Lessons of life and death

Sêrtar, China

Since I’ve heard about this religious ritual practiced in the isolated Buddhist settlement of Larung Gar, I wanted to understand (or at least try to) what it means to bring detachment to the extreme: disappearing through the consumption of the body by natural agents.

This unique Tibetan practice is a very shocking experience for foreigners, who feel a strong emotional bond with the body, even when the spark of life has already vanished. It’s difficult to release the attachment that still binds the inert remains to the person that passed away. And even more when it is such an energetic and intense act that overexcites all the senses.

Jhatoris the name of the rite and literally means “to give the soul to the birds”. Those responsible for carrying out this important task are called rogyapas, monks who prepare the body for the vultures so that they can carry out their mission. These birds are considered sacred beings in Tibet, as they have to clean the bones of the deceased. Thus the soul will ‘transmigrate’ correctly to its next destination.

According to the tradition, after dying, the death body remains in a sitting position for 24 hours, while a spiritual leader recites prayers from the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). It is a manual that allows them to reach enlightenment before, during and after death. It is said that the spirit will take 49 days (or levels) to travel the path to its next incarnation.

A man is born gentle and weak, at his death he is hard and stiff…
Lao Tse talks – Tao Te King

After two days, families make offerings in the monastery and the body is blessed, cleaned and wrapped in a white cloth. To facilitate the transport of the corpse to the place of the rite, the spine is broken, folded and inserted into a sack. The relatives will accompany him/her along the way with chants and prayers, but they will not be present during the ceremonial act.

The deceased is given as food to nature. Leaving their remains at mercy of other beings is an unmistakable proof of generosity. The generosity that will leave no trace of carnal existence. The soul that leaves the body will find it easier to find a new home.

And there I stood. Motionless. Without uttering a word, but with a frown on my face that was helping me to digest what really happened, followed by a sudden feeling of humbleness. Foreigners mixed with Tibetans received an impressive lesson about the real and true impermanence of life.

When I left the place, I began to glimpse something deeply spiritual in this practice. Perhaps a romantic idea, although violent, of an unconditional return and surrender to nature. It is undeniable that we are an unequivocal part of the cycle of non-permanence from which it is impossible to escape. None of us.

I also wondered if they ever could understand our rites: a deceased wearing makeup, confined inside a very expensive wooden box. And then, buried underground. Ironically, looking as alive as possible.