Rhythms of Dying, of Living
Yolmo rituals teach people how to die and how to mourn.
By Robert R. Desjarlais
“The dead are attached to the living, and the living are attached to the dead,” runs one Yolmo saying. Yolmo Buddhists, an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people who locate their cultural home in the Yolmo region of north-central Nepal, are often concerned with a good death, one that helps them to achieve liberation or a good rebirth. Undertaking a quiet apprenticeship on the matter, they often adopt a number of techniques that help them to die well, from preparing for their deaths, to giving a last testament in their final days, to forging a calm and peaceful state of mind in the hours of their demise. Family and friends often help in these endeavors; they try to calm and support the fading loved one, help him to sever his attachments to his life, exchange final words and glances, and accompany him in the process of dying, up to the “mouth” of death itself.
Very often the family will ask a Yolmo lama to read from the Bardo Thos Grol (as transliterated from the Tibetan into English, usually rendered in the short form, Bardo Thedol). Literally translated as Liberation upon Hearing in the Between, but somewhat inappropriately known in the West as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, this set of mortuary texts details what people can expect to encounter during the phantasmagoric journey through the bardo, the “between” that follows a death.1 The texts explain in great detail what a person can expect to occur in the hours and days after dying.
The texts, when heard, can inform, clarify, and reduce attachment, even though little, if any, of their actual significance is gleaned by those listening to them. “It’s a kind of hearing therapy, for the person who is sick,” Temba, one of my Yolmo friends, told me. “When he hears the Bardo Thedol, he might not understand everything, but he will have a kind of consciousness, a kind of understanding: ‘Oh, I am hearing the good words.’ So, even if the words aren’t understood at the moment, they will have a good impact.”
The words spoken and heard can help to streamline a consciousness. “It’s like receiving guidance right to the end,” Karma, another Yolmo friend, told me. “The person is receiving . . . relevant guidance, and then he is not worrying about something else. . . . Because he knows they are good words. It keeps his thoughts from wandering. It’s giving a direction to those thoughts. Any confused or unsettled thoughts—it works against that. You’re channeling thoughts.”
The texts are lined with ornate intensities, much as Tibetan thangka paintings hold an abundance of images, colors, and significations. The texts make clear other dimensions of a person’s existence, beyond the pain and futility of dying itself. The coarseness of dying is steered into something sacred and transformative. When heard, the texts emit a semantic, syllabic, and emotional fullness which stands in contrast to the sparse banality of dying. They couch the singular intensity, the lonely thusness, of the person’s cessation within an expansive spatial and temporal landscape. A kind of “temporal stretching” occurs in which the suffering and death itself are placed within an encompassing cosmic totality which extends beyond the confines of the present moment, such that any suffering or transitions are rendered more meaningful and transcendent.2 This rich expansiveness is promoted both by the subject of the texts—namely, what transpires during the successive intermediate periods to be encountered after death and the rich significance of these “betweens”—and the temporal quality of the recitations, with sentences following sentences, for hours and hours. Dying itself is impermanent; it won’t last for long. More life is to come.
The texts make anticipators out of its listeners: this will happen, keep this in mind, you can expect this to appear. The fading listener comes to think of more than her immediate, anxious, finite plight. Situated within the space of dying, and beyond it, the dying person is led to imagine what is to come, in the near and distant future, after her current life. She is taken outside and beyond, beyond herself, beyond her dying, in a line of flight, a magical flight, into the intermediate states. If shamanic spirit-calling rites work to invoke a sense of presence or “hereness” among dysphoric persons bereft of vital life forces, then recitations of the Liberation upon Hearing can be said to invoke a sense of elsewhereness.3 They also link a here, the known felt world, to an elsewhere, as do many religious efforts.
The sensory grains of the recitation can themselves be soothing. “The voice of the lama who calls out to the dying person should be very melodious,” notes one commentary on how the texts should be read, “so that merely upon hearing the sound of the instructions the person feels soothed, elevated, and attracted.”4 The words touch a suffering self. The vocalization of the text, read in sonorous, evocative ways, synchronized with the cadences of the human breath, can be calming. The sounds are reassuring. Shared syllables and breathing recur. Arrhythmia turns rhythmic. The voices are embracing, guiding ones. The words, at once familiar and mysterious, can comfort a person as much as a supporting hand or a sip of water. They can help a fading self dissolve inseparably into a vast and incessant murmuring, with the name and identity of the person flowing into a larger, more anonymous stream of language and a more fluid, dreamlike sense of time.
