Posted by Richard Rawlinson
Is it uncharitable to start a brief discussion of Buddhist funerals by alluding to Mark Juergensmeyer’s recent book, Buddhist Warfare, which shows another side of a religion widely seen in the West as purely peaceful?
This other side includes the recent example of armed monks in southern Thailand defending their communities from attacks by the drug trade and Muslims. For centuries, Buddhist monks have been directly involved in conflict across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, but successful propaganda since the 1900s presented mystical aspects of their traditions while leaving out the violent history.
Juergensmeyer simply illustrates that Buddhists share the human spectrum of emotions which include anger and violence. It nevertheless shatters the fiction of a religion seemingly without shortcomings.
Buddhist writer Thupten Tsering welcomes this reality check. ‘They see Tibetans as cute, sweet, warmhearted. I tell people, when you cut me, I bleed just like you,’ he says.
Buddhism is a way of life that concerns itself with moral conduct and quest for enlightenment. It keeps regulated ritual to a minimum, seeing it as being applicable mainly for the discipline of its monks.
Often credited with more common sense than other religions, Buddhism teaches that upon death what is left is only matter and how remains are treated is of no consequence to the well being of the departed.
However, they, of course, act respectfully towards the bodily remains of loved ones, giving them a dignified send-off, whether or not they invite monks to conduct rites at their cremation or burial ceremonies.
As an act of gratitude they perform rites such as carrying out meritorious deeds in their memory. Rather like the earning/buying of indulgences of Christendom past, they hope charity giving and other wholesome deeds in the name of the deceased will share merit and lead to good rebirth.
They also claim the good and bad deeds (kamma) of the deceased play a part in their next life, a belief that might be loosely compared with Heaven and Hell, but on Earth.
A Buddhist funeral tends to be simple, with lavish spending eschewed in favour of donations to earthly causes, with the merits transferred to the departed.
However, they ensure the place where the body lies is serene, the open coffin accompanied by a portrait of the deceased placed in front of an altar and a statue of a Buddha.
When paying respects, guests bow in silence, and join in any chanting. Family members and friends may conduct the ceremony but, if monks are invited, they chant suttas, after which pamsukala robes are offered, and the merits transferred. The casket is then sealed.