SOAS University of London

Centre of Buddhist Studies

Engaging the dead in Buddhism

Prof. Liz Wilson (Miami University Ohio), Dr. Rita Langer (University of Bristol), Westin Harris (University of California, Davis), Donagh Coleman (University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco)

Date: 11 January 2020Time: 11:30 AM

Finishes: 11 January 2020Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Workshop

Please note that the event is free and open to all, but requires registration on our eventbrite page


This event brings together diverse perspectives on ways in which Buddhist cultures, authors, makers and intellectual traditions have engaged with the death of the body, historically and at present.

Distinct from narratives of self-sacrifice or the value of relics, these presentations focus on ways in which death, dying, and the treatment of corpses have been instrumentalized through Buddhist teaching, ritual action, visual culture and dynamic social relationships within communities of practitioners.

Speakers will address the use of human remains in tantric ritual objects; the contemplation of corpses in Indian monastic settings; funerary practice in contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhalese communities; death as a yoga and opportunity for accomplishment for early Indian and Tibetan tantric masters; and the practice of death as meditation, where bodies are preserved and venerated for extended periods of time in situ.


Time Event
11:30am Lunch refreshments
12pm “Introduction: Instrumentation and death in Buddhist material culture” - Ayesha Fuentes (SOAS), PhD candidate in History of Art and Archaeology
12.30 “Female corpses as sources of insight and empathy in post-Ashokan Indian Buddhist literature” - Professor Liz Wilson (Miami University Ohio)
1.30 “Food and merit in Sri Lankan funeral rites” - Dr. Rita Langer (University of Bristol)
2.30-3 Tea break
3pm "Instrumentalizing Death in Tibetan Hagiography" - Westin Harris (University of California, Davis)
4pm “Ontological blurrings of tukdam and the dynamic of presence and absence” - Donagh Coleman (University of California, Berkeley and San Francisco)


“Female corpses as sources of insight and empathy in post-Ashokan Indian Buddhist literature” (Professor Liz Wilson)

Indian Buddhist literature abounds with tales of monks who achieve insight into the nature ofIndian Buddhist literature abounds with tales of monks who achieve insight into the nature ofwhat is really real through startling encounters with dead and dying women. These narratives are found in one particular era of Buddhist history in India: a time when becoming a Buddhist monk was a means of upward social mobility. The post-Ashokan era offered ample rewards to men who excelled at Buddhist philosophy. Even rulers who were not themselves Buddhists nevertheless wished to have a Buddhist philosopher serving in his or her court. Being celibate, however, was not so easy for all these high-flying Buddhist teachers. Part of what it meant towear the saffron robe of a Buddhist monk in India at this time was to be celibate. Buddhist literature preserves frank accounts that show that not every man who donned the saffron robein India was ready to embrace the celibate life. My talk shows that the historic monastic practice of contemplating corpses in cremation grounds was highly gendered in this era in Indian history. Mediation manuals such as that of Buddhaghosa, who was the premier theologian of Theravada Buddhism in India, recommend that monks look at dead men and nuns look at dead women in order to understand impermanence. But this is not what post-Ashokanera narratives depict. In these narratives -from all denominations of Buddhism in South Asia, including Mahayana – men look at women and women look at themselves.

“Food and merit in Sri Lankan funeral rites” (Dr. Rita Langer)

For the first seven days after someone has died their home is refered to as the ‘funeral house’ (malagedera) and certain customs are observed. All cooking stops, doors and windows are kept open, mirrors are covered and lights are kept on over night. The funeral house is a very busy place with three major events and feasts for hundreds of peoples. On the third or fourth day the funeral rites are performed by the monks and a simple meal is served for all guests. On the sixth day in the evening a place in the garden is fenced off and a sleeping mat, pillow and a plate of food are layed out. The spirit of the dead is invited to come to enjoy the meal and listen to a one hour sermon held by a monk. After the sermon family, friends and neighbours stay on for an elaborate meal.
On the morning of the seventh day monks are invited for an alms giving on behalf of the dead (matakadānaya) which marks the end of the liminal period and represents a shift from food offerings to sharing of merit. Inviting Buddhist monks for a meal is a highly meritorious act and synonymous with ‘generosity’ (dāna) itself. Sharing the merit with the dead is the climax of the event and the almsgiving and merit sharing is then repeated after three months and annually.

Instrumentalizing Death in Tibetan Hagiography (Westin Harris)

Since Evans-Wentz’s first editions of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1927, death has figured prominently in academic discussions of Tibetan Buddhism. Much of this scholarship has emphasized the roles of philosophical treatises, ritual manuals, and yogic practices in shaping Tibetan Buddhist conceptions of death. While such work has undoubtedly yielded much fruit, this lecture joins a growing body of scholarship that seeks to bring Tibetan hagiography into the conversation. In it, I will examine life stories of Indo-Tibetan mahāsiddhas like Phadampa Sangye and Kānhapa to show how Tibetan life writings both confirm and complicate existing ideas about death in Tibetan Buddhism.

