Yêu và Chết - Loving and Dying
That best portion of a good man's life,
His little nameless, unremembered acts
of kindness and of love.
WE MUST DO OUR BIT
Earlier I said that when I saw the sick, the dying and the dead, two resolutions arose in my mind. One is to be able to take pain and death with a smile, to be able to remain mindful and composed to the very end. Now I wish to touch on my second resolution. Yes, seeing how we human beings and in fact all living things, are subject to so much suffering, I feel that the least we can do while we are alive is to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering around us.
Many people are serving humanity in wondrous ways. Mother Theresa, for example, has devoted her whole life to the caring of the needy and destitute. Many people and organisations are involved in providing social services to the sick, the handicapped, the starving, the old folks, the dying and others. All great religious teachers exhort their disciples to be charitable. Jesus Christ said: "Love your neighbour as yourself." And he praised those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, gave shelter to the destitute, visited the sick and the imprisoned, saying that "Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me." There is a similar saying in the Koran where Prophet Muhammad said God might say to a person on Judgment Day: "I was hungry but you did not feed me. I was sick and you did not visit me." And when asked by the bewildered person how could that be, God would reply: "Such a one asked for bread and you did not give it to him. Such a one was sick and you did not visit him."
In Buddhism although we do not believe in a Creator God, we believe in goodness and we are exhorted not to harm or kill even an animal or an insect. We believe in the law of kamma - that good begets good and bad begets bad. And so we are enjoined to always adhere to the good: to abstain from killing, stealing, cheating, sexual misconduct, lying and taking alcohol and drugs. We are to train ourselves to reach a stage where we will do good just for the sake of doing good, and not because of the fear of hell or the anticipation of rewards. We will then do good because we delight in doing good and are naturally inclined to good. In other words, we can't help but be good. Goodness and us are one.
The Buddha enjoined on his followers to be charitable and caring. In giving, he said every little effort counts. Even throwing some crumbs into the water to feed fishes is praised by the Buddha. Once, when some monks failed to attend on a sick monk, the Buddha personally bathed the sick monk and admonished the others, saying: "Whoever attends on the sick attends on me." The Buddha urged kings to rule with compassion. He advised them to weed out poverty which is one of the contributory factors to theft and other crimes. A man of peace, the Buddha once intervened when two countries wanted to go to war over a stretch of river water. The Buddha asked them: Which is more important - the water or the blood of human beings that will flow as a result of a war. The warring parties saw the folly of their quarrel and withdrew without a fight.
One of the most benevolent of kings who came under the influence of the Buddha's teachings was Asoka, who reigned in
Asoka saw his role as a benevolent father and he regarded his people like his children, saying that he desired for them "every kind of prosperity and happiness." The Buddha, could he have witnessed Asoka's reign, would have been filled with joy at seeing his teachings being adhered to so diligently by the great king. H.G. Wells, in his Outline of History, said that among all the kings that had come and gone in the world, "the name of Asoka shines, and shines almost alone, a star." Surely, all governments will do well to study and apply Asoka's humane approach in governing.
And if we too are to follow the Buddha's teachings, then we would, like Asoka, work in our own way to alleviate suffering and spread peace and happiness. The Buddha himself had set us the finest example, having dedicated his whole life to showing people the way out of suffering. Yes, the Buddha was concerned not only with alleviating suffering but also with eradicating it completely. And so after attaining enlightenment he spent the whole of his 45 remaining years teaching people the way to the complete eradication of suffering. He taught the path of mindfulness.
The Buddha saw that only through a radical approach can one eliminate suffering. Although taking care of the sick, healing diseases, providing food and material aid to the needy are part and parcel of the treatment of suffering, the Buddha wanted to attend to more than just the symptoms: he sought for a total cure from the disease of suffering. So he meditated on the whole question of life and death. And he saw that to solve the problem at the very root level, we need to do a complete overhaul of the mind. Suffering is essentially mental. When there is physical pain, a person normally reacts to it with grief, fear and depression. But a meditator, the Buddha said, can tolerate the physical pain in such a way that there is no mental suffering. In other words he does not react to the pain with grief, worry, depression, aversion, anger and so on. Instead, he can respond with calmness and equanimity. He can be cheerful, and even comfort and encourage others!
So the Buddha saw the problem as essentially mental. If we can rid our mind of greed, anger and ignorance (of the nature of life), the Buddha said we can totally overcome and eradicate mental suffering, such as worry and anxiety, sorrow and lamentation. As for physical suffering, we have to concede that it is unavoidable as long as we have this body. All of us know as a fact that nobody can escape from old age, disease and death. But the Buddha said once the mind is purified of all defilements of greed, anger and so on, then physical suffering does not frighten us anymore. One becomes unshakable. Nothing can upset one anymore, not even the most excruciating pain that diseases such as cancer can bring. One's mind can remain cool throughout. Thus, when the Buddha's disciple Anuruddha, was once asked how he could remain cool when he was grievously ill, he replied that it was because he had well mastered his mind through his practice of mindfulness as taught by the Buddha.
