Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cermonies For The Departed

Brahmanism at the time of the Buddha taught several contrasting, even conflicting ideas about what happens to a person after they die; that they go to heaven, that they are dispersed among the elements, that they become plants or that they join their ancestors, the fathers (pitamaha), in some kind of shadowy afterlife. All these notions are mentioned in the Vedas. The last of them was probably the most widely accepted as it is the one mentioned most frequently in the Tipitaka. During the Buddha’s time there seems to have been only the beginning of an idea that one’s postmortem state, whatever it might be, was determined by one’s moral or immoral behavior while alive. Everyone, it was assumed, went to the world of the fathers. Some days after the funeral the oldest son, directed by a brahman, performed a ceremony called the sraddha (Pali saddha, A.V,273; D.I,97) in which small balls of dough (pinda) and other food were offered to the departed person as this invocation was made: ‘May this offering benefit our ancestors who are dead and gone. May our ancestors dead and gone enjoy this offering.’(A.V,269). The belief was that this food would be received by the departed and help to sustain them. Gifts were then given to the brahmans directing the ceremony. Only a son could perform the saddha rite, which was one of the main reasons people so strongly desired to have a son (A.III,,43). Performing this ceremony was one of ‘the five offerings’ (pancabalim) every person was expected to make (A.II,68). Evidence of the enduring nature of Indian spirituality is that this ceremony, little changed, is still done today by Hindus. If you visit the Vishnupada Temple in Gaya you can see this ceremony being done. In the last decade or so Hindu pilgrims have started doing it at Bodh Gaya.
As with many other contemporary beliefs, the Buddha ethicized Brahmanical ideas about the afterlife, and shifted the practices associated with them from the material to the psychological. He reinterpreted the ‘fathers’ (pita) as the ‘hungry spirits’ (peta) and said that only greedy, immoral or wicked people might get reborn as such unhappy beings (A.I,155). A good and kindly person, he said, would probably be reborn as a human or in heaven, rather than the world of the fathers. When the brahman Janussoni asked if it were really possible for the departed to receive and benefit from the material offerings made to them the Buddha replied that this could only happen if they had been reborn as a hungry spirit (A.V,269).
However, it seems unlikely that the Buddha would have believed the rather primitive notion that material offerings could actually be conveyed to another dimension. More likely the Buddha was using skillful means, adopting or taking into account the questioner’s standpoint in order to speak to him or her in terms they could understand. In this case he probably did so because although he would not have accepted that material things can be conveyed to another world, he could see that Janussoni’s desire to do so was based on good intentions -love, gratitude and concern for his departed ancestors. When the Buddha was addressing his instructed disciples he would say that the best way they could give their departed relatives something that would benefit them would be to lead a good and moral life here and now. Once he said: ‘If a monk should wish, “Those departed relatives and ancestors of mine who I recall with a calm mind, may they enjoy great fruit and benefit,” then he should be one who is filled with virtue, who spends time in solitude, dedicated to meditation and calmness of mind.’ (A.V,132). The Buddha’s idea seems to have been that if you wish to give happiness to your departed loved ones lead a life of kindness and integrity.
In keeping with this interpretation the Kathavatthu specifically denies that the departed can receive or benefit from material things offered to them (Kv. XX,4).
In traditional Buddhists countries today people will do good deeds, usually making offerings to monks, and then in a simple ceremony dedicate the merit they have created to their departed loved ones. Although people are told by monks and often believe that they actually ‘transfer the merit’ to their departed loved ones this is a misunderstanding of Buddhist doctrine. See http://www.buddhisma2z.com/ under Merit and Transference of Merit. The picture shows a supposed ‘merit-making’ ceremony.


Ming-Jie Chai said...

Bhante, thanks for your post.

The Buddha calls death one of the Divine Messengers. So, instead of being overly concerned with rituals of food offering and transference of merits, it seems wiser to reflect on the death of a loved one as an inevitable outcome of one's own finite lifespan.

In that way, the departed person acts as a Dhamma teacher through the manifestation of death, and ensures that the inevitable death process did not occur in vain.

Such profound realisation as death inspired by the departed person well surpasses offerings of food and ritualistic dedication of merits, though I am not suggesting that these should be done away altogether.

It is indeed so easy for a householder to be carried away by greed for career success and ignorant pettiness. Thankfully, however, the realisation of death instills a sense of urgency and ensures that we do not forsake the Path completely for egoistic worldly possessions.

With metta to all beings

Unknown said...

What matters in this case is the good intentions and the loving thoughts of the family members and sangha friends who make real or visualized offerings to the dead. This is quite a common practice in Buddhist countries especially in Tibet where rituals are ideally performed for 49 days after ones death as one travels the bardo or "in between state". It is not that one has been reborn as a hungry ghost, but rather one is without a body but with the other four aggregates. Thus one is in a sensitive state and can in fact receive benefit from offerings or pujas done in good will.

Cittamutta said...

However, how do we explain that some people claim to see their offerings are 'accepted' or 'eaten' by the petas. I have not seen it and only listen to others encounters. Perhaps anyone here saw before too?

Given that their encounters are true, doesn't this mean the ceremony is just more than mental happiness but also ensure our 'ancestor' are not suffering that much.

People don't want to take chances because that very peta may just be his/her parents.

Just my 2 cents opinion. :)

Shravasti Dhammika said...

How do we explain it? Could it be than only people who believe in such things or who are told about it, see it? Anyway, I’m just reporting what the Tipitaka has to say on this question. But thanks for your ‘two cents’.

Patr said...


Many of those people who are able to see the other realm, have said that they actually partake of offerings. I have no doubt of their sincerity in this. They also 'see' a lot of them at public offerings of food, i.e pubs, restaurants, offices who have anniversaries, etc when they put out courses for their guests, the human type!
So the Buddha was right.

Arasu said...

Hello Bhante,
I am looking for the Tamil translation of "Good Question Good Answer". My email to
failed. Can you send me an email when you have a free moment? Thanks.


Alessandro S. said...

Is this blog among the departed ones? Should we hold a ceremony for it? :-)

David (TheDhamma.com) said...

Bhante is out of his temple right now. He is on vacation / teaching in another country.

RMV's Colleague said...

Dear Venerable,

I didn't see your post for so long. I miss you and hoping to learn more from you. I also think that everyone here miss you and want to learn more from you as well as I do. Hoping that you are doing well. May peace and happiness be with you always.

Best regard,

MidPath said...

Yes Ven Sir, following RMV's comments...yes I am one of them and miss you and your postings. Hope health, peace and harmonly is with you.

Separately: You may like to add something like the following (taken from a TV News Website) to your blog. So we dont see too much of those few cents worth.

This forum is unmoderated to allow for greater interaction between participants.
We do however expect a certain level of maturity in the discussions and that you extend the same courtesy to your fellow forum participants as you would expect them to extend to you.

Buddha said...

Dear Bhante,

Thanks for your Post.some of my observations ..
Me being a Hindu i usually Observe my father doing Sradha for my Grand father & Grand mother.
They present "Til" Sesame seeds as its belived that the departed can only have that as a food.

And they do the Tarpan (Ceremony for the Departed) on evry New moon(Amavasya) or on evry Grahan (Eclipse) for the Departed.

The ingredients for the tarpan are Dharbha Grass,Til & Water.
There is a Belief that if we do the Bishma Tarpan (Tarpan for Bhishma of Mahabharat fame) we can remove the Impurity of lust.