Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Death, Rebirth and Being Human in Tibetan Buddhism

Our in-built bodily reproductive functions along with our tendency to waste away and die are two of the topics that interest us the most, or bother us the most, as you will. The concern with eros and thanatos is one academics share with everybody else, and not only the ones who work in Italy. I tried, but failed, to think of anyone I know who isn't the least bit concerned about reproduction and death. The first is part of sex, after all, and the second, well, part of life. In her lecture, Frances Garrett, Prof. at the University of Toronto and a well-known Tibetanist, emphasizes certain broad themes: for example, how the area of human health concerns gets divvied up — in culturally distinct ways — between the realms of [medical] science and religion. 

Although I assure you she does speak in an accessible manner, non-native or basic English speakers will be heartened to discover that a transcript is available, because like so many North Americans, she speaks a little too quickly. 

The video lasts 38 minutes, and your computer needs to be equipped to view "RealPlayer" videos. Bear in mind this is a streaming video. That means it can't normally be downloaded for later viewing or linked directly to — or embedded in — a blog. 

I recommend that when you have gone to this link, you immediately tap on the words below the video window: "Launch in a new window." That way you can control the size of the screen, which is otherwise quite small.

The Tibetan word korwa ('khor-ba) means 'circling' or 'cycling' (Jeffery Hopkins' frequently emulated translation is 'cyclic existence'), used to translate Sanskrit sasāra or संसार (often spelled sangsara, which is its normal pronunciation, too). The Sanskrit means a course or coursing (as of a river or of life), a 'flowing along.' Above all, it means the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This is the subject of the painting shown above, the Wheel of Life (you will see more of it in the video, which is very nicely illustrated with Tibetan artworks).

Prof. G. tells part of the story of one Dawa Drölma (Zla-ba-sgrol-ma), a 'returner from the realm of the dead' Tibetans call a delog ('das-log).  I believe she must intend by that name the mother of Chagdud Rinpoche. This account by the late Rinpoche's mother is one of the few available in English translation, and is very highly recommended for all kinds of reasons.

Between the years 2007 and 2008 Frances Garrett served out the term of her David B. Larson Fellowship at the John W. Kluge Center, neighboring the U.S. Library of Congress in the U.S. capitol.  This video was made on August 12, 2008, during her tenure at the Kluge. I look forward to reading her recent and upcoming books on embryology.

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A book we mentioned:  

Delog Dawa Drolma (1905-1941), Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death, "translated from the Tibetan by Richard Barron under the direction of His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche," Padma Publishing (Junction City 1995). 

Another recent and perhaps more easily gotten book on the subject is the one by Bryan Cuevas.

The paintings:

The Tibetan painting that forms our frontispiece is from the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. For more information on that painting, look here.  

Just above, you see the main thangka that illustrates the Blue Beryl ideas about conception, fetal development and childbirth. (I'm hoping it will appear much larger in a new window if you double-click on it, so give it a try!)  Some of this thangka will be seen in the video. It is very important to know right at the outset that some of these painted images were intended to be 'emblematic' (or mnemonic) for a topic in the outline. These were not meant to 'illustrate' in the modern photographic sense of the term. Equipped with that wrong assumption, many misunderstandings have occurred. The turtle stage, for example, doesn't have anything especially to do with turtles.  It just tells us that this is the point at which the major bodily limbs become evident, but before they reach their full extent. It may appear that the stages of fish > turtle > pig are the kind of recapitulation of evolution about which many modern embryologists have spoken, but really, these are (also?) three successive incarnations of Vishnu in Indian Puranic mythology.

The Tibetan medical chart you see just below is from the Rubin museum's collection. It also was painted as part of the set intended to illustrate the Blue Beryl medical work composed by Regent Sanggyé Gyatso. Look here to learn more.

To see a set of 77 medical paintings all in one place, look here.


  1. Just a quick note of appreciation for this and the previous posting. For those of us who are more visitors than residers to Tibetan culture, these write-ups help us get some bearings.

  2. I hope to put up blogs with direct links to more audio and audio-visual lectures in Tibetan Studies, so if anybody comes across something I might think worthy of blogging, please let me know through "comments."

  3. The video link is still working, as of January 2012. This is a pleasant surprise!

  4. Actually, it's still working in 2023!


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