Finally too, the Buddha taught that for such an accomplished person who had eliminated greed, anger and ignorance, there is no more rebirth. When he dies that is his last life. He has attained the state of Nibbana - perfect peace. Not undergoing rebirth he can never undergo old age, disease and death. Just that, the Buddha said, is the end of suffering.
While we are striving to make a complete end of suffering, we should, along the way, help to alleviate suffering in whatever way we can. Yes, it is obvious that there is no shortage of suffering in the world. Many people are suffering in various ways. If we read the newspapers we can find suffering all over the place. People quarrel, fight, kill, rob, lie, cheat, and inflict pain in various ways on each other. Out of ignorance we hurt each other. Furthermore, calamities, accidents, mishaps, starvation, disease abound. And always disease, old age, and death are dogging our every step.
Yes, the world is laden with suffering. Why should we add to it? Shouldn't we instead try to alleviate the suffering? Even if we cannot do much we can do a little. Every little effort counts. As somebody puts it: Nobody made a greater mistake than to do nothing because he could do only a little. Each one of us can do something, according to our inclination and ability. For a start we could start being nicer. For instance, we can check our anger. Everytime we are angry we cause pain to ourselves and others. But if we can just check our anger and cultivate tolerance and patience, love and compassion we can be nicer people, and that can go quite a long way to help spread good cheer and happiness.
In other words, we must start by cleaning up our own minds of unwholesome and negative contents of greed, hatred and delusion. Corresponding to our ability to check these unwholesome states, love and compassion will develop in us. We can be kinder in our relationship with the people close to us and around us. We can try to speak more lovingly and gently, and avoid all harsh and rough speech. We can become more considerate and caring. If we are only concerned with our own well-being, then we will not be able to love very well. To love well we have to consider not so much our own well-being but that of others. So we have to ask ourselves. Do we love enough? Do we care enough? If we do not, then we cannot act to alleviate suffering. For it is out of real love and compassion that we can act.
A Meditation Master once said if you want to know whether you have loved well, you should approach your loved one one day and gently take her hand in yours. Look deeply into her eyes and ask her: "My dear, have I been loving you properly? Do I love you enough? Am I making you happy? If I am not, can you please tell me what is lacking so that I can change and love you better?" If you ask her gently with true love and care, then she might cry. And that, the Master said, is a good sign. For it meant you have touched a chord in her heart. And there can be communication between you.
And so she might tell you between sobs how thoughtless you had been at times. For example, she might say: "You don't open the car door for me anymore. You used to do that when you first courted me and even during the first year of our marriage. You would see to it that I was properly seated and then you would very gently close the door for me. Nowadays you don't do that anymore. You just get into the car first and start the engine. I have to open the door myself and get in quickly. Otherwise you would start moving off even before I had closed the door! I felt like crying when you behaved this way. What had happened to the gentle and thoughtful person that I married?"
And she might continue: "You don't hold my hand anymore when we cross the road. You just walk ahead and expect me to follow you. So too when you walk into the restaurant. You don't open the door and invite me to go in first. You don't pull out the chair for me to sit on. You don't ask me what I'd like to eat but you just order what you like to eat. You don't buy me any more pretty dresses. You don't buy any presents for my parents, not even on festive occasions. And although you may remember to give me presents on my birthday, you don't include one of those lovely birthday cards with beautiful and heartfelt messages. In short, you don't do all the nice little things you used to do when you first courted and married me. If I knew you were going to change like this, I would have second thoughts about marrying you. I have been wondering whether you really love or care for me anymore!" And she may go on in this vein, citing a list of her unhappiness. She might even sob louder and you may be taken aback, for you hadn't known she was taking all these things to heart, that she was missing all the nice little things you used to do for her, that she missed your little but important demonstrations of care and affection.
Of course, it is also possible that you too might have some legitimate grievances. So this might be a good time to have it out, but in a very gentle way. You might say: "Oh, I am so sorry for the heartless and thoughtless way that I have behaved, my dearest. Believe me, I truly am. Please forgive me. I will make it up to you from now on. I promise I will not be so careless in future. I will take good care of you. I will resume to do all the little things which I have neglected to do for you. I didn't realise you miss them so much.
"But dear, please do not get angry at what I'm about to say. As much as I am at fault, you should also know that there were some things you used to do for me that you never do now. For example, you know that I love the kangkung fried in sambal belacan that you used to cook for me. But nowadays you never cook that anymore, not to mention the spicy tomyam soup and several other dishes. You know, the old saying about the way to a man's heart is through his stomach is still quite pertinent.
"In the old days you used to wake me up with a smile and a gentle peck on the cheek but you never do that anymore. Sometimes you wake up rather late and I have to prepare my own breakfast or eat at the office. You used to be waiting at the door for me when I returned from work and asked me how my day was. You were really interested to know then and you were very sympathetic and comforting whenever I had a bad day. But nowadays, you don't seem to care about how I am faring anymore, whether I have been having a good day or a hard time. You would be watching the TV, yelling at the kids, or be at the beauty parlour or doing something or other. When I called out: "Hello dear, I'm back," you sometimes snapped at me and said things which are not very endearing." And so on and so forth.