Rhythm can hold people. It can also help them to let go. The texts, when heard or imagined, entail a poetics of guidance. They promote the easeful dissolution of a self through a linguistic and sensorial canvas of unmaking. They teach people how to die. Liberation upon hearing, indeed.
From Shifting, Not Dying
When the last breath leaves the body,
do not think I am dead . . .
You might not know,
to where I have shifted
And you might think,
I’ve left with my last breath
. . . .
Even if I cannot appear physically,
I will come in the form of memories of the past
I have arrived as a guest for one life,
not for hundreds of lives
A guest has to leave,
to stay is impossible
Today I am here,
but where will I be tomorrow?
Our migration is temporary
so say farewell to me with smiles, instead of tears
—Temba D. Yolmo (translated from Nepali by
Temba D. Yolmo and Robert R. Desjarlais)
After a person dies, as Yolmo people know it, his consciousness departs from his body and enters into a phantasmagoric liminal realm between one life and the next, which can last up to forty-nine days after the death. Bereft of a tangible body, that spectral subject lacks the capacity for personal action, while needing to find the right route to a good rebirth.5
For Yolmo Buddhists, the task of the living is to cut off the deceased from their world, to diminish attachment to that world. They have to put an end to the busy confluence and tightly knit relations between them and their deceased loved ones. The dead person depends on the aid of the living, who must perform a number of rituals on his behalf. Mourners need to deliver the consciousness from the body, cremate the corpse, and undertake a series of funeral rites, which usually conclude some seven weeks after the death. They must render the deceased no longer a living, fully human, flesh-and-body person.
A series of tangible images of the deceased—the corpse, a bundle of clothes, a set of name cards, and a life-size effigy—serves to simulate the deceased’s identity as it changes through time. Each of these images is first invoked, then taken away, either by being burned or dismantled, in spiraling rounds of simulated presence and absence. If the funeral rites go well, the personhood of the deceased fades in time; his persona becomes increasingly nameless, apersonal, and distant from the world of the living. Family members sponsor and participate in these rituals in a spirit of care and responsibility while often attending to wounding grief, which diminishes but never fully expires.
The living and the recently dead are engaged in delicate technologies of cessation and transformation. A strong sense of creative making and fashioning runs through these efforts. Dying calls for an active patterning of self and other, as do the funerary rites. An element of poiesis courses through Yolmo responses to death. Derived etymologically from the Greek poiein, “to act, to do, or to make,” and related to the words “poetics” and “poetry,” the term poiesis has come to designate any making or doing beyond purely practical efforts. Poiesis is involved in the crafting of poems and the art of shipbuilding. It implies a begetting, a fabrication and bringing forth, of some new form or reality.
Such begetting is central to procedures of dying, death, and mourning in Yolmo communities. Consciousnesses are transformed, ceremonies performed, substitute bodies made and unmade, and memories revised—all in ways that entail techniques of fabricating, bringing forth, and transmutation. I am not so much trying to apply Western models of poiesis to Yolmo lives as I am trying to grasp how Buddhist orientations might shed light on processes at work in all of our lives.
While there is no direct equivalent of the term poiesis in the Yolmo language, there are two often-voiced verb structures that cover a similar semantic and pragmatic range. The first is zhoi, which means “to make, to construct, to build”; the word implies activities creative or constructive. A person makes or constructs a painting, a house, a block print, or a poem. The second is bheken. Cognate with the Tibetan written verb byed-pa, bheken can mean “to make, fabricate,” “to do,” “to cause, to effect,” “to produce, procure, provide,” “to commit, perform, execute,” “to act, proceed, intend, affect,” or “to take, to assume, to count.”6 The verb bheken connotes agents doing, making, producing, and fabricating. Le bheken, for instance, is to do or undertake some kind of work, while ro bkehen is to build a friendship or to come to someone’s aid. Shyarchen bheken, in turn, means “to arise, to bloom, to blossom.” The semantic range of these verb structures conveys something of the cultural poiesis at play in how Yolmo people go about their lives.
