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Death in Tibetan culture (Part 1: How do Tibetans perceive death?)

Death is a central conflict for all humans. Every civilization tries to resolve this conflict. In Tibet, Buddhism, which is the majoritarian religion, offers an answer.

Buddhism proposes that after death, one is reborn again in the cycle of existences. This process of rebirth is not gentle, it is said to be very painful. Buddhism offers teachings on how to be able to handle this whole process.

Representation of the cycle of existences, Sera Monastery, Lhasa

What is death according to Tibetan Buddhism?

According to Buddhism, we all evolve in a system called the “cycle of existences”. When dying, we change our physical vessel but the mind experiences a continuum evolving in the “cycle of existences”. In other words, we will leave our current body to occupy a new one. Death is but one step in our journey in the cycle of existences. Many more deaths will occur, as many deaths have occurred before our present life. In brief, Buddhists believe in a form of reincarnation. This cycle is called « Samsara » in sanskrit and « Khorwa » in Tibetan (འཁོར་བ།).

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that as long as we are part of the cycle of existences, we will continue to suffer. If however, we understand the truth about human suffering and reach “enlightenment”, we will escape this endless cycle of existences. This truth is said to have been explained by The Prince Siddhartha, a man who became a Buddha in the 5th century before our era. Buddha means to be “awakened”, meaning aware of the truth of existence.

According to Tibetan Buddhist cosmology, the cycle of existences is composed of six realms in which we can be reborn. There are three « superior realms » and three « inferior ones ». Despite this distinction between superior and inferior realms, they are not distinguished as good or evil. Rather all are considered to be part of the same painful cycle of samsara.

Among the three « superior realms », there are the realm of celestial beings, the realm of demi-gods and the realm of humans. These realms are considered to be more pleasant to live in. However they are the place of conflicting emotions. Gods are so attached to their life of pleasure that they will suffer when changing realms. Furthermore they are so absorbed by their life of pleasure that they think about escaping from the cycle of existence. Demi-gods are tormented by anger and jealousy towards gods. Humans are suffering from attachment (to physical objects or other impermanent phenomena) and all types of negative emotions. However human life is considered as the best one, as it is the life with the best opportunity to learn about the path to liberation.

Then there are three « inferior » realms: the realm of animals, realm of hungry ghosts and the realm of hell. The realm of animals is the scene of ignorance and slavery. Animals are ignorant about the path to liberation and are enslaved by humans. The realm of hungry ghosts is the world in which ghosts wander around looking for food and water, and never finding any. The realm of hell is composed of a cold hell and a hot hell, where people bear horrible torture.

It is said that our rebirth is guided by our actions. Good actions will bring us to the higher realms, whereas bad actions will bring us to lower realms. For example, those who envy other people’s success and wealth and are never satisfied will be reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts. This principle of causality is called « Karma » in sanskrit and « Le » (ལས།) in Tibetan.

Some interpret the six realms as a reality. Some interpret it as a metaphor, a reflection of the variety of our own negative emotions, a projection of the deluded mind.

Another representation of the cycle of existences

What happens during the process of death itself?

Death is not considered as an easy step. Death is feared for two main reasons. The first reason is that we are unaware which realm we will be reborn into. We might be reborn in a terrible environment. In particular, we might be reborn in a realm where we will not get the chance to walk on the path to enlightenment and therefore not get the chance to escape the cycle of existences. The second reason is that the process of death is said to be very traumatic. After death and before rebirth, we may wander in the human world witnessing the suffering of our loved ones, we may feel horribly lost, see terrifying things. This limbo phase is called the « Bardo » (བར་དོ།), which means « in between ». It is said to last 49 days. This traumatizing experience is actually very important in the minds of Buddhist practitioners.

How to train to face death?

First, people will try to accumulate positive Karma to be reborn in a higher realm.

Then, some people train to be able to bear the terrifying experience of Bardo. In Buddhist temples, you will most likely see statues of deities and protectors that are terrifying. It is said that this scary sight is useful. Indeed, we might face similar terrifying figures at the moment of death. If we get familiarized with traumatic visions during our lifetime, we will be less scared at the moment of our death.

Also, death is the example of a very important Buddhist teaching. This teaching is the one of “impermanence”. It means that none of the compounded phenomena are permanent. Everything we know as certain or permanent will eventually change. In particular, our body will not stay as we know it. We will eventually get sick, grow old and die. This truth is often understood by most people but not embraced as such. People tend to forget about it and suffer enormously when facing impermanent phenomena, such as when losing loved ones or when faced with our own mortality. Buddhist teachings encourage us to fully integrate the truth of impermanence and of death within ourselves. This requires a spiritual training during our whole lifetime. For example, when our loved ones get sick or pass away, Buddhist teachings advise us to seize this “opportunity” to work on the understanding of the truth of impermanence and of death.

In the end, what can help us when facing death? According to Buddhism, material possessions like wealth cannot help. What will help is the spiritual training to face death.

Woman praying in front of the Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

Next time, we would like to introduce you to the funeral ceremonies that occur in Tibet. You will see that such ceremonies are very particular.

For those who already know about Buddhism, please know that we want to offer a simplified version of the very complex teachings offered by Buddhism. We hope that we didn’t make any over-simplification that might distort the meaning of the Buddhist teachings.

Special thanks to Thomas Pan who proofread this article!


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