Death Clowns

March 2000, Tashi Lunpho Monastery, Southern India

The long low horns begin their drone, and the great double door swings open. The drums pound, the cymbals crash, and the first creature emerges from the dark depths of the temple: the giant masked demon of Yamantaka, the lord of death.

In Buddhism, everything in life, even death, is considered an opportunity for awakening. Meditation on death is considered one of the highest paths. Unlike the west, death is confronted directly, treated as the wonderful teacher that it is. Tibetan monks often meditate in graveyards, to help them fully embrace death.

Two clowns with grinning skeleton heads appear, and stay throughout the six hour long ritual, keeping the crowd amused during transitions, heckling all the performers without reverence. Death will always have the last laugh. It’s startling to a westerner to see death treated with humour, but Tibetans have a much more open relationship with the matter than us.

To live with the full awareness that you will die is to truly live. This is the beauty of understanding and accepting the truth of impermanence. This is the great mystery of creation. This is to be human and to be divine. You’re alive! And, you will die. We all will die.

One of the death clowns offers up an apple to the audience members, who laugh in his face. He tries to convince me to take a bite, but I shake my head, smiling. It’s not quite my moment to taste that fruit. The little Tibetan boy snuggled up to me claps his hands, laughing. I raise my camera, and the death clown puts his hands together in a prayer position. The scared and the sacred, united.

Just what is death? A skeleton in a dark cloak holding a scythe? Not likely. We cannot know exactly what will happen when we die, nor should we. As with the unnameable, the namelessness of G~d, death is mystery. And mystery has beauty. Embracing death requires embracing the unknown.

There are things we can know. Thousands and thousands of people have had near death experiences, and there are consistent reccurrences. There is a often a sense of moving towards luminosity, accompanied by strong feelings of peace, contentment and joy. One comes to a threshold, a gateway to cross over. At this point some have been called back. These people are often disappointed, sad to leave that light. Those that must return, emerge with a transformed relationship to life.


A small family of mother, father, daughter and son, appear on the dance floor, innocent smiles on their giant wooden masks. They humbly offer a white silk blessing scarf to a fierce dancing demon with a dagger in one hand, dressed in elaborate silk brocade. His red grimacing face is surrounded by tiny skulls. The death clowns peer over their shoulder, pulling at the scarf, poking their ears, drawing one of their children aside.

‘Death is always there, looking over your left shoulder,’ Carlos Castenada’s shamanic teacher, Don Juan, was fond of saying. We’re not dead, not quite yet, so there is still time, maybe only a day, an hour, a breath, for all we know, but we still have the chance to orient ourselves towards the light. Ask yourself-is this breath worthy of being my last? Is this a breath of luminosity, of spaciousness, of compassion?

In the late afternoon we leave the temple, following a procession of monks with hand drums, monks with banners, monks with crashing cymbals, black hat dancers, the jaunty death clowns, and a chaotic dancing crowd of larger than life demons. At the head of the parade, four monks carry an effigy of intestinal red plastic tubing, topped with a skeleton head.

We gather at an open field. A bonfire is lit and the Rag Dungs, held aloft by monks with straps over their shoulders, sound their mournful drone. The effigy, representing the accumulated bad karma of the previous year, is thrown onto the fire. I move in for a close-up. The bonfire explodes in a loud ratt-tatt-tatt of rapid staccato bursts of fury. I jump back, startled, eliciting merry laughter from the monks. The thing was stuffed full of firecrackers.

And then it’s over. The crowd unceremoniously wanders off and all that remains are two tiny monks-in-progress, a couple of Hindu street urchins, and one Canadian filmmaker, staring at the fire and melting mess of effigy in fascination.

I shoulder my little ‘Kilim’ Sufi bag I’d bought in Konya, and head out into the fields, following a narrow, hard packed dirt path. I settle under a flowering magnolia tree that stands alone against the dry tilled fields. Three crows perch on the branches above me. My Dharma study today is a long tract about death by Je Tsongkapa, in which he states that no matter who you are, rich or poor, eventually your name will be ‘that stinking corpse riddled with maggots.’ I smile as I read it. At this moment I feel as if the fear of death has no power over me. I could die now, if necessary. I am a transparent diamond. Selfless. I do not mind being a particle of light. A wave of light. A ripple of light. Emanating from the One, and back again.

When I open my eyes at the end of my meditation, the fields around me are glittering, as they did in Mount Athos that morning after dawn burst through the chestnut trees. As they would every day, if I had but eyes to see. It’s all perception. Sitting on a leaf directly in front of me is a quartz crystal. I place it in my mouth to wash away the red dirt. I hold it up to the sun, which refracts through the translucent stone, breaking into the full spectrum of colour. Like manifest reality – from oneness to diversity. And back again.


1 Comment

  1. Bless you, (I won’t say God bless you, because I don’t believe in any god, but if there are any forces in the universe that protect decent people from harm and help them in their endeavours, I hope they will always be with you) . You are a real Weapon of Mass Enlightment!

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