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Brief Overview of Tibetan Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism is practiced predominately – as the name suggests – within Tibet.
However, practitioners of this religion can be found as far as Nepal, Bhutan, Russia, China,
Mongolia, and India.
It is part of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism, but includes some Vajrayana (Tantric)
elements in its practice, particularly within the Nyingma school of thought.
− These Tantric elements are made visible during their funeral practices.
Tibetan Buddhism follows the Four Noble Truths:
− Existence as experienced by all life is completely unsatisfactory due to
− This suffering is caused by a desire for permanence of identity within the
− When this desire is ended, our suffering is ended.
− Nirvana is obtained upon death, provided we have ended our desire (and
therefore our suffering.) If this has not happened, the person is reincarnated into
a new body.
Meditation: 9-Round Death Meditation
3 Roots-9 Reasonings-3 Convictions
A: Death is Certain
• There is no possible way to escape death. No-one ever has, not even
Jesus, Buddha, etc. Of the current world population of over 5 billion
people, almost none will be alive in 100 years time.
• Life has a definite, inflexible limit and each moment brings us closer to
the finality of this life. We are dying from the moment we are born.
• Death comes in a moment and its time is unexpected. All that separates
us from the next life is one breath.
* Conviction: To practice the spiritual path and ripen our inner potential
by cultivating positive mental qualities and abandoning disturbing
3 Roots-9 Reasonings-3 Convictions
B: The Time of Death is Uncertain
• The duration of our lifespan is uncertain. The young can die before the
old, the healthy before the sick, etc.
• There are many causes and circumstances that lead to death, but few that
favor the sustenance of life. Even things that sustain life can kill us, for
example food, motor vehicles, property.
• The weakness and fragility of one's physical body contribute to life's
uncertainty. The body can be easily destroyed by disease or accident, for
example cancer, AIDS, vehicle accidents, other disasters.
* Conviction: To ripen our inner potential now, without delay.
3 Roots-9 Reasonings-3 Convictions
C: The only thing that can help us at the time of death is our
mental/spiritual development (because all that goes on to the
next life is our mind with its karmic (positive or negative)
• Worldly possessions such as wealth, position, money can't help.
• Relatives and friends can neither prevent death nor go with us.
• Even our own precious body is of no help to us. We have to leave it
behind like a shell, an empty husk, an overcoat.
* Conviction: To ripen our inner potential purely, without staining our
efforts with attachment to worldly concerns.
When a person is near death – or directly after their death – a monk will be called on and they
will read passages from the Bardo Thodol (“Liberation Through Hearing.”)
− The passages in this book are meant to guide the dying person through the three
stages of the Tantric concept of“Bardo” (the intermediary stage between death
− These stages are known as:
Chikai Bardo: the realization period of death.
Chonyid Bardo: the realization of our true nature in forms of peaceful
and wrathful deities.
Sidpa Bardo: prevention of or rebirth into the mortal world.
In some schools of thought, the Bardo Thodol is replaced with mantras related to the person's
occupation(s) during their lifetime.
“Bardo” will last up to 49 days, depending on the traditions of the deceased and their family.
During this time, food and drink are left out for the dead. If the family of the deceased person
is wealthy, a hundred oils lamps will be lit in honor of the relative.
The experiences in the First Bardo are very much dependent upon spiritual
preparedness and training in earth life
The first bardo lasts 3.5-4 days
For most the first bardo is a period of time spent in a unconscious state
Those who have prepared spiritually, however, may recognize the first bardo and
progress to higher spiritual planes.
If the deceased fails to achieve liberation in the first bardo, he enters the second
The second bardo is an emotionally overwhelming state where spiritual knowledge and
experience with meditations during life will come most in handy
Compare the second bardo to an ocean: A drowning person can escape if there is something
to swim to. Experience spiritual travelers are better equipped to distance themselves from the
emotion and grab to focus on spiritual goals.
Think of the bardo state as you would think of a lucid dream. The deceased has to recognize
that they are in fact dead and that they cannot be harmed. Tibetan Buddhists place a lot of
importance on lucid dreaming, a spiritual exercise that will allow the deceased to recognize
the bardo state.
What exactly does the soul experience in the Second Bardo?
