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Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth

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1. General Sri Lankan Buddhists, if at all possible, prepare for death. A monk is called to the death bed, the dying person takes the refuges and precepts and close relatives join in. When the person has died the corpse is sent away to be embalmed before it is returned to the house in a coffin. On the third or fourth day after the death the funeral takes place. A number of monks are invited to the house of the deceased and offered a new, white piece of cloth. There is a short sermon and more chanting. The merit of the offering is given to the deceased. The burial or cremation takes place at the cemetery. Afterwards people return to the house of the deceased where a meal is shared by family, friends and neighbours. On the sixth day after the death a monk is invited to preach. Again a great number of people are expected. The spirit of the deceased is encouraged to come and listen to the monk who preaches for exactly one hour. Merit is given to the deceased. The monk leaves and the guests are treated to a feast. The next day a number of monks are invited to the home for the midday meal. They enter the house in single file, with a layperson in front carrying a reliquary on his head. After a short sermon the meal is served to the monks. Scraps of food are taken to the garden for the hungry ghosts. Utensils wrapped in brown paper are offered to the monks. And again the merit is offered to the deceased. When the monks have left, the guests once more share a meal. After three months, one year, and then annually, the process is repeated: monks are invited for a meal; small scraps of food are left in the garden; utensils are donated; merit is offered to the deceased.

This sequence of events—death, funeral, post-funerary rites—forms the basis of the three main chapters of the present study. Each chapter is presented by way of three ‘levels’: (1) description of contemporary practice, (2) commentary and (3) historical roots. First-hand accounts based on my own fieldwork 1 constitute the first level (I.1, II.1 and III.1) with a longer discussion of specific aspects added where appropriate in the form of an excursus. The accounts give rise to various immediate questions: What do monks chant at a deathbed and why? How is the merit thought to be received? What is the ‘spirit’ of the deceased which is invited and why is it fed on the sixth day? Why is the deceased offered merit but not food on the seventh day? What is the

function of feeding the hungry ghosts (or crows and dogs) in the funeral context? Consideration of these questions forms the second level or ‘commentary’ (I.2, II.2 and III.2) which again includes the occasional excursus where appropriate. The third level (I.3, II.3, III.3) is devoted to the historical

background and constitutes the most elaborate and detailed of the three levels. A wealth of material is found scattered in the ancient Pali sources,1 but my research embraces also the Vedic sEtras, Brahmawas and Upani1ads which formed the cultural and ritual backdrop to the rise of Buddhism and Hinduism. How

the Upani1ads and Brahmawas give particular significance to the time of death, which is something echoed in the Pali sources, is considered in section 1.3. The Vedic sEtras contain detailed prescriptions of the handling of a dead body and the remains left after cremation that supply details absent from the

Pali material. This literary evidence considered alongside certain archaeological evidence provides the basis for a discussion in section II.3 of ancient Indian and early Buddhist funerary practices. Finally, the origins of the custom of giving merit, which developed into the main feature of the Sri Lankan funerary rites and which provides a good example of the inclusivist nature of Buddhism, are traced back to the Upani1ads in section III.3. There is, of course, a certain overlap between the three chapters as well as between levels. For example, the Vedic post-funerary rites (II.3.1.3) are included in the

general discussion of the Vedic sources in chapter II (Funeral) rather than in chapter III (Post-Funerary Rites), where the focus is on the giving of merit. Furthermore, the division into these three main chapters was adopted for the benefit of comparison with other cultures, but is not entirely suited to

the Sri Lankan context, where the seventh day is a turning point. Finally there is a topic—hungry ghosts (prBtas) and ancestors—which cuts across the categories and comes up in a number of places as indicated by subtitles (‘On prBtas’, ‘More on prBtas’, ‘Yet more on prBtas’). The approach of the present

study is predominantly textual and philological with emphasis on the history of ideas and practices. This reflects my professional training (as an Indologist) as well as personal interests. Sri Lanka lends itself to this kind of approach: it is part of the pan-Indian culture (like other countries on

the periphery, such as Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh), which brings with it all the advantages of shared linguistic roots and cultural heritage (as well as the danger of assuming that terms have retained their original connotation over the centuries). Besides, Sri Lanka has had a more or less unbroken history of Buddhism, which allegedly goes back to the time of emperor Auoka

