Crazy Uncle Died
I am here in the village preparing for my trip to Japan before returning home but I may stay a few days more. My ticket is open and I am being distracted, or maybe attracted by an event that has taken place within the village. The hermit, who lives up in the caves behind the village has died. There are rumours and talk about him. He was known as “Crazy Uncle” and has lived in the caves much longer than most can remember. It is unclear as to whether he came to these caves from somewhere else or if he once lived in the village and decided to take on the role of a hermit, moving into the cave area, living on his own and there is even questions as to whether he was practicing and studying teachings with guidance from another or if he just wandered off one day. I suppose it does not matter to him now but the village and I are curious and we will help him on his journey.
One of the stories I heard was that the person who found “Crazy Uncle” was delivering some kind of supplies and found him balanced, still in the meditation pose, with a rock supporting him to prevent falling to the side. At first this villager thought he was in a deep meditation but then recognized that he was dead. I have heard of monks who have been able to enter into such a deep meditation that they remain there for years. There is a story of a Tibetan monk who died around 1475 and when the body was found in the 1990’s it was still intact or “incorrupt” suggesting that the practice of extreme aestheticism along with tantric practices provides for the possibility of self-mummification of the body. I understand that this hermit’s cave home showed evidence of his meditation practice but his body was not going to remain intact as it was already exhibiting some decomposition. If he was an enlightened one, he might be able to be either cremated and placed within a stupa or perhaps if he was thought to be in a deep meditation rather than dead, he could be entombed within his cave but these are just thoughts of a curious one.
Crazy Uncle must have been aware that his life in this body was coming to an end because he certainly was older than I am and I am aware of the impermanence of my body each day when I awaken. From the time I have come to this village and decided to take refuge in the Buddha, in the sanga and in the Dharma, I thought I had accepted the impermanence of all things and I recognize that death is not a failure or an end but rather a transition from this interim bardo or life toward the rebirth of my consciousness into another realm, either where I am now or, one day, into the Pure land. I have made an offering to the monastery monks to provide guidance and help for “Crazy Uncle” traveling through the forty nine days in the Bardo. This will involve the reading from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, properly translated as “The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States” [Bar-do thos-grol chen-mo in Tibetan]”
Our new library now has a copy of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead”. There is probably at least one copy in the monastery as well. I had the opportunity to help with the creation of this book. It is printed on our press using wood block etching and the ink in the traditional manner and now it will be used to help guide “Crazy Uncle” towards a better birth while he travels through the bardo. It is said that he will be meeting so many frightening and new experiences which according to the teaching are manifestations of his own mind. The nun who I speak with tells me that although Crazy Uncle is dead and his body or corpse will be disposed of, he can hear the directions and if he is able to follow the teachings, he will have an easier time through these forty nice days.
I asked whether Crazy Uncle will be buried here in the village but my neighbor and his wife reminded me that the soil here is not deep enough for adequate burial and the risk of attracting predators, leopards, wolves and such or the spread of diseases is too high for this. The choices are either cremation, which uses up a great deal of the limited wood supply or sky burial (Giving alms to the Birds) or Jhator. The sky burial is probably what will be used and initially I was drawn toward the nature and environmental prospect of sky burials as a way of dealing with death. All societies need to dispose of their dead and this method sounded very natural and had a romantic imaging until I learned that the body was ‘cut’ to make it easier for the birds to access. My horror showed; my friend then questioned me on the impermanence of all things and compassion for all sentient beings. It is to both these questions that I began to accept the sky burial as not only a final gift of compassion to the birds but also that the body is not inherently Crazy Uncle but just an empty shell that is of no use anymore. My only other question was how, as a Buddhist, one could be the practitioner in such a ritual. My friend smiled and asked if I ever eat Yak meat or goat meat. I said yes and then remembered that there are those who provide us with our meat perhaps I should be more noticing of the gift that these people do each day. I will not have a sky burial for myself but I will hopefully hold onto the lessons I have learned as the day of my death approaches.
I cannot know for sure where Crazy Uncle will find a new birth. I can hope that his discipline of practice, his aesthetic life and his gift to the birds as a last offering will add merit to his karma. I will hope that the bright light which is terrifying to many as they pass through into the bardo will not frighten him and he will be prepared. I will hope for him that the creatures will be recognized as what they are and his consciousness will find a birth that is good. I must now accept these things which I seem to have only paid lip service to in the past. Compassion and impermanence must be a reality for me if I am to stay on this path as I travel from my village in Tibet toward Japan. I have created a number of new paper prayer flags using the printing machine to place up on the rocks near the cave entrance of Crazy Uncle. One of the villagers has put an offering on the rock that has burning butter candles and a small torma. It was time for Crazy Uncle to leave his body and go in search of a new re-birth but I wonder about my child. Could it have been really time for him to leave us and his small body? Death seems so easy when the body is old, the life long but I am still unclear as to how to accept in the same manner if the body is young and the life is so short. I will try to understand this better over the next while. Is it my inability to accept impermanence that holds me back?
As I watch the soaring of the great vultures, Griffin Vultures, overhead this day I can only wonder at the cycles we are a part of. Is it the slow movement of these birds as they tip to each side once in a while but correct their position just by the great “V” that reminds me to see a balancing in our world? The birds overhead give service to our village and we to them. I will head to my home soon and will pack up my bag along with my paints and some belongings. What will become of my hut and the village after I leave? We have had hailstorms, visits from the great lama, a new library and medicine factory. We saw the great expedition to the caves and now the printing press is being used by many. We even have had new books given to the library from visiting people. Losar was filled with pagentry of costumes and food. I am sad to leave but with each step, I arrive at a new place.