Grief & Tibetan Buddhism

Autumn Workman-Newkirk



Background

This interview was conducted with a Buddhist monk from the Tibetan tradition. He is now in his mid-40’s and has been part of the monastic community since he was 6 years old. His studies have brought him the highest degree received in the Tibetan monastic system and he travels worldwide to teach and perform initiations. Although born in Tibet, he now is the abbot of a monastery in Nepal and is revered as the incarnation of a venerated spiritual leader. Our discussion was conducted through the help of another monk who served as translator. I have given him the pseudonym of Abbot. More detail than usual is included here because of this meeting’s unique nature and the cultural learning possible by my relating a more complete story.

The nature of this cultural interview on grief makes it somewhat different from most others. Monks are immersed in their religion. It is their entire existence and culture is inseparable from religious belief (see references for a list of links discussing Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Buddhism as it relates to death and dying). Tibet is an additional confounder here, for the country spent over a thousand years developing a spiritual-based society rather than the more secular societies seen elsewhere and Tibet now has ceased to exist in that manner. The efforts toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict with China have progressively forced the exiled Tibetan leadership (who are also religious leaders) to become adept at representing themselves, their country, and their religion to the rest of the world. It also has served to physically separate much of the religious community from the majority of the Tibetan people. The history of this transition is tragic and accounts can be found in His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s autobiography and The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947 (see references). The most important point here, as it relates to the interview, is to understand that this is a "professional’s" account of how grief functions in Tibetan society, not a lay-person’s story. Our discussion was not private or personal. At least one other person (the translator) was present throughout the interview; at times, others were present. My perceptions also played into the interview, as I felt that Abbot’s social status, my status as a guest, and the presence of a translator discouraged too much "probing" beyond the answers provided. Therefore, I only asked some clarifying questions, but did not pursue much beyond that. Abbot’s perspective as an official representative of his culture and his roles as a teacher and spiritual leader are important factors to understand when interpreting this discussion.

The Interview

I was uncertain whom the interview would be with before I arrived at the monastery. My initial intent was that the contact simply be with someone who was available. To my surprise, I was told that I was very lucky to be coming and then given a time to arrive. All arrangements and subsequent discussions were done using only my first name, something that struck me given our cultural propensity to take down full contact information. Upon arrival, I handed my offering (a cultural tradition) of strawberries and pineapple to the monk who greeted me. We entered the back door of the building where I was instructed to remove my shoes and wait. The offering was prepared on a tray and I was led to a room where the translator and Abbot were waiting. Although the monastery was constructed as a standard wood structure, there was a striking mix of Western-style appointments and Tibetan religious and cultural items present. Both Western-style doors and cloth Tibetan door coverings were present; only the cloth coverings were in use. An atmosphere of simplicity and purposefulness overlaid this mix of cultures.

What follows is an edited transcript of Abbot’s responses by topic.

Tradition & Ritual Commemorating a Death

Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have to commemorate a death?

Response:

If a person died today then, counting that day, seven days later we would begin performing religious ceremonies. Ceremonies would be performed again every seven days for 49 days after death (7 x 7). Then there is a break and no more ceremonies are held until the anniversary of the death. After one year there is a big ceremony that is on the anniversary of the death. The reason why the ceremonies are performed for the first 49 days is that the person goes into the intermediate state and the longest period that a person would stay in the intermediate state is 49 days. These ceremonies are specially performed for the person in the intermediate state and their intent is to help the person have a better rebirth. After one year the anniversary ceremony that is held to remember the person who died. For example, if parents lost a child the ceremony would be for the parents to remember their child.

Tradition & Ritual Leading Up to a Death

Question: What kinds of traditions and rituals do you have which lead up to a death?

Response:

One important thing is that if somebody knows that a person is going to die, then they can prepare by doing positive works. What we can do for that person is to take all the belongings of that person and distribute them. They should be given to the poor children, the poor, and the charities. There is positive energy if the person decides before they die to give the things to others who need it. All the things—the prosperity—that one has accumulated in one’s life. All this becomes more positive, more beneficial, when it is contributed to positive works. If one has not used or distributed one’s things and one dies, one cannot take these things with them. One does not need all of those things.

Comfort & Grief in Times of Loss

Question: What are some of the beliefs that you hold that offer comfort in a time of loss?

Response:

The first condolence or advice offered to that person is that generally all of us have to die. So that when somebody dies there is nothing we can do externally, they should be patient with this fact. For example, if some person is dying on the deathbed, or if a person has died, then the family and friends are intolerant to grief and crying—it is not beneficial to them. The reason for that is that if a person is on a deathbed and he sees crying he will feel sad and upset. Even if that person is already dead and in the intermediate state he can see us crying and grieving for the loss and he will also feel sad. This sadness can affect the person’s feelings of attachment and increase his suffering, possibly causing a less fortunate rebirth. So, instead, one should give advice that all the things one can perform for that person is more beneficial. Those actions will be beneficial for that person. Also, one can give advice that that person gave us much, he was a good person, who had a good heart, and who helped other people. One can give advice to his family that it doesn’t matter that he dies, he was a good being and he will be reborn in a more fortunate rebirth. So with death in our tradition, when a person is going to die we won’t allow the family and friends to cry in front of him. It will make him more sad.