(third century BC).2 Even though the chronicles report frequent invasions from South India, Sri Lanka has not been Hinduised in the way Nepal has, for example. It is furthermore linked to ancient India and the beginnings of Buddhism by a commentarial tradition (Pali) containing Indian as well as Sri Lankan material on local customs. And finally, it would have been impossible for me to even consider anything resembling a field trip had it not been for the constant support of my friends in Sri Lanka (particularly in the village). Given the same starting point, a set of ceremonies in a particular village, other avenues of research were possible: a study comparing funeral rites in different parts of the island, different religious communities in Sri Lanka

(Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Vedda, Burgher), or different Theravada Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma). On the basis of the same set of ceremonies, one might have investigated the relationship between the Buddhist sa|gha and laity, or systematically analysed the different sermons and preachings in Sri Lanka. One could have inquired into the problem of what people mean when they speak of ‘Buddhist’ or ‘non-Buddhist’, or compared the

differences between village and urban set ups, Sinhala or English-speaking environment. Given the same starting point, death rites, one might have concentrated more on the wider meanings of death for Theravada Buddhism (death imagery, corpses as an object of meditation, etc.), or one might have inquired further into the concept of intermediate state (antarAbhava), which is of great importance in Tibetan Buddhism. These different approaches—to name

but a few—will suffice to illustrate the extremely versatile nature of the topic and material, while at the same time outlining the limitations of the present study. But there are also the limitations of the researcher to be considered: my degree is in Indology, and I do not have any formal training in anthropology, sociology or archaeology. I nevertheless hope that the ethnographic and archaeological material adds a dimension important enough to excuse

any shortcomings in its presentation. Gombrich (1971 (1991), 3) vividly describes the reasons for and problems of venturing into disciplines beyond one’s initial academic training and expertise:

Academic boundaries are artificial: the realities are the problems. Problems have a way of crossing these boundaries; while chasing one the hapless researcher may wander, alone and unarmed, into the territory of a foreign and possibly hostile discipline. If he keeps quiet, he may escape unobserved; if

he is fool enough to raise his voice he will be apprehended, and must throw himself on his captor’s mercy. I am in this unfortunate position. By education a philologist, far less of a historian, and devoid of anthropological training, I have been chasing the problem of religious change, and found myself far from home, deep inside the territory of the social sciences, far from Oxford libraries in a village in central Ceylon.

A further shortcoming of the present work is that it does not include Sinhala textual and secondary sources. While my proficiency in Sinhala is sufficient to conduct interviews, read pamphlets and (with some help) transcribe and translate the sermons given at the ceremonies, I do not read literary Sinhala. My

experience is that interviews conducted in Sinhala produce very different material from the ones conducted in English, and I should think that the same might be true for Sinhala secondary sources. Regrettably, I have to leave this to others to discover.3 Finally, there is the question of where the present study fits into the contemporary study of Buddhism. If we go back in time for a moment: in the late nineteenth century, European Indology represented by

scholars such as Rhys Davids and Oldenberg turned its attention to the translation of Buddhist texts. The style of translation and choice of texts and topics was, of course, in keeping with the interests of these scholars and the intellectual approach of their time. The result was, as could be expected, a somewhat one-dimensional picture of Buddhism or as Seneviratne (1999, 2f.) puts it:

