The Wisdom Of Tibetan Childbirth

For Tibetans, bearing a child is an act of conscious intention that involves seven distinct stages - and starts before conception

One of the articles in Birth, Sex & Death (IC#31)
Originally published in Spring 1992 on page 26
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Exiled from their home in "the land of snows," the Tibetan people – under the leadership of the very popular Dalai Lama – have been sharing more and more of their unique culture with the rest of the world, to the world’s great benefit. This article exploring the wisdom of Tibetan childbirth practice is based on Anne Hubbell Maiden and Edie Farwell’s forthcoming book Tibetan Birth Wisdom. Anne is a psychotherapist and social psychologist, and a founder of both the Friends of Children and Parents and of the Conscious Birthing Circle in San Francisco. Edie is a social and cultural anthropologist who founded The Development Collaborative and currently acts as Liaison Director for the Association for Progressive Communications.

"Conceiving a baby does not mean you create a baby," a Tibetan scholar and friend told me when I was researching Tibetan birth practices. "It is more as if you are calling a being into your womb." In Tibetan Buddhism, the conception of a baby is not a random occurrence. It is much more intentional, often with the being who is going to be born as a baby determining, either consciously or unconsciously, which womb he or she will enter. Tibetan mothers talk of having dreams when they are first pregnant of inviting someone into a nicely furnished room. This symbolizes to them inviting someone into their womb – a new baby. Often after such a dream a woman will discover she is pregnant.

Childbirth in Tibetan culture is an especially rich and powerful time. The intention of a spirit or "intermediate being" – the name Tibetans give to one who has died but has not yet been reborn – to take rebirth in a human form is a result of that being’s karma. Karma is the causal effect of one’s past actions. Thus parents who are conceiving a baby and the intermediate being who will become that baby are drawn together by the circumstances of their previous lives.

Reincarnation is integral to Tibetan Buddhism and virtually all of Tibetan culture. One lives a cycle of life after life, until one has learned what one needs in order to attain enlightenment and be freed from the circle of birth, death and rebirth. Until that time, however, one is born, lives, dies, and according to one’s karma, gets born again into a new life. Thus childbirth is part of "beginningless time and boundless space" as one Tibetan lama described it. Rebirth is intentional and for a purpose. That purpose is usually to further understanding of the human condition, help others, or strengthen relationships, such as those with the parents one is born to. A being is able to learn what he or she is intended to learn no matter how long their life is – whether they die in infancy, early in childhood, or even as a fetus due to spontaneous abortion. After experiencing these outcomes, they are born again in another life to learn further. For Tibetan Buddhists the continuing cycles of death and rebirth are as much a part of life as the life itself is.

To help generation after generation of Tibetans progress through this cycle, Tibetans have developed a sophisticated set of beliefs and practices which uses extensive ritual as a way to connect one’s present life with one’s past lives. Ritual also helps a being move through the birth process into his or her new life.


Tibetans are masters of ritual. Incense; chanting; circumambulation around temples and prayer walls; rhythmic beating of drums and cymbals; receiving blessings by holy monks, or lamas; recitation of mantras; the spinning of prayer wheels are all enacted for the benefit of both the individual and the overseeing deities. Emphasis on ritual provides almost every Tibetan – whether they live in Tibet itself, or in refugee communities scattered throughout India, Nepal, Switzerland or North America – with a deeply satisfying connection to both Buddhism and Tibetan culture.

Ritual serves to give Tibetans a sense of continuity in their culture and to help them communicate with the gods and deities who have power and influence over the lives of individual human beings. The importance of ritual in maintaining the continuity of a culture is particularly apparent during childbirth, when the culture is literally being passed from one generation to another. Not only do Tibetans pass their heritage to their children culturally and genetically, their system of reincarnation passes it on spiritually as well. For a Tibetan Buddhist, the spiritual continuity of their life and their culture is the most precious of all.

Ritual is present at every stage of the birth process: from before conception through conception and gestation, at the birth itself, in bonding after the birth, and in infancy and early childhood. Tibetan ritual is especially empowering and enriching for the woman. Pregnancy is a time when a Tibetan woman is seen by others as powerful and naturally imbued with access to high spiritual realms. Her husband and family members recognize that this time is special and make sure that she is well cared for, both physically and spiritually. Dreams during pregnancy take on special significance. Rituals surrounding childbirth help women to deliver their babies quickly, easily, and auspiciously.