And so both of you can have a heart-to-heart exchange. Communication is very important in a relationship. Is it not? Relationships break down when there is no communication, and both parties keep their grievances to themselves, privately nursing them in their heart. But when there is communication there can be understanding. A pouring out of the heart between two parties can lead to understanding and love. If two persons care enough and value their relationship, then they can communicate and take corrective measures whenever necessary. In that way, the relationship can become more strong and beautiful with each passing day.
Each one of us needs to contribute in our own way, in whatever way we know how. In my case, for example, I, as a monk, can contribute by sharing what little Dhamma knowledge I know, what little understanding I may have. I can encourage people to practise meditation and guide them a little along the way. I can urge people to be loving and caring, considerate and patient, and so on. Of course we are not perfect and there are times when we ourselves fail to deliver. The saying that it is easy to preach but most difficult to practise what one preaches is very true. So I should be the first to acknowledge my own shortcomings and to accept corrections. I ask though that people, in judging me or others, would consider mitigating factors such as good intention. We mean well and we do not mean to hurt. But because of our own defects, unskilfulness, impatience, intolerance, conceit, etc, we may hurt others even as we mean well. But if a person is magnanimous, he or she can understand and be forgiving. The ability to forgive is a very wonderful quality, which is why the saying To err is human; to forgive divine has been coined.
Avail yourself to giving and you yourself will know best how you can contribute. All of us have different skills, talents and aptitudes. Our conditions and circumstances may differ. So each of us can only contribute in our own way, according to our conditions and inclinations. The important thing is that we try; we do something according to our ability. As we have said, every little bit counts and as time goes on, we may find that actually we have done quite a fair bit. And that is cause for us to rejoice. Of course it doesn't mean that we should rest on our laurels. There is still more work to be done. So we keep trying; we keep forging ahead.
** ** **
He dwells having suffused the first quarter with a mind of
loving-kindness, likewise the second, likewise the third, likewise
the fourth; just so above, below, around he dwells having suffused
the whole world everywhere, in every way, with a mind of
loving-kindness that is far-reaching, widespread, immeasurable,
without enmity, without illwill.
** ** **
To understand everything is to forgive everything.
And then too there can be love.
** ** **
LOVE IS UNDERSTANDING
To die well we must live well. If we have lived well we can die well. There will be no regrets. We can go peacefully, content that we have done what we could, that along the way we have spread understanding and happiness, that we have lived according to our principles and commitment to the ideals of love and compassion.
Love is understanding. Love does not judge or condemn. Love listens and understands. Love cares and sympathises. Love accepts and forgives. Love knows no barriers. It does not segregate and say: I am a Theravadin and you are a Mahayanese or Tibetan. It does not say: I am a Buddhist and you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Hindu. Or I am a Chinese; you're a Malay, an Indian, a Eurasian. Or I'm an Easterner and you are a Westerner; or I'm Malaysian, you're Japanese, an American, a Burmese, a Thai and so on.
Love transcends all barriers. Love sees and feels that we are all of one race, the human race. Our tears are all the same; they are salty, and our blood is all red. When there is this kind of love and compassion, we can empathise with another human being. We can see that we are all travelling in the same boat upon the stormy sea of life. We are fellow-sufferers in samsara, the endless faring-on in the round of birth and death. We are brothers and sisters.
When we can see and feel this, then all barriers of race, religion, ideology and so on will fall away. We can reach out with a heart of pure love. We can understand and feel another's suffering. Compassion will swell and fill our breast. And in whatever we say or do, this love and compassion will come across. It will soothe and heal. It will contribute to peace and understanding.
The man and the scorpion
Love goes hand-in-hand with compassion. When we have a loving heart, compassion arises easily in us. Whenever we see somebody suffering, we feel an urge to reach out to ease that person's suffering. Compassion has this quality of desiring to eliminate suffering. It can be especially felt when we act spontaneously to remove or ease another's suffering. A story here will help to clarify the point: A man saw a scorpion drowning in a puddle of water. A spontaneous desire to save arose in his heart, and without hesitating he stretched out his hand, lifted out the scorpion from the puddle, and put it on dry ground. The scorpion stung him. And wanting to cross the road, the scorpion resumed its walk and headed straight again into the puddle! Seeing it floundering and drowning again, the man picked it up a second time and was again stung. Someone who came along and saw all that had happened, said to the man: "Why are you so stupid? Now you see you have been stung not once but twice! It's a silly thing to do to try to save a scorpion." The man replied: "Sir, I can't help it. You see, it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. But it is my nature to save. I can't help but try to save that scorpion."
