How Sinhala Buddhists Cope with Death by Prof. Sugunasiri - Part 6 of 6
Posted August 30, 2016 0:17 AM

Where the cleverness of the hand behind the funeral ritual shows is that no such transfer is intended in the first place! In an earlier verse where transferring good thoughts were intended, we may note that the ending was –tu, (singular) and –ntu (plural), the lines meaning ‘May this accrue to my relatives; may wellness be unto them’ (idam me ¤àtinam hotu / sukhità hontu ¤àtayo). But the lines in the context of pouring water over end with the the third person suffix –ti, merely descriptively, petànam upakappati, literally meaning ‘accrues to the departed’... 

PART C: Arahant Mahinda as Redactor of the Funeral Ceremony

 

If we have sought to establish Buddhism in the context of death, and overall life by extension, as Mother/Social Worker, Community Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Spiritual Guide folded into one, we may wonder as to who might have been knowledgeable, and experienced enough to come up with such a pragmatic ceremony. Although I provide little evidence, I would like to suggest that it may possibly be the same hand that is behind the Buddhapuja itself. And that is Arahant Mahinda, the one who introduces Buddhism to Sri Lanka in the 3rd c. BCE, and I have sought to show as the Redactor of the Buddhapuja [10]. I do this on the basis of internal evidence of the quality (15 of them) he brings to his task. To list the more relevant ones here: Visionary (4), Psychologist (7), Educator (8), Strategic Planner (9), Conceptualizer (11), effective Dhamma Messenger (12), Pragmatist (13), and Authority Figure (15) (Sugunasiri, 2012, 132-133).

While we shall not go into all these dimensions, we could take one indicative example from the Funeral Ceremony itself, showing an educational, psychological, psychiatric and social worker hand worthy of an Arahant Mahinda.

During the ritual of pouring water and letting it overflow, the Sangha chants the words petànam upakappati. literally ‘Accrues to the departed’, the reference here being to petas, the lowest of the lowest sentient existence. According to the Buddha, it is only those who have been reborn as petas that are capable of benefiting from a transfer of merit (Anguttara Nikaya v, 269ff.). So taken in this strict sense, one’s deceased relative can benefit from their merit transfer only if s/ he had lived a life in violation of the Training Principles (aka Precepts). Taking that the deceased relative was indeed so, there is the satisfaction that at least the transferred merit may help catapult him/her away from it.

However, the moot point of such refinement is lost on the average mourner, and the specific bereaved relatives. All they know, and want to believe, is that they are doing something beneficial for the departed loved one. It is the satisfaction gained of sharing the thought that brings healing. And, of course, if the deceased perchance has indeed been born a peta literally, it would be gratifying to know that the ritual would serve as a sort of a merit insurance.

Where the cleverness of the hand behind the funeral ritual shows is that no such transfer is intended in the first place! In an earlier verse where transferring good thoughts were intended, we may note that the ending was –tu, (singular) and –ntu (plural), the lines meaning ‘May this accrue to my relatives; may wellness be unto them’ (idam me ¤àtinam hotu / sukhità hontu ¤àtayo). But the lines in the context of pouring water over end with the the third person suffix –ti, merely descriptively, petànam upakappati, literally meaning ‘accrues to the departed’.

So what we then have is a case where the listener is appeased, but the ritual not compromising the Buddha’s Teachings. The lines are authentic as is the benefit to the bereaved.

That Arahant Mahinda is a maestro when it comes to meeting the needs of the audience is well seen in the choices he makes on his very first encounter in Lanka. For the King and his retinue, invariably males joining him in a hunt, he chooses the Culahatthipadopama Sutta which deals with the Buddha’s qualities, virtues and accomplishments, and how these could be fully appreciated only when one followed his Teachings and practiced it. Here he is clearly, tapping exclusively to the rational side of man, and the left brain hemisphere. But when it comes to the Women of the Royal Household, including a junior Queen Anula, his choice is Petavatthu and Vimanavatthu that deal with spirits of the dead in the (suffering) peta and (happy) deva worlds, according to their past kamma. Here Arahant Mahinda is appealing to an audience already possessing faith in the spirit world. But yet are also included the Four Noble Truths. Thus he is tapping into both the right and the left brain hemispheres. And when it comes to the masses, he picks Deavaduta Suttanta where the masses would hear of the results of good and bad actions, the misery that awaits criminals, and the descriptions of tortures in hell. If this shows a flexibility on his part, what it shows is a sensitivity to the audience.

But the cleverness doesn’t end there. While in the above context the Buddha does indeed indicate that a beneficiary from a transfer of merit can only be a peta, lowest of the lowest, in a different context, he seems to use the term peta in the literal sense of ‘one who has gone on’. “I will distribute gifts on their behalf ” (dakkhinam anuppadassàmãti) is one of five ways a son should undertake to minister to mother and father, the phrase used being ‘ petànam kàlakatànam’ (Digha Nikaya 3, 189), literally, ‘[to] the gone on forward / forth] (pa- + -ita), time done (kàla + katànam)’. The usage of peta here certainly doesn’t suggest that it refers to the lowest of the lowest, but simply ‘the time done, gone’. So it may be that the Buddha is hinting that transferring merit could very well be to any and every departed. Indeed that seems to be the way it has been interpreted by the Sinhala Sangha in the context of a funeral. So in selecting these particular lines (petànam upakappati) in the context of a funeral ceremony, Arahant Mahinda may well have been drawing upon this ambiguity. What this shows, then, is not only his deep knowledge of the Dhamma as an Arahant, but also the cleverness in picking lines that well serve the purpose of bringing comfort to the bereaved, but also allowing for both interpretations of the Buddha’s Teachings.

What is of real theoretical interest is that the ritual is put together in such a way that it well speaks to the Buddha’s Teaching of Asoulity (anattà). While we have a process of healing, educating, etc., there is no specific ‘healer’ or ‘educator’ as such, the process itself being all of that.

Now at whose hand could it happen except that of a deft hand as the one we see in Arahant Mahinda?

If what is behind the Funeral ritual of the Sinhala Buddhists, then, is the hand of a Social Worker, Psychologist, Psychiatrist and Spiritual Guide, this skilled and complex hand may well be that of Arahant Mahinda.

But with this little hint, I shall leave my hypothesis with future researchers. 

Invitation We conclude, then, by inviting the reader to enjoy the experience of reading this, giving permission to both your brain hemispheres, as you kindly empathize with the experience of a grieving sentient community, riding through a devastating life experience but coming out of it happier and more educated towards future happiness. We also invite you as well to participate in their experience and learn from it, and come out of it happier and educated towards your own future happiness, and be able to deal with your own immortality.

Thank you.

Wishing you the best in health and happiness!



 

Part 6: You are redaing part 6..


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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