Sunday, January 19, 2014

Death and Mourning in Tibet

All of us could learn from Tibetans and from Karjam's family something about how to handle death and mourning. It was amazing, absolutely amazing to me, as a Western person, how the family was able to deeply honor Apa Lorae, but also continue to be happy and full of laughter, and remember him in a really good way. Of course, each death is different, how a person dies and the life the person has lived really impacts how the survivors handle the death. In Apa Lorae's case he was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer, already spread to the liver, in September. This gave the family some time to prepare, mentally and practically, for his passing. That time to prepare, obviously, helped everyone. I think Tibetans would kick Western ass at dealing with a death in the family in the case of a sudden death, too, but that was not what happened in this case.

By the end Apa Lorae was in a lot of pain, and very weak, only able to take a few spoonfuls of broth or milk. He had to ask someone to shift his body every twenty minutes or so, and according to Karjam, not everyone was able to do it to his satisfaction, so in those last weeks Karjam was by his side, especially all night long, as Apa Lorae only slept a few minutes at a time, to help him. He retained his mental acuity until the morning of his death, and Karjam had some very touching stories of the things he said. Although he had been living in a house in the village, when he was preparing to die they moved him to Tubko (his second son)'s winter house in the grasslands-- a house where at night the yaks were tied up, and the sheep gathered close. He spent a lot of time on the glassed-in porch, looking out across the grasslands, and soaking in the sun (the Tibetan sun is very very bright and if you're protected from the wind, such as on a glassed-in porch, even with single pane glass, during the day you'll stay quite warm in the sun). As had been his lifelong habit he was able to continue fingering his prayer beads, and spinning a hand-held prayer wheel. Monks also came and visited and chanted with him, a lama placing his hand on Apa Lorae's head and chanting-- in other words he prepared well for his death. The day before his death it was one of those gorgeous mornings where temperature inversion causes a fog to lift off the land and swirl in the sun, making the landscape magical. Karjam told his dad how it looked, and his dad told him "dear one, you must take a photo." This touched Karjam very deeply, because he felt that even as he was too weak to move on his own, his father was thinking outside his own reality (he's never used a camera in his life), and placing himself within Karjam's world and the things that were of importance to Karjam.

On the morning of his death Karjam saw a sudden change in him, physically, and was able to call together most of the family to be there as he took his last breaths (there was a little less than an hour between when they called everyone and the actual passing). At this point he no longer appeared to be mentally engaged with his surroundings, but the family held him and Tubko chanted the long form of the mantra for Tara very loudly, telling Apa Lorae to hold on to the sound of his voice. Karjam was very complimentary about how perfectly his brother did this-- the exact words someone should have in their ears as they pass to the next realm. Contrast that with wailing and crying and you have a very powerful image, just in that moment.

After someone dies there are 49 days during which they have not yet moved onto their next life, and during those days the business of their life needs to be settled (as well as all the funeral processes taken care of). The first 21 days are the most important of those days. I arrived in Ahwencang on the 20th day, so I missed most of this.

The body (after death) could not be touched by any of Apa Lorae's children, because symbolically this is equated with having killed your father. Two people were selected to take care of this process, one of whom was chosen by Apa Lorae himself, Dorsey (son of Zhyibuk, Apa Lorae's first son). Dorsey is full of failings, and I am so mad at him on some levels (as are others in the family), but he had a very close bond with Apa Lorae and his heart is very good. He and another relative prepared the body (and later they had to be specially spiritually cleansed). Karjam described how Dorsey was extremely protective of Apa Lorae's body, making sure that something that might hurt a live person did not happen to him in death (protecting from bumps in the road when they drove the body to Xiahe to be cremated, for example). They did decide to cremate the body, a decision that Apa Lorae made with them, because even though Tubko's house is on the land with the sky burial site in Ahwencang, unlike other areas of Tibet there is no special person who is a "body breaker" to prepare the body to be eaten by vultures, instead in Ahwencang family members (but not children) take this job. It's emotionally not easy. Karjam's family, relatively modern, opted for cremation and spreading his ashes at a lot of sites, including the sky burial site in Ahwencang, where they also ritually erected a prayer flag offering for Apa Lorae (around the 10th day, I'm not exactly sure). That prayer flag offering is the closest thing to a headstone he will have.

