Buddhism Funeral Practices
by
Margaret Gouin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0187

Introduction

Death engages the most fundamental tenets of Buddhism. As the impermanent self dissolves back into its constituent elements, the inexorable logic of karma kicks in, pushing the subtle consciousness of the recently deceased toward a new life whose nature is conditioned by its actions in its past life/lives. And death engages the attention of Buddhists of all traditions and schools with an intensity not found in any other life-cycle event. Yet, in spite of the centrality of dying and death in traditionally Buddhist cultures, very little Western scholarly literature on the funerary practices of Buddhism exists. Materials that are available may be said to include, broadly, all activities starting with preparing the dying person for death to dealing with the immediate aftermath of death to disposal of the body, and including related rituals that continue after disposal up to memorialization. The postmortem funerary rites proceed along two distinct but parallel trajectories. One set is intended to benefit the deceased by protecting them from the harmful karmic consequences accrued during the life just past and previous lives. The other is designed to protect the survivors from ghostly consequences of the death—in particular, from attack either by the demonic forces that caused it or by the possibly unhappy deceased themselves. The two sets of practices, which are an integral part of Buddhist mortuary rites, testify to the considerable importance of the dead in Buddhist cultures, both as helpful and respected ancestors and as troublesome and potentially harmful ghosts. To Buddhist scholars, such practices may seem to be abhorrently out of touch with the pure doctrine of Buddhism as it has been envisaged in the West. Although these “superstitious” rites are found in some variant throughout all Buddhist cultures and although they are for the most part performed by Buddhist religious professionals, they have been declared “not Buddhist” by generations of Western scholars and, therefore, fail to register on the academic radar. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Since the late 20th century, more scholars have been going out into the field to study what is actually done in Buddhist cultures rather than simply taking texts as normative. The literature is still fragmentary and incomplete, but we are beginning to have a better understanding of how different Buddhist traditions deal with dying and death, and, in the process, we are learning how much we have misunderstood in the past. There is no fixed “Buddhist” form of death ritual, although there are many similarities across traditions. As Buddhism spread, it adapted itself to many different local cultures and absorbed many local beliefs. The artificial nature of national boundaries and the wide variety of ritual forms must be continually borne in mind. It is much more useful to speak of a plurality of Buddhisms than of one ideal, monolithic, and coherent Buddhism.

General Works

Works of a general nature on Buddhist funeral practice are few in number. Cuevas and Stone 2007 is primarily concerned with attitudes toward death and death-related discourses. Payne and Tanaka 2004 is a wide-ranging collection of essays dealing specifically with the practices of the Pure Land tradition.

  • Cuevas, Bryan J., and Jacqueline I. Stone, eds. The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007.

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    Addresses a spectrum of issues relating to dying and death in Buddhist traditions. The contributions by Shinohara (moment of death, China), Glassman (death ritual and kinship, China/Japan), Rowe (scattering ashes, Japan), and Carbine (monastic funerals, Burma) deal with actual funeral rituals, both historical and contemporary.

  • Payne, Richard K., and Kenneth K. Tanaka, eds. Approaching the Land of Bliss: Religious Praxis in the Cult of Amitābha. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2004.

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    Pure Land rituals are important both in preparing for death and in caring for the deceased, as is shown in this collection of essays dealing with Pure Land practices in China, Taiwan, Nepal, Tibet, and Japan. The contributions by Kapstein, Stone, Lewis, and Jones specifically address funerary practices.

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