Death is one of the most elusive and taboo concepts. It’s permanence and uncertainty have mystified and confounded humans for millennia. One aspect however, that we know for certain, is one day we will all die.
Tibetan Buddhist have multifaceted explanations, theories and practices around their concept of death and what happens to a consciousness once it collapses into darkness. Thousands of years of meditation, teachings and living in extreme conditions have given way to rich existential theories built on basic human truths.
Blue Kangling is a film that uncovers the collective consciousness of death for Tibetan Buddhist. It is an observational approach revealing individuals who shape, influence and live according to this knowledge. Understanding is established through intimate portraits of commoners, as well as the philosophical and culturally enlightened who offer meaning and insight behind Tibetan Buddhism. Exploring rituals and practices from generations past, we uncover early cultural influences and explanations that answer the existential questions, “Why are they here?” and “Where they will ultimately go?”
Sky Burials are an ancient burial practice that have been performed for thousands of years. Once the only means of burial for Tibetan Buddhist, Sky Burials are believed to be the most noble. Once a person dies, a Lama uses astrological calculations based on the time of birth and the time of the death to determine the necessary pujas and death rituals to be performed. If it is determined that a Sky Burial ceremony is to be performed the body will be prepared and taken to a ceremonial location where it will be cut into pieces by a Roygapa, or body breaker. Vultures, known as Dakinis or sky dances are the Tibetan equivalent of angels and are summoned by the Lama to consume the body. Once the Body Breakers complete the process of pounding the flesh, bones and organs together, the vultures consume the body entirely. The act, on behalf of the deceased and surviving family members, is believed to be extremely noble by virtue of giving one’s self as sustenance for another living creature. The vultures are believed to be deities that consume the body and ascend with it to the celestial realm where the soul awaits reincarnation.
The beautiful symbolism supports many tenants of Buddha’s teaching including transmigration of souls and compassion for all living creatures. The practical benefits of Sky Burials point to the realities of life in an unforgiving Himalayan landscape where resources are extremely scarce. Together the symbolic and practical benefits have served Tibetan Buddhist for millennium. Despite being such an honorable ritual, the practice has slowly waned to the point of near extinction. The practice is limited to only a few culturally protected areas.
One contributing factor to the decline of the ritual is an ever-encroaching global community and western influence. The impact is clear in many aspects of the culture where western brands and styles are prevalent. With the influx of walking paths and roads making it easier than ever for tourist looking to explore the wonders of the Himalaya’s to access the primitive and remote areas where Sky Burials were once commonplace. The foreign presence alone presents challenges to the privacy and dignity of the ritual.
Another Contributing factor to the decline of the Sky Burial practice is due to a declining vulture population as well as the introduction of modern medicine. The Vulture population has seen a sharp decline resulting from poaching and other threatening epidemics. The introduction of modern medical treatments act as a repellant to the vultures preventing them from consuming the body. Both impacting the ability to effectively carryout the ritual.
It’s not unreasonable to believe the practice of Sky Burials may completely cease to exist in our lifetime. The notion of losing such a rich cultural practice is a tragedy. Blue Kangling’s aim is to document and preserve this beautifully different perception and death ritual. By virtue of its bold execution and practice, Sky Burials inherently raise questions about death and burial practices. These questions hold the key to self-discovery and an ability to reconcile the unknown and taboo topic of death that so many people spend a lifetime trying to avoid.
His Holiness Kyabgon Gongma Trichen Rinpoche
PKA His Holiness Sakya Trizin, the 41st generation Throne holder of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism
Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman
American Buddhist author, Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, Co-founder and president of the Tibet House New York
Ehsan and I have some interesting conversations about our shared fascination with human behavior and ideology. Our conversations run the gamut from absurdly dark humor to outlandish theories. Sometimes esoteric, sometimes extreme and sometimes completely made up musings about theoretical physics, existentialism and alternate universes. I read an interview with a mortician that left a lasting impression on funeral practices in western culture. Practices I was familiar with and had witnessed many times was cast into an entirely new light. This epiphany became the catalyst for conversation around death and how the living struggle to compartmentalize and mentally process it. The topic was fascinating, and we started researching the way different cultures process the concept of death from a psychological, spiritual and ritualistic perspective.
Given some research we had done on Vajrayana Buddhism, we discovered Sky Burials. The duality of beautiful symbolism and the seemingly brutal nature of the practice immediately appealed to us. The practice, taken out of context could easily read like a gruesome headline. But in fact, it’s a highly coveted burial ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism that makes sense upon understand a few fundamental beliefs. Presenting this practice in an unbiased, unpolarizing way that remained true to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and culture was a challenge we embraced.
We set out to make Blue Kangling, an observational documentary film about the Tibetan Buddhists idea of death and the sacred ritual of Sky Burials. Our subject matter experts were not scholars, narrators or personalities but the people who teach, live and carry out these practices every day. The idea was to capture the perspective of a cross section of people who could provide personal experiences that combined, would reveal a greater collective consciousness.
We traveled to the Mustang District, a protected region within Nepal and home to one of the last places Sky Burials are practiced. We spent time with culturally enlightened village heads, reincarnated Lamas, traditional Tibetan Doctors, Body Breakers who perform Sky Burials and many villagers who live according to the teachings and rituals of Tibetan Buddhism. Our conversations about death and burial practices reveal humble and honest human truths and just how one dimensional the western view of Buddhism can be.
Our goal was to create understanding and compassion for a foreign culture through the global reality and emotionally charged topic of death. Trusting our approach to filmmaking Blue Kangling creates an emotional connection, conveys nuances of culture, philosophy and human behavior all while leaving room for interpretation. We hope to ignite conversation and contemplation about mortality in an effort to create a greater appreciation for life.
The feature-length will be available to watch after festival premiere.
RED Epic-W Helium DSMCII
5K Raw REDWideGamutRGB 3G10 24fps
Mustang Region in Nepal
Digital Medium Format
Hasselblad H6D 50-c Medium Format
Hasselblad 3FR 50MP 300DPI
Director, Screen Writer
Cinematographer, Editor, Colorist
Line-Producer, On-Set Translator
Cultural Adviser, Translator
Naresh Kumar KC