Pre-Conception * Before conception a woman who knows she wants to have a baby often goes to a holy place to pray, walk around a temple, and do prostrations to statues of Buddha and other Tibetan Buddhist deities. A Tibetan refugee who served as one of our informants now lives in Oakland, California. She had a hard time conceiving a child and so made a pilgrimage to India:

"I went on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya," she told us. "Bodh Gaya, you know, is where Buddha attained enlightenment. It is a very holy place where many Tibetans go to make offerings and pray. My two sisters and my friend, Samten, were there with me. Samten asked me if I wanted to have a baby girl.

"She told me what to do to purify myself and prepare to conceive a baby girl. There is a small cave on the other side of a big river at Bodh Gaya," she recounted. "Samten showed me a tree there, and told me to put one hair on it, so then I could pray for whatever I wanted. You have to purify yourself for whatever it is you pray to come to you. Every morning at five o’clock we would get up and take a walk, and then I would do prostrations for an hour."

Conception * She spent two weeks there, praying, doing prostrations, and circumambulating the temple to purify herself. She told me that she prayed for a baby, stating in her prayers that so many Tibetans had died during China’s invasion of Tibet that one of them who wished could be reborn through her. When she told me this story she hugged her toddler daughter, saying, "She is the lucky one. I conceived her soon after I returned home from Bodh Gaya." She felt her pilgrimage had cleansed her and prepared her womb for a baby to enter.

As reincarnation is an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism, often there is a bond, or an understanding, between a parent and the child even before it is born. A woman may have dreams around the time of conception and during pregnancy that let her get to know who her child is and what characteristics the child will have when it comes into the world.

Gestation * During gestation, prayers are made for the health of the baby and the mother and for a quick and easy birth. Lamas are visited to ask for a blessing, offerings are left at the temple, and the woman spends even more time in spiritual activities than she normally would. Particularly complex or symbolic dreams are taken to a lama for interpretation.

In Tibetan medical texts, the development of a fetus is followed week by week. The texts describe not only the physical growth of a fetus, but also when it loses memory of past lives, when consciousness of this life occurs, and when the winds enter to allow the movement of its body.

Birth * When it is time for the birth itself, a series of rituals are enacted that help ease the mother through the delivery. The father, doctor, uncle, or "anyone who has kept his moral obligations" may make nine small indentations on a square of butter and recite a mantra two hundred times over it. The empowerment of the butter is completed by blowing over it. The father then feeds the blessed butter to his wife at the last stages of labor to help her give birth quickly.

The father is present at the birth and helps out where needed, though the midwife or an experienced mother is the primary attendant. The father may recite the "Collection of Mantras" scripture for auspiciousness and for an easy delivery periodically throughout the birth process.

If there is great difficulty at the birth, a lama may be asked to do special prayers at the monastery. The father, or anyone else the family deems appropriate, approaches a rinpoche (the family lama) and makes an offering of money and a white ceremonial scarf, called a kata, for the appropriate ritual to be performed, according to the lama’s divination. The spiritual energy created by the ceremony is directed to the mother and baby for an easy birth and good health.

The father may also give the lama butter to bless. During difficult labor, the mother can eat the blessed butter to ease the pain. The comfort of a familiar food that has been blessed relaxes the mother and makes her feel as if a higher power is looking out for her. If labor is strong, the mother may eat a piece of dried fish from the sacred Lake Manasarovar in Tibet. A little bit of the fish is kept on hand in most households and is fed to the mother when her pain increases. The fish from the sacred lake brings blessings and spiritual grace to the woman who takes it, and so eases her mind and helps her relax, allowing the baby to come sooner. This also happens commonly when blessed butter is taken. Both taking the fish and the butter are such standard rituals in Tibetan culture that women are conditioned to relax and feel safe when they eat them during labor.

When contractions become close and intense, the midwife may give the mother a traditional herbal preparation that invariably causes the baby to be born soon after.

After the birth * Immediately after birth the child begins to breathe. As soon as its mouth is opened, the symbol Dhih is painted in saffron powder on the newborn’s tongue. Dhih is the seed syllable of Manjusri, the deity of wisdom. Tibetans do this so the baby will grow to be wise and articulate – qualities they value highly. In some parts of Tibet, the Dhih is used to give the child intelligence, long life, and good fortune. In other parts of Tibet, blessed butter that someone has prayed over is put on the tongue. It symbolizes good health, longevity, and always having enough to eat.

Butter is then put on the tip of the nose. The baby is cleaned with a cloth and warm water, and wrapped tightly in cotton cloth and wool for warmth. During this, the baby stays with the mother, and is rarely separated from her.

