PART B: Discussion: The Funeral Ceremony
As seen in this paper, Buddhism, as practiced by Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka , can be seen to play several roles in the context of death in a family, rolled into one. To begin with, it is Mother, and the compassionate Social Worker, who lends a shoulder to cry on. Then it is the Community Worker that pulls in the religious community in a time of need. It is also the Psychologist that digs out the deep roots of the ailment from which the bereaved suffer, becoming also the theoretician. Next, it is the Psychiatrist that seeks to heal, based in the analysis of the Psychologist. Finally, it is the compassionate and wise Spiritual Guide that helps bring closure to a sad event, and for lamenting and mourning individuals, family and community.
If Social Worker, Community Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Spiritual Guide draw an image of the professional, the fact that the Sangha is dressed in yellow, in contradistinction to the white worn by the laity, serve as a clear distinguishing marker of the former as professional. The Sangha being seated on chairs, while others stand or sit on the ground or floor, adds to the professional standing. The laity standing or sitting with folded palms can be said to more than confirm in the minds of the family and community that they are indeed the clear beneficiaries of the professionalism of the Sangha.
Mother /Social Worker
Now to elaborate on each of the dimensions, how is Buddhism the symbolic Mother and the compassionate Social Worker, who lend a shoulder to cry on? It needs to be noted, again, in this connection that Buddhism, as practiced by the Sinhalas of Lanka , does not participate in the stages of life of the individual such as birth, coming of age and marriage. This, of course, is not to say that a couple may not go to the temple, preceding, but more likely following, marriage, or a newborn may not be taken to the temple for a blessing of a paritta (‘protection’) chanting, a ritual that is practiced in relation to events like house-warming, beginning of a school year, illness in the family, etc. The first reading of letters to a child may also be done by a member of the Sangha, or by a community elder, both standing for wisdom. But these are all individual decisions of families.
In contrast, Buddhism can be said to come out in all its full gentle force when it comes to death. If the presence of the Sangha at the cemetery or home (prior to the body being taken to the cemetery) shows this, the fact that they come not singly but collectively, as a group, and perhaps drawing upon more than one temple in the area , speaks volumes as to a Social Worker. But it is not just the body count, but that every single member present participates in the process directly, however minimally, as e.g., in chanting. It may be noted that the proceedings begin with going for Refuge not only in the Buddha and the Dhamma, but also Sangha. And, true to the words, loand behold, there is the Sangha, doing exactly that – coming out in full strength, as a Refuge in a time of need, and not just as the impersonal spiritual Refuge, to help the bereaved family on the ground to overcome their grief. Their presence throughout the ceremony provides enough assurance, and insurance, that the family and community will leave the cemetery shedding less tears, more relieved and relatively calmer than when they arrived for the funeral and before the showing up of the Sangha.
It was said, as a second point, that Buddhism is the Community Worker that pulls in the religious community in a time of need. The Sangha is not known to go out of their way in community work, the general practice being that the community comes to them, becoming the recipients of sustenance. But here at the point of death, it is the other way around; they come to the community. Of course, the reversal of roles is what contributes to the Sangha becoming Social Worker. If providing a shoulder to cry on can be seen as the practice of mettà ‘friendliness’, leaving the temple to help out the community can be seen as the practice of karunà ‘compassionate action’. This again adds confidence to the practice of Going for Refuge in the Sangha as in the Opener.
Thirdly it was said that Buddhism is also the Psychologist that digs out the deep roots of the ailment from which the bereaved suffers, becoming also the theoretician. The Homily, which takes the largest chunk of time in the funeral ceremony, is where this can be seen best.  The Sangha speaker, joining the family in speaking about the deceased, then goes into a detailed exposé of one or another point of Dhamma, through textual quotations, personal knowledge, anecdote, history and any other number of sources, relating all this, throughout or at the end, to the reality of death as part of life. A key point that emerges in this context would be how death is a Thirst (taõhà), specifically, the ‘Thirst to be not’ (vibhava taõhà), and how it comes to be conditioned by the Thirst to be (bhava taõhà), namely birth. And how it is the elimination of Birth alone that could eliminate death, the cause of the present grief and lamentation. The message – as to the direct relevance of working towards Nibbana, which is indeed the end of birth, couldn’t be better timed. But it would also be pointed out that our suffering is based in a third Thirst, a day to day and moment to moment Thirst, namely Sense Thirst (kàma taõhà). And here a reference may be made to how the self-restraint in terms of the five Training Principles could help them in taming this third Thirst.
