How Sinhala Buddhists Cope with Death by Prof. Sugunasiri - Part 4 of 6
Posted August 30, 2016 0:50 AM

The almsgiving offers benefit to three parties. One, of course, is the Sangha who receive the food. But that is nothing special, since the Sangha always receive alms, begging from home to home in traditional times, and where the practice is no longer common, particularly in the city, the food offered at the temple, or by invitation to the home. The intent of the almsgiving is to transfer merit to the deceased...

Homily (Baõa) and Transfer of Merit:

Homily:

Bana ‘homily’ is the elucidation of the Dhamma, and is the second and closing segment of the transferring of merit. Up to now, solace for the relatives and mourners has come through the personal participation , transferring merit in action and words. But now it comes through education when those present come to be provided with knowledge about the Buddha’s Teachings. The homily begins with the Sangha speaker talking about what is known about the good deeds of the deceased. But then it would be expanded to make it a lesson in Dhamma, drawn upon the Buddha’s words and their own personal experience. If it adds to the knowledge base of the listener, it helps to bring the realization that while they are mounring the loss of the loved one, it is only a case study of the reality that befalls one and all. Death now comes to be not something to agonize over but something to be accepted, and a reality to be built into one’s own personal life.

The homily lasting for about half an hour or more, the participants are next reminded of how in the past hour or so they have participated in transferring merit, by first accruing it through offerings to the Sangha and listening to the chanting. The Sangha leader then invites the mourners to make a final wish for the benefit of the departed, but ostensibly also to other departed as well:

‘May this accrue to my relatives; may wellness be unto them’

(idam me ¤àtinam hotu / sukhità hontu ¤àtayo). 

The generalizing, as earlier, may be to de-focus the mind on the immediately deceased, thus minimize the sorrow. But this is not quite the ending.

 

Symbolic transfer of merit to the deceased:

If the homily is what helps brings knowledge of the Truth of reality, as also the Buddha’s Teachings, and the verbal transfer and the offering of cloth for robes a personal calming, closure for the family comes with a final transfer of Blessings to the deceased in a symbolic gesture. For this, the immediate family members of the deceased gather around close to the monks (see pictures), and come to be in a circle, squatting, with a jug full of water and a bowl sitting on a deep dish in front of them (see picture).





 

As they begin to pour the water into the bowl, the Sangha begin to chant in unison again, and in the sarabha¤¤a musical intoning, words that bring a visual imagery:

 

Just as rivers full of water --- yathà vàri vahà pårà

Fills the ocean to its capacity --- paripurenti sàgaram.

Just so from what is given --- evameva ito dinnam [merit]

accrues to the departed! --- petànam upakappati.

 

As water moving along on a hill unname --- udakam vattam

Flows down to the hollow vale, --- yathà ninnam pavattati.

Just so from what is given --- evameva ito dinnam

[merit] accrues to the departed. ---  petànam upakappati.

(Tirokudda Sutta of the Khuddakapàñha)

The overflowing, of course, is symbolic, to give the sense that the merit would overflow for the benefit of the deceased. It also brings a sense of satisfaction, if also an ‘altruistic happiness’ (mudità) to the family that the deceased has been given something beneficial for the life’s sojourn. It also brings closure to a harrowing few days, in the thought that one stage of the life of the deceased has come to an end, and that it is on its way to another, the hope being that it would be a good or better one. 

Care for the Living:

Up to now, the focus has been on the deceased. But of course, the living have to go on living. So the ritual includes a positive message for them, captured in a chanting:

 

Whatever you wished or wanted, -- icchitam patthitam tuyham

may it quickly be. -- khippameva samijjhatu

May all your expectations be fulfilled --  sabbe parentu sankappà

as the moon upon the fifteenth day, --- cando pannaraso yathà

[and] as the wish-fulfilling gem. --- mani jotiraso yathà.

At this point, the casket if open is sealed.

 

Follow-up:

Religious blessings over, the Sangha leaves, ushering in closure. The casket is carried, again on shoulders, to the burial pit, and then taken around it, walking clockwise, with right shoulder in (padakkhinà), this in imitation of the practice of circumambulating a Bodhi Tree or a Thupa (burial mound). At the end of it, the casket is lowered. Then, everyone present, beginning with the family, would throw a fistful of the dugout soil, the casket finally coming to be fully covered with the soil.

The day ends with the mourners returning to the home of the deceased where they are treated to a simple meal of rice, pumpkin (vaññakka) and salt fish. While pumpkin is believed to be good for the heart, the salt fish seeks to replenish the drained tears.

In the case of a cremation, the ashes are collected the next day, and dealt with by a given family member in whatever way is agreed upon – bury in a burial pit in the cemetery or dispersed in an open stretch of water. But in general, it is the practice if, again, of the better known individuals, to have a monument set up in honour at the place of burial (of body or ashes). In an urban setting in particular, wife and husband may be buried in adjacent plots, and possibly other members of the nuclear family, too.

While the funeral ceremony brings closure to the family, it is the general practice for the family not to engage in lavish events, or entertainment of any kind, for a year or so. This is not so much for reasons of mourning, but to continue to show respect to the memory of the loved one.

But it is not only respect that the deceased receives. For, it is the practice to offer alms to the Sangha, at the end of 7, 30 and 90 days, and one year. Thereafter, offering of alms is made every year, on the death anniversary. A feature of this memorial event is a ‘memory homily’ (mataka baõa), when the night before the almsgiving, the Sangha is invited for a paritta ‘protection’ chanting, done in the same sarabha¤¤a style, followed by a homily. As at the funeral ceremony, the Sangha leads the relatives in the recitation of the necessary stanzas to transfer the merits acquired, by organizing the event, to the deceased. Following this, a gift of a kind is offered to the monk. Upon the departure of the Sangha, the invitees are served with dinner or refreshments, as they would be following the almsgiving.

The almsgiving offers benefit to three parties. One, of course, is the Sangha who receive the food. But that is nothing special, since the Sangha always receive alms, begging from home to home in traditional times, and where the practice is no longer common, particularly in the city, the food offered at the temple, or by invitation to the home. The intent of the almsgiving is to transfer merit to the deceased. Personal involvement in the food preparation, of course, prolongs the time of active memory of the deceased. But the beneficiary is also the family, the almsgiver. To transfer merit, merit must be accrued. It is thus that an alms offering brings a triple benefit.

And if the alms are prepared with the intent of just offering alms, then what one gains is called pin, which is conducive to earning a place in Heaven, such as Tusita, in the afterlife. But if in the preparation of the alms the intent is cultivating the good in oneself, and is part of selfdiscipline, and to in particular cultivate detachment, then what is gained is called kusal, which can contribute towards the Path to Nibbana.

The almsgiving event, of course, is also an occasion for family reunion, and community gathering. If this brings happiness, to both family and community, it also serves as a ‘continuing closure’.

 

Part 4: You are reading part 4...


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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