Friday, October 27, 2017
Confronting Your Own Death, Part 1 (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute www.animas.org)
This is the third part of a four-part Musing (one per week)
The courageous encounter with the unalterable fact of mortality supplements and extends the activities of the death lodge. In the death lodge, you made peace with your past and prepared to leave behind an old way of belonging to the world; you prepared for a “small death.” Now you have the opportunity to prepare for your inevitable and final death, look your mortality in the eye, and make peace with the brutal fact that, ultimately, you will have to loosen your grip on all of life, not just a life stage.
On September 11, 2001, Ann Debaldo was leading a journey in a remote corner of Tibet, unaware of the events unfolding in the United States. But like most Americans that day, Ann had the opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with death. At 14,000 feet in the Himalayas, Ann witnessed the extraordinary Buddhist ceremony of sky burial while, elsewhere in the world, people witnessed another kind of sky burial in the air over New York City.
We were camped near Drigung Til Monastery. The evening before the sky burial, we attended the powa practice. A specially trained lama sat in front of the four corpses, each of which was folded into a small bundle and wrapped with blankets tied with ropes. Offerings to the monks — bags of flour and other staples — were taken off the horses by family members who had carried the bodies here, a journey of many days, perhaps weeks. The lama went into a profound meditation and at regular intervals made a loud sound — phat! — to open the crown chakras of the corpses, allowing any remaining life force to depart. We sat in silence as the offerings were casually divided among the monks and the lama performed his task.
Very early the next morning, we walked silently and slowly up to the hilltop where the sky burial would take place. I walked with an elderly man whom I had earlier tried to discourage from coming to Drigung Til. He was ill-prepared to handle either the altitude or the primitive camping, yet in Lhasa it became clear to me that attending the sky burial was what his journey was all about. The group moved ahead and we took the less steep pathway, his labored breathing increasing with each step. As we reached the top, a monk gently untied the ropes on one of the bundles and removed the blankets revealing a very old woman with limbs lying at impossible angles to her torso. A great calm came over me. The old man gasped and almost fell. To prepare the food for the vultures, the monk flayed the meat and then crushed the bones into grain on a great round stone. We were so close that bits of flesh landed on our clothes. The old man was unable to stand and so we moved even closer to lean upon the stone wall next to the monk. I felt a warm strength as I supported my companion’s weight, understanding how close he was to his time of departing this life. I could feel his heart beating and his heavy breathing as the huge golden vultures edged nearer to their breakfast.
Each corpse was similarly handled. Wave after wave of vultures descended upon the meat and grain until abruptly, there was nothing left. I watched, filled with a strange joy as the great birds lumbered down the hill before jumping into the sky and soared away over the valley toward the snow peaks in the distance. Oh, to fly freely — man becoming bird! What is death but an opening of a door?
We walked in silence down the steep hill toward the monastery where the monks began parading and chanting to the sounds of their great long horns and drums. As I sat in the hot sun, I shivered so hard I almost fell off the wall, my mind reeling. It was difficult to think and perhaps consciousness was briefly lost. Then, in my belly, I felt the presence for the first time of a great mountain of peace and silence — a feeling of solidity and calm strength, quite new to me. We left the monastery, each of us affected in our individual ways, but certainly forever changed by our visit to the burial grounds.
Confronting your own mortality, intimately and bravely, imagined or vicariously witnessed in graphic detail, is a powerful soulcraft practice, possibly an essential one. The embodiment of soul that you seek is not going to go far if you are living as if your ego is immortal. Put more positively, your soul initiation will be rich to the extent you can ground yourself in the sober but liberating awareness of limited time. This very moment may be your last.
To read parts one and two click here.
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