Sky burial is a Tibetan custom whereby people dispose of the corpses of their loved ones. This death ritual entails taking the body to a designated site in the mountains where it is left to feed vultures. The Buddhists in Tibet believe that the soul is immortal and that death is only the beginning of a new life. Instead of letting the body vanish naturally, it is better for almsgiving to another kind of life and liberates the soul from the body enabling it to gain entry into rebirth. The method is widely used by common Tibetans.
The Tibetan Sky Burial Process
As this is a very important Buddhist custom, every step has to be undertaken according to the Buddhist burial laws. The following are the steps followed during the Sky Funeral Service:
The Tibetans treat the body of the dead with respect as they try to facilitate a clear transfer of the soul from the body. After death, the body is wrapped carefully with a white traditional cloth. The body is then laid in a cleaned corner in the house where the dead person used to live. According to the traditions, the body is not to be disturbed as this might interrupt the soul’s transition into rebirth.
The body remains in the house for at most five days after which it should be disposed of. During this period, the family invites the monks or the Lamas who read the Holy Scriptures to the dead. It is believed that the reading expels the soul from the body and cleanses it from worldly sins.
b. Body Disposal
The final step of laying the soul to rest is feeding the body to the vultures. The vultures are believed to be holy birds in Tibet as they only devour dead creatures. The family of the dead, therefore, selects a day for the sky burial, calling it a ‘ lucky day.’
Several things happen on Lucky day. The body is unwrapped and bent into a fetal position to symbolize rebirth into another world. The body carrier is then called upon to take the body to the burial site.
The burial site is usually located in the mountains away from the residential areas. The carrier deposits the body of the dead, usually, there are several in number, at the burial site and uses mulberry smoke to attract the starving condors and vultures. The Lamas offer prayers as the vultures devour the corpses.
The practice of Tibetan sky burial is related to the rise of Tibetan Buddhism and the influence of Indian culture. It was brought by the Indian monk Tamba Sanjee to Tibet around the end of the 11th century. He advocated this kind of burial custom and personally went to the celestial burial platform to recite sutras for the dead. He promoted that this was a merit of imitating Sakyamuni’s sacrifice and feeding tigers, which can redeem the sins of one’s life and benefit the reincarnation of the soul. It’s recognized by the Tibetans and came into being as a custom intertwined with Buddhist beliefs.
In the Tibetan culture, it is believed that the Vultures are holy birds. Because unlike other birds of prey such as eagles and hawks, vultures do not kill their prey. They wait until the animal dies before descending on it. Therefore, vultures are called Dakini in Tibetan, which means female deities walking in the air. Regarding sky burials, Tibetan Buddhism believes that lighting mulberry smoke is to pave a colorful road and invite the Dakini to the sky burial platform respectfully. The corpse is used as an offering to worship the gods, praying to redeem the sins of the deceased while alive and asking the gods to bring their souls to reincarnation.
If during the sky burial ceremony, the vultures immediately rush to the corpse, and eating up soon is the most auspicious sign. It means that the dead have no more sin and the rebirth of life will begin again. The dead should have attained all the merits and virtues. If it has not been eaten up, on the contrary, it means that the deceased has committed a major sin during his lifetime, and the soul is difficult to get into reincarnation. The family members will be particularly painful and uneasy. They would burn the remains in presence of Lamas and monks who bless the spirits of the dead through prayers and chants. The chants are meant to free the spirit of the dead from the body and cleanse it of all its sins.
There are several taboos and regulations which have to be adhered to during the burial, failure to which will compromise the transition process of the dead’s soul. Firstly, strangers are not allowed anywhere near the burial site. This is because the presence of strangers will disturb the soul from getting into the bardo.
Family members are also barred from attending the funeral as it is believed that their presence will convince the soul of their dead relative to hang around instead of getting in rebirth. Visitors are greatly advised to keep away from these occasions.
At present, there are several big sky burial platforms in Tibet. The Most famous sky burial platform is Drigung Til Monastery which is situated in Maizhokunggar County; other famous ones still performed sky burial including Samye Temple which is situated in Lhoka and Sera Monastery which is situated on the outskirts of Lhasa. Larung Gar Buddhist Academy is also a very famous celestial burial platform in the Tibetan area, which is located in Sertar County.
Among the three sky burial platforms, Drigung Til Monastery’s sky burial site is the tallest and largest, almost as high as the towering Drigung Til Monastery. In Tibetan, it means the place of eternal life. Legend has it that the founder of Drigung Til Monastery, Jigten Sumgon, announced to the world before he passed away “I have received God’s revelation to build a celestial burial platform in Drigung Til Monastery. The corpses sent here can directly enter the celestial realm and get immortal.