Soon after the birth the mother is given one or two cups of hot butter to drink to replenish her strength and warm her. Then she eats soup and drinks Tibetan tea.

The placenta is saved until an astrologer indicates the first auspicious day for the father or another relative to bury it. The placenta can be buried anywhere as long as no animals can dig it up. The placenta is wrapped in clean cloth and buried deep in the ground, often with the children of the family assisting. The place it is buried is not marked by the family, but the process of burying it symbolizes respect for the placenta which nourished the baby in the womb.

The cord is kept in a safe place in the house for about a year. The mother uses the cord to heal thrush in the baby’s mouth by dipping it in milk, tea, or water and rubbing it over the sore.

Bonding * Traditionally, a family with a newborn spends a few quiet days alone before visitors are welcomed. These days are a special time for the family to be all together, to bond closely with the new baby and to enact cleansing rituals and prayers for the baby’s health.

On the third day (for a boy) or the fourth day (for a girl), a big welcoming ceremony is held for the newborn. Relatives, friends, and neighbors come to the family’s house bringing gifts and blessings to the new infant. The traditional view is that coming earlier may bring bad luck for the child or the parents and could cause the baby to lose its tenuous hold on life.

During the first quiet days, the baby lies next to the mother as both rest. The father is kept busy helping with all the extra chores that need to be done: watching the other children; washing diapers; making special meat broth, chicken soup, tsampa or roasted barley flour, and butter tea for the mother; and heating water for her, as she is not allowed to touch cold water for the first month after birth. Doing so, it is thought, may later cause her harm.

To ensure that a child has the best chance of developing her capacities to their full potential, elaborate rituals are performed to protect the infant and to facilitate growth. Offerings are made to the deities and protectors, butter lamps are lit, and prayers chanted in the house to honor the newborn and to mark the baby’s integration into this world. These rituals begin to carve the baby’s niche in the patterns of relationship she will have both to her family and to the deities.

My friend Dorje told me how a couple of days after his daughter’s birth he went to a high lama to receive a name for her. He visited the lama that his family regularly consults for ceremonies and special needs. Dorje prostrated three times in front of the lama and made a small offering of money wrapped in a kata, or ceremonial scarf. The lama blessed the scarf and returned it to Dorje, placing it gently around his bowed neck.

Then the lama asked, "Is the baby a boy or a girl?" "A girl," Dorje answered proudly. The lama, sitting upright, concentrated his full energies on the new baby. After a few minutes he raised his cupped hands to his mouth and blew his blessing on the knotted protection cord he held. Handing the cord to Dorje, he said, "This is for your daughter, Dolma Tsering."

Respectfully bowing to the lama as he accepted the protection cord to pin on his daughter’s shirt, Dorje hurried home with the blessed string to tell his family the name their daughter had received. The validation of a name gives the baby another strong hold on this life that she is just beginning.

Receiving her name from a lama further bonds Dolma Tsering with the realm of deities and the spiritual dimension of her Tibetan heritage and indicates that she has a place and role to fulfill during this lifetime. The parents’ request for a name from a lama represents their acceptance of the greater force of which both they and the baby are a part. Even Tibetans in the United States will have a relative or close friend go to the Dalai Lama in India, or another high lama, to have a name sent for their child.

On the day of the welcoming ceremony, Dorje and Lhamo rose early to enact rituals of purification and welcome. First they lit butter lamps and made offerings to the deities and protectors. Then, using a special bottle of water obtained that morning from the lama, Dolma Tsering was cleansed of any impurities associated with the birth. Her grandmother blessed the water by receiving it in her cupped hands from Dorje, and pouring it into Lhamo’s palm. After Lhamo drank a little of the water, she wiped her palm on her head and then on Dolma Tsering’s. In this way, not only was Dolma Tsering cleansed, she was also bound yet deeper to the traditional ways.

With the first visitor’s arrival, which marked the end of the family’s time alone, Dorje prepared incense and a small container of milk. Giving a short prayer for Dolma Tsering, his brother lit the incense and sprinkled milk around the room, thereby cleansing the house and initiating Dolma Tsering’s welcoming ceremony.

Friends and family welcomed the new baby by presenting a kata, the blessing scarf, to Dolma Tsering, who lay peering up out of her mother’s lap. (Visitors usually don’t touch a newborn right away; they wait until the child is a month or so old and strong enough not to pick up any illnesses from them.) Throughout the day they came, bringing small presents and good wishes to celebrate Dolma Tsering’s arrival into both the family and the community. Thermoses filled with butter tea flowed liberally, and trays of freshly fried Tibetan cookies were passed. After a while, Dorje brought out dishes of rice mixed with raisins and butter. Each guest took a handful, some to eat and some to throw into the sky for the child’s auspicious life. The rice symbolizes both protection for the young baby and the harvest of nine months of pregnancy.