A strong inclination toward creative fashioning recurs in many domains of life in Yolmo communities, from the inventive industriousness often displayed by individuals and families, to the “skilled means” employed by Buddhist adepts, to the diligent attempts to generate positive karmic merit for oneself and others. The focus on self-transformation central to Tibetan Buddhist religious practices similarly involves motifs of overt and active fashioning.7 For many people who identify as Yolmo, there is an inclination to undertake actions in a skillful way, to enjoy aesthetic endeavors, to relate to others in a gracefully respectful way, and to live personally and as a family in ways that speak well to these inclinations.8 A number of aesthetic sensibilities—evolving around such themes as fullness, presence, balance, and harmony—are evident in the everyday lives of Yolmo people. Health is largely a matter of personal and familial balance, harmony, and presence. Bottles filled with colorful waters stand on display on the shelves of homes in the Yolmo region, while pots and plates appear immaculately cleansed and polished. Peony is used as a polish for floors, such that a good glow and scent lingers. In many collective gatherings, including celebrations of the New Year, people delight in singing folk songs and dancing to them. People find pleasure in generating forms, from artwork to conversations to folk songs, on their own or with others. These diffuse, usually unmentioned sensibilities go hand in hand with the processes of poiesis, of making, fashioning, and refashioning.
The principle of karma, in which any moral act, good or bad, brings about a correspondingly positive or negative result, either in this or in a future lifetime, is as basic and commonsensical to Buddhist peoples as the law of gravity is to others. Karma involves a kind of natural poiesis, in that a person’s deeds, positive and negative, bear “fruit” down the road. Karmic forces bring forth certain situations, whether stretches of happiness or a lifetime of hardship, and there’s not much that a person can do to change that. He or she can, however, strive to generate positive karma by undertaking virtuous deeds and “cutting” negative ones. Many a Yolmo life—and death—is founded on an intricate, indeterminable play between the generative designs of karma in a person’s life and that person’s attempts to steer the consequential flow of karmic actions. While a person might strive for a good death, he and others know well that his karmic heritage will play a large role in the ease or suffering of that death. It’s a matter of what is karmically “written on the forehead,” as many phrase it, and what a person endeavors to contribute to what is written. Those who are written write anew, as they add to, and sometimes revise, what has been inscribed.
The procedures of dying and death often entail a poiesis of cessation, in the seemingly paradoxical sense that a dying self endeavors to dissolve its self. In effect, a person strives, often with the help of others, to create the conditions whereby she can contribute to the surcease of her place within, and longing for, the world. Mourners, in turn, try to facilitate these endeavors on behalf of lost loved ones, while trying to abate their own attachments to them. Much of the dying process, and the cremation and funeral rites, orbits around an intricate making of unmaking, a calm forging of undoing, dissolving, and stillness. In many respects, these efforts fit well with the intent of Buddhist teachings and practices, which tirelessly work toward the idea of letting go of ego, attachments, sensory dependencies, and the sense of a solid and unchanging self in the world. Dissolving, taking away, releasing, removing, until all is emptiness, until the self itself is stilled: these hard-gained endeavors apply both to Buddhist practices and to Yolmo methods of dying and post-life transformations. In thinking of how people engage constructively in the world, we need to entertain Buddhist ideas of “taking away” and consequential “nondoing.” Stable ideas of active and passive break down. Poiesis here implies a tentative making and fashioning, one couched in the virtuality and impermanence of its own constructedness.
Much of the “bringing forth” that takes place in situations of dying and death, as in those of life, is social: a co-poiesis, a collaborative fashioning and unfashioning of self and other, and a poiesis-on-behalf-of-another. The latter is particularly crucial after a person dies, as the dead can accomplish little on their own. Roaming a “land without power,” a domain where they no longer have powers to act, they have little recourse to generative action. They cannot effectively “act” or “produce” anymore, or alter their karmic heritage, in any forthright way. They must rely on the living to do this. The call for the living to labor on behalf of the deceased makes such efforts a matter of care, responsibility, respect, and honor, implying an ethics of mourning. The ritual assistance is a welcome responsibility, as the living long to act in ways that can benefit lost loved ones.
