Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet

Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet

Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet

Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist Popular Narratives of Death and the Afterlife in Tibet

Synopsis

In Travels in the Netherworld, Bryan J. Cuevas examines a fascinating but little-known genre of Tibetan narrative literature about the d,lok, ordinary men and women who claim to have died, traveled through hell, and then returned from the afterlife. These narratives enjoy audiences rangingfrom the most sophisticated monastic scholars to pious townsfolk, villagers, and nomads. Their accounts emphasize the universal Buddhist principles of impermanence and worldly suffering, the fluctuations of karma, and the feasibility of obtaining a favorable rebirth through virtue and merit.Providing a clear, detailed analysis of four vivid return-from-death tales, including the stories of a Tibetan housewife, a lama, a young noble woman, and a Buddhist monk, Cuevas argues that these narratives express ideas about death and the afterlife that held wide currency among all classes offaithful Buddhists in Tibet.Relying on a diversity of traditional Tibetan sources, Buddhist canonical scriptures, scholastic textbooks, ritual and meditation manuals, and medical treatises, in addition to the d,.lok works themselves, Cuevas surveys a broad range of popular Tibetan Buddhist ideas about death and dying. Heexplores beliefs about the vulnerability of the soul and its journey beyond death, karmic retribution and the terrors of hell, the nature of demons and demonic possession, ghosts, and reanimated corpses. Cuevas argues that these extraordinary accounts exhibit flexibility between social and religiouscategories that are conventionally polarized and concludes that, contrary to the accepted wisdom, such rigid divisions as elite and folk, monastic and lay religion are not sufficiently representative of traditional Tibetan Buddhism on the ground. This study offers innovative perspectives on popularreligion in Tibet and fills a gap in an important field of Tibetan literature.

Excerpt

Though warned by the divine messengers,
Full many are the negligent,
And people may sorrow long indeed
Once gone down to the lower world.
But when by the divine messengers
Good people here in this life are warned,
They do not dwell in ignorance
But practise well the noble Dhamma.

Devadūta-sutta

Writing in 1928 of his travels in Tibet, Charles Bell makes reference in passing to a brief but noteworthy encounter on the streets of Lhasa: “Now and then in Tibet is to be found a man or woman who claims to have risen from the dead. Such a one is known as De-lok, ‘Passed away and returned.’ I met a de-lok one day on the Lhasa ling-kor behind the Potala.” Bell continues, “She was an old woman from eastern Tibet, and she claimed to have come back to life five or six days after she had died. So she sat by the Sacred Way reading prayers, and pious pilgrims gave her alms. Tibetans always respect a miracle, though they are not unduly surprised by it.”

What sort of “miracle” was this woman whom Charles Bell met behind the Potala? Who were the délok in Tibet, those women and men who had passed away and returned to life? What was the nature and circumstances of their experience? What category of . . .

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