He looked fine, dressed in colorful silk robes and scented with exotic oils, sitting upright in the place where he liked to meditate. He looked even now in a state of deep meditation and inner peace. Incense was lit and the people in the tiny village gathered around him drinking warm bowls of butter tea and eating roasted tsampa. Their way of life was fading away, which made it all the more important for them to remember the old ways because they were the last who would know such things as they knew, and he knew more than any of them.
They had read from the Bardo for three days now, chanting loudly enough so he could hear them and be guided, and they believed he had made the journey safely. He already knew the way from previous journeys, he had assured them, and had prepared himself well in the last days and months. Still they had read, chanted and prayed. Now there was a final journey to make.
When the men said it was time they should think about going as it was becoming light, the man’s wife gave them some hot broth and strips of fresh raw yak to eat and wrapped pieces of dried yak meat in burlap for them to take for later. The men packed the things they would need and then gingerly lowered the man down into a lying position, undressed him and wrapped him again in simple white cloth.
The lama made another prayer and gave the instruction. With great precision, Jamyang delivered a powerful hammer blow to the man’s back that broke his spine. They folded him over double and wrapped him into a bundle, tying it tightly. They strapped him to the back of the most able-bodied among them and headed off into the mountains just as the sun broke in an explosion of golden light at the farthest horizon.
The men breathed heavily as they trudged the narrow trail to the upper plateau. Their fur-lined caps were tied tight on their heads and their robes pulled around them against the morning air. They climbed in silence, carrying their load. This would be easier with a yak, but tradition held that afterwards, the yak must be released, an obligation they could not afford, and so they did the work themselves. They arrived at the plateau to a pristine blue sky and hard ground flickered with icy drops of dew. The sun glistened as it illuminated the brittle air. The men began their solemn task by burning sticks of juniper to attract the birds making circles high overhead, inviting them to come down.
The rogyapa now worked quickly and deliberately but not without levity, talking of their wives and children, of newborn calves and their fond memories of the man they now took to with sharp blades. They turned him face down and separated his hair from his scalp and cut the limbs from his body. They then flayed him to the bone and threw the meat into the flock of birds now surrounding them in a thick black circle. They came alive in a frenzied flurry as they fought over morsels of food and ate ravenously. One of the men took an axe and hacked open the head, prying apart the bone. He scooped out the brain with his hands, mixed it with tsampa and set it aside until they had pulverized the skeleton. That done, they mixed the bone and brain with more tsampa and some ghee and tossed it to the feeding vultures while hawks and smaller birds waited to collect what was left over.
The sun was high in the sky and the air still chill with cold, but the men worked themselves into a sweat and finally sat to take water and a bit of yak meat. It is a bad omen when there is anything left over, and so they sat patiently, watching to make sure all was eaten. Birds circled in and out again as some took their fill and left while others arrived late and scrambled for loose pieces of meat and bits of the sweet ghee mixture. Jamyang felt a whoosh pass his head and looked up into the glittering golden orb sitting in the center of the noon sky. He laughed, knowing his old friend was playing a game with him, showing him how fast he could fly.
About the Author:
Miles White holds a PhD from the University of Washington, where he studied ethnomusicology and Tibetan Buddhist monastic music. He has published a book on hip-hop music and culture in the United States and four volumes of flash fiction. His writing has appeared in Medium, Tahoma Literary Review, Bookends Review, and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Central Europe.
Imaged credit: The Spiritual Master Padmasambhava, Copper Alloy, H 60.3 cm x W 47.6cm x D 33 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)
This 14th century sculpture in copper alloy is of the spiritual master, Guru Padmasambhava. His name means ‘lotus born’; you can see him seated on a lotus throne, signified by the tongue-shaped petals of the lotus flower. In Buddhist tradition, the lotus symbolises purity. Below the lotus seat, is a faceted plinth depicting several images, probably related to Tibetan Buddhism.
The man who became Guru Padmasambhava originated in India, the birthplace of Buddhism. It is said that he was invited to Tibet in the 8th century (747 C.E.) by King Trisong Detsen where he founded the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism – Nying-ma. He is also known as Guru Rinpoche, greatly revered in Tibet for his mysticism and magical powers.
Tibetan Buddhism has other names: Esoteric Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism being the two most common. It is a strand of Buddhism, much like Presbyterianism or Methodism are in Christianity. Suffice it to say, not all Buddhists are Tibetan Buddhists and not all Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although it is the predominant Buddhist strand in Tibet. This strand of Buddhism is also practised in Nepal.
In Buddhist art, it is always enlightening to find the emblems that are associated with the various forms of existing Buddhas that help identify them. (Guru Rinpoche is a Buddha in the Tibetan tradition.) Padmasambhava has eight spiritual forms which devotees pray to depending on where they are in their spiritual meditation or life journey. You may see other depictions of Padmasambhava in his wrathful state/s, making him look very fearsome.
Here, we see the Guru holding a double-vajra in his right hand, signifying universal wisdom. His right hand is also depicted in the abhaya mudra, a hand gesture symbolising ‘fear not’. His left palm is opened in which he holds a kapala (skull-bowl). In the kapala, one will mostly find the Water of Immortality, an elixir symbolising the wisdom gained from rebirth, the wisdom gained from the conscious knowledge and experience of death. In Buddhism, one believes in the ‘Greater Life’ that comes with each cycle of death, finally bringing Nirvana, which ends all cycles of rebirth. Typically, Padmasambhava would be holding a khatvanga, a staff which is missing in this sculpture, that rests on the left side of his body, reaching towards his left shoulder and extending beyond it. The staff is similar to a totem in form: the khatvanga consists (at its base) of a vessel containing the Water of Immortality, two human heads and a skull which symbolises greed, hatred and ignorance that would have been overcome by the knowledge of the Three Worlds and the Three Times which is symbolised by the trident (trisula) at the end of the totem khatvanga.
These emblems and in this case the seated figure are visualising tools for meditation used by Tibetan Buddhists practicing all over the world.
Miles’ story made me think of the statue of Padmasambhava which I saw in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, some time back.
I love Miles’s story for its eloquence; the story remained in my dream-space for some time. The story is replete with elements from ethnology, anthropology, history and magic-realism and also a sense of realism for a certain branch of Buddhists. He told me that during his doctorate in ethnomusicology, he studied Tibetan Buddhist monastic music which would have brought him knowledge of The Book of the Dead and the various guiding rituals of celebrating death and the afterlife which consists of the rebirthing of souls.
The Book of The Dead (Bardo Thodol) is a guidebook, guiding the deceased’s unconscious through the in-between space, the interval, between death and the next cycle of life/rebirth. The book contains chapters telling readers of the signs of death and the rituals that need to be followed when death is nearing or has occured.
Ancient Tibetans have been practising a funerary ritual known as Sky Burials for centuries. This ritual which is so accurately and succinctly described in Miles’s fiction may sound brutal and cruel but it is important to note that the person being buried is not alive but dead at the point when his spine is being broken. Sky Burials are still being practised today because it is a spiritual way of life for a population of people who still live steeped in tradition.