Question: What about beliefs that add to the pain of loss?

Response:

For the one thing, the belief that could cause more grief to people who lost someone is attachment. The positive side is that of a strong affection toward that person and wanting to always be with that person. This is positive. The negative also is that of strong attachment toward that person. It is the nature of attachment that people or something we like, create strong bonds that cannot be easily severed. That is not good. So in the Buddhist teachings, what we call love or compassion, one has equal love toward all sentient beings or compassion toward all sentient beings. If one had this kind of teaching toward our compassion in all sentient beings, then this kind of basic teaching will create a strong grief when somebody dies, because that affection along with the strong attachment will not be working together in a positive process. So generally, all the causes of suffering in this world are from attachment, ignorance, and hatred.

Healthy Versus Unhealthy Grief

Question: How would you define health and unhealthy grief?

Response:

For example, if somebody died then the grief that death causes one would normally result in the need to perform lots of good acts and a lot of good works if one misses [grieves] all of these things. That is the negative side. If because of somebody’s death, that causes a person to change a lot and try to put into practice lots of positive works. That is positive or healthy grief. This is a beneficial part of grief.

One of the positive things that can be done to help make grief positive is that one needs to remind those grieving that all of us die sometime. When I die there’s nothing that can be helped and that grief does not help me for my next life. One thing that really helps me is my practice of dharma, my practice of religion, so that we can understand that. So that one practices the dharma, religion, and then one is stronger to do actions that help other beings and that is good. In the course of achieving happiness in our lives we use worldly activities to achieve that happiness, it can only be done in this life. So even if one is trying to achieve happiness in this life, one won’t achieve the ultimate happiness—a happiness that won’t be changeable—in that course. Something will occur and one will have suffering again. So to have a complete happiness, an ultimate happiness, one needs to bring the mind to a state of complete or ultimate happiness. Bringing the mind to the state of ultimate happiness, cannot be accomplished through worldly activities or the normal way of life. For that purpose we practice religion, or the dharma, or the faiths.

Healthy Versus Unhealthy Death

Question: How would you characterize a healthy death?

Response:

The healthy death is something that the people who are in the process of death, one died without being frightened, with no fear, without any kind of grief. One dies in a state of happiness, a state of joy. Before one dies one says that "I know I’m going to die." So he calls his friends and family and gives them advice for his death. The things I’m explaining to you, it is a natural death. This is not true for suicide. When sometime someone says "I’m going to die and kill myself," that is the worst death. Abortion, suicide, and euthanasia are all unhealthy deaths. In our conception we believe that if you harm something that is living, that is not positive, that is negative. One of the most precious things is life. Even if someone wants to create life one cannot create life. One cannot produce life. When the child is in the mother’s womb, at that time it has generated one human life, the taking of that life is like killing one person.

Private Grief Versus Public Mourning

Question: What is the relationship between your private grief and your public mourning? Is group support useful?

Response:

The nature of true grief, both personal and community grief, depends upon how the loss it to her, one is a larger scope, one a smaller scope. But the nature of the grief is the same. For example, if there is a family with two persons and they experience a death, the grief only involves those two persons. If one is working for the whole community, then that person is working with resolve and intention to develop kind attitudes so that person has to take the grief of the whole community. According to the Buddhist Mahayana practice, one has to think that I am working for the benefit of all sentient beings, so I am taking the responsibility of the happiness of all sentient beings. It is the same for both the one family who has desire for their happiness and does not want to experience the sorrow and unhappiness, and for the whole community who has the desire for happiness and something happens and the whole community does not wish for that to happen or experience sorrow.

Life as a Monk

Question: How does your life as a monk impact your own view of or experience with grief?

Response:

As a monk one has a lot of potential to help eliminate the grief and sorrow of communities. The reason for that is that as a monk one is single, a bachelor, and not allowed to marry. A monk does not need to spend lots of time taking care of family—a wife and kids. One has more time. In that case, being a monk, one has more time for personal practice and also one wants to work for the community and one can work with full aspiration. As a monk one should feel content with just having a pair of clothes and something to eat.

Other Things To Help Us Understand Grieving in Tibetan Society

Question: Is there anything beyond what we’ve talked about here that you would like for me to know in order to better understand how grief is experienced and processed in you culture?