True, the man could have exercised some wisdom and used a stick or something to lift out the scorpion. But then he might have thought that he could have lifted the scorpion with his hand in such a way as not to be stung. Or he might have thought that a scorpion in such a dire strait would not sting him. Whatever it may be, the moral of the story is in the spontaneous response of the man in wanting to save another living being, even though it may be an insect. It also shows that the compassionate man is such that even though he may receive ingratitude from a person he had helped, it does not matter. It is just his nature to help, and if he could help again, he would. He doesn't know how to harbour any bitterness or grudges!
Compassion then is the language of the heart. At the time when we are motivated by love and compassion, we reach out to help without discrimination as to the race, creed or nationality of another. In the light of compassion, identification to race, creed, etc becomes secondary; they become insignificant. Further, such compassion is not confined to human beings but is also extended to all living things including animals and insects. In line with the above theme of compassion as the language of the heart, I will like to offer you a poem:
THE LANGUAGE OF COMPASSION
Mahayana Theravada Vajrayana
Christian Buddhist Muslim Hindu
Malay Chinese Indian Eurasian
Malaysian Japanese American African
White man Black man Yellow man Brown man
and so on and so forth
as you like.
What does it matter?
The language of compassion
is the language of the heart!
When the heart speaks
A thousand flowers bloom
And love flows
like the morning sun
streaming through the window.
No words are needed
a look, a touch,
what a thousand words could not.
And Compassion glows
like the radiant star
in the night sky.
Love & Compassion
vanquishing all fears & misgivings
I feel that if we have tried to cultivate this kind of love and compassion, then when the time comes for us to die, we will go peacefully. Even if we have not succeeded 100 per cent in loving perfectly, we can still be happy and content that we have tried. And surely we would have succeeded to a certain extent.
The Five Precepts
If we have been trying to cultivate this kind of love, then keeping the five basic precepts will not be that difficult. The first precept, as we know, is not to kill, not to take any life, even that of an animal or insect. This is a beautiful precept. It means that we respect life. Nay, not only do we respect life, we also cherish it. Life is precious to all. When we give life, we are giving a most precious gift. When we keep this precept we become kinder. Not only do we refrain from killing, we also refrain from harming any living being.
True, in this imperfect world where the strong prey on the weak, killing is rampant. We can see this in the animal world, how a tiger would feed on a deer, a snake on a frog, a frog on a fly, a bird on a worm, and a big fish on a small fish. And we humans too kill the animals and fish and even each other. But we are not here to judge or condemn. We understand our human imperfections and the imperfect nature of existence. The Buddha understood too. He says that when we can purify our mind and attain Nibbana, then we can opt out of this imperfect existence, this cycle of birth and death. It is for us to verify whether this can be done. When we have cleansed our minds of all greed, hatred and ignorance, we will know with the certainty of direct experience whether the Buddha spoke true or not. Until then, I have faith that I can do no better than to follow the path of the Buddha, the path of purifying the mind.
Each of us has to follow our path of development. Let each one of us try to keep the first precept to the best of our ability: We should not kill; we should spare life, give life.
The second precept is not to steal or cheat, not to take anything with dishonest intent. We are honest and we shall earn our living the honest way. There are some people who say that an honest man cannot succeed or become rich. I do not agree with this. I'm sure there are many honest men who stuck to their principles and succeed. And furthermore they enjoy the happiness of a clear conscience and peaceful mind. On the other hand those who cheated are often exposed and punished in the end. Even if they do manage to escape detection, they still suffer from fear of detection and the pangs of a guilty conscience; and when they die, the suffering of a woeful rebirth awaits them. As such, honesty has always been and will always be the best policy. Do not listen to those who say otherwise. The honest can be more successful. Even if we should face greater obstacles, we would not cheat to succeed. We would rather be honest and poor, than to be rich but crooked. There is nothing so blissful as a clear conscience, especially at the time when we face death.
The third precept is to be responsible in sexual matters. If two partners take their relationship seriously, are considerate, loving and faithful to each other, then their love is sealed. No third party can come in between them. Sexual responsibility is very important. Because of irresponsibility, victimisation occurs. Pimps destroy the lives of young girls; and men who succumb to their lust are abettors to the ill-deed. But we are not here to judge but to plead for true love and compassion. Truly, if we can purify our mind and check our lust, there will be less suffering and exploitation in this world. And the dreaded AIDS disease which has become a world-wide scourge can also be contained.
The fourth precept is not to lie but to speak the truth. Again do not listen to those who say that one cannot succeed without lying or making false representations. Truth is one of the ten paramis (perfections) held fast to by a bodhisatta (a person aspiring for Buddhahood). All Buddhists have to develop their paramis to a considerable extent too if they want to attain arahathood - liberation from the round of birth and death. The Buddha wanted us to be so perfectly truthful that he exhorted us not to lie even in jest. So we should try our best to uphold this noble precept of non-lying. Furthermore, though we may not seek it, the reputation of an honest man will nevertheless spread far and wide. Even his detractors will have to concede and give him due respect.
