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Buddhist Death Ritual – part 1

There are various rituals in the world for sending off the dead. To make sense of this common calamity, mankind had designed various ceremonies to handle the emotional trauma experienced by the living. Some rituals conveyed the message of an afterlife and death is just a transition. For example, in Chinese Folk practice, we have to hold a picture of the deceased while crossing a temporarily constructed “mock” bridge. This symbolizes accompanying the dead to cross the spiritual bridge that links the living world with the underworld. The family members of the deceased felt consoled that they are doing something for the deceased and the idea of an afterlife promises an opportunity to reunite in the future. It is an elaborate Taoist ceremony that involves invoking deities for protection, invoking the spirit of the deceased, opening the spiritual realm of the dead, and so on. It is performed after sunset and can take many hours; depending on how much you pay.

If we examine Buddhism, there are also various rituals and ceremonies for a funeral. In some Buddhist societies, such rituals become the main source of income for the temple and monks. Without which, these honorable Sangha would have starved. That is quite a disheartening situation because people are regarding the monks as non-relevant in their daily life.

What did Buddha say about funeral rites?

Someone had asked Buddha if funeral rituals will help the deceased. (By the way, there weren’t any Buddhist funeral rites during the Buddha’s time. Buddha did not design any rituals for the dead. Moreover, the 1st stage of Buddhist enlightenment also includes freedom from rites and rituals. Therefore, it would be contradictory to think that Buddhism believes in funeral rites) That person asking Buddha this question was referring to prevalent funeral practices at that time.

In this story, Buddha explained his position by asking the questioner to do 2 things. Firstly, He asked that person to cast a stone into a pond and then recite various prayers while walking around the pond, praying hard “May the stone float, may the stone float.” Do you think prayers will help to float the stone?

Then He requested that person to throw a dried fruit into the pond. Since the density of the fruit is light, it floated. Then Buddh asked that man to recite prayers and pray that the fruit sink. “May the fruit sink, may the fruit sink.”Do you think prayers will sink the dried fruit?

Buddha then explained His point as follows: The Karma (action, speech, and thought) of a person will determine the quality of one’s mind. Bad karma will create a mind that sinks into lower realms, whereas good karma creates a mind that rises to higher ones. The quality of one’s mind is determined by one’s karma. Just like the inherent density of the stone and dried fruit. Thus, the rebirth of a person is determined by his karma and not by funeral rites.

The above was the original Buddhist perspective on funeral rites.

However, we see many different rites in Buddhism today. Every Buddhist school and tradition has its own funeral rites. What happened? To be continued…..

May all be well and happy.

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