When anticipating an important journey, it pays to prepare. And since Tibetan Buddhists view death as the journey from this life to the next, they place tremendous importance on steps to ensure a safe voyage through the space betwixt death and rebirth -- a dreamlike intermediate state known as bardo. If you were planning a trip to, say, Tibet, you'd probably pick up a guidebook written by people who have actually traveled there. When planning the ultimate trip, therefore, Tibetan Buddhists turn to the holy men who, through intense meditation, claim knowledge of both past lives and the death journey.
Through meditation and practice with the "Bardo Thodol," a Tibetan Buddhist ideally prepares for death far in advance. Think of it as a form of mental rehearsal, ensuring that the dying consciousness moves safely through eight stages of death to the death point , a confusing or enlightening state that may last for days.
During this time, people attending the deceased can aid the departed spirit in its journey through readings from the sacred text. As such, the "Bardo Thodol" lays out rituals for the dying and those tending to the dying to undertake before, during and following death.
All told, the departed spirit is said to traverse a total of 49 days or levels of bardo on the way to the next incarnation.
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.
Death, Intermediate State and Rebirth | Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive
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.
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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 thangka s 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.
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