Buddhist Funerals

Buddhist Funerals

In the Buddhist religion, death is considered an important event for both the dead and the living. For the dead, it marks the moment when the transition to a new existence begins through a cycle of reincarnations (see Bhavacakra).

When death occurs, all the karmic forces that the deceased has accumulated during his or her life come into play and will determine the next reincarnation. For the living, death is a powerful reminder of the Buddha's teaching on impermanence; it is also an opportunity to assist the deceased as he or she moves into the next existence.

There are many academic studies on this subject. In Buddhism, death marks the transition from the present life to the future existence of the deceased.

Theravāda traditions

For non-Arhat, death is a time of transition to yet another rebirth; thus, the living participate in remembering the merit of the deceased, either to provide the deceased with a happier rebirth, or to relieve him or her of suffering in the new existence.

For the living, the ceremonies that mark the death of others are a reminder of the impermanence of life, which is a fundamental aspect of the Buddha's teaching. Mortuary rites are usually the only rite in the life cycle that Theravāda Buddhist monks participate in, making it an event of great importance.

One particular ritual exclusive to funeral rites is the offering of cloth to the monks. This practice is called paṃsukūla in Pali, which means "the lonely robe." It symbolizes the discarded garments and shrouds that monks used for their robes in the time of the Buddha.

Practices in Sri Lanka

Offering cloth from the deceased (mataka-vastra-puja): before a cremation or burial (depending on the wishes of the deceased or his relatives), in the home of the deceased or at the cemetery, the monks presiding over the funeral are offered a white stole to be made into a monastic robe.

Preaching for the good of the deceased (mataka-bana): within a week of the funeral (usually on the third day), a monk returns to the home of the deceased to deliver a one-hour sermon for relatives and neighbors. This sermon is usually held on the sixth day after the death and often family, friends and neighbors are offered a meal at the same time.

Offerings on behalf of the deceased (mataka-dana): These are made three months after the funeral and annually thereafter. The relatives of the deceased organize a charity event.

Mahayana traditions

In China, many teaching and merit ceremonies are held on the forty-ninth day between death and rebirth. It is considered that if the soul of the deceased does not embark on the path of spiritual cultivation to reach the Four High Realms, it will be transferred to the Six Realms of Existence.

Helping the deceased reach a higher realm (Chaodu, 超渡) is an important goal for family members and friends of the deceased within forty-nine days of death. People often use methods such as chanting or reciting Buddhist verses to help the deceased.

For most Chinese funerals, if a Buddhist ceremony is chosen, recitation of the Sūtra of Amitābha and the name of Amitābha is an important part of the funeral rites.

Many other sacred chants or combinations of Buddhist chants such as the Nilakantha dharani, the Heart Sūtra, the Rebirth Mantra in the Pure Moor, or the Sapta Atitabuddha Karasaniya Dharani (or Qi Fo Mie Zui Zhen Yan 七佛滅罪真言), are also used.

In addition to cultural practices such as burning funeral bills (which is condemned by most Buddhist practitioners), practitioners are often cremated.

Exhibition of the body

"Body Exposure" (Lushizang, 露屍葬) is a practice of placing the body of the deceased in an open area rather than using coffins or sarcophagi. In Indian tradition, this practice also includes placing the body in a forest or letting it sink to the bottom of the water.

Following this practice from India, medieval Chinese monks also practiced the exposure of the body in a forest, but no written evidence of "burial" has been found. In addition, cellar burial (Shishi yiku 石室瘞窟) was also a type of Lushizang in medieval China.

By exposing the body, the idea was to offer it to hungry beasts and birds. Once this was done, the remains were collected. There were three ways to collect these remains:

Collect the remains from the woods, bury them or place them in a pagoda;
Burning the remains, then burying them or placing them in a pagoda;
Burn the remains and then scatter the ashes in the woods or in the water.

Burial in caves

Beginning in the third century BC, Chinese monks used caves as resting places for the deceased. This burial practice (Shishi yiku, 石室瘞窟) may have been inspired by Central Asian practices. Burial in caves was less direct than exposure in the forest.

