How Sinhala Buddhists Cope with Death: Funeral Ceremony as Mother/Social Worker, Community Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Spiritual Guide
Suwanda H J Sugunasiri, PhD
In Buddhism, as practiced in Sri Lanka in its earliest form, religion has no place at events marking the stages of life – birth of a child (with no practice similar to baptism), puberty of a girl (koñahalu mangula) (a particularity of Sinhala Buddhism, with no similar event for boys), or marriage, each of them celebrated as a civil affair. When it comes to death, however, Buddhism comes to be involved heavily, the presence of monks (SEE PICTURE.), at home, or at the burial grounds, being the norm. Indeed this is one of the key occasions when the Buddha’s Teachings come to be personalized for the masses.
First, it is of relevance and benefit to both the deceased and the survivors. Both aspects of death — the message of impermanence, and the opportunity to help the departed loved one — find expression in the Buddhist funeral ceremony. For the deceased, it marks the moment when the transition begins to a new mode of existence within the round of rebirths. For the living, death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence. It also provides an opportunity to assist the deceased person as he or she fares on to the new existence. But it also an opportunity to gain a little more maturity regarding life and death.
This is a study in Oral History. The methodology thus used is that of participant observation. But it is more than the dualistic paradigm of a researcher doing research on subjects. The author of the paper is both researcher and among the researched. So his role may be said to be that of participant observer. While the paper is indeed a reporting of research findings, it is not merely that. The paper ends in a critical analysis. To that extent the author may be characterized as a developmental participant observer. The subject of how Buddhists cope with death come from his personal experience in relation to his father’s death, but yet it is an objective study of the ritual of the funeral ceremony. Methodologically speaking again, the paper may then be seen as one that bridges the cold academy with warm field work and between researcher and the researched. To the extent that the paper is in oral history, there is little theory building, and references to other academic studies. But the framework of the paper is no less analytical and theoretical. If the photos included in this essay may be seen to take away from the aura of academicity, it may be seen as adding colour and brightness to academic writing.
PART A: Dealing with The Death of a Loved One:
Death is viewed by Buddhists as a natural outcome of Life, under the Principle of Change (anicca, literally, ‘impermanence’) as taught by the Buddha . Life, likewise, is seen as a natural outcome of Death, again under the same principle. This would be no different from the night following day following night, each conditioned as under his Principle of Conditioned Co-origination (pañiccasamuppàada). Understanding death as the common fate of one and all can be said to be the singlemost reason why Buddhists come to be relatively less traumatized by the spectre of death. At a theoretical level, Death is a ‘Thirst’ (taõhà). It is a Thirst because Life is a ‘Thirst to be’ (bhava taõhà). So Death, the other side of the coin, could only but be a ‘Thirst to be not’ (vibhava taõhà). The ‘Thirst to be’ comes to be so very attractive to a sentient being (satto), meaning both human or animal, that they yearn to have more of it. And that in a very next life, since even at the end of this life, one has not been satiated enough. But, logically considered, to be born again, one has to first die. Thus, yearning to have a taste of the delicious servings just one more time, they come to be born again. The yearning continuing each life time, one comes to die and die and be born again and again in a life cycle. This is what is called Rebecoming (punabbhava), popularly Rebirth.
All this is nice theory. But, even as the theory is understood and accepted, it is not to say that death is not devastating to the family, relatives, friends and acquaintances. But the Sinhala Buddhists turn death into an occasion for personal reflection, the departed becoming an immediate example of the theoretical understanding.
In this Chapbook, the reader will find a Pictorial view of the ‘death ceremony’ (avamangallotsavaya) of my State-honoured father, Kalaguru (Maestro of the Arts) S H Sauris Silva, that took place in 1982 in Sri Lanka. If it is by way of seeking to bring history alive, and of showing respect to my departed father, it has also handed me an opportunity to look at how death is handled by the Sinhala Buddhist society of Sri Lanka. It may be noted that this is as I remember it, and upon no particular in depth study.