In the end, the bereaved may be left asking themselves the immediate question, “Why continue to be bereaved when in fact death is as normal as breathing in and out?” But the community, different individuals to different degrees, of course, may also go away with a higher sensitivity to the reason for death as being birth itself., and convinced that the answer to their suffering, and the way to put an end to death, is indeed putting an end to birth. And also that the way to minimize suffering in life would be to watch one’s sense thirsts
The knowledge may not have come through comprehensively in this single session. But participating in many a death event or other religious event over a lifetime, the community can be said to gain more and more understanding of the basic Teachings of the Buddha. These are the Four Noble Truths, set in a medical paradigm:
Identification:---- Suffering (=death and bereavement) (dukkha ‘cross-fit’);
Diagnosis:---- Cause for suffering (samudaya ‘arising’);
Prognosis:---- Possibility that the suffering can be ended (nirodha ‘cessation’);
and Prescription:--- Way out of suffering (magga ‘path’).
The path (Prescription) is the Noble Eightfold Path:
Right View (sammà diññhi);
Right Intent and Conceptualization (sammà samkappa);
Excellent Language (sammà vàcà); Excellent Conduct (sammà kammanta);
Excellent Livelihood (sammà àjãva);
Excellent Mental Effort (sammà vàyàma);
Excellent Mindfulness (sammà sati);
Excellent Concentration (sammà samàdhi).
But a simple guideline that has helped the Sinhala Buddhists in living the Buddhist life may be the Eightfold Wheel of Life Reality (aññthalokadhamma cakka) – gain and loss, infamy and fame, blame and praise, happiness and suffering:
làbho alàbho ayaso yaso ca; nindà pasamsà sukham ca dukkham.
Interestingly, and by mere chance discovery, my late father provides a living example of this in practice (see his Autobiography in this Chapbook). The consummate community worker that he was, watching the unfair hand meted out to the teachers, he, as a School Principal himself, took on the establishment. The result was to make his professional life simply impossible, even putting his life in danger. When fellow teachers, alarmed by it all, approach him, his response was to calm them with a question: “Is it, or is it not, the case that life has been injected into the body with the nails of suffering and comfort?” Then he adds, “Next to the hill was the abysss, and within danger was a good.” He characterizes how he “saw the light of justice” in relation to one or another of his struggles, by “building steps with the slabs cut of the very same pits, and emerging out of it successfully.” Continuing to appease the alarmed colleagues, he adds that danger, in fact, “has come in search of him … filled with good fortune”, proving them to be “not stones but flowers”!
If the Homily is then the educational platform that brings up (as in the sense of bringing up a child) the Sinhala Buddhists over a lifetime, the teaching of the Eightfold Wheel of Life Reality can be said to have rendered them to be the ‘Smiling Brown’ as they have come to be characterized, by foreigners in particular – a contented people, accepting death and suffering as reality, and going through them all with a smile, even as they struggle in their day to day living, but always with the knowledge in the background as to how to work towards liberation, should they so desire sometime during their life. Whether the knowledge gained is going to be short-lived or long-lived, or how seriously one would benefit from it, or whether one takes to meditation in search of calm and insight, are all, of course, up to the individual, as is the licence allowed by the Buddha:
“Do not be led by the authority of religious texts, nor by logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight of speculative opinion, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea ‘This is our Teacher’. But when you know for yourself..” (Kalama Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya).
Next, Buddhism was said to be the Psychiatrist that seeks to heal, based in the analysis of the Psychologist. There is first, at the death ceremony, the transfer of merit to the deceased, this in both tangible and intangible ways. Following the Refuge, a length of cloth is given to the Sangha even as those present say the words, ‘May this Memory Cloth be offered to the Sangha for the purpose of merit for the deceased’. The ceremony ends with the family pouring water allowing it to overflow as the Sangha characterizes the process with the words, “Just as the water that flows fills the ocean to its capacity, just so from what is given, [merit] accrue to the deceased!” If the association of tears with the water could not be missed, it may even help grieve more but without letting it out. The activity also brings the mudità ‘altruistic happiness’, i.e., happiness in the happiness of others, in the mourners, it being more immediate and grounded, in that it is related to the deceased.
Then there are the intangible ways when the Sangha chant the words,
‘Forces are impermanent indeed,
and of the nature of arising and cessation.
Having arisen they die.
Calming them is happiness’.
The term translated here as ‘happiness’ is sukha. And the listener cannot fail to see its association with dukkha – that it is the opposite. Even though the participants may not know the Pali words themselves, the association itself can be said to be sufficient for them to make the connection. This is particularly so due to the proximity of Sinhala to Pali . Indeed both terms have their close parallel in Sinhala: dukkha is duka; sukha is suvaya.
