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Death: the Last Taboo - Exhibition Text 2003 - Tibetan Sky Burial

"After death, the person has left their body and their mind or consciousness has travelled. This body is just a guesthouse in which our mind lives... The body can't be serviceable without consciousness. So once the mind has left, the body becomes rotten like a dead tree. Dead trees are only useful for burning." - Thupten Tashi, former Buddhist monk

Tibetan Buddhists believe in life as a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Death is not something to fear. You should be prepared for death. After death, the consciousness remains in an intermediate stage, known as bardo, a state between death and rebirth, for up to 49 days.

The deceased's body is attended by monks or qualified practicioners who chant and read from the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead). Lamps are lit and offerings of food and drink are made. Only certain people are allowed to handle the body as it is prepared for disposal. The method and timing of the disposal of the body is determined using astrology. One method of disposal is exposure of the body to carrion-feeders such as vultures, but cremation is also practised and, in the past, some monks were preserved.

On the designated day, the body is placed taken to the cemetery or cremation ground, depending upon the method of disposal selected. The funeral procession includes mourners, monks and nuns who recite mantras.

If the body is exposed to the elements, then it is taken to the cemetery, tied to a stake and undressed. Corpse-cutters throw pieces of flesh to the vultures. The bones may be buried or pounded up and mixed with meal and fed to the vultures as well.

Bhavacakra (Wheel of life)
The Bhavacakra sums up the philosophy of Tibetan Buddhism. It depicts the six kinds of beings in the six zones of existence. At the centre are the three poisonous influences responsible for turning the wheel, represented by the pig, the rooster, and the snake. The creature holding the wheel is Yama, the lord of death.

The form of Buddhism practised in Tibet includes the study of tantras - specific ritual texts. It differs from other forms of Buddhism in that it professes the accelerated passage to enlightenment through specific ritual practices.

Imagery of skeletons and the use of human bones and skin in key rituals help to dispel fear about death. In the past, human femur (thigh bone) trumpets and skull drums were used for creating the necessary sounds during important rituals. These objects are ritual items which were used and worn by some Tibetan monks.

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