“Ontological blurrings of tukdam and the dynamic of presence and absence” (Donagh Coleman)

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of tukdam (thugs dam), advanced meditators die in meditative equipoise, where their bodies show no signs of decay for days or even weeks after their clinical deaths, in accordance with tantric Buddhist theory. From the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, the meditators are resting in a subtle state of consciousness and so are still in the process of dying; yet according to current biomedical and legal definitions they are dead. The phenomenon disrupts Western categories of life and death, mind and body, and offers a focal point through which to explore such delineations, and different cultural bodies with their distinctive death processes. In such deaths, Buddhist symbolism seems to take on concrete form, manifesting in the bodies of practitioners even beyond clinical death. Considering to what extent should we consider these deaths as distinctive ontological realities in part arising from Indo-Tibetan ways of seeing-perceiving-conceiving the body and its death process, my presentation will draw on medical anthropology, the ontological turn, as well as Buddhist theory. In holding off death, tukdam speaks to deep existential concerns over presence and absence. My presentation will also look at the phenomenon in terms of this fundamental dynamic of presence and absence. Tukdam is venerated as a great spiritual accomplishment, with the bodies of the meditators serving as focal points for devotion. The concrete visuality of tukdam carries an important religious symbolic function, and in recent years many such deaths have been filmed or photographed and even posted online by devotees. A visual anthropological approach seems apt for exploring the subject, and the complexities of presence/absence, representation, and the use of images and video as part of contemporary religious practice that we here encounter. I’m also a documentary filmmaker with past films from the Tibetan world, and have been working on a film on tukdam concurrent with my academic research. My spoken presentation will be structured around video-clips and images from my documentary work-in-progress.


Liz Wilson is Professor of Comparative Religion at Miami University of Ohio. She specializes in pre-modern Indian Buddhism, especially Gupta-era narrative literatures. Her primary analytical lenses are gender, sexuality, and family-formation. She is author of Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figurations of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1996); "Autocremation and Spontaneous Combustion as Marks of Sanctity in South Asian Buddhism"; in The Living and the Dead, edited by Liz Wilson (SUNY Press, 2003); and "Seizing the Zombie's Tongue: Ambivalent Protectors in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal,” in Notes from a Mandala: Essays in Honor of Wendy Doniger, edited by Laurie Patton and David Haberman (University of Delaware Press, 2010). In 2020, Routledge will release atextbook co-authored by Wilson (with Nina Hoel and Melissa Wilcox): Religion, the Body, and Sexualities.

Rita Langer is Senior Lecturer in Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol (Department of Religion and Theology). Her research focuses on Buddhist ritual and its origin in South and South East Asia, particularly Sri Lanka. Her approach is interdisciplinary and combines textual studies with field work. She conducted extensive research into funerals rites and death rituals in Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand as part of an AHRC funded project on Death Rituals in Southeast Asia and China. Her current research is concerned with food, merit and cosmology in Sri Lankan Buddhism.

Westin Harris is a Ph.D. candidate in the Study of Religion at the University of California, Davis and a research affiliate with the Kathmandu University Centre for Buddhist Studies, Rangjung Yeshe Institute, in Nepal. His dissertation research combines philological and art historical methods to track changing representations of the mahāsiddha Virūpa within and between Buddhist and Nāth traditions. As a devoted translator of Classical Tibetan, Westin is also interested in translation theory and questions of translation-as-scholarship.

Finnish-Irish-American Donagh Coleman holds Honors degrees in Philosophy and Psychology and Music and Media Technologies from Trinity College Dublin, and a MA in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley. He is currently a doctoral student in the joint UC Berkeley – UCSF medical anthropology PhD program. Donagh is also a professional documentary filmmaker. Previous films with wide international festival and TV exposure include A Gesar Bard's Tale (winner of best documentary film at the 2014 First Peoples'; Festival in Montreal), and Stone Pastures (winner of the Grand Prix prize at the 2009 Cervino Cinemountain International Film Festival in Italy). Donagh's films have also been shown at museums such as MoMA and the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and by the European Commission. Besides films and TV-docs, Donagh directs radio documentaries for the Finnish and Irish national broadcasters. His Radio Feature Gesar! was Finland’s entry for the 2012 Prix Italia competition, and his feature Do I Exist? was Finland’s entry for the 2015 Prix Europa competition. Donagh has also worked as a TV journalist and presenter for the Finnish broadcaster YLE News.

Ayesha Fuentes is an objects conservator and technical historian originally from Washington State, now in the final year of her doctoral research at SOAS in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology and a student member of the Centre for Buddhist Studies. She has degrees in art, religion and conservation, and will be introducing the event with a brief overview of her research on the use of human remains in Tibetan ritual objects.; more can be found at Ayesha Fuentes.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

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Sponsor: Khyentse Foundation