Immediate family members also take on a number of “mourning restrictions” in the wake of a death. The self-imposed restrictions usually last until the final funeral rites some weeks later, when the end of social mourning is ritually noted. Mourners do not sing or dance, participate in games or forms of play and entertainment, or wear good clothes. Some persons decide to bear the restrictions for a year’s time or more, depending on their “heart”: “As our hearts do not want to dance or sing, so we don’t dance.”
The practice of mourning restrictions allows people a culturally authorized span of time in which to live distinct from others, within the pace of one’s sadness. The restrictions provide a standard for grieving, a method to it. For many, there is a visceral force to adhering to the sanctions. Doing otherwise does not feel appropriate, despite urgings from others. There’s a rhythm to grief, if a discordant and dolorous one, as in this Yolmo pain song:
The year our father passed away,
we had to sing songs of pain.
Many help to participate in the work that needs to be done after a death. If the house is large enough, different activities take place in different rooms or areas. Women, especially close relatives of the deceased, work in the kitchen to prepare tea and food. Young men often assist in the preparation of materials needed for the funeral rites. Lamas read several sacred texts.
Those who visit in death step into a mood of mourning. The tones are of somber sadness, of respects paid, with clipped expressions of sorrow, or casual conversations. Some cry out, but it is important not to cry or lament the death too overtly, as any crying or tears can disturb the deceased’s trek to a new life—yet it is terrifically important to give heartfelt condolences to bereaved family members. Semso bheke, “doing or performing semso,” is the name for this act. The phrase builds on the words sem, “heartmind,” and so, a term which relates closely to the Tibetan solba. Solba is a verb which carries connotations of
to feed, nourish
to bring up, nurse up, rear, train
to put an end to (such as fatigue)
to mend, repair
to restore, rebuild, re-establish what has been destroyed
to refresh, recreate.9
The phrase semso bheke might be translated as “to console, to comfort, or to appease the heart of another.” This includes a tonality of nourishing and mending, of efforts to repair what has been destroyed—the poise and integrity of spirit of persons devastated by grief. People console immediate mourners and try to alter the pain a shade. They create an ambiance of social support and comfort. They pay respect to the deceased and his family. They share in the loss. These acts are relational. Someone comes, compassionately, to the aid of another.
A portion of this consolation occurs through visitors simply being there in the household, with and alongside the grief-stricken, in a situation of co-presence: talking with them, sitting with them, through a stretch of time. This kind of communal accompaniment, an active withness, is an ethical act in its own right. But there’s more to it than companionship alone, as the physical and conversational presences suggest different rhythms than that of grief alone.
These alternate rhythms can keep a person out of a pure and singular aloneness of despair. The rhythms indicate that life continues on. It’s similar to situations where someone who is distressed is comforted by talking with a friend, with that solace coming from the patterns of the talk. The exchanges offer lines of awareness that bring a person back into the world. They give perspective on the distress. They remind the person of who she or he is, of what life is. They create welcome distractions. An ethics of care is found as much with supporting mourners as it is in helping a person to die well.
As part of Yolmo rituals around death, a group of women and men chant prayers known as mani on behalf of the deceased. The word mani cants as an abbreviation of the sacred Buddhist mantra om mani peme hung, which invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. In a more general sense, the word stands for the sacred prayers performed during the funeral rites. Most of the chants consist of prayers recited by a lama, followed by melodic refrains sung by women and men. Sometimes more than a hundred people participate in the performance of mani, which can go on for several hours. The refrains involve words that work as a coda for the prayer as a whole. The structure of the mani is a dialogical, gendered one, with a lama reciting prayers, and a group, consisting primarily of women, chorusing a refrain. A readerly male voice proceeds in counterpoint to the collective orality of women, text and voice woven together. The refrains, which many women know by heart, are sung in beautifully lyrical, heart-reaching terms.
A mani refrain usually begins with a line, sung slowly, with the mantra om mani peme hung. It then advances words that appeal to a deity for guidance or assistance. One refrain, recorded at a funeral rite, sounds like this:
Om . . . ma . . . ni . . . pe . . . me . . . hung . . . rhi
yidam thu-zjhi chhenpo rang khyeno
Thu-zjhi chhenpo is a name for the deity Chenrezig. A lama glossed the meaning of the second line, yidam thu-zjhi chhenpo: “You know all these things, and whatever deeds we have done, we have done, and now we are dependent on you. It is up to you where to guide us.”