During the first week, the soul encounters peaceful deities. The soul’s reactions to the deities
will depend upon their deeds in life. If they committed evil acts, they will experience fear
During the second week, the soul encounters wrathful deities (peaceful deities in disguise)
The wrathful deities appear as demons and they threaten to torture the soul. Here the
deceased must recognize that the deities are not in their true form. By focusing on the
peaceful form of the deities, the soul can achieve the second degree of liberation
If the soul doesn’t achieve liberation in the second, it moves to the third and final stage of the
Here the Lord of Death exercises his judgment. A soul can still reach a third degree of
liberation here if he recognizes the emptiness of the Lord of Death and his demons.
If the soul still cannot recognize this, it will enter the cycle of rebirth.
The soul, often very frightened by the Third Bardo, will seek caves and other places to hide.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead warns against this as the caves are actually entrances to
Eventually the soul cannot escape the cycle of rebirth and it must seek the best womb.
The Funeral Rituals of Tibet
Three days after the death of the person, after the “Chikai Bardo” period has passed, they are
placed into a fetal position and wrapped with white cloth and rope.
After this has been performed, they are brought to one of the three funerary-designated
monasteries within Tibet that can perform the burial.
− The most important of these is Drigungtil Ogmin Jangchubling, founded in year
1179. Most funerals are performed at this location.
− The reason for the limited locations in Tibet for funerary purposes lie in the fact
that funerals have to be performed in a highly specific manner known as “sky
burial” or “jhator.” Most of Tibet lies above the tree line making cremation
materials sparse and the ground is rocky or covered by permafrost and doesn't
lend itself to ground burials like what is common in the West.
− At these funerary temples, monks will say mantras and burn juniper for the
deceased person either the day before or the day of the burial. Family of the
deceased will wear white or normal clothing while the monks dress in the
traditional red and orange robes of their religion.
Jhator, as a practice, can seem barbaric by our own standards of burial though it is considered
sacred to Tibetans. It was outlawed by China in the 1960's for a similar reason, though they
have since lifted the ban.
Jhator - “Making Alms for the Birds”
After these rituals, the body is taken by
“rogyapas” (body breakers) to a field or stone
slab where they dismantle the corpse. Many
rogyapas are cheerful while they remove the
organs and limbs from the body.
− Jhator tends to happen at dawn.
Once completed, the rogyapas retreat and allow
the vultures to consume the body. The family
will usually observe this part of the Jhator.
After the body has been rendered to bones, the
rogyapas collect them and grind them down to a
powder that they then mix with flour and yak
butter. This paste is then fed to smaller birds
Jhator - “Making Alms for the Birds”
The reason for the Jhator ritual's existence in Tibetan tradition is threefold:
− The practice serves to reenforces the Buddhist teachings of the impermanence
of the human body in this world. The body of the deceased person was simply a
“vessel” for the soul, and the near-instantaneous destruction of the body
maximizes that soul's chance for obtaining nirvana.
− Birds are considered “dakini,” or the carriers of the sky deities. By allowing
them to consume the corpse, the person's soul can be easily carried by the wind
to where it needs to go to complete the “Chonyid Bardo.”
− There's no other practical way to be able to dispose of the remains of the
deceased within Tibet. Therefore Jhator serves not only a religious and cultural
need, but also a realistic one.
Grief in Tibetan Bhuddisim
Kisa Gotami roamed around searching for antidote to
restore her son to life
Buddha tells her to go to the city and obtain mustard
seed from any house that has not seen death
She is unable to find one and learns that death is a part
of life and that all things are impermanent
She let go of her attachment and freed her son to take
the next step on his journey
Grief In Tibetan Bhuddisim
Feelings such as anger, regret, longing or guilt are seen
as problematic because they are products of
These feelings are said to retard the souls progress to
the next life
Resolving these negative feelings frees the soul to
continue progress toward rebirth, or nirvana
Grief in Tibetan Buddhisim
Discourage excessive emotional expressions because
they may provoke strong feelings attachment in the
Encouraged to work out these feelings with deceased
Encouraged to channel grief into constructive and
Grief In Tibetan Buddhism
Starts with accepting the fact that grief takes time for
grief to turn to solace
Encouraged to take refuge in the Dharma, the Buddah
and the Community
Visualizations and meditation are designed to help
Grief is an opportunity to find meaning in life
A lesson about compassion
Heart Practice Meditation
Begins with invocations to all Buddhas, bodhisattvas
and enlightened teachers so the griever can imagine
Encouraged to open their hearts to grief and call on the
Buddha using the mantra. “Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru
Padma Siddhi Hum
This meditation turns suffering into bliss and enables
the mourner to engage in activities that help the
deceased on their journey
Expressions of Mourning
Wearing hair loose and unbraided
Lack of Jewelry
Wearing old black cloths
No singing or dancing