Diclofenac warning for tantrikas

I love birds. In particular, I love vultures. Vultures are obnoxious, messy, noisy and greedy. Just like tantrikas.

Do I look good in blood?
Do I look good in blood?

They are also cautious, careful, alert, and unafraid to stick their heads into a jugular. Some tantrikas possess these qualities too.

Vultures dive into the remains of life, the mess and the discards, and clear it up. Once they’ve got an eating project in mind, they’re cooperative and focused.

Teamwork
Teamwork

It’s not in the nature of vultures to leave a mess behind. Once they start gorging, it takes a significant threat to divert their attention.

Do not disturbSkypeDoNotDisturb

Not only do vultures perform a valuable ecological function, but they also party while they’re at it. Then they’re so satiated by the experience that they cannot fly.

For Tibetans, vultures also provide a social function. The natural funeral for a Tibetan at high altitude is a ‘sky burial.’ The ground is too hard for interment, there are no deep rivers for ritual cleansing and convenient corpse removal, and there are no trees to provide wood for cremation. Burial takes place in the air; vultures stand in for the elements of the Earth, transforming the corpse to a skeleton.

When I looked for a video of a sky burial on YouTube, the most popular one was David Attenborough’s account: “Tibetan Sky Burial.” It has beautiful cinematography, amazing images of flying vultures and mountain scenery, and intimate details of Tibetans preparing for ritual. It has gravitas and I recommend it as a feast for the senses. However, it doesn’t include images of the crucial part of the sky burial – the vultures waiting and then preying on the human corpse.  Maybe it was cleaned up for more mainstream consumption.

I found a video on youtube that included a sequence of still images from a sky burial, graphic stills, in which a live human chopped up a dead one. After the vultures had eaten the corpse to the bones, the ‘ro rgyab pa,’ the body-breaking corpse-carrying man – an outcast in Asian society – kindly chopped up the remains to make them more accessible by the vultures. Unlike David Attenborough’s beautiful work of art, there was no romantic music.

That video has since been removed from Youtube. It was simple and not less disturbing to watch than some that are now available. Additionally, since I first wrote this post in 2013, sky burial has become a tourist activity in Tibet. Youtube videos now include tourists and locals filming the burials on their smartphones. In place of that video here is a different one. Please be warned, it has some very graphic images of the process and has age restrictions. I don’t recommend it unless you actively want to evoke your disgust-horror response today. It also has some fabulous video footage of the wake of vultures.

Death, decay and transformation

Vultures are fearless around death. They thrive on it. But they are in serious danger of extinction. Since 1990 more than 95% of vulture populations in India have died – tens of millions of vultures.2 Their decline results from exposure to diclofenac, a veterinary drug present in the livestock carcasses they scavenge. Without vultures’ reliable efficiency, rabies and other diseases are rising as pathogens are transferred to feral dogs who step in to scavenge for meat. The RSPB is working with local conservation organizations in India and Nepal to help prevent Asian vultures from becoming extinct within ten years.4

That the most popular contemporary account of a sky burial on YouTube is sanitized to include everything except the thing itself, is interesting. The encounter with death is turned into a beautiful, aesthetic, romantic ritual. You don’t get close up with death and decay. It’s too shocking. But you can come to terms with it through an encounter with the ritual. You have some exposure to the reality of what happens while watching the sunset. It’s quite appealing; it might even make you want to go there.

Death, decay and transformation are central themes in Vajrayana. Indeed, mortality salience is central to most Buddhisms. Many presentations are possible and suitable for different contexts and audiences. Personally, I prefer the un-romanticized, up-close-and-personal approach: tantrikas tend to want to leave no bone unturned. Tantra is not nice.

Vultures in tantric practice

I first got to know vultures personally in 2011 on a trip to Nepal. I was there for a couple of months and the pollution in Kathmandu was bad, so I bailed out to Pokhara for a spontaneous retreat. I stayed in a hut in Maya Devi village. Afterwards, I met Scott Mason and his parahawking team, including Kevin:

Kevin
Kevin

Kevin is an Egyptian vulture. He was knocked out of the nest as a chick but saved from death by Scott and friends. He is one of, usually, 4-5 birds on the parahawking team. I flew with him and another time with his mate Bob.