Any karmic merit generated through performing mani prayers derives from the prayers being enacted on behalf of all sentient beings. The deceased receives the merit generated by that meritorious act. “With the merits of this mani, may the person be liberated,” lilts one sentence of the mani. By voicing powerful prayers, lamas, grieving family members, and supporting friends and relatives help the deceased in his aspirations for liberation or a good rebirth. Such is the intensive power of words.
Mourners perform the mani prayers in the first days after a death, during the tearful procession to the cremation site, and during the conclusion of the funeral rites several weeks later, when lamas ritually demolish the last tangible embodiment of the deceased. The sounds link to critical moments of transfer and farewell, of the deceased leaving the world of the living, and the living saddened by that passing. As each death brings a cycle of these prayers, any new voicing can recall previous deaths.
There’s much to be heard in the mani prayers. The refrains work within a broader service of consolation. The refrains are potentially restorative, re-creative; they have the capacity to mend. They counter the despair and seeming pointlessness of a death. As the prayers are recited, the death continues to take form within a rich cosmography, a vast stretch of dharmic time and space stretching from the most compassionate of bodhisattvas to the neediest of sentient beings. A fragile, beseeching voice sounds out in the cosmos. Someone has died, but life perseveres. That life can entail a difficult, delicate joy, where there is at least the possibility of happiness.
Rhythm is needed, is called for, a counterpoint to the heartbreak of grief. We seek patterns in time and space when life throws us off our stride, when we’re struggling to maintain some sense of vitality. Notable within the institution of mani prayers is that others—friends and family—provide a sustained, sustaining rhythm to those most in need of it. The prayers are a matter of compassionate accompaniment, of assisting the deceased in the passage through the betweens, of staying close to the grief-stricken. Alternate rhythms pulse alongside the dark tones of death. How different this is from societies in which mourners are left to go through their grief alone, without the aid of institutions of consolation beyond those found in the first days after a death.
The mani prayers harmonize patterns of dying and grief. The melodic rhythms of the words stand in contrast to the disjointed speech and arrhythmia found in many acts of dying. The mani refrains are generative, collective, transactional, inclusive, uplifting, lucid, and artful. The music attends to the loss yet suggests continuation of life and sustained generation. The prayers create a calming sense of order within the chaos of death. They demarcate a space juxtaposed to the despair of death. Different potentialities within the refrains are, plausibly, ever-shifting, taking form in variable ways, with various intensities in effect at different times.
If we end up in between, kindly hook us. Art hooks us, transports us elsewhere. It draws us outside of ourselves and leads us to new perspectives in and about the world. “Music has a thirst for destruction, every kind of destruction, extinction, breakage, dislocation,” suggest Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.10 The mani refrains disrupt the stark aloneness of grief. The prayers move people along, turning and leading them into different realms of consciousness. The refrains offer mourners a way to feel and think otherwise about a loss that can be devastating. While the bereaved might not want or be able to heed those possibilities at the time, they may do so in the weeks and months that follow, when something other than a song of pain is possible.
While ideas and doings of poiesis are central to many Yolmo lives, they suggest only one particular cultural rendering of something at work in the lives of peoples throughout the world. It is my contention that poiesis is found in the strivings of all peoples—and, perhaps, of all life-forms. Poiesis is there in the urge we have to make something of, and in, our lives, individually and collectively. Poiesis is found in moments of joy and suffering, of life and death. It is inscribed in the very fact of rituals. Peoples throughout the world turn to ritual and symbolic forms in the wake of death and absence. Form comes of loss. Something is made present when something else is no longer present. “That’s it, weave, weave.”11
The catch to all of this, however, is that those weavings often run up against the weavings of others similarly intent on making something of their lives or against the world at large—a world blind and inert to human strivings. A “coefficient of resistance” is forever involved in any human strivings in life, to use a term of Jean-Paul Sartre’s. We create and fashion most often within situations of struggle, denial, want, and the wastages of time. People can and do work with what has been “written”—be it historically, economically, socially, discursively, fatally, genetically—in “writing” something of their own.
