Snowman Trek Bhutan – Death & The Bardo

Sep 5, 2019 | Bhutan

Prayer flags placed by a family to help the soul of a loved one achieve a fortunate rebirth.
Some of the strange creatures the soul may meet in the Bardo, the space between death and rebirth.

After turning back from the snowed-in pass and medically evacuating one client, I’m standing in a misty field in Laya at 5am when I learn that our lead guide has had a death in his immediate family. He’s the owner of the local company I’ve partnered with for the last 10 years to run trips and also a friend. Even though we know each other well, he was hesitant to tell me the prior night. He knows this trip isn’t going according to plan, and now he’s in the difficult position having to decide whether to leave the group he feels responsible for or miss the funeral rituals of the nephew he has raised as a son. It’s particularly painful because the boy was only 21 and died suddenly from a heart problem. All of the kitchen staff and assistant guide were friends with him as well and are visibly sad. If we had crossed the pass two days ago, our guide’s wife would not have been able to reach us until we turned the SAT phone on and checked in at some point. Even then, we would have been many days walk from where we started, with no food or lodging on the way back except in Laya. It feels right that we are exactly where we are in this moment.

For me, there is no question that our guide will return home, though it takes repeated assurances to convince him that it’s going to be okay for me and for the clients. I am confident that our guide leaving will not compromise the group’s safety, and that’s the primary deciding factor for me. Any other concerns, whatever else is a challenge in terms of planning and management, we’re just going to take care of it. I have worked and trekked with the assistant guide and head cook many times. We are now heading on trail they know well, with villages along the way, as opposed to the very remote route we were originally planning to take. Most importantly, my friend has lost a child. I know his wife, his family, and the child’s soul all need him back in Thimphu. He also needs to be there to process his own loss and fulfill his religious responsibilities. At heart, he’s a devout man whom I often hear chanting mantras on our bus rides, and I know it’s important for him to be present for the rituals to come.

Tibetan Buddhism has lengthy and elaborate rituals to guide the soul through the interim state between lives (the Bardo) and smoothly into the next rebirth. Monks will be called to chant prayers and speak to the soul. All the regular meals will be cooked in the home of the departed soul for 21 days, and loved ones will need to be present every day. The soul may be scared or clinging to life. It will be looking for loved ones and listening to the prayers guiding it through the Bardo and the strange things it will find there. Key rituals are performed at 7, 14, 21, and 49 days, after which it is believed that the soul has passed through and been reborn. During these 7 weeks, Buddhist families often make donations to monasteries and place 108 prayer flags in auspicious places as ways to dedicate additional good karma to the departed soul and help it achieve a fortunate rebirth. When the body has been cremated, the ashes are generally mixed with mud and pressed into molds to form small stupas called tsa-tsa’s. The tsa-tsa’s are then left in sacred places away from the home to ensure that the spirit departs.

Tsa-tsa’s placed on the side of a cliff.
Tsa-tsa’s placed on a wall of prayers

For the remainder of our trek, this boy’s soul will be in the Bardo. Our assistant guide, Jigme, lights a candle in a temple in Laya and chants prayers every morning thereafter to help offer safe passage for the soul into its rebirth. When I ask what else we might do (besides the financial offering we have already collected), Jigme suggests that we chant a mantra 108 times to bring benefit to the soul. Doing this as a group will have added power.

Two weeks later, on the important 14th day after the boy’s death, the staff, clients, horsemen, and I gather in the late afternoon to sit in a circle on the grass, under the open and rain-threatening sky. Together we chant the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum—the mantra for the Buddha of Compassion—which is specifically for achieving a fortunate rebirth. It’s a little awkward and uncertain as we begin, but everyone picks up the rhythm. The village horsemen are as shy to chant Tibetan as many of the clients are at first, but it’s not a performance. We chant as an offering to the departed soul and also as comfort to the friends left behind. Afterwards, I can see the appreciation and gratitude on Jigme’s face, and also the suffering of grief he can’t express, and I’m glad that we did it.

As for the group, they are supportive and present throughout this loss. They understand and support the decision for our guide to return home. They stand quietly in the temple when Jigme lights a candle and says prayers before departing Laya. They participate in the chants to bring merit to the soul. They are gently curious about rituals for the dead. Some of them find hollow pockets of grief and loss from their own lives surfacing. Some of them lend support to others. I’m reminded through all of this why I like each of the clients in this group, as they each, in one way or another, allow this experience to touch them without becoming negative or coloring the trip overall. It’s an emotional journey none of us expected, but it’s a real and present part of life and of this trip. Being touched by loss keeps the difficulties of the trek in perspective and perhaps allows us to express or heal some of what we carry from our own histories.

Who can say why we are here in this moment, experiencing this together? The Buddhist approach is to simply be with whatever is happening…acceptance rather than wishing it were any other way. So much has happened on this journey already, and we’re not yet halfway through. I practice acceptance, and open my heart to the fullness life.

Tiger mountain between the clouds.