For these early Western interpreters of Buddhism, there was no question or ambiguity as to the object and focus of their study, which was a select corpus of Buddhist texts. To them any material that did not conform to the imagined Buddhism of this Euro-Buddhist canon was outside Buddhism. Such material were labelled and classified away as pagan cults, animism, folk supernaturalism, idolatry, and so forth. By the process of biblification in the form of printed

translations into Western languages, they fixed and placed boundaries on this canon, paving the way for a new Buddhist scriptualism. While I agree in general with Seneviratne, it has to be said, however, that Western scholars were by far not the first to translate Buddhist texts and thereby ‘fix and place boundaries’ on it. The Tibetans and Chinese had done that long before the Western scholars, and then as now, quite extraordinary

scholarship was displayed. The idea of a canon is by no means a Western invention; it is found already in Buddhaghosa who lists and groups the various texts.4 These early attempts construe a form of Buddhism in keeping with the intellectual needs and fashions of the late nineteenth century have to be seen in their context. Modern scholarship, too, is inevitably influenced by intellectual fashions and will be judged some day in the (maybe not so) remote future. Besides, I am not sure what precisely Seneviratne (1999, 3) means when he speaks of the ‘essentialized, sanitized, cleansed, scriptualized, and objectified Buddhism of these texts’. Maybe it is time to revisit the texts? It seems to me that the Buddhist texts are as varied and rich as the practice: reaching from doctrinal lists to anecdotes and stories. They incorporate ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings; they record the performance of miracles, the

display of supernatural powers, and very moving stories. They give advice on how to reach meditational achievements as well as how to deal with everyday problems. That is not to say that there is no more to Buddhism than is found in the canon, and a more recent generation of scholars has recognized not everything that is outside the canon is also outside Buddhism. A number of studies in different Theravada countries (Tambiah 1970; Gombrich 1971) came to similar conclusions: different types of Theravada Buddhism share a common core of concepts and ideas, but are distinguished by local differences. However, these local variations of Theravada are now looked on as coherent in themselves, rather than aberrations from some norm. Again, building on this new and more colourful picture of Buddhism, a number of scholars began to consider questions of the different religious approaches found within Buddhism:

syncretistic Buddhism/compartmentalized Buddhism (Terwiel 1975) or cognitive/affective (Gombrich 1971) nibbanic/ kammatic (Spiro 1982). At around the same time the term ‘protestant Buddhism’ was coined by Obeyesekere (1970).5 Seneviratne 1999, 7 goes one step further: I contend that the anthropological categories such as ‘Thai Buddhism’, ‘Burmese Buddhism’, and ‘Sinhalese Buddhism’ need to be expanded beyond their

present connotation of a syncretism between doctrinal Buddhism and folk Buddhism, great or little traditions of mystical belief and practices and so forth, to embrace the broader array of religiously grounded phenomena like ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘ideology’. Such an expanded definition would cover the political, economic, and cultural activities of diverse religious personalities—monk and lay virtuosi, mystagogues, apologists, champions, and various other

propagandists. Whereas we can approach in a more or less valueneutral way the different syncretistic Buddhisms on which anthropological focus has been so far nearly exclusive, it would be difficult to do so when it comes to the ideological actors and movements covered by our expanded definition. The present work has all these phases and studies as basis and background and in a way takes certain scholarly achievements for granted. Differences in

approach within Buddhism are well known and assumed as given nowadays. Terms like ‘protestant Buddhism’ have entered the common vocabulary of scholars researching contemporary South Asian Buddhist societies, and heightened the awareness of issues such as the monk-layman relationship. This background allowed the focus of the present study to shift again, from a dualistic approach to a complementary approach, which combines material from a variety of sources and disciplines in the manner of Strong’s study on Upagupta (1992). Following Strong’s example, I look at these different sources

as contributing to a greater, more detailed picture. This approach seemed most suited to my interests and questions, but I do not intend to advertise it as superior to other approaches. It seems to me of great importance to treat each source and discipline in its context: an archaeological report, for example, does not answer the same questions as an Abhidhamma treatise, or an interview. I do not regard claims of superiority as conducive to a better understanding of Buddhism at large. My interest has been to explore different viewpoints: how far can the textual, archaeological and epigraphical sources provide better understanding of contemporary Buddhist practices, but also how far can ethnographic material add to a better understanding of the texts, etc.

