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Special Report

Sky Burial: Dancing with Death

By Gary Fallesen
Climbing For Christ president

The Hollywood-ization of Buddhism would have you believe that it is a religion of peace, love and virtues, caring for the earth and the creatures in it. “Buddhists look to a smiling Buddha seated on a lotus blossom, while Christians worship a suffering Jesus nailed to a cross,” one Christian analyst wrote.

But the dark side of Buddhism is found in its temples and monasteries, and in its sacred paintings, symbols, and ceremonies. Many have never seen these ominous signs, while others (such as 386 million Buddhists in the world) have been blinded to the lies.

In a temple in China, we stand before a 30-foot-tall Buddha statue. Over his shoulder, seemingly whispering in the Buddha’s ear is a small, hideous creature — painted red.

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” (John 1:5)

 










Climbing For Christ Sky Burial video produced by Isaac Will and Gary Fallesen.

It was raining as our driver turned off the paved road onto the grass and began to climb up the hillside in our four-wheel-drive vehicle. He had said he wanted to show us something. I knew as soon as we stopped what he had brought us for, but my traveling companions were about to observe something they could not have imagined. We were about to witness a sky burial.

Few Westerners get to see a Tibetan sky burial, a practice first recorded around the 12th century. It is a ritual dissection of the human corpse carried out on a mountaintop by Buddhist monks or rogyapas (“body-breakers”).

From a practical standpoint there is nothing wrong with this process. The body is an empty vessel. Tibetans are disposing of the remains in a place where the ground may be too hard and rocky to dig a grave and timber and fuel might be too scarce to build a fire for cremation.

So the decomposing body is broken up and left for the birds, particularly vultures, to feed on.

But there is more to this practice than the practical eye can see.

 

Sky Burial photos
Body delivery
Disassembly
Sky Burial site
Chorten
Vulture wranglers
Feeding

“Tibetans believe that the vultures have the power to bring the spirit of the body to the heavens,” says missionary and Climbing For Christ advisory team member Tim Scott in episode six (“Sky Burial: Predators of the Air”) during the second season of his TV show Travel the Road.

“In the event that the vultures do not eat the body, or devour only a portion of it, it is believed that the person committed serious sins and is doomed to a tenure in one of the hells.”

Observers feel Tibetan tantrism plays a role in the sky burial. Tantrism is a blending of Mahayana Buddhism and the ancient occult practices of Tibet. (Mahayana Buddhism in the West is Zen, a discipline with the primary goal of enlightenment through meditation — or finding your inner Buddha.)

“Tantric Buddhism uses incantations and occult signs,” Fritz Ridenour writes in So What’s the Difference, a look at world religions. “It contains strong elements of animism (attributing conscious life to inanimate objects or objects of nature) and is one of the many false religions that can leave followers open to demonic activity. Tantrism is considered the official religion of Tibet and is practiced extensively in Nepal.”

In Tibetan, the sky burial is known as jhator, which means “giving alms to the birds.”

“It is believed that the vultures are Dakinis,” missionary Scott says on TV’s Travel the Road. “Dakinis are the Tibetan equivalent of angels. In Tibetan, Dakini means, ‘sky dancer.’ Dakinis will take the soul into the heavens, which is understood to be a windy place where souls await reincarnation into their next lives.

“This sacrifice of human flesh to the vultures is considered virtuous because it saves the lives of small animals that the vultures might otherwise capture for food. So the sky burial can be considered a posthumous sacrifice of human flesh to birds of prey.”

To feed the birds, the corpse is desecrated. Parts of the body — skullcaps and thighbone trumpets – are cut off and saved by the monks. “Monks are known to take skullcaps as trophies and use femur bones as pipes,” Scott says. Other bones may be smashed to feed smaller birds when the vultures have finished feeding.

While the dismemberment is occurring monks constantly chant and incense is burned. In the minds of those participating, they are helping the deceased move from this life into the next reincarnated life.

A Buddhist monk with his beads, chanting for the dead.

We witnessed the sky burials of nine people, including a child and a baby. It was, to say the least, disturbing. One of my companions complained of recurring nightmares for several days after seeing this. But the experience also opened our eyes to the reality of the darkness we were confronting. We approached our mission with a heightened zeal, the result of seeing this death dance firsthand. God was building us up and equipping us for the work He had for us: to reveal the Truth and shine His unending light.

“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Posted Aug. 19, 2009

The Word

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.”
— 1 John 1:5 (NIV)

Learn More

Siddhartha Gautama, the father of Buddhism, was born a Hindu roughly 500 years before Christ in what is today Nepal. He was a seeker, looking for answers to the suffering of this world. When he was 29 years old he sat under a tree for 40 days and nights, swearing not to move until he found what he was seeking. At the end of his 40 days, he achieved what Buddhists consider the highest-degree of consciousness: nirvana, which means an end to desire and also to suffering. He spent the next 45 years teaching about the meaning of life (as he saw it) and nirvana.

Today, there are three major branches of Buddhism, which is practiced by 386 million people worldwide. The main forms are Theravada, Mahayna, and Tantrism. Theravada (originally called Hinayana) most closely follows the teachings of Buddha and is located primarily in Southeast Asia: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand. Mahayana, which has become the most popular form, is prevalent in China and East Asia (Korea and Japen). Zen Buddhism is a part of this (or came out of it), spreading from Japan to the United States. Tantrism is also known as Tibetan Buddhism and is practiced in the mountains of China and Nepal. This is the Dalai Lama's religion.

Resources for further study:

Jesus in a New Age, Dalai Lama World: Defending and Sharing Christ with Buddhists by M. Tsering (Interserve/Tibet Press, 2006)

So What's the Difference? A look at 20 worldviews, faiths and religions and how they compare to Christianity by Fritz Ridenour (Regal, 2001).

The Baker Pocket Guide to World Religions: What Every Christian Needs to Know by Gerald R. McDermott (BakerBooks, 2008)

Peoples of the Buddhist World: A Christian Prayer Diary by Paul Hattaway (Piquant Editions, 2004)

 

 

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