49 days- a Buddhist Funeral

They started mowing the lawn at 10 p.m. The Dasho is dead.

Our little Rabten family had lost their Apa (father). The funeral preparation began immediately. The King sent a truckload of army men to help construct the alter and set up the funeral tents. Family members worked alongside the camouflaged men until 3 a.m. We woke to a small tented village in the center of our tranquil compound. Aunts and cousins were rushing back and forth trying to organize breakfast for the troops, monks wandered around in crimson cloaks, hanging yellow and orange ribbons from the roof of the new alter, mounting rainbow checked flags and banners. Once the grounds were duly prepared and the alter finished, the body was brought in.

The body is placed in a seated, meditative position, then enclosed within the alter. The alter is adorned with flowers and vases of water, bowls of food, candies, drinks. The perfume of incense travels on the wind. Butter lamps burn from day to night. The lighting of these lamps is an important and very symbolic practice in Buddhism. The burning of the physical matter (clarified yak butter) transforming into energy, provides light in the dark. It is both a literal and metaphorical symbol of illumination; of the eradication of ignorance, the dispelling of darkness. The lamps are lit in prayer and dedication to serve as a guide; a beacon for all sentient beings to rise from the shadows of their suffering.

Dasho Singkhar Lam Kunzang Wangchuck passed away on October 16th at the age of 86 with his guru and family at his side. Recognized as a reincarnated Rinpoche, the Dasho lived a long spiritual life. The Dasho received Royal recognition as one of the most influential figures of his time, serving under both the Second and Third Kings during a period of great political and economic change in Bhutan. As the Himalayan Kingdom made it's first steps into the world of international politics, Dasho Singkhar played an integral role in helping the country form itself as a nation, designing the national flag of Bhutan and many of the seals and shields depicted throughout the Kingdom as well as the Army's official emblem. He is said to have had a keen artistic eye and a natural  grace in the traditional dances. After suffering a stroke ten years ago which left half of his body paralyzed, he dedicated his life largely to spiritual practice and the study of the Bardo Thodol (known in the Western world as the Tibetan Book of the Dead).

 ***The intricacies involved in the Buddhist death rites are overwhelming and extremely confusing, especially for an outsider. A lifetime of dedication and study is required to understand the background and purpose of these rituals. Many practicing Buddhists and even some of the monks do not fully understand the meanings behind the innumerable prayers and rituals that take place. I do not pretend to even begin to comprehend the vast world of Buddhist samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth), and here attempt only to relate some of the information as it has been explained to me over the past several weeks.***

Upon death, the monks immediately begin reading from the Bardo, which serves as a guide for the dead, helping him to first recognize that he is no longer connected to a physical body and then providing instructions on how to navigate through the various stages of afterlife on the path to rebirth. It is believed that during the first four days, the deceased is not yet aware that he is dead. He is still with us, in a state of trance, watching in confusion as his house overflows with activity. During these first days, while the soul (consciousness) is in the first stage of bardo, it is important that the family keep a sense of 'normalcy'; meals are served three times a day, emotions are subdued. The family's role is to help their deceased recognize his new state and to help that person detach from their former life. Negative emotions can confuse the deceased; the family must try not to cry in public as that will make it harder for the dead to leave this world and their loved ones behind.

The Buddhist funeral last for 49 days. The first seven days are of great importance as the consciousness passes through the first stage described as the Clear Light bardo where it is said the dead is faced with a brilliant light. (A person who lived as a spiritual seeker, having dutifully studied the Bardo Thodol and practiced deep meditation may be able to recognize the light, welcoming rather than fearing it. This soul will enter into the realm of enlightened beings, breaking the cycle of rebirth and entering into the eternal Nirvana- a state of no death, no birth.)  The soul that flees from this light, failing to access the first spiritual realm, then passes into the second Bardo, described as a marshland of terrifying demons and emotional turmoil. Recognizing that they are no longer part of the physical world, the soul must confront the many projections of the mind, shaped by the emotional patterns formed in their previous life. Here, the accumulated karma is weighed; the merits of a life lived fully or of a life lived in ignorance, determining the next rebirth.

The consciousness of the deceased is believed to be highly clairvoyant, especially during the first 21 days following the death of the body. This is a powerful time to perform spiritual ceremonies as the bonds between the dead and living remain strong. The transferring of merit to the dead becomes the sole occupation of the family, providing an opportunity to assist their loved one into liberation or a favorable rebirth while allowing space for the living grief to transform into positive action.

The average person is believed to spend around 45 days in the second bardo. The final stage of bardo is the stage of reincarnation, where the soul is pulled into its next body. The most desired reincarnation is into the physical world because it offers the most opportunities for spiritual learning and growth. Those persons who accumulated bad karma may be reborn into one of five alternate worlds, believed inferior to obtaining a human body in the material plane, as there is little chance for creativity and generating good karma. Every seven days the soul undergoes judgement, until the 49th day when the final verdict is given and the world one will be reborn into is decided. There is a great ceremony held on this day, and again on the 100th day, 1 year and 3 year anniversaries.