2. The fieldwork

A word about the village As I had a grant (genorously provided by the DAAD) that was for six months (Aug. 1998 to February 1999), I could not afford to spend too much time searching for the ‘ideal village’. Besides, the purpose of my fieldtrip was not to conduct ethnographic or sociological research in a

‘representative’ Sri Lankan village reflecting the ethnic overall distribution of the country’s population.6 My interest was merely to provide an account of a Buddhist funeral for the purpose of illustrating and supplementing my research based on the Pali and Sanskrit texts. It was only in the course of my research that I reversed the viewpoint and made the contemporary practice the starting point and main focus of the study. I decided not to make up an

artificial name for the village, but to call it ‘our village’ (apB gama) which reflects how my informants referred to it and how I came to think of it in the course of my stay. I will refer to other villages and place names by their initial letter. I had been in contact with friends and people from our village for some ten years. Besides, Colombo is not too difficult to reach from there, which was essential for me for practical reasons such as banking, shopping,

the use of email facilities, universities etc. I did not conduct a demographic survey, and the following description of the village is based purely on personal impressions and talks with the villagers. The railway station and a level crossing with a dozen or so small grocery and hardware shops and a doctor’s surgery make the centre (referred to as ‘town’ (VavumBa) by the villagers). For any shopping or services beyond the bare essentials, people have

to go to one of the two towns near by. There are two nursery schools and a junior school; distances to places are short and telephones and cars rare. The residential areas spread out much further, and the percentage of homeowners is high. What appears at first sight to be one ‘village’ (c.160 houses) covering an area of about a mile to a mile and a half are in fact two, or even three ‘villages’, but the borders are not obvious to the uninitiated.

There are no factories, offices, hospitals, etc., in the village, and the means of making a living are restricted to agriculture, a handful of shops, carpentry, a couple of hair dressers, and an agency post office. As a result, the number of people commuting for work to surrounding towns or Colombo is

high. There are two Buddhist temples (pansal) in the village, a newer ‘towntemple’ and an older temple at the fringe. The latter belonged originally to the Siam Nikaya tradition, but the abbot affiliated himself to the Ramañña Nikaya about 100 years ago and subsequently founded the second, younger Ramañña Nikaya temple.7 There is no church, mosque or Hindu temple, the population is almost exclusively Buddhist, and the predominant caste (kulaya) is Govigama.8

Observation of ceremonies During my stay I observed four ‘sets’ of funeral ceremonies (each consisting of: 1. burial (bhEmidAnaya) or cremation (AdAhanaya); 2. preaching (baWa) on the sixth day; 3. alms giving (dAnaya) on the seventh day) as well as a number of miscellaneous ceremonies. My

descriptions of the ceremonies are personal and based on individual events (rather than a summary of various ceremonies). They are intended as an introduction for people who are not familiar with Sri Lankan customs. About a month after my arrival, the husband of the woman cooking for me and my

family9 turned up in our kitchen and announced that a remote relation of his had passed away and that the funeral was to take place in two days’ time in a village not far away, referred to henceforward as T. The woman who had died was originally from our village and there was a whole group of people planning to go. This funeral and the follow-up rituals serve as the base of my first description (‘A Laywoman’s Burial’). The fact that the funeral did not actually

take place in our village turned out to be of less importance as the lay people involved were mostly from our village. The second description (‘A Monk’s Cremation’) is based on the cremation of an eminent abbot of a relatively large temple with a temple school (pirivena) for monks in a neighbouring village, henceforward referred to as D. In a way, the descriptions of a simple laywoman’s burial and an eminent monk’s cremation represent the two ends of the

spectrum. I do not, however, intend to make a social statement as cremations for laypeople can be quite grand as well and monks’ cremations might come much simpler. Even though in essence the cremation of a monk differs very little from a cremation of a layperson, the former seems to have preserved certain

features, such as the spreading out of a white cloth in front of the funeral procession, which used to be customary at every funeral. Besides, the preparations for and the proceedings at a monk’s cremation allow some insight into the dynamics of the relationship between monks and laypeople.