This welcoming ceremony marks the beginning of the baby’s relationship with most of the people to whom she will be closest as the years go on, thus establishing both her right to receive their care and love throughout her life, as well as cementing her responsibility to care for and love all of them as she grows older.

Infancy * After the birth, clothes are made and new blankets and wraps are given to the infant. Although young mothers outside of Tibet today share baby clothes and blankets with one another, traditionally it was believed to be inauspicious to dress a new baby in used clothes. Before the birth, a mother, grandmother or other relative would cut out cloth for new baby clothes – but could not sew the clothes to completion. To do so could also have been inauspicious and might have brought harm to the baby. Only after the baby was safely born and gave signs of being strong and healthy would the new clothes be finished.

Throughout infancy, a baby is incorporated into the daily rhythm of the family, usually on the back of the mother when she goes to make prayers and offerings, and as she goes about her routine.

If a baby becomes sick, special rituals are enacted for curing. One ritual used to cleanse sickness from a baby’s body is to give barley flour dough, or tsampa, to the mother and then to the baby and have the baby squeeze it in her two fists. The dough is then rolled all over the baby’s body to pick up any negativity or toxicity. The tsampa is taken and cast away with effigies in the likeness of the offending spirits, made by a lama from dough. The dough becomes food for the effigy so that the effigy can feel that it has had enough to eat and therefore has no interest in bothering the baby further.

Childhood * Much of a young child’s acculturation is done naturally through the child’s participation in everyday family life. Children are taught to enter the prayer room with respect, to bring their hands together in prayer, and to prostrate before the statues and paintings of the deities. Children can be heard singing mantra to themselves or with other children from an early age. Games are played both inside and outside the house, and older children care for and watch after the younger children.

By participating in her parents’ activities, a child easily and naturally learns the values of her family and of her culture. In these days, as Tibetans struggle to keep their culture alive in the midst of genocide, destruction, and dispersal, it is especially important that cultural values be passed from one generation to another. Enacting the traditional rituals, particularly around the powerful time of childbirth, is an effective and enriching way to do this.


Earth And Heaven Joined

Voluptuous water, the fountain geysers
mid-pool, seeking
a fleet moment of fertility
among galaxies, that flirtation.
Were blood in that gush
from clogged artery or the freed
stifled organ, I could believe
sunset, but the water’s clear
and now it has touched
one star at its apogee, crests
where the brightest shines.
Pulse rages in my head
as the heart climbs, captured
by the blue jet, the stream
that seeds and unsettles the mind.

– E. G. Burrows

From a series entitled "The Ganeshpuri Poems."

Birth And The Basque

I see two vistas across a Spanish countryside. The first is roughly criss-crossed by layered, low walls of field stones which create many tiny plots of green. The other is home to a circle of stone houses surrounded by spacious growing fields and trees.

In the first vista the land has been divided among progeny of large families over generations, until the walled sections appear too small for cultivation. In the second, a Basque settlement, custom has it that younger children leave home to explore the world while the first-born cares for the land.

Among the mystical Basque, conception is a sacred act, and men and women wait to marry until they have come to maturity in their thirties or forties. Traditional Basque who practice the old pre-Christian ways (now 15% or less of the modern population) marry only when they plan to have children.

Within this group, marriage is both a sacred union and a working partnership between the extended family cooperative and the land. Both parts of the family come together with the whole village to share food, dances, songs, and tributes all day and through the night. Then the husband or wife goes to the home place of whoever is older.

Human life is given great value, as are strength, integrity, honesty, balance, and self-sufficiency. Boys and girls grow up with strong family ties and same-sex friendship groups, which last throughout their lives. Around the circle of houses, each neighbor to the left, when called upon, is helper and healer.

For the Basque, family comes first, and home is sacred. In Basque mystical practice, birth is an event celebrated by the whole extended family. Thus birthing provides continued and sustained family bonding, and the young learn of birth in a sacred family context. Birth is also highly valued as practice for facing what is new, including the ultimate new experience, which is death. Death in its time is seen as a return to the natural beginning of things.

Anne Hubbell Maiden

This sidebar was based on observation in the Pyrenees and talks with Angeles Arrien, an anthropologist at the California Institute of Integral Studies with a specialty in Basque folklore.

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