A series of talks at the Rubin Museum of Art this summer explores the connections between the ancient Tibetan text and modern end-of-life experiences.By Wendy Joan Biddlecombe
The Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once wrote that the Tibetan Book of the Dead could very well be called the “Tibetan Book of Birth.” The 8th-century text, which details the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the in-between states after death and before rebirth [bardos], was written as a guide for practitioners for navigating those states, in hopes of attaining liberation.
For seven evenings this summer at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City, the Tibetan Book of the Dead Book Club will invite attendees to consider what lessons the ancient Buddhist text continue to offer us today.
The series is hosted by Dr. Ramon Prats, a Tibetan Studies scholar and the first person to translate The Tibetan Book of the Dead into Spanish. Experts on suicide, trauma, hallucinogens, and addiction will discuss their field in relation to specific passages from the text.
“Any matter directly or indirectly related to death is present in our daily life, even if we do not acknowledge it or pretend that it does not concerns us yet. Death is by definition the very last moment of life, but there is a lot more to it than that,” Prats said. “There are forms of psychological or physical deterioration that are little deaths to the fullness of life.”
Prats said that The Tibetan Book of the Dead “resounds with modernity” and can give us fresh takes on our inevitable demise, despite the text’s age. The talks are geared toward Buddhist practitioners as well as those who work in fields relating to death and dying.
The first talk of the series, on June 14, confronts teen suicide, the second-leading cause of death for 15–24 year-olds in the U.S., according to 2015 numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Buddhism, suicide is viewed as a negative act that can lead to a lower rebirth. Dr. Terry Williams, a sociologist and professor at the New School for Social Research, will be the guest speaker that night.
In his latest book, Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm, Williams follows 10 teenagers from different socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds, using their journal entries to explore why these young people are considering taking their own lives.
Williams writes that emotional states such as happiness aren’t an indicator of suicide rates.
“These are kids who are conflicted in one way or another in their lives, but they have some overwhelming obsession or conflict that they need to resolve. These are universal problems, but [the teenagers are] so overwhelmed that they can’t think of any solution other than to die, so they choose these weapons to express, I think, these feelings, whether it’s a razor, or a gun, or a rope.”