Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master
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Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master
Translated by Dechen Pemba (bio)

Anyone writing about a sky-burial master is sure to be suspected of having chosen a sensational subject just to get attention. When one brings up sky burials, all kinds of exotic stereotypes about Tibet leap to mind. Then, if one mentions a sky-burial master, one imagines a uniquely Tibetan practitioner, whose profession involves something between a weird science of dissection and witchcraft. The photographs of sky-burial masters that can be found easily on the Internet don't reveal much information. For example, there are well-known images from the 1980s, taken at the sky-burial site near Lhasa's Sera Monastery. In one of the photographs, a solemn-looking Tibetan man is holding a broad-bladed knife and standing over a tangle of body parts; the bloody flesh only vaguely resembles a human corpse. The scene looks like a bizarre, open-air surgery. Anyone with a sensitive nature would be thoroughly shocked by the images.

The friend who sent me the links to those photographs is a poet who has traveled to Tibet many times, even though he is from south of the Yangtze River. He asked me a little nervously, "Is it possible that all you Tibetans want burials like that when you die?"

Actually, I had to think hard about how to answer him, because it's not something that can be explained in just a few sentences. It's fairly simple, of course, to describe in a literal way what happens at a traditional sky burial, and many of those kinds of descriptions have been written. There is even a well-known poem that praises the vultures that eat the corpses...You can imagine the thrill that people with romanticized ideas about Tibetans get when they read such things. For them, the knife-wielding sky-burial master has the aura of a mystical person with the power to unite the opposing cosmic principles of yin and yang. In reality, though, being a sky-burial master is not something that just anyone would want to do or could do. To be a sky-burial master you need the courage to bloody your hands with the harsh evidence of life's impermanence, without ever losing your sense of deep compassion.

In Tibet or, more accurately, in all Tibetan areas-it is necessary to make this distinction so readers will not think I mean only the official Tibetan Autonomous Region-a sky-burial master is simply a layperson in one's [End Page 92] hometown who helps people on their way to reincarnation. His skills and tools are the same as a butcher's, so he has a low social status despite being someone whom everyone needs and comes into contact with eventually. When we die, we need lamas, but we also need a tokden [Tibetan for sky-burial master].

I remember the time I was staying in Palyul, in Baiyu County. Every morning I would get up early and go to the beautiful Palyul Monastery, built against the base of the mountain, and stay there until dusk. In fact, I was there so often that I almost became the full-time cook for Karma Kuchen Rinpoche, the current Throne Holder of the Palyul Lineage. My culinary skills aren't that great, but I can cook up a pretty good dish of potatoes and beef. You just need to have the courage to throw in lots of chili, Sichuan peppers, and other spices, then heat them all together in a big pot. After a while, you have a really spicy and fragrant dish. I like to tell myself that even now the draba [ordinary monks] and Karma Kuchen Rinpoche cherish the memory of me as the person who always made their mouths burn.

When I was at Dabpa County's Bangpu Monastery, instead of being the cook, I took cooking lessons from Drongkar. You would never imagine that a monk could make such amazing steamed buns: very big and white, and delicious with butter tea. The tsampa that Drongkar rolled was even better than his steamed buns. In Lhasa, the barley flour for tsampa is...


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