Interviews Other important sources of information were informal discussions with people involved in the funerals and formal interviews conducted during my fieldwork, which mainly dealt with people’s beliefs and interpretations. Rather than treating the interview material in a separate section, I drew on it as yet another resource to be utilised and partly included where appropriate in the corresponding chapters (death, funeral, post-funerary rites). Some

questions, however, not related to Buddhist practice but aimed at doctrinal interpretations, were dealt with in a separate, theoretical excursus. The

interview material is of a diverse nature and requires a brief introduction with regard to scope and content. I conducted about eighteen formal interviews: some of those interviews were topical, connected with a particular event or ceremony I had observed; others were of a questionnaire type. Since only a

handful of people in the village speak English, most of these interviews were conducted in Sinhala. I decided against working with an interpreter because people were generally more at ease and willing to share inside information when the conversation took place without interference in English. This by far

outweighed the fact that inevitably I would miss some minor points, which could be checked later with the help of the audio-recordings. The interviews conducted in English were mostly done with middle-class people from outside the village (some from Colombo) and differed considerably in content from those

conducted in Sinhala. This is partly due to the different educational background, but there is yet another factor to consider. People were more inclined to talk about ‘ghost stories’, i.e., stories of prBtas, bhEtas, etc., and seemingly ‘irrational’ explanations of customs. It was noticeable how people opened up when given a chance to switch to Sinhala prompted by a certain expression or clue.10 The fact that the choice of language had such a great impact on the content and quality of the interviews would deserve a separate study. After the first tentative attempts, I embarked on a number of specific interviews geared to an interviewee or an event. By that time I had observed (and mostly transcribed and translated) the first set of ceremonies at T., which influenced the quality of the questions. A number of interviews and informal discussions with Professor Wijayawardhana (Department of Sinhala, Colombo University) were aimed at drawing on his wide knowledge of Sinhala customs in general and the specifically Sinhalese understanding of Pali and Sanskrit technical terms. I am greatly indebted to him for his unfaltering patience with my inquisitiveness and persistence. An interview with Ven. R., who had conducted the funeral

in T., was specifically geared to his last visit to the dying laywoman and the ‘last rites’ performed on that occasion.11 The last of these topical interviews was conducted with Ven. D. following ‘A Monk’s Cremation’ and aimed at establishing the differences between cremations conducted for laypeople and monks. The interviews at this stage were

all conducted in English (with the exception of the last one), but again the Sinhala terminology was double checked.12 The last two months of my stay were mostly dedicated to conducting a series of structured interviews in Sinhala and English (a total of thirteen) based on a questionnaire of twelve questions.

The questions aimed at providing a link between contemporary Buddhist practice and canonical and post-canonical Pali texts. The questionnaire comprises four main sections with three questions each. The first topic discussed was that of giving merit (pin dCma/anumodanAva) in orderto ease into the discussion

by taking a ‘positive’ topic as a starting point. This was followed by a discussion of the customs during the first seven days after a death has occurred (märunAVa passe palaveni davas hata/antarAbhava). The third topic discussed was the death moment (märena mohota/cuticitta), its importance and implications

for the next rebirth. The last topic was the problem of what constitutes merit or demerit (pin/pav; kusal/akusal) and is not directly derived from observation of certain events but is of a much broader nature. It should be borne in mind that the questionnaire served only as a guideline during the

interviews. The order of questions, which were deliberately kept very simple and free of technical terms, was changed frequently following the flow of the conversation and there are slight differences in the phrasing of the English and Sinhala questions even though the general content and structure were the same. The choice of interviewees attempted a wide range with regard to age, sex, educational background, social status, religious status (i.e., monk or

layperson), etc., as far as the limited time allowed.13 The result is a number of interviews, which though based on the same set of questions, vary greatly in length and content. My overall aim was to gain a picture, however sketchy and incomplete, of people’s beliefs and interpretations as well as their

understanding of certain technical Pali and Sanskrit terms. It must be borne in mind, of course, that a person might not know the literal meaning of a technical term but might nevertheless be familiar with the concept.14