Tibetan thangka, late 13th century, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Buddhism is a fertile terrain for meeting strong sacrifice-related experiences. The life of the historical Buddha himself, Shakyamuni, is a shining example of it. Through the restless searching of his early years he finally came to understand that the sacrifice of the “ego” is the gate to the spiritual freedom. This means that we should go beyond our small egocentric considerations, inexhaustible source of pain, and merge into the fullness of life, which is something all beings share. The possibility of understanding and, moreover, experimenting with this status is the foundation of Buddhism itself, as exemplified by the Four Noble Truths stated by the Buddha:

- life, as a result of the five aggregates subject to clinging (form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness), is pain (dukkha);

- the origin of pain is craving;

- there is a possibility of the cessation of pain, of the freedom from craving;

- this possibility is the way of the Buddha, the eightfold path which consists of the right view, the right intention, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, the right mindfulness and the right concentration. This path leads to the sacrifice of the ego.


According to these fundamental teachings, Buddhism, as a religion, developed many practices aimed at helping to go beyond our small selves. Due to very special geographical and historical conditions, a particular place on Earth was, in the last one thousand and three hundred years, one of the most fertile terrains for cultivating such practices. This place is Tibet, home of a form of Buddhism that is so peculiar because of the previous cult that was in vogue before the arrival of Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) around 786 AD. Although Buddhism had been declared the official religion of the country in 779 by the king Trhisong Detsen, the main religious practice was still the exoteric and shamanic cult named Bön. According to the tradition, the presence in Tibet of Padmasambhava was decisive in overcoming the resistance of the Bonpos and in the making of Buddhism the main religion of Tibet. But this was also possible because Padmasambhava himself was an expert in exoteric practices and assimilated some of the Bön’s teachings to the more canonical Indian Buddhism. This is the reason why some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are deeply esoteric.


The role of the Shaman belongs to this pre-Buddhist tradition, although it has been easily absorbed by Tibetan Buddhism itself. This figure represents a form of sacrifice since his life is entirely dedicated to helping other people fight their illnesses, all of which have a karmic origin. This means that they were caused by previous negative karma, built up during this and other lives.

The shaman, when into his trance-state, is able to find out the causes of the diseases and frees the patients at his own expense. That is to say that the shaman, in order to help people, has to take on himself the bad karma that was at the basis of the others’ illnesses. This is nothing but an act of sincere sacrifice aimed at the salvation of other people; but it should also be kept in mind that the shaman has to perform this kind of ritual in order to obtain his own salvation. Since he has such an unusual skill, he has no other choice than to use it for others and, through these people, for himself. In the Buddhist view of the phenomena, everything is interdependent and this is why such a figure as the shaman can overwhelm all the divisions and discriminations and become the medium between the people and their subconscious.


Another aspect of the Yungdrung Bön tradition (Yungdrung is the Tibetan name for swastika, since the phase of Bön before the arrival of Buddhism was deeply influenced by the cult of this symbol of continue renewal) which was incorporated into the Nyingmapa lineage, established by Padmasambhava, was the cult of the wrathful deities. These amazing figures, although at first seem to be horrible and scary, represent the purpose and the possibility of subduing and transforming negative energies into something pure and good.

In fact, through the centuries, they have been commonly revered as “Protectors of the Dharma” and are painted at the entrance of most Tibetan gompas (temples) to keep the bad feelings outside of the holy place. This role of protector, from an outer point of view, means that they stand and fight in order to help the practitioner along his path; from an inner point of view it means that even our bad feelings and energies are part of the practice of the bodhisattva. The only positive way to get rid of them is to comprehend that they come from no other place than our mind and therefore we can dominate them and use them as a strong motivation to our practice.


In Tibet there is also a funeral practice which at first seems gruesome and scary. We in the west call it a “celestial funeral” or “sky burial” but in Tibetan it is called “jhator” which literally means “giving alms to the birds”. This practice consists of making incisions in the corpse at particular points (or carving symbols on it) and leaving it exposed in a special site called a “durtro” (charnel ground) so the birds, commonly vultures, can feed on it and allow the natural elements to bring it to a complete decomposition. This ritual flourished for two main reasons. The practical one: in Tibet the terrain is very hard and rocky and to dig a grave is a difficult task; to build a fire is also very difficult since there is almost no woody vegetation and yak dung is commonly used for heating. The privilege of cremation was occasionally only reserved for high lamas or officers. The spiritual one: Tibetan Buddhists believe in reincarnation and therefore they believe there is no need at all to preserve the body after a person’s death. The “alms” given to the birds is seen as an act of compassion for the benefit of other living beings and also as a way to let one’s earthly vehicle return again to the basic elements of earth, physically merging it with the whole world. The remaining bones were eventually used as a source for ritual instruments, such as the kangling (tight-bone trumpet) or the kapala (skull cup). But the most important aspect is that this ritual can be seen as a manifestation of one of the fundamental Buddha teachings, the impermanence of all things: everyone is fated to die and such an exposition of a dead body is a precious lesson for the ones still alive. “Pay your respect to the vultures, for they are your future” as Jhonn Balance said.

Nowadays this practice is becoming rarer. It was prohibited in the 60s through to the 80s by the People’s Republic of China that invaded Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, and since then, has worked hard to remove any autonomy of tradition and thought of the Tibetan people. In addition to this, thanks to the “progress” introduced in the country, fuel is now less expensive than it used to be and therefore cremation has become more frequent among all the social classes.


All of the sacrificial aspects we discussed above were focused on Tibet, due to its distinctive role in the religious panorama. But now we have to move to Japan in order to meet one of the most extreme examples of self-sacrifice: Sokushinbutsu.

This practice, that was observed from the XII century until the XX, consists of a deliberate process of self-mummification: for several years the ascetic refuses any common food and feeds only on products derived from the woods in which he lives, such as resin, roots, pine cones, leaves and soil. He gradually reduces the quantities of food and during his final days only drinks water. Then he is buried alive into an underground tomb where he sits in the lotus position.


The tomb is opened three years later. If the body is still unbroken, it means the ascetic has successfully become a “miira”, a mummy. He is brought out of the grave and placed, with special ornaments, in a shrine where he will be revered forever as an example of human strength, a sacrifice that is transcended by its result: a lifeless human body that can be preserved endlessly through time. He cannot even be properly defined “dead”, since his body is still here, present, tangible, real. This is the ultimate manifestation of will through time, the creation of an indefinable condition where the body is alive and the mind is like suspended in deep meditation. Maybe one day he will wake again and walk among the people to help them gain their own freedom.

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