|Turkey Vulture, photo by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges|
Back in the 1980s, when I was working as a program assistant for the University Extension division of the University of California at Berkeley, I made the mistake of reading Lew Welch’s poem Song of the Turkey Buzzard on my lunch hour.
I say “mistake” because the poem—in which Welch predicts his own suicide and sky burial—had a profound emotional effect on me, and I went into what I can only describe as some kind of altered state for about four hours. In short—I was useless at my job that afternoon.
In Tibet, where the ground is often too frozen to allow for burial and where firewood for cremations can be scarce, one way that the dead are “buried” is through what is called sky burial—ritual dismemberment of the corpse, the parts of which are then consumed by vultures.
So I was stunned to hear the following story, tacked onto one of the morning teachings by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche as a seemingly impromptu embellishment. (Note from AWW: This is not a verbatim transcript.)
In Tibet, the people who prepare bodies for sky burial are chod practitioners who do practice for the people who have died.
The birds that eat the bodies are considered dakas and dakinis, and are remarkable in their behavior.
After people who have earned merit through compassionate actions are dismembered, vultures will encircle the body but not touch it. Another vulture comes from the sky, gives a call, and lands on the center of the body. This vulture does a little dance, and then begins to eat—at which point the other vultures begin to eat, too.
The feast is considered a ganachakra (sacred feast), and the central vulture is the ganachakra master.
Now, many people will think this is a gruesome story, but I think it’s beautiful—and it connected me, immediately, to that experience long ago when I read Song of the Turkey Buzzard for the first time.
So I wonder if Lew Welch provided the food for a ganachakra, never seen by human eyes, out there in the California wilderness so long ago.
SONG OF THE TURKEY BUZZARD
For Rock Scully