Part III: Funeral Ceremonies
Geshe Tashi Tsering, resident lama at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London, explains the significance of rituals when a person has died and begins “Transitions Part III: Funeral Ceremonies” the third installation of Mandala’s three-part series on life’s major transitions – birth, marriage, and death – in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The complete article features even more advice from Geshe Gelek Chodpa, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and Geshe Lama Konchog.
The purpose of praying at the time of death is wide-ranging. For example, one reason for making prayers is for the sake of the people who are left behind – relatives, parents, friends, loved ones – for the sake of their minds. By praying for a dear one who has died, they feel they have done something spiritually for that person. So even though it is a sad occasion, psychologically, there is a feeling of positive spirit.
There is, importantly, also a very profound reason: to assist the person’s spiritual needs during the process of passing away. In Tibetan Buddhism, during the process of dying, Sangha members recite prayers and read from meditative manuals. Doing this in front of the body is considered to be beneficial in assisting the person’s death process, especially if that person used to do these practices in their life. The idea is that although the gross consciousness has ceased to function, the subtle consciousness needs to be assisted through the process to reach the subtlest consciousness, which is called the “clear light mind.” Helping that person to reach the clear light mind also assists that consciousness to realize emptiness.
This can also change the subsequent steps in the process, such as preventing one from entering into an ordinary intermediate state and rebirth so that one instead moves into a higher realization. There are many different levels of blessing, prayer, or ritual that can be performed at the time of death, depending on which of the many purposes is appropriate. The prayers themselves are done according to that person’s needs, such as reciting some prayers in front of the body, or in the cemetery, reciting prayers together with the relatives and friends of the deceased in the presence of the dead body. Also, as mentioned earlier, longer prayers or extensive meditation manuals can be recited in the presence of the dead body.
Marking these three occasions [see Mandala April 2004 for baby-naming and June 2004 for marriage ceremonies] is very important, because Buddhadharma can be practiced not only individually for enlightenment but, as a whole, for the benefit of others, the whole society. Buddhadharma must engage with society, not just perform rituals and give teachings in monasteries and temples. These activities are important, of course, but marking events such as the three occasions with blessings and prayers is also very important …