Sky-high learning

Above one of Tibet’s three greatest Gelukpa school monasteries, Sera Monastery, is an abandoned sky burial platform. Located at the top of the mountain, this platform was once the main sky burial site in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

Sky burials are the Tibetan Buddhism tradition of carrying the deceased to mountaintop platforms and preparing their bodies to be eaten by vultures. Tibetans believe in reincarnation and the transmigration of spirits, hence the body is only an empty vessel. It is therefore virtuous to offer one's flesh to sustain the life of other living beings and complete the cycle of life.

As part of my Queen’s Research Fellowship, I spent 40 days travelling from the Gobi Desert to the Himalayas while exploring Buddhist art. Before embarking on the trip, I planned to track down a sky burial to witness for myself in Tibet, but conversations with Tibetan locals and local residents about the disruption tourists caused to their tradition changed my perspective.

The landscape of the Lhasa area is still stunning with an air of sacred spirituality. Rock boulders, painted with richly coloured deities and white ladders, lead up to the top of the mountain. These white ladders appear at the foot of mountains and symbolize the peaceful ascension of souls into heaven.
Sera Monastery is still a powerful teaching monastery today and a large tourist destination for foreigners looking to see monks debate Buddhist doctrines. But it was precisely the growth of Lhasa as a popular tourist destination and the misconduct of tourists which obstructed use of the sky burial site and led to its abandonment.

When the platform was still in use, the sky burial ceremony would start between 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. The body of the deceased would be carried through a certain path which often went through Barkhor Street, a famous tourist street in Lhasa. Some tourists would wait at points in the path and follow the death procession up the mountain to photograph the death ritual.

The powerful flashes of professional cameras hindered the work of the sky burial master, in addition to scaring the vultures and harming their eyes. After a period of time, the vultures’ presence declined when they were summoned by the sky burial masters.

Yet the vultures’ role in sky burial is crucial and irreplaceable by any other predator bird. Tibetans believe vulture are divine creatures that will soar up into the sky and perish in the atmosphere when they are close to dying. According to Buddhist doctrine, this type of death represents the most complete and selfless way of leaving human existence.

The lack of vultures at the sky burial threatens this practise of Tibetan customs: not only do the decaying corpses pose the problem of becoming a breeding ground for disease, but most importantly, it impedes the Tibetan cycle of life.

Curious tourists often interfere with the fate of the deceased since death is regarded as an opportunity for spiritual progress as opposed to the termination of life.

I learned this lesson as we drove from Shigatse to Lhasa. It was around 10 a.m. when I saw a lot of smoke ahead rising from the top of a mountain, framed by prayer flags, while en route to Sera Monastery. I asked our driver to stop at the side of the road and it must have been the urgency in my voice that caused him to pull over immediately. I pulled out the 50X zoom on my camera as I hopped out of the van and, after getting a close-up, I confirmed it was a sky burial indeed.

I approached a local family selling souvenirs approximately a hundred metres away to find out more. The middle-aged woman and young girl were delighted to hear I was from Canada.

They spoke openly to me in Mandarin about the sky burial that was in progress — two bodies had been lifted up the mountain at 6 a.m. and in the vultures would arrive in about 40 minutes. They also told me that from their home they see bodies carried up the mountain every morning. But they stated sternly, “We do not want passersby to see.”The man of the household came over to see what I was doing, shook my hand respectfully and welcomed me to their land with a friendly smile.

I realized then: this is their land.

As travelers, regardless of how interested we are on the topic or how like or share-worthy a picture might be on social media – it’s important to learn from and listen to the people of the land, first and foremost.

Tourists can pick up their things and leave the place behind entirely, but for Tibetans, this is their permanent home. I chose to respect and help protect the sacred traditions of the inhabitants by staying out of their traditional burial practices.

Some things are meant to be admired from afar and kept esoteric — after all, part of the beauty of Tibet comes from its mysterious aura.

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