Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices

Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices

Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices

Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices

Synopsis

This book describes and analyses the structure and performance of Tibetan Buddhist death rituals, and situates that performance within the wider context of Buddhist death practices generally. Drawing on a detailed and systematic comparative survey of existing records of Tibetan funerary practices, including historical travel accounts, anthropological and ethnographic literature, Tibetan texts and academic studies, it demonstrates that there is no standard form of funeral in Tibetan Buddhism, although certain elements are common.

The structure of the book follows the twin trajectories of benefiting the deceased and protecting survivors; in the process, it reveals a rich and complex panoply of activities, some handled by religious professionals and others by lay persons. This information is examined to identify similarities and differences in practices, and the degree to which Tibetan Buddhist funeral practices are consistent with the mortuary rituals of other forms of Buddhism. A number of elements in these death rites which at first appear to be unique to Tibetan Buddhism may only be 'Tibetan' in their surface characteristics, while having roots in practices which pre-date the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet.

Filling a gap in the existing literature on Tibetan Buddhism, this book poses research challenges that will engage future scholars in the field of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Anthropology.

Excerpt

What happens when a Buddhist Tibetan dies? Funerary rites are extremelydone when a Buddhist Tibetan dies, rather than what texts say is (or should be) done. Buddhism is not just a matter of texts: it is embodied and enacted, it has form and movement. Examination of a text without taking into account its location within the framework of actual performance will lead to as incomplete an understanding of Tibetan Buddhism as the study of a ritual without reference to the text which underpins and forms an integral part of it.

There has as yet been no comprehensive study of the enactment of Tibetan Buddhist death rituals, no source of information of which we can say, ‘This is the starting point: we know this much, we can begin our investigation from here.’ This book fills the gap, by examining existing reports of funeral rituals in Tibetan Buddhism to determine the present state of our knowledge as to their structure and performance. In so doing, it provides a basis for further research into the many ritual practices surrounding death.

It does not attempt to be the definitive word on ‘how Tibetan Buddhists do funerals’. The material studied shows clearly that there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ form of funeral in the Buddhism of Tibet. There certainly are common elements, but these common elements are not always handled in the same (or even a similar) way, nor do all such elements always appear. There may be significant differences in death rites, depending on factors including (but not limited to) geographic location, ethnic make-up of the subject population, the social standing of the deceased, the school of Tibetan Buddhism in which the deceased may have practised or with which they had a connection (or to which the presiding lama belongs), and the historical time frame.

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