So this email has been a while coming but it has taken me a little
while to take a step back from things and really think about it. I’ll
give you a quick heads up that this is not a joyous email.
On Easter Sunday, I was hanging up some laundry when a student ran up
to me and said, “Sir, one boy drunk. 24 minutes.” I thought this was
really strange so I asked him to repeat his statement. This time,
“Sir, one boy under water. 24 minutes.” While still perplexed by the
statement, but fully realizing that something was terribly wrong, I
dropped my washing, threw on sandals, and ran toward our lake. While
in transit, I kept trying to piece together the message; surely he
couldn’t have meant 24 minutes. As I came to a rise overlooking the
lake, I saw a boy being dragged to the shore and a nearby student
said, “Sir, dead body.” Refusing to believe any of the reality before
me, I sprinted faster in a vain attempt to possibly help.
When I reached the boy, things did not look good; the boy was
completely limp and blue. However, some policemen had been picnicking
near the lake and were underway with resuscitation efforts. After a
minute or so, and with things clearly not improving, 4 boys hoisted
him and ran off toward the BHU (basic health unit). Despite not
wanting to believe what was happening, I knew the boy had drowned. It
was only later that we received the official news.
So what happened? Well, our UNESCO club was hanging prayer flags over
the lake and there were other works being done around the lake that
day. This boy was swimming with a friend and they swam from one end
to the other. It’s believed that the boys tired themselves out and
began to struggle. One boy was able to draw the attention of the
policemen who were picnicking and was dragged ashore unconscious but
resuscitated. However, the other boy disappeared under the water and
it took about 30 people 25 minutes to even find him.
The aftermath was a bit hectic; organizing and counting the boys,
holding prayer, contacting all the correct people, etc. Teachers
reported to the BHU where the boy was being held upon arrival of the
parents. We sat with the boy and a butter lamp and incense were burnt
next to him in offering. After some time, the teachers convoyed with
the boy down to the boy’s parents house.
When we reached Tikki Zampa, the boy was taken to be washed by his
uncle, step-father and other relatives. While this was taking place,
locals constructed a rudimentary shelter out of branches and tarps.
The shelter included an altar and shrine. The boy was then brought
down the hill and placed on the altar of this shelter in a position as
if you were hugging your knees with a lowered head. This last detail
is to represent bowing to the gods. For the rest of the night and
into the next day, relatives and close friends chanted prayers and
offered gifts, incense, and butter lamps to the deceased.
We left before prayer began in earnest and on the trip home, the
principal, vice principal and myself stopped for a beer. During this
somber time, I had a multitude of questions about death in the Bhutan
(which I think was a way to help me deal with this tragedy).
Regardless of the reason, I learned quite a bit.
After a person passes, the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 49th day since the
death are important days for prayer with each day having different
prayers and rituals. The prayers and rituals are designed to help the
person figure out that they have died and also to cheer them up.
Supposedly, a person will continue with the routines of their life,
unknowing of their death; their friends won’t speak to them, they
won’t be served food, the physical world will no longer interact with
them, and, as a result, they will become very sad. The highest lamas
of Buddhism are said to take 3 days to realize they have died while
most take 49 days (however, Bhutanese believe the smarter you are, the
quicker you will figure things out). If, by the 49th day the person
has not realized their death, they may end up as a hungry ghost, the
lowest level (if I’m remembering correctly) on the scale of
reincarnation. Upon realization of death, a person faces judgment for
their deeds, good and bad. This is where karma comes in. If a person
has committed many good deeds, they will be reincarnated with better
circumstances or as a higher being (demi-god, god, etc.), if bad deeds
outweigh the good, they may be reincarnated lower on the scale (dog,
insect, etc.) or with worse circumstances (disabilities, etc.).
The Bhutanese cremate their deceased. After prayers and offerings
have taken place, a lama will come to one of these makeshift shelters
to decide upon the proper time and day for cremation. They use
astronomy to guide their decision. Cremations take place at a holy
location nearby the dzong of a dzongkhag. They are not private
affairs either; often 5 people will be cremated simultaneously, each
with their own pyre. Lamas and monks will bless the souls during
cremation and throw various ritual items onto the fires at different
times. Following a cremation, relatives will take a few pieces of
bone and some of the ashes and seal them in a stupa or chorten, a
religious structure. Families commit rituals on the death date for 3
years following, which, upon completion, finishes the passing of the
A strange end to that conversation over beers was the presence of a
gorgeous moth with an 8-inch wingspan and calm demeanor. Who knows
what it meant, if anything.
At our school, students sat for 2 days praying for their classmate.
Prayer was only interrupted for meals and short breaks for tea. Some
of the girls chose to prostrate 108 times to the image of Buddha,
karmically benefiting both the deceased and those prostrating. These
girls looked exhausted when finished. I have to say, watching 500
students chant prayers for their classmate was a very moving
experience and I had to excuse myself a few times to keep from losing
it. On the 7th day, they again sat for prayer. Prayer seemed to help
quite a bit for students. While somber, I only saw one student
actually crying. Perhaps their grief is lessened by the strong belief
in the next life and the cycle of living. It’s a belief at odds with
my own style of grieving but one that I was envious of when at my
As for now, things have returned to some normalcy. I still think
about it, but have found the Bhutanese, both the people and their
beliefs, strongly comforting and an immense help. While my emotions
certainly run the gamut, I find them somehow hard to express in
written form. I mean, you keep rethinking it, keep analyzing things
but what to do? I am doing better these days, but certainly take the
experience with me.
I’ll be updating you all again on the lighter side of things here
soon. Hope you are all fantastic.
All the best,
Sunday, May 15, 2011