The fifth precept is not to take alcohol and drugs because they befuddle the mind. And they are also bad for the body. Some people think that this precept may allow a little social drinking but I do not think so. The Buddha would not want us to compromise our mindfulness which could in turn cause us to compromise our other precepts. Besides, alcohol is harmful to our health. As for drugs we are all agreed that hard drugs such as heroin are out. But cigarette smoking may be thought by some people to be not included in this precept. (During the Buddha's time, tobacco had apparently not been discovered.) However, in the light of present day overwhelming medical evidence on the harmfulness of tobacco and the efforts of governments all over the world to ban or curtail its usage, we can confidently say that if the Buddha were here today, he too would strongly discourage us from smoking; for he would not want us to compromise our physical health nor would he want us to be addicted to a mild but proven hazardous drug.
More could be said on the great damage alcohol and tobacco had wreaked and are still wreaking on society, but it is not within the scope of this work to go into a long discussion of the subject. Suffice to say that it is our view that even a little so-called social drinking and smoking too would infringe somewhat on the spirit of the fifth precept. It is better to abstain completely, especially in the case of alcohol, having given due consideration to these very words of the Buddha: "Monks, taking of intoxicants when practised, developed, and repeatedly performed, causes one to arise in hell, in the world of animals, and in the world of hungry ghosts; the very least result is that even should one be reborn as a human being one will be inflicted with insanity."
When we keep these five precepts, we give happiness and security to others. How? Why, nobody need to worry about us. They need not fear us. They can feel very secure and comfortable with us. For they can be assured that we will not harm them, steal from them or cheat them. We will not have any affair with their spouses. We will not lie to them. And what more, if we do not drink or smoke, they do not have to worry about their children aping our drinking or smoking habit, or the hazard they face by breathing in our side-stream smoke. They will feel they can trust us, for we don't even drink. We are religious and keeping to the straight and narrow path. We are harmless. Those who strongly crave for sensual pleasures may think that we are living a very dull life and that we are foolish. But it doesn't matter. We are happy for what we are. We are happy as we are. And truth to say, we will be praised by the wise.
So it is good when we can keep the basic five precepts. Furthermore we practise generosity and kindness. We care and we share whatever we can afford. We also cultivate mindfulness as advised by the Buddha. We try to live a mindful life. We meditate to gain more understanding of the nature of our existence, its characteristics of impermanence, suffering and no-self. Thus when we have done all these, when we have lived a good life, what do we have to fear when we die? What regrets can we have?
That is why we say that to die well we must live well. And that when we have lived well, we can die well. We can go peacefully, content that we have done all that we could. True, we may make some mistakes along the way. But then who hasn't? Jesus Christ once said: "Let him who has not sinned cast the first stone." So before we had learnt and mellowed, we may have done some bad deeds. That is understandable, because we are all not perfect. But the thing is that once we realise our mistakes, we begin to cultivate love and compassion, we begin to keep the precepts and purify our mind. We can be happy because we had time to change to the right track. As they say it is better late than never. We may arrive a little late after the others, but at least we still arrive.
WE ARE OUR OWN SAVIOURS
Sometimes as a monk I'm asked to go for funeral chanting. I do feel sorry for the bereaved ones but sometimes I also feel quite helpless because there is so much confusion as regards the role of a monk in funeral chanting.
The other day a young lady approached me. Her father had died that morning. He was only 42. She pleaded with me in Hokkien: "Tolong lai liam keng, khuih lor hor wah-eh-pah." It means: "Please come and chant prayers. Please open the way for my father." I look at her with as much compassion as I can muster. I can feel her confusion and suffering. She must be about 20 I thought, and she is a filial daughter. In my heart I told myself: "O dear, how on earth am I going to open the way for anybody. What imaginary path am I going to draw in the air for his equally imaginary spirit to tread upon? How can I tell this poor young lady in her present state of grief and confusion that there is no such way as she may have conceived it to be."
The Buddha was put in such a position once and how did he respond to it? Well, one day a young man approached and asked the Buddha: "O lord, my father has died. Please come and say some prayers for him. Raise up his soul so that he can go to heaven. The Brahmins perform such rites but you Buddha are so much more powerful than them. If you were to do it, my father's soul is sure to fly straight to heaven."
The Buddha replied: "Very well. Please go to the market and fetch me two earthen pots and some butter." The young man was happy that the Buddha had condescended to perform some powerful magic to save his father's soul. He hurried to town and got what was required. Then the Buddha instructed him: "Put the butter in one pot and stones in the other pot. Then throw both pots into the pond." The man did so, and both pots sank to the bottom of the pond. Then the Buddha continued: "Now take a staff and strike the pots at the bottom of the pond." The man did so. The pots broke and the butter, being light, floated up while the stones, being heavy, remained where they were at the bottom.
Then the Buddha said: "Now quick, go and summon all the priests. Tell them to come and chant so that the butter can go down and the stones can come up." The young man looked at the Buddha, flabbergasted. "Lord," he said, "You can't be serious. Surely you can't expect the butter being light to sink and the stones being heavy to rise up. That would be against the law of nature."