Before medieval times, the word "cave" (Shishi, 石室) may mean a government library or the central room of an ancestral temple (Zongmiao, 宗庙). To build Buddhist burial caves, three methods exist:

Using natural caves or cavities;
Slightly altering existing caves;
Piling up stones to create new caves.

In order to give the body to animals, most caves were left open. The few exceptions include the northern cliff of Longmen wanfo gou (龙门万佛沟).

Generally, monks used the sitting position and practiced dhutaga (Toutuo, 头陀). These cavities were reused and most of them were discovered in Chang'an and Longmen. Dunhuang and Sichuan also have this kind of caves.

Burial in the forest

Chinese monks began to practice forest burial (Linzang, 林葬) from the fifth century. The famous monk of Eastern Jin, Huiyuan, was the first in China to practice forest burial.

This practice was surely very popular in the sixth century. According to the Book of Chen(陈书), even non-practitioners adopted this burial method. The term "Fresh Grove" (Shituolin 尸陀林) was used to describe the display place, or to describe this practice in general.

After the sixth century, the number of documents dealing with forest burial increased. In Daoxuan's "Bibliographies of Famous Monks" (Xugaosenzhuan 续高僧传), there are many stories with such descriptions. According to Daoxuan and other monk epitaphs, there were two types of monks practicing forest burial:

The monks of the Three Sects. This sect adopted the practices of both monks and commoners, including women. The places most used by Sanjie were Zhongnam and Baoshan Mountains.

Other monks from different sects, often from Chang'an province. They focused on learning Chán and valued lineages. These monks practiced in temples such as Yanxing Temple, Shengguang Temple and Qingchan Temple, all three of which are located in Chang'an Province.


Although mummification occurs in various Buddhist burial traditions, it is not a common practice; cremation is more usual. In their wills, many Mahayana Buddhist monks expressed to their followers their desire to be buried seated in the lotus position, in a relic filled with charcoal, wood, paper and lemon and surrounded by bricks before being exhumed after about three years.

The bodies thus preserved were to be painted and adorned with gold and silver. The preserved bodies were to be painted and adorned with gold. Many monks were so respected that they were preserved by their own students.

They were called the "Bodhisattvas of the Body," similar to the Incorruptibles of the Catholic Church.

While many were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in China, some have been preserved, such as Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chán Buddhism, and Kim Kiaokak, a Korean Buddhist monk revered as a manifestation of Ksitigarbha; others have been discovered recently: one of them was the Venerable Tzu Hang in Taiwan; another the Venerable Yuet Kai in Hong Kong.

Other notable examples of Buddhist mummification are those of Dashi-Dorjo Itigilov in Siberia, Loung Pordaeng in Thailand, and a fifteenth-century Tibetan monk from northern India examined by Victor H. Mair in the documentary The Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy.

Although the documentary suggests that the monk may have consumed poison intentionally, there is no evidence of such a practice for any of the above individuals; the poisoned substances occasionally found on the remains may have been applied to the bodies by devotees.

Tibetan Traditions

A person who is dying or who has recently died will have the Bardo Thödol (in the Nyingmapa tradition) read to him or her in order to be guided through the transition period (Tib.: bardo) between lives, to clear his or her attachments to this life and to deepen his or her bodhisattva wisdom. The body is either cremated or dismembered and fed to vultures (Tib.: Celestial Burial).

Other Tibetan traditions have other texts read and rituals performed, which may also be tailored to a specific practice (vajrayana) that the deceased was performing while alive. The bardo is generally known to last 49 days.

In Tibetan Buddhism, death and dying is an important topic because it is a critical time to decide which karma will unfold to guide the deceased into the next life. Thus, mind control is essential when death occurs

After prolonged meditation, the mediator continues the bardo toward enlightenment. Great Masters are often cremated and their ashes preserved as relics in stūpas.

In Tibet, firewood was scarce, and the ground often unusable for burial. Thus developed the unusual practice of feeding the body to vultures and animals. Known in Taiwan as jhator and literally translated as "Charity to the Birds," this practice is known as a Heavenly Burial.

This offering to animals can also be seen as a final act of generosity and detachment from one's own body.

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