A Bird’s-Eye View: Evolution of the Sky Burial in Practice

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by Cameron Hickert
CHIN 410: Tibet and Buddhism | Professor Youli Sun

The history of the Tibetan sky burial is almost as unique as the tradition itself and is subject to an exceptional variety of influences, ranging from a barren environment to Communist oppression. Perhaps the most basic truth that aids in a historical analysis of the burial practice is one of the most fundamental facts of humanity: society is serious about death. This simple statement illuminates the tumultuous history of a practice that is seen as very gruesome to outsiders, but one rich in poetry to innumerable Tibetans. This path originates well before foreigners traveled to the region, and then winds through centuries of foreign disapproval and maintains popularity within the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (the dominant school of Tibetan Buddhism since the end of the sixteenth century) the entire time. The sky burial continues to be of central importance within Tibetan communities, much to the intrigue of a growing body of foreigners. Quite literally a matter of life and death, the importance of this practice has carried it through centuries of explicit persecution into a current era of continued, widespread practice amongst Tibetan Buddhists.

The sky burial is “the deliberate, culturally countenanced, exposure of human corpses to carrion birds” (Martin, 1996, p. 353) as a means of allowing the body to return to the Earth after an individual’s passing. The “sky” component of the term originates from this tradition often taking place upon high points of ground, such as the tops of mountains or hills. The practice is central to Tibetan Buddhism but finds analogues “among the Zoroastrians in Persia (modern Iran) and in two Parsi communities of modern India” (Martin, 1996, p. 353). Its rarity may contribute to less respectful definitions offered in the past, including one that describes an affair “in which bodies are chopped up and fed to vultures” (United Press International, 1985, para. 1). These dismissive definitions provide insight into the condescension placed upon sky burials by foreigners for centuries. On the contrary, the Tibetan term for the word—rir skyel—does not mention a burial, preferring the respectful euphemism “to carry to the mountain” (Martin, 1996, p. 354).

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beibaoke | Shutterstock.com – Skyl burial site at Larung Gar (Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy), a famous Lamasery in Seda, Sichuan, China.

Sky burials are one of three principal ways Tibetan Buddhists dispose of those who have passed, the others being cremation and water burial (in which fish provide the decomposition services vultures provide in sky burials). The scarcity of wood on the Tibetan plateau has ensured that cremations are reserved only for the most important community members; thus, sky burials have long been popular. The practice is an individual’s final altruistic gift, one in which his or her final earthly possession contributes to the well-being of other living beings. This selflessness resonates deeply with Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism’s focus on compassionate living. The culture does not highly value corpses; one Buddhist monk explained, “When the body dies, the spirit leaves, so there is no need to keep the body. The birds, they think they are just eating. Actually they are removing the body and completing part of life’s cycle” (Faison, 1999, para. 9). The body must be provided in smaller pieces to the birds, and bones are often crushed and mixed with barley flour for vultures. Neither task is easy and both are reserved for the sky-burial master, entitled “tokden” (Woeser, 2004, p. 93).

The historical origins of the sky burial remain mysterious, since early Tibetan works typically only describe “the interments of saints and kings, not of common people” (Martin, 1996). Typically, these few highly-respected individuals would have earned burial, entombment, or cremation. Indeed, the earliest written record of a sky burial “is an inaccurate account from a European traveler of the fourteenth century” (Martin, 1996, p. 357). Already, foreigners were ready to misrepresent the practice without first gaining a deeper understanding of the religious, historical, and cultural significance of the ritual. Written sources were likely to be the only ones of use: “Because of the nature of the practice, archaeological finds are probably incapable of providing evidence” (Martin, 1996, p. 357). This reality has ensured that the origins of the practice remain hidden, lost to the appetites of birds throughout the centuries.