The Buddha smiled and said: "Even so, my son, don't you see that if your father had led a good life, then his deeds would be as light as the butter, so that no matter what he will rise up to heaven. Nobody can prevent that, not even me. For nobody can go against the natural law of kamma. But if your father had led a bad life, then just like the stones that are heavy, he would sink to hell. No amount of prayers by all the powerful priests in the world can cause it to happen otherwise."
The young man understood. He corrected his wrong concept and stopped going around asking for the impossible. The Buddha's simile had driven home the point: Nobody can save us, least of all after we are dead. According to the law of kamma, we are owners of our deeds, heirs of our deeds. Our deeds are our true property. They are our true refuge, our true relatives. They are the womb from which we spring. When we die we cannot take even one cent with us or any of our personal belongings. Neither can even one of our loved ones accompany us. Just as we came alone according to our kamma, we must go alone. If we have understood the law of kamma well, then we will appreciate how important it is to lead a good life while we are alive. For to wait until we are dead will be too late. There is little that can be done then.
Rebirth is instantaneous
Nevertheless, there is a role which a monk can play in funeral chanting. And that is the Buddhist way of sharing merits. How is the sharing or transference of merits effected? Before we can explain this we must first understand what happens at death. According to the Buddha, rebirth takes place instantaneously after death, consciousness having the nature of arising and passing away unceasingly. There is no interval between death and the next birth [*7]. One moment we are dead and the next moment rebirth takes place, either in the human plane, the animal plane, the suffering spirit or ghost (peta) plane, the demon (asura) plane, the hell plane, or the celestial (deva) plane.
One takes rebirth according to one's kamma. If one has led a good life one will generally get a good rebirth. The mind is likely to be in a wholesome state at the death moment enabling a good rebirth to come about. One may be reborn as a human being or as a god in one of the many heavenly realms. The Buddha was able to see with his psychic powers the various realms of existence, and also how beings died and were reborn immediately according to their deeds. The Buddha and many of the monks during his time too were able to recollect their innumerable past lives.
If one has led a generally evil life, then a bad rebirth is more than likely to come about - in one of the four woeful states as a hell-being, a hungry ghost (peta), an animal or a demon (asura). But wherever one may be reborn, one will not be there forever. On the expiry of one's lifespan, one dies and undergoes new rebirth. So existence as a hell-being or a ghost too is not forever. There is hope: one has a chance to come up again, though it might take an incalculably long time to do so. So it is better not to drop into the woeful states at all, for once there you'll never know how long you'll have to stay there. It might seem like an eternity!
Similarly, existence in the heavenly realms is not permanent. On expiry of one's lifespan there, one is liable to drop down to a lower plane. Only an arahant who has given up all desire for rebirth, having eradicated the mental defilements of greed, hatred and delusion, will undergo no new rebirth. On dying he arises no more in any of the 31 planes of existence. He is subject no more to samsara, the round of birth and death. He attains parinibbana which is the extinction (nirodha) of mind and body, the extinguishing of the whole mass of suffering. But until one becomes an arahant one will still be subject to rebirth.
How sharing of merits is effected
Now, for transference of merits to be effected, it is essential for the being who is to receive the merits to know what is going on. He must be present and be able to approve of the good deeds done in his name or on his behalf. If he approves, then that approving or rejoicing state of mind is a wholesome state of mind. In other words he made his own merits by rejoicing over the good deed which had been done on account of him. Thus it is not that we transfer our merits to him. That is not literally possible. What happens is that he rejoices and that rejoicing is a meritorious deed by which his suffering may be alleviated and his happiness increased.
If after death, rebirth takes place in the human or animal plane, the being will be in no position to know what is going on, - for instance he may still be a foetus in the womb of his mother. Under such circumstances, he would not be able to rejoice and partake in the merit-making.
If a person has been reborn as a hell-being, he too cannot know what is going on in this world because he would be suffering in hell, which is another plane of existence in which he would have no knowledge of what is transpiring here on earth. If he is reborn as a deva (heavenly being), it is unlikely that he would keep in touch with this world. It is said that he would be too happy and busy exploring the wonders of his new existence to be immediately concerned about what is happening on earth. Time is relative and a day, say in the Tavatimsa heaven, is said to be the equivalent of 100 years on earth! So by the time a deva should, so to speak, take a look down here, we'll all be dead and gone! Moreover, we cannot say for certain that a deva will automatically have the psychic powers to recollect his previous life, though the scriptures do record instances of devas remembering what they had done in their previous life to earn them a celestial rebirth.
So in the Tirokutta sutta, the Buddha told a brahmin that only a peta (an unfortunate spirit) would be able to partake in the sharing of merits. These spirits, though in their own realm, are able to perceive with their own eyes the human plane. If they are aware of the meritorious deeds done on account of them, and rejoice thereupon, then they would gain merits as a result of their rejoicing. Of course no-one would like their loved one to be reborn as a peta. One would like to think that he (or she) has undergone rebirth as a human being or a deva.