The Psychiatrist can then be seen to be at its (his/her?) best when, most innovatively and creatively, the chanting is done in the rhythmic sarabha¤¤a ‘vowel intoning’. It can only be said to resonate with, to make a bold claim here, the musicality inherent to sentience, but also help take away the brooding and the melancholia, if only momentarily, but with the effect lasting longer.
Finally, it was said that Buddhism is the compassionate and wise Spiritual Guide that helps bring closure to a lamenting and mourning community, family and individuals. First it is the very presence of the Sangha at the mournful hour that makes the link to spirituality. Then is the fact that the material drawn upon by the Sangha is directly from the Canon itself, the words in pouring water, e.g., coming from the Tirokudda Sutta of the Khuddaka Nikaya. Third is the fact that the consoling comes from the very embodiment of the Third Refuge, representing those who have gained personal liberation (i.e., become Arahants) from the very teachings that they themselves have heard today. All this can be said to lend credibility to the healer, ‘faith in the healer’ being a critical component of healing, just as Trust in the Buddha can be in working one’s way towards Nibbana.
Then there is, of course, the continuing and ongoing spiritual guidance, beginning with the Buddhapuja ‘Homage to the Buddha’, as done at the beginning of the ritual, a practice that will be, or can be, continued at home on a regular if not a daily basis. The Five Training Principles, which is part of the Buddhapuja, serve as reminders for self-restraint, with the potential to lead one to liberation through continued and extended practice. By way of extension is the practice of observing the Eight Training Principles on Full Moon Days. All this, of course, is not to mention meditation, samàdhi ‘concentration’ being one of the seven ‘Factors contributive to Enlightenment’ (bojjhanga).
Healing for the Living
So we can see that the death ritual in Sinhala Buddhism, in its multiple roles of Mother / Social Worker, Community Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Spiritual Guide, brings out the pragmatic best of the Buddha’s Teachings. It can be seen to render a fourfold service. First, it provides the opportunity to help the departed loved one. Second, it helps a grieving community out of it, providing the immediate family in particular the satisfaction of a benediction for their wishes and expectations to come true. Third it provides a platform to hone in the message of impermanence, and the way out of suffering. Finally, it also strengthens the link between the community and the monastic Sangha.
In this process we see Buddhism drawing upon and relying on both the intellectual in the left brain hemisphere and the emotional in the right brain hemisphere. It also provides an example of a form of spirituality that is both intellectual and theoretical, but yet pragmatic, allowing for down to earth application. In all this, what we see is the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha, who claims to only teach two things: suffering and the way out of suffering. If the death related ceremony does not lead one to liberation, it serves as an example of how his Teachings come to be grounded and applied for the well-being of sentient beings.
Facilitating Dying in Peace:
Now if the ceremony is to bid farewell to the deceased loved one, but also provide closure and comfort to the living, one thing that we survivors may be encouraged to do is to make up our minds to see if in the future we could help a dying relative die in peace. This can be done with words that may help the diseased be reminded of the reality that death is natural and inevitable, and also that one has had a hand in one’s own death and that it is in nobody else’s hand. All of us come according to our own kamma (deeds) and all of us go according to our deeds! By way of encouragement, and appeasement, the loved one can be encouraged to reflect upon the good deeds done by oneself in this life, pointing out that these wholesome deeds would lead to a good rebirth, and be supportive in his next life . This way the dying person could be prepared to accept death easier than otherwise.
Here then are some helpful words from the text:
We are the Maker of our kamma, their Heir, their Birthplace, their Relative, their Refuge. Whatever we do, good or bad, destined are we to receive them as inheritance.
(Kammassakomhi kammadàyàdo kammayoni kamma-bandhu kammapatisarano, Yam kammam karissàmi kalyànam và pàpakam và tassa dàyàdo bhavissàmiti) . (Abhi¤¤apaccavekkhitabba ñhànasutta, AN 3, 3:72)
We ourselves could do something, too, not leaving all the work to the dying one. That is to radiate mettà (loving-kindness) to ease the suffering of the sick person. Sitting in a comfortable posture, you could begin radiating mettà to yourself, for you cannot give what you don’t have. Then mettà can be radiated to the sick person. You may mentally use words like,
‘May you be well and happy.
May you be free from suffering.
May you be in good health.
May you be at peace’.
Feeling the peaceful compassion developing in your mind, you may seek to envelop the sick person in it. And you may want to feel the vibrations that come with the compassion, enveloping the sick person’s body . Dhamma friends who are meditation practitioners could, of course, be invited to do likewise.
The Sangha may also be invited to chant Paritta ‘Protection’, this in the ‘intoning’ rhythm, as the patient holds a thread, held at the other end by the Sangha, with relatives possibly holding it, too.
These, then, are some ways that the process of death can be facilitated, to help the loved one die in peace.
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