Tibetan Buddhism is known as the tantric path of Buddhism. This path blends the teachings of the Sutra path and the techniques of yoga and tantra. The basis of tantra is transforming the basic human emotions of desire and hatred into healthy and useful forces for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment and growth.
While both paths are similar in many ways, each has their own doctrine and regimes that are followed. The traditional (or Sutra) spiritual path in Buddhism involves the following moral rules or precepts. These are the basic moral guidelines that were laid down by the Buddha. For the monk, in addition to 227 or so monastic rules, there are ten precepts. For the lay person, however, there are only five, though on certain days, these may be increased to eight or ten. The five precepts are:
Tibetan Buddhism follows these same five prefects for the layman but also teaches the student to channel these urges into more productive, spiritually enlightening forces in ones life. Both paths:
The belief in reincarnation is not exclusive the Buddhists. Many other religions share the same belief but have a different view of how and why reincarnation occurs. The Tibetan Buddhists Believe that it is important to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying person as a means of preparing them for the experiences they will encounter in the after-death state. It is believed that by understanding what is happening in this state and not losing consciousness the deceased will win ultimate liberation and free themselves from the cycle of birth and death.
Reincarnation is the belief that a person will be reborn after death. This rebirth is to learn a lesson in that lifetime or in the case of karma, to make amends for a past life wrongdoing.
It is the belief of both traditional and Tibetan Buddhism that many lifetimes are required to fully achieve spiritual enlightenment and the deeds or misdeeds will be balanced in the next lifetime.
From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death, since awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. (Powers 283)
According to Buddhist beliefs there are two kinds of death: the sudden, unexpected death and the natural end of a lifespan. Untimely death can be avoided through life-long meditations but the natural end of a lifetime is due to karma and cannot be changed. (Maitland, 269)
There are various rituals and practices when dealing with the dead and dying. These guidelines are there to help prepare a person for death. The state of mind that one has when they die directly affects the type of rebirth they will have. There is opportunity to offset any negative karma by having a positive outlook on death when dying. This also works the opposite way, one who dies with strong, negative thoughts such as anger, hatred or resentment, can have a rebirth full of suffering.
Buddhists believe that all thoughts at the time of death should be closely guarded. Even thoughts that might seem harmless can be dangerous for the dying. A wish for some type of comfort such as heat or coolness can cause one to wind up in a hot or cold hell in the next life. Desirous thoughts are a guarantee of a negative rebirth and should be avoided, concentrating instead on religious motivations and concepts.
The Tibetans practice three types of burial practices:
Sky burial is the most commonly used. It is, however, not suitable for children under 18, pregnant women or anyone who dies from infectious disease or accident. Cremation is reserved for lamas and religious leaders who are considered spiritually advanced. Ground burial is only used for those who are considered unfit for sky burial. People who died from diseases such as leprosy or tuberculosis are considered to have bodies unfit for sky burial.
One of the reasons for sky burial is not religion based but for a more practical reason. The ground of Tibet is rocky and hard. It is very time consuming to dig a grave and many times the weather deters any attempts to bury the dead. It is for this reason that sky burial is used for most all burials.
The sky burial requires the services of rogyapas or body cutters. An astrologer first uses the date of birth and death to determine the appropriate time for burial. The astrologer also determines if any special rituals or ceremonies must be performed. After all the required rituals and ceremonies have been performed, the body is taken by the body cutters to a place reserved for sky burial.
The body is first washed and prayed over by priests. It is to make it more attractive to the vultures and considered a bad sign if the birds refuse to eat the body. The burial process begins when a tantric master marks a mandala on the chest and stomach of the corpse, after which the body cutters slice across the chest with large knives according to the masters instructions. They then remove the internal organs and slice the flesh from the bone. Next, the bones are beaten with stone hammers and mixed with barley flour. This is to make the mixture more palatable to the vultures.
The corpse is tied down to prevent the vultures from carrying it away and a large rock called the mandala is used for the feeding. Once enough flesh is cut away to feed the birds without them injuring each other, pieces of the deceased are tossed to the vultures to be consumed.
When the flesh and bone have all been eaten, the skull is pierced at the top by a long needle. This is known as the Brahma opening and is where the consciousness is released from. The skull is then smashed and the brain and bones are fed to the vultures.