I already had an association with vultures before meeting Kevin and Bob, through the animals connected to the Aro gTér element system. The elements in the Tibetan Buddhist system are earth, water, fire, air and space. In Vajrayana, they are associated with the five Buddha families. Practices related to the five families transform neurotic behaviour into useful action.5 In the Aro gTér, the vulture is associated with the water element and the liberation of anger into clarity.

Recently I acquired some Flector™ prescription pads for sciatic injury with instructions to stick them over the painful areas. They are large: about 6 by 4 inches.  Being a tantrika, I opened the whole box and covered as much of my hip joint and posterior chain as I could with this second skin.

I didn’t think to check the ingredients in the Flector™  pads. My boyfriend was reading the small print while I was getting all excited about my new skin. It turned out that the active ingredient was diclofenac.

I hereby issue a health and safety warning to tantrikas:

Flector™ skin patches are all full of diclofenac and UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES take part in your own sky burial after using them.  Think of the vultures.

Questions to readers:

Do other Vajrayana lineages associate animals with the elements, or with other practices? I’d love to hear.

Does anyone know if there is a Tibetan name for the men who carry out and carve up the corpse for a sky burial? I used the word ‘undertaker’ because I couldn’t think of a better word. Knowing the Tibetan would probably make for a better translation. (Late note: thanks to the commenters who helped answer this question. I changed the post text accordingly.)

Postscript: A big thank you to Scott Mason for readily sharing his photos, for advice on the vulture crisis and for his ongoing contribution to maintaining Nepalese diclofenac free vulture restaurants.

References

1. ‘Wake’ is the collective term for vultures attending a funeral: https://www.thespruce.com/fun-facts-about-vultures-385520

2. Prakash V, Pain D.J, Cunningham A.A, Donald P.F, Prakash N, Verma A, Gargi R, Sivakumar S, Rahmani A.R. Catastrophic collapse of Indian white-backed Gyps bengalensis and long-billed Gyps indicus vulture populations. Biol. Conserv. 2003;109:381–390.

3. ‘Rabies tragedy follows loss of India’s vultures,’ by Matt Walker 12th August 2008, New Scientist.

3. I recommend following the link to the RSPB page on the vulture crisis in Asia. There’s an excellent 16 minute video there, and an option to donate to their work with vultures. This video is an edited cow corpse feed from start to finish, with a superimposed account of the severity of the Asian vulture crisis. Watching a real feed from start to end takes hours, sometimes a full day. Also, if you want to follow the parahawking team and their support for vulture restaurants in Nepal, you can do so here.

4. If you’d like to learn more about tantric practice in relation to the Buddha families, there is a 1hr 15 minute video of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1974 talking on Tantric practice and the five Buddha families here. I have a post pending on this topic.

20 thoughts on “Diclofenac warning for tantrikas”

  1. As of the men who carry out and carve up the corpse for a sky burial, probably ragyapas (rogyapa, Ragyabpa, transliteration is whimsical) is what you look for. I say probably, because wikipedia;Social classes of Tibet uses it as the general term of of the undercastes of the Tibetan caste system (which embraces, as usual, all the people who do unclean work), while according to wikipedia:Sky burial it concretely means “body breaker”.

  2. ‘Rogyapa’ is the word for ‘body breaker’ according to a number of websites, I am assuming that is Tibetan, but I haven’t yet found anything that breaks that down into any detail.

  3. @csaba and Tsül’dzin
    Thanks for the lead. It’s in the nithartha.org dictionary as:
    ro rgyab pa – one who carries a corpse on his back [JV]
    ro rgyab pa – outcast corpse carrier [IW]
    Ro = ‘corpse.’ I love that ‘ro’ in Tibetan is synonymous with ‘taste.’

    “Rogyapa”….is an awfully appealing word. I can’t stop repeating it. Also, I do prefer ‘bodybreaker’ to ‘undertaker.’ More….graphic, don’t you think?