One way to think of human efforts in the world is that a conscious mind or set of minds is purposefully doing what it intends to do. But such a model of action runs aground of such complicated arrangements as a person’s memories or the centuries-long development of a set of funerary rites. Where do we find intentionality in the flow of a conversation or the haunting of a household? How do we locate it in the images that come to a poet or a spirit medium, or to a child’s excursions in play? The narrator of Tristram Shandy, when asked about the design of his book, said, “Ask my pen,—it governs me,—I govern not it.”12 Given that cultural efforts seldom arise from a single author or subject in the world, there is a need to de-individualize ideas of making and creating. As conscious subjects and actors in our lives, we are “made”—by words, social relations, cultural formations, and life circumstances—as much as we produce words, relations, and forms.
Yolmo efforts at cooperative making and assisted cessation at the time of death trip up prevalent ideas of agency in Western social and political thought, which often paint “personal agency” as being a question of actions undertaken by individuals, often while under the constraining weight of political forces. The designs within Yolmo funeral customs involve social and ritual practices whose effects are to transform people or situations in some way. If we were to string out a lexicon of change involved in Yolmo scenes of dying and funeral rituals, it would include such active verbs as: generate, provoke, transform; visualize, imagine, remember, forget; transfer, invoke, dislodge; clarify, instruct; quiet, console, purify, extinguish, dismantle, release; connect and disconnect; deconstitute and reconstitute. What is being changed are perceptions, karmic statuses, moods and longings, forms of attachment, social and sensual relations, and ways of knowing and being in the world. Each step of the way, as people die, mourn, and console, forms of consciousness are invoked, memories are revised, senses are engaged and disengaged, and selves are named and unnamed in an evolving charge of relations. The realities and virtualities generated in these moments, in line with a world familiar with tantric energies and transformative intensities—and without any single author or known agent to their name—have powerful effects in and on life.
Death is often taken to be the polar opposite of life. Yet it can also be said that the words “life” and “death” mark situations more complicated than that binary arrangement alone. The ever-changing flow of life and death, presence and absence, includes varying intensities and thresholds of existence, the circling of memories plush with life, moments at once actual and virtual, ghosts as real as people and people as vacant as ghosts. The end of one set of bonds leads to new strands of connection. There is being and becoming, yes, but there is also cessation, which easily slides into new turns of life. A life implies the imminent remove of that life, while the loss of a life brings a surfeit of memories, feelings, and reverberations. In “the balance between the here and the not-here,” there can be a richness to loss, much as there can be a paucity to life, making for nondualistic swirls of vitalities quick to alter.
“Death, like the sun, cannot be looked at steadily,” wrote the seventeenth-century author François de La Rochefoucauld.13 That has been true for me. I have found that if I gaze too steadily into that searing whiteness, my spirit begins to wither. This essay draws from a book I have been researching and writing for several years based on my understanding of dying and mourning among Yolmo Buddhists, as it has emerged tentatively and is emerging still, through stints of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Yolmo region of north-central Nepal, in Kathmandu, and in Queens, New York, dating back to the late 1980s.
Accompanying death for several years has been a strain. I came to adopt the conceptual equivalent of protective sunglasses: I cordoned off my work on the topic, filled my days with life otherwise, and often worked in cafés, in the company of others. I found myself sharing drafts with friends and colleagues, as though something like life could be infused into the sentences at hand. I discovered that writing could serve ritual purposes of its own. It helped me to make sense of death and loss, or connect anew, or steady the earth. Writing can entail a kind of dying, a slow dissolve into something larger and unknown. Writing can also sustain a life.
I came to focus most on the anthropological themes involved. I’ve often felt that the material, the haunting interplay of the here and the not-here, gets at issues central not only to Yolmo lives but to who we all are, as beings struggling to get along in life. Grief, like love, opens us, often in terribly vulnerable ways, to the most profound questions of connection and memory. Loss marks us. It defines who we are.
