Dying and death are very important components of the worldviews of the Ladakhis—as they are for other adherents to Buddhism. In a recent journal article, Uwe Gielen provides a brief overview about the primary tenets of Buddhism in Ladakh: the belief that death is an integral part of life; that suffering is an essential aspect of existence; and that karmic interconnectedness suggests an endless chain of reincarnations. An implication of the latter doctrine is that people should feel compassion for others and should have less attachment to their own egos.
The Vajrayana Buddhism that evolved in Tibet and further changed in Ladakh assimilated a variety of local shamanistic traditions. Buddhist beliefs about enlightenment, non-violence, monasticism, and meditation are integrated with Ladakhi shamanistic traditions, magical practices, and faith in local divinities.
The central section of Gielen’s article is his discussion of death as the Ladakhi Buddhists view it. An important practice when people are dying is the recitation of the Bardö T’ödröl, often referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The author indicates that preparation for dying is a life-long process for the Ladakhis; leading a virtuous life is an essential way to prepare for death, they believe. Major crimes are quite unusual as a result (but see another recent article for a different viewpoint on the causes of social peacefulness in Ladakh).
Ladakhis frequently go on pilgrimages, prostrate themselves in front of images, and circumambulate monasteries while turning prayer wheels. Their piety tends to increase when their time of death approaches. They will usually consult with a lama to help prepare for the future. One farmer told the author, “For the future I want to pray, for my reincarnation and for all good persons….Without religion a person thinks of himself only, and his heart is dead” (p.26).
As death approaches, the Buddhists feel it is essential that the dying person should be in a quiet atmosphere, so the individual can let go of his attachments to everything. After death, the lama will continue reading from the Bardö T’ödröl for several days to provide guidance to the nam shes, the spirit or consciousness of the individual, which is believed to hover nearby.
The lama directly addresses the spirit since it is faced with a variety of potentially terrifying transitions into different states of consciousness during this period. The lama tries, through his reading of the book, to guide the spirit into making the correct, luminous choice that will lead to merger with the true Buddha nature, or enlightenment.
During the following weeks, the nam shes floats around until it finally, almost inexorably, enters the womb of its future mother. It will be born as another human being, an animal, or perhaps even as one of the spirits that the Ladakhis believe inhabit their country.
The death in the Buddhist household also prompts a variety of social support mechanisms. The members of the phaspun, the network of neighbors in the community who are tied together through lifelong mutual responsibilities, help the family. The community önpo, the astrologer, develops a death horoscope. The lama continues to provide guidance for the spirit of the deceased, and other monks from the nearby monastery also support the family.
In sum, the progress of a spirit after death is assisted not only by its karma but also by the help of the larger community, the emotional state of everyone, and the prayers, guidance, and rituals associated with their Buddhist beliefs.
The author concludes with guidance about Buddhism for health practitioners, for whom the article was prepared.
Gielen, Uwe P. 2006. “Death and Dying in Buddhist Ladakh.” International Journal of Health Promotion and Education 44(1): 24-28