    I’ll change the text of the post accordingly.

    @Chris
    It has not escaped my attention that American Sky Burials is a business waiting to happen. Are you the man for the job? Might need some research into the associated legalities. Idyllwild might be a good place to start. Nicely altitudinous.

    I’m sitting under Mount Shasta watching vultures circling as I write this.
    (Irrelevant note to bird geeks: American vultures are related to storks. Old world vultures are accipitridae.)

    1. mornin’ Rin’dzin…always wanted to hike or run Shasta..good on ya! During lonely late night awareness spell practice I was seized with a vision! I need to join up with y’all and get an i-phone…then my life will be complete and i can text and send pictures to facebook as my sky burial unfolds! My ravens are croaking happily!

  4. Interesting. Sky burial being illegal where I live, it won’t be a problem. Diclofenac is a powerful anti-inflammatory drug. I used to take it for chronic pain, but had to stop because of problems with side effects. More recently it has been implicated in causing heart problems – thus it joins other anti-inflammatories such as celebrex. It is alarming to think that it is routinely administered to farmed animals – for their own welfare as much as the downstream effects. It is implicated in other ecological problems as well.

    The phenomenon of ‘pollution’ in Buddhist societies is a fascinating one. The people who do the job you express such admiration for are outcasts. While I admire your egalitarianism, I find the lack of it in Tibetan society a puzzle. Does it come down to questions of disease?

  5. Do other Vajrayana lineages associate animals with the elements, or with other practices?

    The only one that comes to mind is Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala terma, which has practices associated with the the five creatures typically found on prayer flags: tiger, lion, garuda, dragon, and windhorse. These aren’t explicitly linked with the elements/Buddha families in the terma, so far as I can recall. (The Ripga Wiki says they are; but I wouldn’t necessarily trust that.)

    Tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon are linked with the four “dignities”: meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable. These are somewhat similar to the “demeanors” of the Aro/Gésar terma.

    I find the lack of [egalitarianism] in Tibetan society a puzzle.

    Tibetan society was a feudal theocracy, with a caste system probably more rigid than that of Europe and less rigid than India. Anyone going into Tibetan Buddhism needs to drop popular fantasies of “enlightened society” in anything like a contemporary Western political sense…

    This is more-or-less true for all Asian Buddhist societies, isn’t it? That’s not to excuse Tibetan society, but just to point out that it’s a general problem, and any adaptation of Asian Buddhisms to the West has to deal with it.

  6. @jayarava
    Thanks for visiting and for the informative comment on diclofenac. The Nepalese campaigners said that the main obstacle to progress was lack of education, on two accounts. Diclofenac is still readily available despite being banned (in India – I don’t remember whether it’s also banned in Nepal) and local farmers don’t appreciate or understand the consequences of using it. Also vultures are maligned by some local populations. The parahawking team were sponsoring school visits while I was there. There are a few ‘vulture restaurants’ in the National Park areas of Nepal. They work with farmers to create wide diclofenac free boundaries for cattle.

    The phenomenon of ‘pollution’ in Buddhist societies is a fascinating one.

    I agree. I’m currently re-reading Mary Douglas’ 1966 anthropological classic “Purity and Danger.” She identified the concern with purity and its connection with holiness as a universal across societies and did indeed associate it with disease. I recommend it if you don’t already know it.

    I have in mind to write about views of purity/impurity in relation to different Buddhist paths. In outer Tantra the division between pure and impure is the central mechanism for transformation. That changes incrementally en route through the Tantras towards Dzogchen, where purity and impurity are indivisible. I’ve experienced a similar shift in view through the years in my personal practice. (That’s not to suggest that one view is right and another wrong. I believe different approaches to purity/pollution can function usefully in different contexts.)

    I’d like to make a loose analogy with Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, though that might be a bit of a hot potato.

    Relatedly,

    While I admire your egalitarianism, I find the lack of it in Tibetan society a puzzle. Does it come down to questions of disease?