Once the disposal of the body is complete, the house of the diseased is cleaned and the bricks the body rested on are thrown into the river. From this point on, there are traditional rituals for the deceased that are performed at regular intervals. (Powers 307,308)
In water burial, the corpse is wrapped with white cloth and disposed into a river. There are two different views towards water burial. In areas where sky burial is the dominant practice, water burial is considered an inferior way to dispose of beggars and those with low social status. In places where vultures are not available for sky burial, water burial is widely adopted by commoners and the ritual follows a strict set of rules, sacredly and solemnly. In areas with access to a river, the body is cut into small pieces and tossed into the river to be eaten by the fish. (Maitland 270)
The meaning behind the complete destruction of the body is the eminence of death and the return of ones body to the elements. It is meant to awaken people to the idea that death will not be avoided and should be considered a natural part of life. It also serves to illustrate the concept of the body being an empty shell and the soul moving on to the afterlife. Both of these methods are indicative of this belief.
Cremation, as previously mentioned, is only used for the lamas and other enlightened beings. Wood is scarce in many areas and cremation is not feasible on a large scale. It was traditionally saved for the people of higher status due to the expense.
In both traditional and Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation and karma are inseparable. In Buddhism, karma refers to intentional ethical action that determines the nature and place of rebirth (Obeyesekere 2)
Buddhists believe that this life is one of millions that a person must endure in order to achieve enlightenment. These lives continue indefinitely until the cycle is ended. Broadly speaking, Buddhists believe that there are two significantly different possibilities after each persons death. Either some aspect of the persons psyche will be reborn in a new body, or else the person will achieve a state called nirvana, which is above and beyond the realms of death and rebirth.
The belief in rebirth into new bodies was quite widespread in India even prior to the Buddhas time, and there were already protracted debates about the implications. Some people contended that, in accordance with the law of karma, those who had done a preponderance of good deeds would be reborn in happy states and those who had done a preponderance of evil deeds would be reborn in evil states. Others, while admitting the concept of rebirth, denied the influence of karma in placing a soul in a new womb; they gave counterexamples of good men who had purportedly been reborn in evil circumstances, and evil men who were reborn in happy situations.(Becker 12)
It is an ongoing debate among those who believe in reincarnation regarding the reason for the deceased to be reborn. The karmic view is that the deceased is either reborn due to something they did in a past life, good or bad, or they reach a state of Nirvana, or perfect enlightenment. Karma is the continuous law of cause and effect
Nirvana is the complete escape from the circle of life and rebirth. It is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist to reach a state of nirvana and all lives are to be used in the pursuit of this goal. Many believe that Buddhism reincarnation belief states that people will be reborn as humans or animals depending on the way they lived their previous life. This is a myth, transmigration is not a concept of Buddhisms view of reincarnation. In Buddhism, people are reborn human in all their lives, not into animals. The Buddhists believe that since we are not the only beings in the universe, it is reasonable to assume that others being from other realms or planets could be reborn as humans and vice versa.
The Buddhist universe may be divided into three realms: things both immaterial and formless, those with form but only subtle matter, and the physical/sensual realm of form and gross matter. Just as there are many classes of humans and animals within visible material realms, so there are many classes of gods, spirits, and demons in the invisible realms. It is thought that rebirth takes place in the realms of hell, ghosts, titans (asuras), animals, humans, and gods. 21 But it is generally held that only on the human level can peoples kamma (thought and action) influence their destiny. The other levels are essentially expiatory or compensatory places where the merit or demerit of prior lives is rewarded or punished. (Becker 19)
Karma is not like Fate, fate cannot be changed. Karma is determined by the thoughts, actions and words of the person during their lifetime. The Buddhists give great power to thought. In the Dhammapada we find the following words, All that we are is a result of what we have thought, it is founded on our thoughts and made up of our thoughts. (Powers 289)
The Buddhist philosophy may seem strange to many Westerners and their burial rituals barbaric but they have lasted thousands of years and many people today are realizing that perhaps an open mind is now required.
Death is celebrated by some and feared by more but it is the one thing that all people have in common, regardless of belief.
Becker, Carl B. Breaking the Circle Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993. Questia. 8 Apr. 2007
Beginners guide to Buddhism ,The Five Precepts. 2007. Accessed April 5, 2007
Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. Fear of the Unknown: Enlightened Aid-In-Dying. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995. Questia. 8 Apr. 2007
Buddhism, Tibetan Book of the Dead. 2007. Accessed April 6, 2007
Obeyesekere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002. Questia. 8 Apr. 2007