Thursday, October 09, 2003

Sky Burial

I open my eyes to gray light. It is almost sunrise, and the stone slab walls lighten in the pre-dawn. Outside, gray clouds hover, shrouding the mountain top, which is perhaps seven hundred or a thousand feet above Drikung Til monastery in central Tibet. This monastery is built into the side of the mountain, at fourteen thousand five hundred feet, and looks out over the valley from sheer walls.
Last night we arrived shortly before sunset. We were informed that in the morning there was to be a burial. Some nomads had carried three dead up the mountain so that they might be treated according to their wishes. The deceased were to receive a sky-burial, a ceremony where the dead are fed to vultures as a last act of compassion. Being Buddhist, my companions and I had heard of sky burrials, but none of us had ever witnessed one.

My friends and I had come to Tibet on a Buddhist pilgrimage, being lead by a Lama that we knew and that was known by the monks at Drikung Til. Our trip had been planned to include this two day stop at Drikung Til where the Lama had studied as a young monk. It was because of his status that we were allowed to stay more than just the day, and to witness the sky burial which is a sacred and private ceremony, normally prohibited to tourists.

After being offered butter-tea (a salty, yak butter tea served hot no matter what the temperature outside), we were invited to attend the Phowa ceremony (in which the mind stream of the deceased is transferred out of the body to the realm of the Buddha), which is performed before a sky burial.
During the Phowa ceremony, family members of the deceased kept the semi-wild dogs of the monastery at bay with sticks, for these dogs had learned to fend for themselves, eating anything that they could find. Dogs are not treated in the same domesticated way that we treat them in the united states. There is no such thing as dog food, or a rabies shot in Tibet. Although the monks of the monastery do not “raise” dogs, they are driven to treat them with compassion. And yet, in order to treat the deceased with respect, and compassion, the dogs were kept away all night until. The sky burial was scheduled for early morning.

Now in the gray morning, we are informed that the corpses are already up mountain, and being prepared for the days ceremony. We climb quickly, sweat breaking out even in the chill mist of the clouds. We arrive after a steep climb puffing steam breath into the air above the stone “table-top”. We circumambulate the area, silently watching the preparations and listening to chants that rise with the huge puffs of incense that rise and mingle with the low clouds. The large swath of stone that covers the broad mountain top is perhaps 200 feet in diameter. Around this is a make-shift fence to keep the dogs and vultures out. In the center of the stone are the three corpses. In actuality they are now skeletons, all of the meat has been stripped, and placed in a circle around them. All other parts have been chopped/ground up with ceremonial substances including barley, which looks to be a white powder, defining the edge of the mandala.

Because the fences are low, the vultures are actually capable of landing and are kept away by guards with sticks. At just the right moment the guards walk away, allowing the vultures to enter the feast.
As the birds (huge gray brown beings with wing spans of around seven feet) land, the first are drawn to the skeletons and are surrounded by their co-diners. The circle keeps increasing until the entire scene is covered in their color. From the edge of the circle we stand, silent, stunned, and grateful for the opportunity to witness this great ceremonial feast of compassion. I look into the center and see the frenzy, the wild eyes of the vultures, the hook beak entering the human eye socket, the jiggle of an ankle in the struggle of multiple birds vying for the same skeleton. Then and there I find my own mortality. Then and there I find my own humanity.


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