How Buddhists View Death

Death in Buddhism marks the ending of one’s temporal existence and heralds the beginning of the next life, in a potentially infinite cycle of existence as Gods, Ashuras, Humans, Animals, Ghosts or Hell beings.

The rebirth one takes is determined by one’s karma (actions) performed in the past much like how students results are determined by how much was learnt, remembered and understood. Further, the state of mind is said to also determine the rebirth destination. Hence, it is the combination of past karma + present state of mind that triggers the rebirth.

The goal of a Buddhist is not simply to seek a happy rebirth as a God or Human, but to cultivate and improve oneself spiritually towards liberation, Nirvana, where one is free of suffering by putting an end to greed, hatred and delusions.

The highest goal possible for anyone is to seek Buddhahood through the practice of the Perfections and in so doing, not just seek one’s liberation from suffering, but also be able to guide and teach others the way to Nirvana.

In the way of Buddhist funeral, it is partly inspired by the Buddha’s teachings and partly adapted from local culture.

Buddhist Practices

  • As the state of mind is crucial, there is the practice of treating the body of the deceased with care and respect, and minimal contact where possible.
  • Bedside chanting before and after passing to positively remind the deceased of the teachings of the Buddha.
  • Recollection of the deceased’s kindness and good qualities to strengthen the imprint.
  • Counsel and sharing of Dharma with the deceased’s family for them to cope with the loss.
  • Final mutual forgiveness between the family and the deceased.

As Buddhism is inclusive of local cultures, Buddhist funerals often also comprises certain customs and practices such as the ones below.

Chinese Funeral Customs

  • Wakes are usually held for odd numbers of days, e.g. 3 or 5 days. The number of days probably varied in the past to allow for friends and relatives living far away to be notified and travel for the wake.
  • Funeral rites for Chinese adults can be quite elaborate, following a prescribed form, with the casket left open for family and friends to pay their final respects with a bow. This practice serves as a reminder of the transient nature of life.
  • Chinese strong emphasis on filial piety extends even to the final rites where it is considered improper for an elder to be sending off a junior, hence if a child has passed away, a funeral is typically not performed, rather the Buddhist practices above are conducted solemnly in quietude.
  • The tying of red thread may have started off as a way to distinguish between immediate families who would instead be putting on either a robe of course hemp, or a patch of black or blue to indicate their close relations to the deceased, while distant relations and friends would use the red thread as a marker.
    The giving of coins to visitors could have started off as a gift for their travel fare in the past, given how visitors may have had to travel long distances to pay their final respects.
    Overtime, these practices may have evolved to having visitors discarding the red thread, and mandatory usage of the money before reaching home and is considered to be a way of warding off “bad luck” associated with death.
  • It is not customary for a visitor to bid farewell to the family of the deceased as the phrase for “going off” is synonymous to “passing away” in the Chinese language. Often seen as a taboo for fear of unwittingly declaring one’s own ‘depart’, i.e. death, this practice could have started off as a mark of empathy towards the family of the deceased, to not remind them of their departed love one, and rekindle their grief.
  • The family of the deceased may mourn between seven to a hundred days.  — This is the irony of our usual notion of love where it is defined more in terms of the amount of grief one experiences upon loss.
  • A period of mourning is not expected when a child dies, and a husband is not obliged to mourn the passing of his wife.  — This reflects the traditional Chinese view of man and woman and is typically seen as male chauvinism at play.  It can perhaps also be the common notion that ‘real’ man may bleed, but will not cry “男子漢,流血不流淚”.   Talk about suppressed emotions in our culture.  Today, this is not necessarily observed.


A Rabbi, a Sikh priest and a Buddhist monk

So there was a time, a rabbi, a sikh priest and a Buddhist monk (me!) was at an interfaith sharing for youths.  After each of us have shared about our respective religion, a youth stood up and ask

“In light of Evolution Theory, what does Judaism have to say about it?”

The rabbi leaned forward, held up the Torah in one hand, and with the other in a firm gesture, said:

“As far as the Holy book is concerned, God created the world in seven days.  Period”.  And with that, he leaned back.  No persuasion, no argument, just that.

There was a moment of awkward silence.

The facilitator quickly thank the rabbi and extended the question to the Sikh priest and then on to me.

While I do not agree with the rabbi’s belief, or more correctly, do not subscribe to his belief, I respect him for sticking to the text as it is.  No politically correct message, cherry picking or reading between the lines.  There’s always the problem of reading things too literally all the time, but that’s another article altogether.

… what we know is that if the monkey loses its prized possession “banana”, it gets upset …

There is sometimes confusion about Darwin’s Evolution Theory (DET), thinking that it explains how life started.  It does not.  DET explains how the plethora of species come about, evolved from single cellular living organism.  Abiogensis theories attempts to explain how life started from non-living matter.

Throughout history, mankind has been quite concerned with how this world started and how it will end.  Religions have offered different answers for this and it often involves one or more divine being while science over the centuries has come up with its own set of theories.

Personally, I do not know how the world come about.  I do not know.  But if we look at the Buddha’s discovery and teachings, it is said that there is no discernible beginning, that we have been wandering in births and deaths through our karma.  Conceptually, I agree with it, but personally, I have not reached that level of cultivation to be able to say that I know it is so.

For most people, as far as religion is concerned, it is the same.  Most people do not know as well.  They learn it from their respective holy text and accept it … on faith.  There is really nothing wrong with having faith, except if we impose that onto others or start fighting and killing over beliefs.

But I did not quite share the last paragraph that day.  Perhaps I should have.

Anyway, the thing we know is this.  Today, if you go to MacRitchie Reservoir park and find a monkey with a banana … … do not try to snatch its banana or peanut for that matter.  You will get an angry monkey.  (You will probably go down in history as the first person to snatch a banana from a monkey, but I digress)

That much we know.  It does not matter how the monkey come into being.  Whether it evolved from single cellular cell, or was created by God or Gods (which God?), or was planted on earth by Martians or some alien beings, or if it was designed by some Intelligent Designer, what we know is that if the monkey loses its prized possession “banana”, it gets upset.

That much we know.

If we lose our prized possessions that we become sad, upset, anguished, depressed, even as others look at our prized possessions as mere ‘banana’.  And it does not matter how we come about.  This is how we are currently.  That we suffer when the things we are attached to is damaged or lost and it does not matter how we came about, whether we were created, designed, through abiogenesis+DET or otherwise.

That much we know.

Buddhism is more concerned with how suffering arises and cease, than how this world come about and cease.

The Dharma is not a dogma that we simply have to accept blindly on faith.  It is an invitation to examine our life, our world, our suffering, the things that tick us off, make us cry, shed tears and weep.  But not just that, also the things that make smile, turn our heads, delight, crave and desire.

To know suffering, it’s origin, the true end of Suffering, and the path that leads to the end of suffering.

Ehi Passiko.  Come and see for yourself.