better.
After some time, he had come across a reading about the method. Sky burial had been a part of Tibetan history for years. Tibetans viewed the vulture as a sacred creature, a “holy eagle” or a feminine sky spirit they called dakini. They also believed that a corpse is nothing but a discarded shell. The spirit of the body has passed onto the next incarnation while leaving behind its old one.
“It says here that Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to observe the jhator.”
“That sounds right.”
“Do you know why?”
“They say it is to confront physical death without fear. That death doesn’t occur physically but the real death occurs internally.”
“Yes, I believe that means we would have to witness the sky burial if the villagers so choose it and by doing so come to terms with the reality of death. Death to our bodies is only a physical occurrence.”
That night the boys learned about the different customs of treating a dead body when faced with one. Yuramay decided upon the sky burial for Crazy Uncle as he felt if the Tibetans saw it as a great fate for the dead, then whether or not he knew Crazy Uncle, he should deserve it.