    I don’t know. It’s an interesting connection and I think disgust and fear of contamination are always present across class divisions – to some extent. Even in our supposedly more ‘egalitarian’ society. Whether the fear of pollution causes such divisions is a different question. I imagine it might excuse or justify status – and I tend to think of status concern as primate adaptation.

    Note to readers: If you are interested in intelligent analysis of sutric texts, please visit Jayarava’s Raves:
    http://jayarava.blogspot.com/
    I learn much from his detailed historical insight.

    1. Hi Rin’dzin

      Thanks for your reply. A further thought strikes me in relation to this, which is that the antinomian practices of Tantrikas are often specifically breaking pollution taboos. It’s one of the things that amuses me about people I know who are fascinated by Tantric practice – they don’t share the taboos so apparently breaking them is a bit pointless. But I can imagine in more traditional societies with strong taboos, that for someone like a Chödpa, interacting with human remains must have had a deep effect on the psyche. I wonder if they also have rituals to restore them to purity?

      Virtually all the Buddhists I know seem to hold a strong matter/spirit duality in which matter is ‘impure’ and spirit is ‘pure’.

      Will check out Douglas (written the year I was born!).

  7. I received an email today from a yogi, suggesting that Chödpas (Chöd is a tantric practice designed to cut through attachment to corporeal form; Chödpas are the people who practice it) also performed the function of rogyapa, ‘body-breaker’. I’ve not yet looked further into this, but it makes good sense. Chödpas were wandering practitioners, associated with fearlessness. They practiced in charnel grounds (dead people/animal body dumps) and blew human femur trumpets. By the nature of their practice they would be unconcerned with pollution from corpses.

    (See: http://buddhism-for-vampires.com/kangling-chod for more information about ‘kanglings,’ thighbone trumpets.)

  8. Hi Jayarava,

    Thanks for your reply. A further thought strikes me in relation to this, which is that the antinomian practices of Tantrikas are often specifically breaking pollution taboos.

    I think the development of each Buddhist path historically, was in some way, antinomian. Mahayana resolves an ethical dilemma for the aspiring arhat…Tantra addresses the logic of dualism in Enlightenment as the ‘final’ state…and so forth. The ‘breaking pollution taboo’ aspect in Tantra comes along with the concept of the Buddha Nature seed being ‘already inside’ the human body/mind. Buddhas are invulnerable, therefore displaying invulnerability could be part of the path or goal, depending which way you look at it. I’d love to better understand that development sociologically, though.

    That’s quite a different justification than the late Vajrayana/Dzogchen practice of ignoring pollution taboos. There it’s connected to refuting the pure/impure dichotomy as part of a wider package: breaking convention, including conventional thought/behaviour, is the natural consequence of a world in which all phenomenal reality is infinitely pure. Again, that could be regarded as part of the path – yeshé chölwa, ‘crazy wisdom’ practice, for example – or as realization of the fruit of practice – see some of the stories of the wandering enlightened yogis of Tibet, like Drükpa Kunley.

    It’s one of the things that amuses me about people I know who are fascinated by Tantric practice – they don’t share the taboos so apparently breaking them is a bit pointless.

    I’m guessing that you’re referring to the tantric vow of eating meat and drinking alcohol? That’s the bottom line for tantrikas, but the degree to which tantric practice nowadays incorporates the principle of disregarding pure/impure dichotomies, will vary according to sangha and path.
    David wrote a page on disgust as practice here:
    http://buddhism-for-vampires.com/disgust-as-buddhist-practice
    In it he makes the point that disgust and immorality are intertwined, socially. In Buddhist paths, the same connection is used to aid practice. It’s only, really, in Dzogchen that that method is systematically dismantled. As I mentioned in my last comment, I don’t regard either as right or wrong. Methods can appear contradictory but function well in different circumstances for different individuals.

    It’s an interesting question – how can the antinomian aspect of tantra make sense now? I think that’s resolved in taking the principle on board in one’s personal practice, that is, refusing to regard the world in terms of a pure/impure dualism. (This is irrelevant for those practicing outer tantra, where the method involves ritualistic cleansing of impurities. I’m referring to practitioners of inner tantra and dzogchen.) Now that we understand better how the world works, how pathogens and bacteria function, for example, it’s easier to notice one’s own ‘pollution biases’ – which often have nothing to do with the real world – not harder.