It has been an honor to witness the proceedings of the last few weeks. At night I open the windows to let in the music of the drums and chanting voices. In the mornings we wake to the peaceful song of the horns. It is sad yet beautiful and encouraging to watch the comings and goings of the many people who loved and respected Apa. Even without knowing him, it is clear that he lived a good and honest life. The family has been so gracious and welcoming even during this time of great pain. We are invited every day to eat and sit for the pujas (a devotional ceremony where monks recite mantras and prayers giving offerings of flowers, incense, candles). A fire burns every night, the sounds of stories intertwine with the chants of the monks. High lamas and Queens alike come to pay their respects as great grandchildren run around laughing, oblivious to the solemn faces surrounding them.

Kyichu Lhakhang

On a cold October morning, long before sunrise, the body was placed in a new alter in the back of a truck. The Dasho is being taken to Paro to be cremated at the Kyichu Lhakhang, Bhutan's oldest and most auspicious monastery. Behind our car is a long, winding tail of headlights slowly making its way along the curving mountain road. We arrive to the monastery just after 7a.m. The tents overlooking the monastery are already set up and quickly hot butter tea and rice are served, first to the monks, then to the guests. The clouds hang low overhead. Many of us are not dressed for such weather as we assumed the sun would soon come out as it always does to burn away the morning clouds and heat the earth with its intense rays. But not today. Today is not a day for such sunshine. A cold mist is suspended in the air, snow can be seen on the surrounding peaks, bearing silent witness to the chants and horns of the monks. It is an auspicious sign.

a boy spins prayer wheels
 a stranger's laughter, life goes on
a group gathers at the monastery

one of the alters outside the cremation tent
The Dasho's wife, affectionately called Ama (mother) by almost everyone, even her peers, seems stoic but her soft eyes betray her composure. The youngest daughter, Choki is unable to hide the grief behind her cordial efforts to make sure we are comfortable. There is much prayer and ceremony conducted by the High Lamas. After an elaborate lunch the fire is lit.

Sticks of incense are passed around to all the guests. Much of the family sits inside the tent while the body burns, somehow able to endure the suffocating smoke. Before walking into the tent I say a silent prayer of gratitude for the family who so selflessly invited a stranger to participate in their most private and sacred of ceremonies. My eyes immediately burn and it is hard to breathe. On a raised alter in the center of the tent sits a small figure, hunched under many cloaks and robes, crowned with a ceremonial hat. The fire under him gains strength as each stick of incense is added to the logs. We walk around the body clockwise before exiting though the opposite door. I walk up the hill, needing fresh air.

The scene is absolutely captivating. Indeed the weather is perfect for such a day. The clouds moving ever so slowly in the background seem to have been foretelling the billowing smoke that now fills the horizon. The fire burns all day and all night. In the morning the ashes are gathered and dumped into the river, the remaining bones collected and ground into powder to be formed into small cones that will then be blessed and taken to sacred places, high in the mountains.

smoke meets clouds
At home, the pujas continued until the 21st day. The tents were then taken down, and only a few monks remained to continue their prayers in the alter room of the main house. Quiet has returned to the compound. Now that the physical body is gone, the eight volumes of the Books of Buddha must be read before the 49th day. This work is contracted out to several monasteries. In December, the family will travel to village of Ura in the Bumthang region, where the Dasho grew up. There they will dedicate a statue in honor of their husband and father and the final ceremonies will be held on the 49th day when it is believed that the soul will have completed it's cycle of rebirth. The mourning process will endure long after the last rituals are performed but Buddhists view this grieving as an opportunity for loved ones to examine his or her own life and find meaning in it. Grief teaches us about compassion and can provide motivation for a more dedicated spiritual practice. 

This experience has been one of the most enlightening and humbling of all my travels. There is nothing more real in this life than death. In the West we are often taught not to talk or think about death, as if this will help us to avoid it some day. As I see it, Buddhism is essentially a lifelong preparation for death; like the yogic savasana, where we come to "practice dying" ( an often said quote from my yoga teacher, Stacy.) The acknowledgement of impermanence lies at the core of Buddhist teachings; "If one knows that everything is impermanent, one does not grasp (hope), and if one does not grasp, one will not think in terms of having or lacking and therefore one lives fully." This perspective allows for much insight into what we hold as 'ours'; the things and people that we label as belonging to us, to this world. When viewed as fleeting, every aspect of life, every emotion becomes simpler. Of course we will never be immune to grief and pain when someone we love leaves us, but viewing the world through this macro lens does provide a wider understanding of what this life is about.

"Nothing is ever lost. Nothing is ever gained."

Auspicious, indeed

You can find a very heartfelt personal dedication to Dasho Singkhar Lam here.