According to everyone Ama Dunmajhet cried once after Apa Lorae's death, when something that one visitor said really struck home for her. A large number of people who felt the need continually visit the house (especially during the first 21 days) after the death to offer their support to the family, and express their love of the deceased. It's very bad form if certain people do not visit, certainly the family is not left alone, nor do people just bring a casserole and then quickly leave after an awkward and strained silence. The family is constantly entertaining for those 21 days. People may speak of how great the deceased was, and the deceased can be the topic of conversation, or not.

Although people don't bring casseroles, they can support the family by bringing meat (carcasses, or parts of carcasses) because during the YEAR after his death the family cannot kill or sell any of their animals. They can buy meat, and eat meat, but they cannot kill. This, of course, is quite inconvenient when you have to provide meat for all the guests that keep coming, and all the monks performing different ceremonies (such as that already described on this blog). I was rather fascinated with the no-kill idea, and kept trying to figure out who it extended to. It's a bit of a grey area. Definitely all the households of all Apa Lorae's children (that's 8 households) and the grandchildren who have lived with him (none of those have independent households yet) are included, but whether or not other grandchildren (many of whom do have independent households) are included is less defined. I never asked if his sister's household (he only had one sibling, Jabu's mother) would also be on the no-kill list. I also wondered what happened if then another family member died before one year was up. Would a nomad family with an increasingly large herd be prevented from killing or selling (that's their source of income) any animals for two years? [This is a tangent, sorry.]

After someone dies a special monk (not a lama), who has extensive training will determine what sort of life they've lived and what sort of ceremonies and chants are needed to atone for any problems with their life to help prepare them for a good rebirth. I kept trying to push Karjam to give me more information about how this monk would know-- "do they ask the family if he lived a good life?" but what Karjam knew was that the monk was able to calculate this based on spiritual powers, more or less. Apparently no one ever thinks this has been done "wrong." In the case of someone like Apa Lorae, well known for being generous and unconcerned with material wealth (he never learned to tell one piece of money from another), as well as an extremely ardent Buddhist (taking pilgrimages, circumambulating the temple, chanting constantly), the various ceremonies the monks needed to do were relatively "easy" -- the types of things that many monks are authorized to do (not more advanced and specialized ceremonies). A neighbor died while I was in Ahwencang and Karjam said he heard that family was having a really hard time because the ceremonies they needed monks to do were very hard to find monks for, often needing lamas to lead them, and that was expensive and difficult to organize, and the family was scrambling to get it all done during the 21 days (and might not be able to).

I think that being so busy dealing with guests and ceremonies helps to keep the family from dwelling on loss in a bad way. Western death needs more ceremony! It needs more acknowledgement. Don't just send that family home from the funeral to dwell and fester on what they forgot to say or do during the departed's lifetime! Also Apa Lorae meant to finish certain Buddhist tasks (spinning a certain prayer wheel at the temple X number of times, or circumambulating a certain prayer hall at another temple X number of times, or doing X number of prostrations at X site) and didn't, so these tasks were taken by the family to be finished during the 49 days, as a sort of last gift to Apa Lorae, they were doing these instead of him to help him acquire even more merit for his rebirth. I feel like these actions helped in the mourning process, too. Especially Tubko's children were very active with this (Tubko's family is the family line, the family that has taken over Apa Lorae's herd, etc. and that he's lived with). Having something to do for the dead after they've left is another really good thing the Tibetans have that Western culture doesn't. I do 108 prostrations a day for Apa Lorae. This is not a lot, per se, but it has been tough at times (when I'm sick, when I'm on the road). The prostrations allow me to think on Apa Lorae and actively and intently visualize his wonderful rebirth. Apa Lorae was one of the best people I've ever met, and so close to attaining enlightenment, so just perfectly good, so I've been hoping that in his next life he has the opportunity to really focus on spiritual cultivation.

Final point I want to make, since I've been writing this when I need to get work done now that I'm back in Korea, is that the family is fine. They're still happy. They lost Apa Lorae, but at his age (first half of his 70s), and due to the time to prepare after the diagnosis, they accept it as natural (when first diagnosed Karjam was really upset, because he felt he'd screwed up by not getting his father fully checked in order to detect something in advance). For them death is a serious thing, with ritual and rules that will govern their lives for the next year, but life goes on, not as some tear-soaked tragedy, but with beautiful memories. I spent that time with Karjam's family and never once did I feel an aura of sadness, pain, or grief. Days after they've lost the family patriarch, and no grief. There is a lot we can learn from that.

*   Below, yet more momo are prepared for yet more guests.



Ahyangtso


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