Wednesday, 5 May 2010

And as with all great journeys, they have to end at some point.

Well I hope you have enjoyed reading about the differnet styles of death rituals that Buddhism offers. I really enjoyed doing research into all of them and would like to do more; however as usual time is against us and already another year at uni is finishing.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Time to visit Nepal and the Tamang religion!

Ever heard of them? I hadn't until I started doing research into Buddhist death rituals. The Tamang group live in the northern regions of the Kathmandu valley with the Newars. The religion of the Tamang is not a clear cut answer like in the West, generally when reading about them, the anthropologists who have done the research say that their religion is a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism and also a mix of cultural/traditional paganism. They have very close ties with the Tibetan people; during the 8th century the Tibetan King used them as boarder patrol to protect the people and lands of Tibet. In Tibetan, the word Tamang means: 'horse warriors'.

Within Tamang society, the death rituals are considered to be the most important ritual out of all of them; for this reason Buddhist Lamas are used by the society to perform them. Like the people in Ladakh, the central aspect of the ritual revolves around the death feast. It is the Buddhist Lamas job to conduct these large scale death feasts, throughout the feast, the Lamas are busy 'rescuing' the dead souls and helping them achieve rebirth.

Some Buddhist monks are celibate, single men; this is a common factor that can be found through almost all the worlds monastic orders. However the Tamang Lamas are always married family men, during the ritual they don red robes, chant the sacred Tibetan texts and have scroll paintings out on display.

An interesting little point I found out about the Tamang Lamas. Whilst they are married family men, and are expected to help out and work on the farm like everyone else; they are exempt from the ploughing! I've no idea why this is, there was no reason in the ethnography but I think that its one of those funny little facts in life.

Due to the nature of the environment, and the fact that the living still have to eat, the death feasts are always carried out at the dry season. The rest of the year everyone else has to work the land in order to gain food to eat and sell in order for the society to survive. For this reason, the funeral feast for the dead person can take place months after the actual death has taken place. It is usually held in one of the empty fields that has recently been stripped of its crops; at the centre of the field a large brightly coloured alter is placed. The Lamas place at the ritual is next to the alter at all times.

Tamang societies view death as a social creation. It is normally during the death feasts that potential marriage couple form, so with that in mind it is understandable that these death feasts are conducted for adults only. Within my research I can across no mention of what happens to the children. At the ritual all connection between the dead and the living are separated, from then on once the separation is complete the living no longer have to fear the wraith of the dead.

It is not something that we really discuss or think about in the Western world - relationships between the living and the dead. The Tamang take this very seriously, the whole point of this death ritual is to keep the happy thoughts between the living and the dead happy! If the deceased soul does not achieve a good rebirth then the group that was responsible for completing that ritual are normally plagued with bad luck. This is where the Lamas come into play; it is up to them to ensure the safety of both the living and the dead. During the funeral feast, the Lamas will call forth the 9 bla (shadow souls) that inhabit the body. After removing them from the body he combines them all together so that they form just 1 bla who can then be reborn.

It is imperative that this happens otherwise the bla will get angry and then everyone suffers.

As you can see, the topic of death rituals is very interesting, each culture has their own reasons for doing it but at the end it is always for the same reason. To maintain a good relationship between the living and the dead.

For more information on the subject of Tamang death rituals: By David Holmberg.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Death Rituals in Ladakh

The second death ritual that we shall encounter comes from a little Indo-Himalayan border village; Achinathang in Ladakh.

The main aspects of this death ritual focuses on the shi-zan, funeral feast. This is where the whole community gathers after the death has taken place; and helps the soul gain a decent rebirth. For the funeral feast, a large loaf of wheat bread is made, this could be a nod to the Christian Communion but I could find no evidence to suggest this.

Before the bread is passed around the group, part of it is broken off and dropped onto the ground; this is for the dead person. Not really sure what it is symbolic of; it could be to pacify the deceased soul before it proceeds to the rebirth. This is one of the weaknesses of Ravina Aggarwal work, she mentions some really interesting stuff in her accounts but fails to go in depth and ask the questions that would gain her the insights of knowledge.