Almost as soon as the practice encountered the outside world, it also encountered strong opposition. The 1793 Chinese Imperial Throne sought to end the practice, issuing an edict that “the carving up of the remains of the dead shall be strictly forbidden” (Qu, 1990; qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 355). The edict condemned the practice with the description, “Sometimes the remains (of the human) are even chopped up and mixed with barley flour as food for vultures or dogs. These are bestial practices” (Qu, 1990; qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 356 ). As a strong reminder of the observation that society does not regard death lightly, the government declared that anyone who encouraged or watched a sky burial would be sentenced to death, and those who used the sky burial technique for their parents would be executed by “slicing their bodies into small pieces” (Qu, qtd. in Martin, 1996, p. 356). The irony is that such a method resembles a component of the sky burial. Tibetans responded to this edict by taking “little or no heed of these notices” (Martin, 1996, p. 356). Once again, habits in disposing of the dead are not easily abandoned.

tibet map

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The crusade against the sky burial redoubled in the mid-twentieth century, as Chinese interference in Tibetan affairs reached a zenith. The practice faced “attempts by Chinese Communist officials during the 1950s and 1960s to root out ‘feudal’ beliefs” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1991). Chinese officials regarded the sky burial “as a bizarre ritual of a primitive people” (Faison, 1999, para. 13) and fought to popularize cremations and underground burials in the region. This included an outright ban of sky burials throughout the 1960s and 1970s. This was a catastrophic encroachment on the rights of families, one that—for some families—surpassed rights-based concerns and bore more detrimental effects. Some Tibetans believed “the souls of those who did not go through the sky-burial ceremony could not escape from purgatory, and most probably became ghosts” (Woeser, 2004, p. 100), a fate that no one would wish upon departed friends or family.

Despite these pressures, Tibetan Buddhists persevered in preserving this ritual, and “Tibetans regained limited rights to practice religious ceremonies in the 1980s” (Faison, 1999, para. 13).

As the burial method continued, foreign disgust developed into a sort of morbid intrigue. Growth in tourism paralleled this curiosity, eventually presenting an unfavorable situation in which tourists would appear uninvited—and against the wishes of the deceased’s family—to observe the solemn spectacle. In 1985, United Press International reported that, “[t]his year more than 3,000 people have visited the mountainous region (Tibet), compared with 2,000 in all of 1984.” That very year, the Chinese government declared unwanted sky burial viewing illegal: “Visitors coming to Tibet are now banned from viewing sky burials, as a bid to protect the ancient Tibetan custom” (The Gazette, 1985). Whether this was born out of a desire to protect Tibetan culture or to prevent Chinese-Tibetan animosity is unclear, but such a declaration marked the first time that an outside government had taken measures in support of the practice.

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Unfortunately, this modicum of support did not save the sky burial from an assault of tourists with easier access to the region: “Tourism is an officially designated ‘pillar of the economy’ in Tibet. The goal is to attract fifteen million tourists a year by 2015 in the so-called ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region,’ which has a population of only three million” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 5). The capital city is now connected by train to Beijing, and “In the first half of 2013, tourist visits to Lhasa surged by 36%” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 5). Pressures (which some critics have argued are governmental as well as economic) have pushed some monasteries to begin selling permission to view sky burials. Although it is illegal for tourists to watch the sky burials uninvited, a monastery (rather than the family, since the monastery is responsible for the burial process) can give permission for tourist viewing and, in at least one case, “The $5 tickets to the show come with a map to the site” (Sydenstricker, 2014, para. 4). This situation is clearly unacceptable and must be addressed to preserve the sacred solemnity of the tradition. The devil, of course, lies in the details; monasteries currently face tight restrictions—ranging from construction limits to strict management oversight to bans on certain images—and governmental and economic problems are not easy to overcome.

Despite these challenges, the sky burial remains surprisingly popular in the region. The Nationality Research Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences estimates that “[a]bout 80% of Tibetans choose the sky burial” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 6). Professor Nima of Tibet University places her own estimate at 95% of Tibetans; furthermore, she details that many of those who pass away in Lhasa opt for a ceremony to be held at a sky burial site that is about 40 kilometers outside of the city, near a large monastery. Like many religious practices so tightly woven with culture, the practice extends past strict religious lines. In a 2005 interview, the 20-year-old Lhasa native Zhaxi Toinzhub explained, “I would certainly choose sky burial after my death, though I’m not a Buddhist believer” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 2).

With the hope of shifting burial practices, in 2000 the Chinese government in Tibet constructed a modern crematory, but “it is not favored by Tibetans” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 17). Statistics certainly provide a clearer picture of the tradition’s popularity: “Tibet has 1,075 sky burial sites and 100 operators (those who conduct the ritual)” (Xinhua News Agency, 2005, para. 16). Once again, it seems that the cultural reverence for disposing of loved ones has ensured that the sky burial remains extremely popular, both among believers and non-believers on the Tibetan plateau.

