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The Llewellyn Journal

Death and Undeath in Tibet

This article was written by Richard S. Ehrlich
posted under Afterlife

On his third visit during the past 15 years, Richard S. Ehrlich recently spent one month in Tibet, including three weeks in Lhasa and a week in Gyantse and Xigatse

Dying, voodoo-esque Tibetan Buddhist lamas may be entering other people’s corpses, animating the flesh, and living happily ever after, even better than zombies. Similar to Frankenstein’s monster, the lamas are said to keep their own personalities and memories while residing under someone else’s skin. The Dalai Lama is intrigued.
The Dalai Lama believes that when his tutor died, the teacher was able to prevent his own corpse from decomposing for almost two weeks. Experts from Columbia University, Berkeley University, and elsewhere were so intrigued by the Dalai Lama’s insights that they spent one week with him in 1987 to ask about the possibility of living in corpses and other inconceivable behavior.
The Dalai Lama told them, “Through tantric technique, the meditator is able to transfer his consciousness into a dead body. Because the meditator hasn’t actualized the clear light state of death, meaning he hasn’t gone through the process of death, he is able to retain the knowledge gathered during his lifetime. Memory is not brain. Anyway, it’s a mere hypothesis from the Buddhist point of view. So it has to be experimented with,” the Dalai Lama added, laughing.
People cannot, however, achieve immortality by jumping from body to body. “A total change of the (dead) physical body takes place, but the lifespan of the (living) person is said to be the same,” the Dalai Lama added.
Participants in the spirited dialogue included Columbia University Computer Sciences Professor Dr. Newcomb Greenleaf, plus Berkeley University’s cognitive scientist Eleanor Rosch and San Diego University’s brain development expert Dr. Robert Livingston. Naropa Institute’s Dr. Jeremy Hawyard, along with French neurobiologist Dr. Francisco Varela of the École Polytechnique in Paris, also attended.

Clear Light Through Sex
Deep meditators can “see the events of their past lives,” according to the Dalai Lama. Ordinary people can, at least, attain low-level near-death awareness and “clear light”-through sex.
The Dalai Lama told the experts, “There are four ordinary occasions when a very gross form of clear light arises: at the moments of yawning, sneezing, falling asleep, and orgasm. Orgasm is the strongest of the four ordinary occasions in which clear light appears, and so it is used in meditation to extend the experience of the emergence of clear light, to clarify the experience and make it more vivid.”
The Dalai Lama said some lamas who die keep “very subtle consciousness” in their own corpse to prevent their bodies from spoiling after the expiration date.
“As a result, the body doesn’t decompose while the self is in the clear light [of] final dissolution,” he said. “Some people can remain in that state for a week or more. For example, the late Kyabjey Ling Rinpochey, my tutor, remained in the state of clear light for 13 days, and his body remained very fresh.” The Tibetan-English Dictionary of Buddhist Terminology defines how to achieve new lifeinside a dead person.
“The practice of entering a corpse: An exalted tantric practice through which a yogi, having gained control of his energy winds and mind, purposely abandons his body and transfers his consciousness into another serviceable corpse. This enables him to maintain his life even after the break-up of his original body, in order to fulfill the purpose of other sentient beings. “The great yogi Dharma Dhode, the son of Lama Marpa, is said to have demonstrated this practice.”
This is similar to traditional voodoo beliefs elsewhere in the world, most notably in Haiti, where “zombies” come to life when a supernatural power enters into and reanimates a dead body. In the West Indies, however, these zombies are without their own will, and have trouble speaking. Unlike animated Tibetan lamas, zombies appear able to perform only automatic movement.