So the brahmin asked the Buddha what would happen if the deceased had already obtained a good rebirth. The Buddha replied that it was still good to share merits, for in our beginningless wandering in samsara, it was certain that some of our relatives in previous lives have had unfortunate rebirths as petas. And as the lifespan of a peta can be very very long, they are liable to be still around. So we share the merits with departed relatives and also with all sentient beings. Besides, the Buddha pointed out, the person who did the good deed on account of the departed will himself get the merits too.
Sharing of merits is a Buddhist tradition. The Buddhist does good deeds such as offering almsfood and requisites to monks, sponsoring the printing of Dhamma books and donating to charitable causes, such as homes for the aged, charity hospitals and institutions for the handicapped. Then he invites the departed and all sentient beings to rejoice and share in the merits. This itself is a good deed, the doer of which does not "lose" any merits but gains even more by sharing, as the act of sharing is another meritorious deed. So the living make double merits - first by doing a good deed and second by sharing the merits.
The presence of monks to recite Buddhist suttas and to give Dhamma talks to the bereaved relatives at the time of their grief is also a great moral support. The monks can remind the living relatives of the Buddha's teaching of impermanence, suffering and no-self. They can urge the relatives to accept the suffering with wisdom, and to strive more diligently to attain Nibbana, the cessation of all suffering.
If we understand and accept the Buddhist concept of rebirth as being instantaneous, then we will understand that what is important is that we must do good deeds while we are alive. By doing good deeds, we gain good kamma. Kamma is our true inheritance, for only those good deeds or kamma can follow us. After death, the burning of paper money, houses, cars, etc. cannot benefit the deceased. It would be against the logic of kamma. Moreover, we can think for ourselves - how can something that is burnt here materialise in another world or anywhere for that matter. What is burnt is just burnt; it stays burnt. In the context of the law of kamma too, offering of food to the deceased is also pointless. On being reborn, the new being will survive on the kind of food that is appropriate for its plane of existence. Thus we find that the Buddha did not at all ask us to offer food to the deceased or burn paper money, etc.
Apparently, these funeral rites and rituals have been handed down from generation to generation without any thought as to their basis and significance. What the Buddha taught is, as explained earlier, to do some good deeds on account or in memory of the deceased and then share the merits, by reciting the Pali or stating in the language we can understand: "May these merits go to the departed. May the departed rejoice and share in the merits done."
A Buddhist funeral is a simple funeral
The Buddhist way is meaningful and simple. If we can understand and appreciate the Buddhist way, then a Buddhist funeral can be a very simple one devoid of superstitious rites and rituals, devoid of fear, anxiety or confusion. One need not burn this or that, perform all kinds of strange rites and observe all kinds of taboos, all of which are quite meaningless and confusing to the living who usually go along with it more out of fear, social pressure or ignorance than anything else. One need not invite professionals to chant and perform rituals for a hefty fee amounting to thousands of dollars! or engage a band to strike up music, even though it may well be solemn music.
As a Buddhist, one need only to invite Buddhist monks to recite Buddhist suttas which need not be lengthy. It would be good if the suttas can be translated into English or Chinese so that all present can understand, appreciate and reflect on what had been recited, on what the Buddha had taught us about the nature of life and death. Of special importance is the upholding of the five precepts by the lay-people - done by reciting the Pali, preferably with translation, after the monk. The taking and observance of five precepts is basic practice for lay Buddhists. After the taking of precepts, the monk can give a dhamma talk aimed at providing consolation, comfort and strength to the bereaved.
In the Theravadin tradition, monks do not levy any fee at all for their service. The service is done by them out of compassion, to give moral support to the lay-devotees in their hour of need. Thus, the monks would not seek monetary compensation as that would be at odds with the spirit of the Dhamma. Nevertheless, lay-devotees sometimes offer a red packet as a donation to the monks for the purchase of allowable requisites, such as robes or medicines. This sum, if offered, need only be a token. In fact, the monks are not to expect a red packet, and if it should be offered, then it is something which is offered solely on the initiative of the offerer. This packet being a token sum is not a fee but a donation. A fee, in the case of a funeral, is usually a substantial (or exorbitant) sum that would be fixed by the undertaker before he would agree to conduct elaborate services. And that, as we have said, is not the practice for a monk.
The relatives, of course, can offer food (dana) to the monks at the temple. Those who are more affluent can make donations for the printing of Dhamma books for free distribution. They can also make donations to charitable institutions, to the poor and needy, and other worthy causes. In lieu of wreaths, relatives and friends can be encouraged to donate towards specified charities. All the merits thus gained can then be shared with the deceased. All these will make the funeral meaningful - minus the unskillful practices which involve much confusion and waste of funds.
We can learn from others
The deceased can be cremated or buried promptly - on the same day or the following day. In this regard I think Chinese families can learn something from a Muslim funeral, which I'm told, is simple, practical and inexpensive. A Muslim friend of mine says that the Muslim way is to bury the deceased on the very day of death or, at the latest, the following day. So if a Muslim dies at 2pm, he can be buried before sunset on the same day. If he dies in the late evening or at night, he is buried the following day.
