How Sinhala Buddhists Cope with Death by Prof. Sugunasiri - Part 3 of 6
Posted August 30, 2016 0:13 AM
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The words are clearly a Dhammic Reminder, if only confirming what is known and accepted in the culture, but now made to come home in the context of the death of the relative. But if this is a way of bringing solace to the bereaved through knowledge, the calming and the soothing come from the monotonal mode of delivery, the mourners all listening in with folded palms and heads bowed... 

The Ritual

The ceremony at the cemetery may begin with memorial speeches (SEE PICTURE), rounded out by a thank you speech by a family member. This is when the religious ritual begins, this in Pali, the language in which Buddhism was brought to Lanka by Arahant Mahinda (3rd c. BCE), and committed to writing for the first time, in the 1st century BCE. Now we present the ritual in outline.

Opener:

Homage to the Buddha:

I pay Homage to the Fully Enlightened Buddha (namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammàsambuddhassa). This opener brings the family and community together to collectively bring the presence of the Buddha to their minds. The trust placed in him can be said to become a source of comfort, and an implicit reminder of the reality of death as a natural part of life, as is his Teaching.

Seeking the Triple Refuge

By the Triple Refuge (tisaraõa) are meant the Buddha, Dhamma (Teachings) and Sangha (Disciples), this last being a reference not to the fourfold Sangha – bhikkhu, bhikkhunã, upàsaka, upàsikà, but to the Arahants ‘Worthy Ones’ of the past, present and future, who have come by their liberation following the Teachings of the Buddha. And the words go as follows:

Buddhaü saraõaü gacchàmi ‘I seek refuge in the Buddha’

Dhammaü saraõaü gacchàmi ‘I seek refuge in the Dhamma’

Sanghaü saraõaü gacchàmi ‘I seek refuge in the Sangha’.

The lines are repeated three times, strengthening the feeling of comfort of the bereaved that they are assured of the benefit of Buddha’s compassion and wisdom, as contained in the Dhamma, and the experience of the Sangha who have liberated themselves, walking the Path as shown by the Buddha.

Five Training Principles (aka Precepts) (sikkhàpada):

Pàõàtipàtà veramaõã sikkhàpadam samàdiyàmi. I abstain from taking life.

Adinnàdànà veramaõã sikkhàpadam samàdiyàmi. I abstain from what is not given.

Kàmesu micchàcàrà veramaõã sikkhàpadam samàdiyàmi. I abstain from sexual misconduct.

Musàvàdà veramaõã sikkhàpadam samàdiyàmi. I abstain from false language [Implicit here is not oly lying, but also slander, backbiting, foul language.]

Suràmeraya majjapamàdaññhànà veramaõã sikkhàpadam samàdiyàmi. I abstain from going overboard on liquor, intoxicants and drugs.

This is the basic self-training of a Buddhist, not imposed from outside, or by an authority figure, but from within oneself. Thus it is self-regulated, which incidentally is what allows it to be practised by any one of any religion or no religion. To be reminded of the Training Principles at the death of a loved one, then, may serve the bereaved as a visible reminder, helping also to bring to memory the life of the deceased one along the five Training Principles. It may be with pleasure if the deceased has lived up to them or with concern if otherwise, most, of course, falling in between. But his again may be a reminder to the bereaved of the reality of life.

‘Memory Cloth Offering’ [to Sangha] (mataka-vattha påjà)

If the above three items are standard to any Buddhist event, now we come to the critical part of the ritual, both in psychological and liberational terms, this taking much longer than the opener (as above).

In the first part, merit is transferred to the deceased. But for merit to be transferred, the giver needs to have first acquired it. This is, of course, initially gained with the general practice of paying Homage (as in items 3.1.1-2 above) to the Triple Gem, and reminding oneself of the self-restraint (3.1.3). But now the merit is earned in a more tangible and explicit way, with the offering of the pamsukåla, meaning ‘rags from a dust heap’, to the Sangha. Historically, those ordained under the Buddha, with no personal possessions, relied on any kind of cloth thrown away, cleaning and washing them, and then cutting up and dying them, to make robes. But today what is offered is a length of white cloth, to be cut up and turned into robes which are then dyed in yellow or brown.

The pamsukåla comes to be offered by the family gathered around and near the coffin as they repeat the words after a Sangha member, in Pali:

Kàlakatànaü no ¤àtãnaü pu¤¤atthàya

For the merit-benefit of our deceased relatives Imàni matakavatthàni bhikkhusanghassa dema.

This memory cloth we offer to the Bhikkhu Sangha.

The practice can be said to bring the deceased to the centre and forefront of one’s consciousness, if also any others who have already passed away, as intended by the plurals kàlakatànaü and ¤àtãnaü.

Next, as the offering is handed over by a family member to a Sangha member physically (SEE PICTURE), the Sangha members chant the following lines, thrice:

Impermanent indeed are Forces, Aniccà vata samkhàrà

And of the nature of rise and fall. Uppàda vaya dhammino.

Having arisen, they cease to be. Uppajjhitvà nirujjhanti

Calming them is bliss. Tesam våpasamo sukho.



 

The words are clearly a Dhammic Reminder, if only confirming what is known and accepted in the culture, but now made to come home in the context of the death of the relative. But if this is a way of bringing solace to the bereaved through knowledge, the calming and the soothing come from the monotonal mode of delivery, the mourners all listening in with folded palms and heads bowed. In the chanting style called sarabha¤¤a (vowel intoning) and approved by the Buddha, each word is stretched out up to about 8-16 syllables (màtrà), the words and the lines sung in unison in a slow rhythm, rendering it sonorously soothing. Additional solace is the knowledge and sense that this seals in action the words of the earlier merit transfer (pu¤¤ànumodanà).

 

Part 3:  You are reading part 3..


Blog Author: PROF. SUWANDA H. J. SUGUNASIRI
Born Sri Lanka in 1936, and coming to the US on a Fulbright-Smith Mundt Scholarship in 1964, he has been in Canada since 1967, except for a brief stay of 2 years, on the faculty of Vidyodaya University, Sri Lanka. Earning his doctorate in Canada, he has taught at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at University of Toronto, the Faculty of Education of University of Toronto, Trinity College and in Continuing Education. Founder of Nalanda College of Buddhist Studies (Canada) (1999), and of the Canadian Journal of Buddhist Studies (2005), he has been a spokesperson for Buddhism in Canada.

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