Outsiders and Sky Burial
If you visit Tibet, bear in mind that sky burial is a sacred rite. No matter how respectful your intentions may be, your presence at a sky burial won't be a welcome one, especially if you have a camera. Granted, some photographers and film crews have documented sky burial but only with special permission.
Even if a local offers to take you to witness a sky burial for free or for a fee, the authors of the "Lonely Planet Tibet Travel Guide" warn that other Tibetans will find your presence quite offensive. Furthermore, Chinese authorities may also fine you.
The Chinese authorities, themselves outsiders to many of Tibet's customs and traditions, have a checkered history with respect to sky burial. In addition to the vulture-shooting incident we mentioned earlier, the Chinese banned most religious practices in Tibet following its absorption into the People's Republic of China in 1951. Sky burial remained officially banned throughout the '60s and '70s, but the Tibetans regained limited religious rights during the '80s [source: Faison]. As such, the Chinese leaders in Tibet permit sky burial and other funeral rites but prefer cremation.
Tibetan Buddhists continue to practice jhator, but like so many aspects of traditional Tibetan culture, its future is uncertain. The country's secular governance rests in the hands of China and the head of its religious governance, the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, remains in India as an exile. Meanwhile, modern technology and Chinese migrants continue to flood Tibet. Only time will tell if this unique funeral practice survives the decades ahead.
Explore the links below to learn even more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.
- Beall, Cynthia M. "Andean, Tibetan, and Ethiopian patterns of adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia." Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology. February 2006. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://icb.oxfordjournals.org/content/46/1/18.full.pdf+html?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=1&author1=beall&andorexacttitle=and&andorexacttitleabs=and&andorexactfulltext=and&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&fdate=2/1/2005&resourcetype=%25ADHWCIT
- Beer, Robert. “The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols.” Shambhala. Oct. 14, 2003.
- "Birth, Death and Rebirth: Sky Burial and the Cyclical Cosmos of Tibetan Buddhism." University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archeology. 2011. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://maa.missouri.edu/exhibitions/finalfarewell/tibetintro.html
- "Burial." Britannica Online Encyclopedia. 2011. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/85256/burial
- Camphausen, Rufus C. and Christina Camphausen. "The so-called Sky Burial." Yoniverse. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://yoniversum.nl/dakini/jhator.html
- "Faison, Seth." "Lirong Journal; Tibetans, and Vultures, Keep Ancient Burial Rite." The New York Times. July 3, 1999. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/07/03/world/lirong-journal-tibetans-and-vultures-keep-ancient-burial-rite.html
- Hastings, James. "Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 15." Kessinger Publishing, LLC. Jan. 24, 2003.
- Mayhew, Bradley et al. "Tibet." Lonely Planet Publications. 2011.
- "Regions and territories: Tibet." BBC News. June 16, 2011. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/country_profiles/4152353.stm#facts
- "The Aboriginal Memorial." The National Gallery of Australia. 2011. (Aug. 5, 2011) http://nga.gov.au/AboriginalMemorial/home.cfm
- Thurman, Robert A.F. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding in the Between." Bantam Books. 1994.
- "Tibet Funeral Methods." Tibet Travel Dot Com. Sept. 7, 2009. (Aug. 1, 2011) http://www.tibettravel.com/en/Arts-Culture/Unique-Tibetan-kite-120.html