While numerous cultural practices may seem odd to outsiders, the sky burial is particularly unique in the distaste it has attracted from foreign governments throughout the ages. This dislike has now become morbid tourist interest, but cameras used to capture the burial pose a similar threat to that of edicts from the past. However, mainstream Tibetan acceptance of the practice remains quite strong, and certain outside sources are beginning to favor the method. One scholar goes as far as to argue that “[i]t may not be too farfetched to speculate that, given an increased sense of ecological responsibility (even in the absence of Buddhist altruistic motivations), the world at large will learn to see the positive value of sky burial and perhaps eventually adapt it—assuming the birds will cooperate” (Martin, 1996, p. 367). While this perspective bespeaks a tongue-in-cheek optimism, the wherewithal of the Tibetan community in guarding this unique practice into the modern era suggests that the sky burial is far from being buried.

Featured Image © Fan jianhua | Shutterstock.com


A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
The University of Denver would like to remind you of how many of its students study abroad. More specifically, the giant banner that hangs off the first DU building when exiting the interstate will serve as that reminder. Through the Cherrington Global Scholars Program, the University of Denver ensures that each of its study abroad partnerships bristles with student resources. For students who studied in Beijing, China, we all (foolishly) felt that we knew what we would encounter, even if we had no idea how to go about adapting to it. Numerous chats with students who had previously attended the program provided this false veneer of surety.

Of course, we were all promptly reminded how many “unknown unknowns” the abroad experience truly holds, and one that most surprised me was the Tibetan Buddhist practice of the sky burial. The ritual—detailed in this paper—deeply intrigued me, driving me to research the tradition further. How could I not know about so widespread a practice that concerns a highly important topic: death itself, a topic within a region (Tibet) that every college student who has ever been to a coffee shop claims to care about? I realized that the story of the sky burial serves as a reminder of my own ignorance and that it is also a powerful illustration of the value societies place on traditions surrounding the death of loved ones. Additionally, sky burial is a solemn depiction of the cruelty that befalls cultural rituals when faced with closed-minded perspectives. This paper uses an historical analysis of outsiders’ interactions with the sky burial to provide insight into the latter two themes, with the hope of informing readers who find this practice unique, interesting, and new.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cameron Headshot Photo SquareCameron Hickert is a fourth-year student, majoring in physics and international studies. He is from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and enjoys hiking, exploring Denver, and sitting on rooftop decks. His dream when he was in the first grade (which he hasn’t given up quite yet) was to drink milk in space. He’s not sure why milk would be cooler than any other drink, but he thinks the idea of jabbing a straw into a blob of floating milk seems like the best thing ever.


REFERENCES

Faison, S. (1999, July 3). Lirong journal; Tibetans, and vultures, keep ancient burial rite. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/03/world/lirong-journal-tibetans-and-vultures-keep-ancient-burial-rite.html

Martin, D. (1996). On the cultural ecology of sky burial on the Himalayan plateau. East and West 46(3–4), p. 353–370.

Ancient “sky burial” still popular in Tibet (1991, Nov. 28). San Francisco Chronicle, p. A 24.

Sydenstricker, P. (2014, January/February). The Disneyfication of Tibet. Washington Monthly, p. 11–13. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/january_february_2014/ten_miles_square/the_disneyfication_of_tibet048349.php?page=all

Knight-Ridder Newspapers. (1985, Oct. 16). The Montreal Gazette. Retrieved from https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19851016&id=DFUlAAAAIBAJ&sjid=6qUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=5082,2863416&hl=en

United Press International. (1985, Aug. 29). Tibet Vulture-feeding funerals off-limits to tourists. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1985-08-29/news/8502260498_1_tibet-autonomous-region-tibet-daily-tibetan-people

Woeser. (2004). Rinchen, the sky-burial master. Manoa 24(1), p. 92–104.

Xinhua News Agency (2005, Aug. 31). Sky burial lives on in Tibet as traditional way for dead. China Internet Information Center. Retrieved from http://www.china.org.cn/english/null/140297.htm

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