The Chinese Interpretation
The Chinese who now control Tibet take a more down-to-earth view of Tibetans’ unusual funeral rites. Macabre “sky funerals,” in which dead Tibetans are hacked apart and fed to vultures, attract the most attention.
Throughout Lhasa, capital of Tibet, Chinese security forces have posted English-language signs in hotel rooms and other places where tourists apbpear, warning: “It is forbidden to visit and photo the sky burial site, according to the local government’s regulations for the minority nationality’s habits and customs. The tourist who breaks the regulation will be punished strictly.” During Tibetan sky funerals on Lhasa’s northern edge, machete-wielding undertakers-sometimes drunk on Tibetan chang beer to numb the horror-chop dead people into mincemeat. The ceremony displays the bloody messiness of a slaughterhouse outdoors atop a large flat boulder behind Sera Monastery. Ropes are tied to corpses’ necks and knotted around big rocks, to prevent the bodies from sliding off the blood-wet boulder.
The undertakers also hammer the corpses’ bones and mix the powdered bones with human meat, so nothing is left after the vultures eat. To ensure a delicious feast, undertakers add “tsampa” barley and yak butter to flavor the diced dead. Lighting small campfires to make attractive, billowing smoke, the undertakers signal scores of circling, chubby, shiny-feathered vultures to devour the mash in an all-they-can-eat frenzy atop the gray, flat rock. As a chilling backdrop, Tibet’s dreaded Chinese-built, Drapchi Prison sprawls nearby.
Paintings on Tibetan monastery walls detailing the life of Buddha also depict Tibet’s sky funerals, with pictures of Egyptian-looking vultures munching people’s internal organs-akin to the medieval paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Death and dying are attractive career choices for many Tibetan mystics. For example, the “ten innermost jewels” of Tibetan Buddhism’s Kadampa tradition include “entrusting” yourself to poverty and, ultimately, “entrusting yourself to death as the extreme consequence of poverty, and entrusting yourself to an empty cave as the simplest place to die,” the terminology text says. While dropping out, you undergo “self-expulsion from human society,” and achieve two extremes, “finding the company of dogs and attaining heavenly status.” The unique dress code for a Tibetan Buddhist ascetic who dwells in a cemetery-also known as a cemetery yogi-includes being crowned with human skulls. He wears an elephant skin as an upper garment and wears a tiger skin as his lower garment. Cryptically, the text adds, he uses the skin of a human.
Buddhists like to reflect on the end of existence as we know it, because such thoughts can bring realization that life is but a dream. To perceive this, some lamas practice “nine points of meditation on ugliness.” As defined by the Tibetan dictionary, these include the reflective “perception of a swollen corpse,” a worm-eaten corpse, a festering corpse, a bloody corpse, a bluish corpse, a corpse being devoured, a scattered corpse, a burnt corpse, and a poisonous corpse.

Even Gods May Die
In the Tibetan universe, even gods drop dead. As a result, gods should also heed foul omens before it is too late, according to the text. “The five signs of imminent death for a god: Number one, they lose luster and brightness of their body. Number two, they dislike to sit on their cushions. Number three, their garlands fade away. Number four, their robes are worn out and smell bad. Number five, their body is covered with sweat.”
Tibetans claim that all of us have come back from the dead and have been reborn many times, though we have forgotten. The famous Tibetan Book of the Dead warns all people to select the best new womb next time. The book, which dates back to the ninth century, is described as “testimony” of holy men who “claim to have died and re-entered the human womb consciously.”
After you die, “Thou wilt see thine own home, the attendants, relatives, and the corpse (of yourself) and think, ‘Now I am dead! What shall I do?’ and being oppressed with intense sorrow, the thought will occur to thee, ‘O what would I not give to possess a body!’ And so thinking, thou wilt be wandering hither and thither seeking a body. Put aside the desire for a body.”
Ideally, an undertaker or “officiant” should whisper instructions into your dead ears for up to 49 days-even if you died deaf-to help you avoid entering the wrong “womb-door” or, worse, following the road to Hell. You should have freed yourself from the cycle of rebirth, but only enlightened people achieve that. Most likely, wombs all over the world will be attracting you, wherever sperm and ovum unite.

When Is the Next Womb?
“Thou wilt see visions of males and females in union,” the Tibetan Book of the Dead reveals. “Remember to withhold thyself from going between them,” because then you will be conceived.
“Do not enter into any sort of womb which may come by,” it adds. Be wary, because the lures of some wombs may be tricks, which can result in your being reincarnated as a beast. “In selecting the womb-door thus, there is a possibility of error: through the influence of karma, good wombs may appear bad, and bad wombs may appear good.”
For souls who fail to heed this advice, the ancient teachings predict: “Encased in oval form, in the embryonic state, and upon emerging from the womb and opening its eyes, it may find itself transformed into a young dog. Formerly it had been a human being, but now, if it has become a dog, it findeth itself undergoing sufferings in a dog’s kennel. Or perhaps a pig in a pigsty, or as an ant in an ant-hill.”

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