Response:

Any kind of grief and suffering that one faces in life, we need to understand what is the cause of that and one should abandon or eliminate that cause. Firstly, one needs to recognize what is the grief or the suffering. When one recognizes that grief and suffering are bad things, then one needs to find a method to eliminate or abandon that. For example, if one is sick or one is suffering with an illness, one needs to investigate what is the real problem, the cause of that sickness. When one finds what the real sickness is, one needs to take the right medicine to cure that sickness. If one does not recognize the real problem or illness and just takes different kinds of medicines it can make one worse. According to the Buddhist philosophy, all suffering is the result of negative karma/negative actions, and all the happiness is the result of positive karma/positive actions. When one faces any kind of suffering or grief one needs to face that thing. How one can face these problems and sufferings is that one can think, "It is the result of something I accumulated myself in my past life. I cannot accuse other people for causing that trouble." You should eventually face that. If one can think in that way it would be beneficial, you have less hatred and anger toward other people. Also in the Buddhist practice when one faces suffering, one needs to rejoice that my negative karma has now gone away. If one thinks that way in the process of the suffering, one won’t abandoned the practice of religion of dharma. Also in that process one won’t abandon the practice of helping other people, the actions of helping other people.

One thing is very important, when the child is very small, at a very young age and all throughout life, to have a very strong bond between the child and the parents—to have a very strong affection towards each other. Your parents in this world is one of the most kindful beings in this life and this world. When we are kids, when we are at the stage when one cannot feed oneself, and cannot walk by oneself at that time the parents are showing the most kindness—they are giving the most love and kindness. In general, when one is in the big trouble of suffering, it is at that time when someone is helpful and one should really consider that being as helpful. In that process when the parents held their kids, it is through the power of these actions towards the bond between the parents and the child—toward affection. Even when the child is grown up and the parents become very old, the bond between the two should remain the same. The affection should remain the same, because the child is still a child and the parents still parents. This is my advice.

Closure

After formal thank-you’s were said and Abbot expressed the hope that the information would be helpful to those who read it, I was told to wait while the translator left the room. He later returned with the monk who was assisting Abbot. Abbot gave this monk instructions and he again left the room. (All the while I am left there not knowing what was going on or what was being said.) When the assisting monk returned he gave Abbot a tiny package and me an address sticker showing Abbot’s mailing address. Abbot then blessed the small package and handed it to me. It was a silver bracelet with blue beads. After again thanking him I was led from the room to the kitchen and offered something to drink. As I drank, visitors and monks came and left the room. I departed the monastery soon afterward. The kindness and gentleness of these men were striking.

Summary

Many would consider the Buddhist approach to death unfeeling and insensitive. This conversation, if not examined closely, could imply a denial of grief over a loss. In fact, acknowledgement of suffering (grief in this case) is central to Buddhism. However, there is also the concept of attachment being a major source of suffering and that refraining from strong attachment is ideal. This does not mean a lack of love or compassion, but a worldview that sees all sentient beings as equal and needful of love and assistance. The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are (see Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism @ http://www.buddhanet.net/qanda.htm ):
1. Life is suffering.
2. All suffering is caused by craving.
3. Suffering can be overcome and happiness attained.
4. The path leading to the overcoming of suffering (the Noble Eightfold Path).

  • Perfect Understanding
  • Perfect Thought
  • Perfect Speech
  • Perfect Action
  • Perfect Livelihood
  • Perfect Effort
  • Perfect Mindfulness
  • Perfect Concentration

    This interview sounds as if the religious community would like for the lay community to deny their grief over the death and their feelings of attachment toward the deceased. I do not believe that this was Abbot’s intention. If it were done in actual practice, such expectations would likely be unrealistic. This implication is also contrasted by the last remarks from Abbot on the parent-child bond.

    Advice given by the monks would be seen as relatively unhelpful in our culture. Other contacts I have had with this culture reinforce a belief-based cultural minimization of grief. Grief is understood and dealt with, but approached in a different manner from other religions. My impression is that of it being more "cognitive" and action oriented than most religions. Also important is the concept of a unifying consciousness and the implications of a belief that the individual self is an illusion.

    Actual practice, perceptions, and feelings of Tibetan Buddhist lay people remain undisclosed by our discussion here. This also only provides a glimpse of the culture and religion and much more information is needed for full understanding.

    References

    Buddhism Links

    BuddhaNet: Buddhist Information Network-Gateway, http://www.buddhanet.net, (June 25, 1999).
    Buddhist Teachings, Basic Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/budteach.htm, (June 25, 1999).
    Good Questions, Good Answers on Buddhism, http://buddhanet.net/qanda.htm, (June 25, 1999).
    Tibetan Buddhism Links Tibetan Buddhism, http://www.zip.com.au/~cee_gee/tibet.html, (June 25, 1999).
    Tibetan Buddhist-World Wide Web Links, http://www.buddhanet.net/l_tibet.htm, (June 25, 1999).
    Tibetan Studies WWW Virtual Library, http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVL-TibetanStudies.html, (June 25, 1999).

    Books Referenced

    Gyatso T. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers. 1990.
    Shakya T. The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. 1999.


    Return to Cultural Interviews
    Written for Grief in a Family Context, HPER F460, Summer, 1999.
    (C) 1999, Autumn Workman-Newkirk. All rights reserved. Interested parties may contact her through the course instructor, at gilbertk@indiana.edu.