These pages would be different if I had penned them when I was younger. I did not know as much about loss then, about the end of lives and the end of relationships, or of how the pain of parting can sear long after its first ruptures. Nor did I appreciate as much the value and power of connection. When I was conducting fieldwork with Yolmo people for the first time while in my mid-twenties, in years that now seem eager and youthful to me, I came across the social restriction against saying the names of the dead. I took it, principally, as a social taboo, something that is not done, for reasons more cultural than anything else: saying the names of the dead can summon up their ghostly presence in unwelcome ways or lead someone to be drawn incurably to the past. “Dead people have no need for names,” one man told me, an edge to his voice. Back then, I took that edge to be impatience with an inquisitive researcher pressing on a touchy subject. I understand better now how invoking the names of the lost, or any reminder shot out of the past—a photograph in a desk drawer, the ring of a telephone—can ignite painful memories best not summoned.
I continue to feel ambivalent about theorizing the losses of others, or even mentioning them in print. But I’ve been reassured by friends who remind me that it is important for us to know better how people throughout the world make sense of these most inescapable of events. I’ve come to realize that Yolmo people themselves theorize death, and that my efforts echo their attempts to comprehend death, to anticipate or know it better than we might otherwise. To theorize death is to theorize life and culture.
Thoughts about the book have seeped into thoughts about life, while the eventualities of life continue to inform ideas emergent in the material. I’ve come to notice that the permutations of loss, what haunts people and what soothes them, are something we all get a strong taste of at one time or another. Sometimes these situations take form in ways stunningly reminiscent of one another: a person close to me tells me of how the presence of a friend who moved on to another city continues to linger in her life, as though he was still there, right beside her, walking about with her, sharing thoughts with her, and yet he is not quite there; and then I come upon a passage in Proust in which the narrator remarks that “people do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.”14 These strands of life bring to mind how the faint nearness of the deceased continues to be felt, viscerally, in Yolmo households for weeks after the death. Just as there is no sharp divide between how loss and consolation proceed in Nepal, in France, and in the United States, there is no reason to maintain such a divide here and to write about Yolmo lives as though they occurred in a world apart from my own. Loss tears at all of us. While it’s important to note its cultural patternings, it’s equally necessary to note the similarities in our wounds and in our efforts to mend them. A language of “they” easily slides into one of “we.”
- For a recent translation, see The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation, trans. Gyurme Dorje, ed. Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa (Penguin, 2005).
- I am drawing here from anthropological writings which speak of the ways in which ritualized chants and utterances can take a person out of the immediacy of his or her suffering while offering the sense of a broader mythic placement of that suffering. See, for instance, C. Jason Throop, Suffering and Sentiment: Exploring the Vicissitudes of Suffering and Pain in Yap (University of California Press, 2010), and Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Effectiveness of Symbols,” in Structural Anthropology (Basic Books, 1963), 186–205. The word “encompassing” here derives from Karl Jasper’s existential phenomenology.
- On shamanic spirit-calling rites among Yolmo people, see Robert R. Desjarlais, Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).
- The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. Gyurme Dorje, ed. Coleman with Thupten Jinpa, 221.
- I take the term “spectral subject” from Jonathan Boulter’s Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 2008).
- H. A. Jäschke, A Tibetan-English Dictionary (1881; Motilal Banarsidass, 1995), 378–379.
- As Janet Gyatso observes, “Tibetan Buddhism is utterly consumed with programs of self-transformation. From the stone floor of the cave to the home of the village lama, the ritual assembly of the monastery, and the exalted seat of power of the Dalai Lamas, self-transformation often seems to be the only interesting game in town”; Janet Gyatso, “The Ins and Outs of Self-Transformation: Personal and Social Sides of Visionary Practice in Tibetan Buddhism,” in Self and Self-Transformation in the History of Religions, ed. David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (Oxford University Press, 2002), 183.
- See, for instance, Desjarlais, Body and Emotion.
- See Jäschke, A Tibetan-English Dictionary, 290, 576.
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 299.
- Samuel Beckett, Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable (Grove Press, 1994), 339.
- Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Penguin, 2003), 375.
- François de La Rochefoucauld, maxim 26: “Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder en face.”
- Marcel Proust, The Captive; The Fugitive, trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, rev. D. J. Enright (Random House, Modern Library Classics, 1993), 689.
Robert R. Desjarlais is Professor of Anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. His two most recent books are Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists and Counterplay: An Anthropologist at the Chessboard. He spoke on this topic for the 2011 Ingersoll Lecture at HDS.