    But I can imagine in more traditional societies with strong taboos, that for someone like a Chödpa, interacting with human remains must have had a deep effect on the psyche. I wonder if they also have rituals to restore them to purity?

    That logic fits well with outer tantra and, to some extent, mahayoga, where there is still some division between the pure and impure. But often chödpas were dzogchenpas, so restorative purification would make no sense in their view. (I use ‘view’ differently to the ordinary use of the word. Each Buddhist approach has its commensurate view, akin to worldview, maybe. The non division of purity and impurity is inherent to the dzogchenpa’s worldview.) In practice, the old style Tibetan chödpa that I’ve spoken to actually did spend years in places that were conventionally terrifying. The practice itself creates immunity to fear through familiarity, and they seemed fine to me.

    Virtually all the Buddhists I know seem to hold a strong matter/spirit duality in which matter is ‘impure’ and spirit is ‘pure’.

    Well, that’s particularly in keeping with the Theravadan path and is present in some Tibetan approaches. It’s more common than the inner tantric way, for sure. The antinomian aspect of innter tantra is to flip that on its head and play with the dichotomy.

  9. I just want to say that this post is everything that attracts me to vajrayana. Especially this critique of the sanitized sky burial video, and really by association, a lot of contemporary western spirituality:

    That the most popular contemporary account of a sky burial on YouTube (Attenborough’s) is sanitized to the point that it includes everything except the actual thing, is sad. It turns the thing itself into a beautiful, aesthetic, romantic ritual. You don’t get to see how it actually works. You don’t get close up with death, decay and transformation. You just hear some vague reference to what happens while watching the sun set. It’s all quite nice.

    What motivates me in spiritual practice is the desire to get up close to the birth, blossoming, decay, death, and transformation that only vajrayaya seems to be talking about in a language juicy enough to be on par with how it actually feels to live a human life.

    So, more of this, please.

    Also, along the lines of how this site can be helpful – can you put some kind of subscription plugin on the site so readers can be alerted by email of new posts? Or perhaps I am missing it hidden in plain site? A google plus hangout on the weekend that us 9-5’ers could attend would also be awesome. 🙂 Thank you!

  10. Thanks Emma, glad you like the post. Email subscription thingy fixed.

    I have a few posts in draft form but haven’t had a chance to get to them recently as I’ve been hella busy. I’ll get round to it soon.

    Thanks for the suggestion re a weekend Vajrayana hangout. I’ve been organizing one for the Buddhist Geeks’ online community:
    http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/community/
    & will set up some weekend dates there. Hope you can make it.

    Maybe at some point, we could have a Vajrayana Now hangout, topic based, open to the public? I’ll wait to see if there’s enough interest.

  11. Superb post — nice tying together.
    Sanitizing the ceremony is a problem. But how to convey this notion and get them to see how Tibetans see it is hard. It took me a long time to get it. I remember, hiking in the Himalaya when I walked accidentally into a Tibetan grave area where bodies are put up on stilts and platforms for birds — have you seen them. Wow, that shock and thinking later and watching burning on the Ghats in Varanasi took time for me to start to rethink.

    BTW, the drug you speak of can destroy your kidneys suddenly, slapping those patches on may harm the vultures who gobble you up after your glider crashes, but the medicine may kill you before that happens.

    Fantastic article with lots of good pointers.

    My continual gripe is that all the explanation of Tantra is fine, but you can’t want down the street and explore it — it is cerebral readings or traveling far to join groups of xenophiles. Sniffle.

    I hope this blog is part of an effort to remedy that someday. Lots of precious wisdom here.

  12. Hi Sabio,

    Superb post — nice tying together.
    Sanitizing the ceremony is a problem. But how to convey this notion and get them to see how Tibetans see it is hard.

    Thanks. True, but things are also changing in that respect. Cultures are less romanticized and ‘other’ than they were fifty years ago. Still, there’s far to go. I will touch on this subject in my next post, where I compare the perception of Vajrayana now with its reception a few generations back.