After the funeral feast has taken place, the mourning rituals last for 49 days, as is the customary time length for a Buddhist death ritual. During the period of time, the entire populace of the village is under the caution of ritual pollution. The basic understanding of this concept is that any ritual performed whilst being ritually unclean results in the ritual being void. Ergo if any important rituals are carried out during this condition then they will fail and this could have extremely bad consequences on the society.

Ravina Aggarwal notes that:
The actions of living people have a lasting impact on the fate of the dead which must be decided within 49 days.

For the people in Ladakh, the funeral feast marks the 'transmigration'
of the soul from death to rebirth. If something was to go wrong during this ritual then the transition can harm the chances of a successful rebirth. Everything must go smoothly or else the living and the dead will suffer.

Again, this is the common theme that runs throughout all death rituals.

More information can be found in this journal:

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Mongolian Death Rituals

The 1st ethnographic example that we shall look at is in Mongolia. The people of Mongolia have a long and sometimes complex nature with Buddhism. At one point, the Tibetan King hired to the Mongolians to protect the outside boarders of Tibet.

Like many cultures, the rituals that are most important to the people are the death rituals. And like many other cultures that have embraced Buddhism, traditional rituals have been mixed in with Buddhist thought creating a rather unique way of performing the rituals.

The main points of a Mongolian Death Ritual:

- Mongolians have embraced the Buddhist way of viewing death, so for them death is a good thing. It is what they understand as an 'eternal' truth. In order to ready oneself for death, all material objects must be given away. You have to distance yourself from every material item you once owned. Whilst this is a very hard thing to do, it is common place for the older people to gradually give away their possessions so that when their time of death is near they only have 1 or 2 objects left.

- The reason that Mongolians place so much emphasis on the possession of objects is because a person who still has some at their time of death cannot die. This is due to the Buddhist notion of desire, they crave life even when their own is filled with pain and unhappiness they still want to live on.

- Even after death the soul is still attached to the life that it has just lost. According to the Mongolians this is shown through a 'refuge thing'. Now, before anyone says that it doesn't exactly sound technical, it is the best translation that the anthropologist could come up with. At the point of death, the soul leaves the body and hides inside a random object of the deceased, this is normally an everyday object that was always used; like a watch or glasses.
The only problem with this is that nobody knows, not even the dead person, what object the soul will choose to hide in. in order to identify the object, the family of the deceased must visit the village Astrologer who will read the skies then hint at what the object could be. It is normally from this hinting that that the family understand what the object is. Once recovered, the item is either destroyed or given away.

- If the 'refuge thing' is not removed from the body/household then their will be no rebirth for the soul. This would be very harmful for the living as the dead would then plague the living with bad luck. So by doing this small ritual, the Mongolians are protecting the living and the dead from suffering. This is a come reason throughout many cultures for performing death rituals.

Here is the artical that that I based my resaerch from:

Friday, 30 April 2010

General Overview

As I have just finished writing an essay on this topic, a lot of the information that will (hopefully) appear here will be similar to the essay. Why do to lots of research?!

In order to get a clear understanding of what a 'true Buddhist death ritual' is, you have to go through a lot of ethnographic accounts. After doing all this you will then realise that in actual fact there is no such thing as a 'true Buddhist death ritual'.

It works like this; most, if not all societies have their own traditions and practices. Within these are death rituals, and at the beginning they have nothing to do with Buddhism, it is only after Buddhism has been introduced and embraced by a culture does a Buddhist influenced death ritual appear.

When I did my research into the differences between the death rituals, I focused on three different places:




Each group had their own rituals and ideas, they also shared some common themes with each other.

Thursday, 29 April 2010


Hi, welcome to my new blog. This is the first time that I have ever tried working with modern technology.

Part of the Encountering Buddhism course that I'm doing at the University of Aberdeen requires me to to do an online presentation as part of completing the course.

As I lack the skills and the patience to learn how to make my own web page, I have decided to try using a blog. This could work well or it could go horrible wrong!