Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist popular narratives of death and the afterlife in Tibet

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  • This article was downloaded by: [McMaster University]On: 10 November 2014, At: 13:47Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Mortality: Promoting theinterdisciplinary study of death anddyingPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:

    Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhistpopular narratives of death and theafterlife in TibetAnn Malamah-Thomas aa University of Bath , UKPublished online: 26 Feb 2009.

    To cite this article: Ann Malamah-Thomas (2009) Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist popularnarratives of death and the afterlife in Tibet, Mortality: Promoting the interdisciplinary study ofdeath and dying, 14:1, 94-95, DOI: 10.1080/13576270802332003

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  • Travels in the Netherworld: Buddhist popular narratives of death and the

    afterlife in Tibet, Bryan J. Cuevas, Oxford University Press, New York, 2008,

    200 pp., 34.99, hardback (ISBN 978-0-19-534116-4).

    Travels in the Netherworld is a scholarly yet very readable introduction to a little-known genre of Tibetan narrative literature, the delok tale. Cuevas presents four

    carefully analysed examples of these revenant stories, whose narrators claim to

    have died, journeyed in the world of the afterlife, then returned to this one. Dating

    from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, these vivid personal accounts of near-

    death (or, more precisely, of dying, death, and returning) experiences are related

    by four very different characters; a simple housewife, a lama, a young

    noblewoman, and a Buddhist monk.

    Despite their obvious differences in background, gender, education, religious

    training, and social status, all four deloks give remarkably similar accounts of theirexperiences. Cuevas underlines the commonalities characteristic of their stories,

    including the sensations and visions involved in the dying process; the initial post-

    death period of confusion and unawareness of being dead; the journeys in the

    world of the afterlife with the aid of a divine guide; the meetings with dead friends

    and relatives; the sufferings of the netherworld inhabitants; the judgment before

    the Lord of Death; and, finally, the post-judgment exhortation to the delok toreturn to the world and live a life of service for the good of all beings. The major

    themes underlying these tales centre on karma: the rewards of a virtuous life, as

    opposed to the punishments for a vicious one. Merit, essential for a favorable

    rebirth, is achieved through good conduct and service to others during life, but can

    also be earned after death by friends and family dedicating prayers and meritorious

    acts to the departed soul.

    Cuevas examines these delok tales, widespread in society through being toldand retold by itinerant professional storytellers and Buddhist evangelists, from a

    social-historical angle, arguing that they can throw light on popular religious

    culture in pre-modern Tibet. He contends that the mixture of formal doctrines

    and informal beliefs they exhibit serves to both define and blur such dichotomies

    as cleric and lay, elite and folk, conventionally applied to Tibetan Buddhist

    society. His claim is that the equal validity for both ordinary villagers and

    monastic adepts of the religious viewpoints and notions contained in the tales,

    points to a more complex, diverse, and multi-tiered society than the traditional

    two-tiered models represent.

    Cuevass case for the social implications of the delok tales is backed by

    arguments that are well-researched, if not quite convincing enough to justify his

    conclusion that the study of the delok leads to a much clearer understanding

    of the nightmares and aspirations that dominated the minds of all men and

    women in pre-modern Tibetan society (p. 138). The authors undoubted

    contribution, however, lies in the clear and detailed presentation of the tales

    themselves, and the rich source of material they provide. Cuevas approaches them

    with a Tibetan studies focus. Students of Buddhism will appreciate their close

    relationship with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Researchers of near-death

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  • experiences will find in them a whole body of culture-specific information relevant

    to their interests.


    University of Bath, UK

    Film Review: Live and let go: An American death, Fanlight Productions,

    4196 Washington Street, Suite 2, Boston, Massachusetts 02131, USA. DVD and

    VHS (2002), 56 minutes, US$199 either format; rental VHS only, US$60 daily

    and US$120 weekly.

    This films climax is vivid and probably not legal, even in Switzerland, Holland

    and the one American state where physician assisted suicide is permitted. The

    central figure is Samuel Niver, a retired family man in his 70s who has strong

    opinions and the will to act on them. Niver is dying of prostate cancer and he

    makes it clear he wants nothing to do with nursing homes, hospices, palliative care

    physicians or respiratory ventilators. Nor will he tolerate lingering in pain and

    inactivity. The indignity, he says, of someone helping him off a bed pan is

    unacceptable. He will do what it takes to avoid that.

    Like Niver, the filmmakers too have an agenda. They portray him as a particular

    American type; a heroic Everyman who lives modestly and purposefully, following

    his own lights and asserting his right to live life his way. Following World War II,

    he attended college where he met his wife of many years. Then came a successful

    career as a journalist and small town activist. When his wife died following a

    stroke, this self-made man was unprepared and devastated. That was not typical,

    says his adult daughter. So now he wants full control when his time comes.

    Nivers two adult sons and daughter reluctantly support what he plans for

    himself. He discovered the Hemlock Society, contacted them, and studied their

    bible, Derek Humphrys Final Exit (1991) with its gospel of self-deliverance. Oneson agrees to help him with that; the other does not want to be there when it

    happens. In a teary scene, the latter hugs his weakened father who tells him

    he grew up to be a good man, a real man, and must always follow the Golden


    We last see Niver sitting on the back porch of his sons home in North Carolina.

    He has a glass of liquid and a handful of pills. Final Exit advises taking 60 (the filmdoes not identify what they are or their source); he remarks there are only 58 but

    that should be enough. This is followed by what looks like a bowl of oatmeal,

    apparently to keep the pills down. Finally, he pulls a plastic bag over his head and

    works two rubber bands down to his neck. Sitting back, son and daughter kneeling

    at each side and holding his hands, he waits. Within moments, the head slumps to

    one side. It is over.

    However, it is not over for his family. A dramatic closing scene is filled with

    police, an inspector, and Nivers body being wheeled to an ambulance. His son

    explains how they followed the legal advice in Humphrys book but the inspector is

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