    It took me a long time to get it. I remember, hiking in the Himalaya when I walked accidentally into a Tibetan grave area where bodies are put up on stilts and platforms for birds — have you seen them. Wow, that shock and thinking later and watching burning on the Ghats in Varanasi took time for me to start to rethink.

    Yes, I spent time in Varanasi when I was fresh from school and was shocked and influenced by the prevalence of death. I have some vivid memories from that time. The first corpse I saw there was one of a beautiful woman, sitting upright, dressed in fine clothes, on a rickshaw. A man had his arm around her. I remember thinking “goodness, she looks rather ill” before realizing that she was dead, and on the way to the ghats. I have not seen the platforms high in the mountains.

    My continual gripe is that all the explanation of Tantra is fine, but you can’t want down the street and explore it — it is cerebral readings or traveling far to join groups of xenophiles. Sniffle. I hope this blog is part of an effort to remedy that someday. Lots of precious wisdom here.

    Yes, the blog is part of that effort. I’d like to influence Vajrayana ‘providers’ to consider and address a problem of unmet need. But first I hope to show that the problem exists, that it’s not a figment of my imagination or a few anecdotal accounts. That’s difficult to do, and I might be wrong, of course.

  13. RinTin Sensei,

    Japanese funeral rites are very different from Americans and I had several there which shook up some of my ideas too.
    There is a hilarious Japanese film on this called “The Funeral” but a serious one is called “Departures” and I can recommend it very, very highly. I think you may like it.

  14. I remember some of your posts about Japan. (I liked the barber one: )
    http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/the-japanese-barber/
    I’ll check out the film ‘Departures’. Thank you for the recommendation.

    On the subject of death, you might enjoy David Germano’s academic article, The Funerary Transformation of the Great Perfection:
    http://www.thlib.org/collections/texts/jiats/#!jiats=/01/germano/
    about the social role of Dzogchen as provider of funeral rites.

  15. I’m really enjoying your writing here, especially your humor! 🙂

    Now I’m curious what kinds of novel practices Western Vajrayana practitioners could use to challenge unnecessary social norms–maybe not just in Buddhism but in society at large.

    We still have a serious denial of death going on in the West for sure. I have seen a dead body only once, and that was at a funeral where the body was preserved and dressed up to look alive. Perhaps visiting cadaver labs should be a practice, or otherwise confronting death–not just dying as in hospice care.

    Maybe a beginner practice could be to roll around in mud naked (or nearly so) to get more accustomed to “impurity” (might even be better for our health, as research into the human microbiome is showing).

    What should Western Vajrayana Buddhists do for funerals? Usually we default to whatever is normal in our culture. Perhaps we should bring the body home and let it fester in the living room for a few weeks, having all the family over to check it out. But I suspect that would be too intense for most people (including me).

  16. Hi Duff, thanks for visiting.

    Visiting cadaver labs sounds like a great idea. It’s now on my “things I definitely must do before I die” list.

    Now I’m curious what kinds of novel practices Western Vajrayana practitioners could use to challenge unnecessary social norms–maybe not just in Buddhism but in society at large.

    Interesting idea. You’ve got me thinking about our relationship with social norms as practitioners: how we relate to the norm; how we respond; whether, when and how to intervene. This is a topic I’d like to come back to.

    Once you understand the principle and function of a practice, it’s possible to employ it in any circumstance that suits it – that’s explicit in Dzogchen. So practices can operate according to their original intention, but look different. I’m reminded of Ganachakra’s post on practicing chöd under the Pulaski Bridge in New York.

    Maybe a beginner practice could be to roll around in mud naked (or nearly so) to get more accustomed to “impurity” (might even be better for our health, as research into the human microbiome is showing).

    I find that way too appealing to function in the way you describe. Gut-instinct ‘impurity’ is sometimes surprisingly personal, isn’t it? How about rolling around in horse-shit? No…that sounds quite nice too. Hmm…cold bubble tea. I think I’d find that quite unpleasant. It’s the slimy, blobby bits. Urgh.

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