The funeral is an inexpensive, easily affordable one because, as my friend says, Islam discourages extravagance and encourages simplicity and frugality. A Muslim funeral, inclusive of the casket, he tells me, can cost as little as $500 - a far cry from a Chinese funeral which can cost up to $30,000 or even more! The funeral procedures for the Muslim too are, in the Muslim context, relatively simple and meaningful. A Christian funeral too is simple, inexpensive and meaningful for the Christian, and burial is carried out within 48 hours.
I believe that in life we can never stop learning. There are always better and more meaningful ways of doing things. If we keep an open and unbiased mind we can learn from others. The Buddha advised us in the Kalama sutta that we should always think and investigate for ourselves. If we find that a practice is good and meaningful then we should follow it; if we find that it is bad or unskillful, then we should not follow it, or if we had already been following it, we should be bold and wise enough to discard it. Nothing, the Buddha said, should be followed blindly without understanding or question. The Buddha encouraged us to question and investigate. Even his words are to be investigated and only when found true to be followed. The Buddha does not want us to have blind faith but faith that is based on direct experiential knowledge.
Therefore, if we find simple and good practices in other religions and traditions, we can adapt and follow them as long as they are not in conflict with our religious beliefs. In this regard, we can learn from others in the way they hold a prompt and inexpensive funeral. We should also discard the superstitious and un-Buddhistic practices of ours. As for superstitions, I understand there are many in a traditional Chinese funeral, and I have seen some of these practices for myself while chanting at funerals. I feel quite helpless as I can only witness these practices in silence. There is little one can do. Traditions are most difficult to change; and any effort to make changes will usually meet with strong resistance and even condemnation.
There were times when I hesitated to go for funeral chanting because I wondered what purpose would my presence there serve. But more often than not, I responded and tried to do what I could by giving a Dhamma talk and clarifying as skillfully as possible the Buddhist position. I think it is high time that Chinese Buddhists re-examine the traditional Chinese funeral practices and make simplifications in line with Buddhist wisdom. I may be criticised for my views but I feel that if we do not speak up, we will be doing a disservice to the Buddhist community.
If I may suggest a simple Buddhist funeral, I will propose that cremation be done on the same day if possible, and if not, the following day. However, some people may wish to keep the body for a few days to enable faraway relatives and friends to come and pay their last respects, or for various other personal reasons. So the decision would be a personal one to be made by the family concerned. I have proposed cremation rather than burial because of various practical considerations, such as the shortage of land, increase in human population, and savings in funeral costs which can then be channeled towards more meaningful needs such as charity.
The deceased should be bathed, cleaned and dressed by the family members, rather than by strangers. This would be meaningful because the body is that of our loved one, and the very least we can do is to handle it gently with love and respect. The body can be dressed in clothes which need not be grand or formal, but which the deceased had liked to wear when he was alive. A male body can be bathed and dressed by male family members, and a female body by female members. We should not feel any fear for a dead body, especially as it is the body of our loved one.
There is also no point in putting any jewellery on the body. Once, while on funeral chanting, I noticed undertakers adorning the deceased's body with special made-for-the-dead rings and earrings. This is even more ironical and meaningless, considering that in whatever rebirth the deceased may take, he (or she) is not going to take anything at all along with him except the sum of his good and bad deeds.
When handling the body, such as removing it from the bed and arranging it in the casket, it can again be done by family members. And as always the body should be respectfully and gently handled. The practice of turning one's back towards the deceased as he is lowered into the casket, or as his casket is taken into the hearse, is to me an odd thing. The deceased is our loved one and we ourselves should, in the first place, be placing his body gently into the casket, or to look on with respect as it is being done so by others. To turn away and show one's back to the deceased is to me a mark of disrespect! I can't help thinking that if I were the deceased I would be offended to be treated in such a manner.
This practice of turning away is just another superstition. Why should we fear any ill-luck befalling us if we do not conform to such taboos? As Buddhists we should have confidence in kamma which is our true refuge and support. Good begets good and bad begets bad. We should fear bad deeds, such as breaking of our precepts, as such bad deeds will bring about suffering. The last thing we need to fear are superstitions and unfounded taboos.
The casket too need not be an expensive one. It should be placed in the hall of the house with some flowers nicely arranged around it and a photograph of the deceased. Some meaningful Dhamma words, passage or saying can be put up for reflection. No wreaths need be sent. Instead, in lieu of wreaths, donations should be sent to charities which can be specified by the family members of the deceased. Whatever expense that is saved by holding a simple and meaningful funeral can also be channeled to charity.
Food need not be offered before the deceased's casket, for as we have explained, the deceased will not be able to partake of it. Burning of paper money, joss paper, etc, is also meaningless and should not be done at all. Lighting of candles and joss-sticks are also unnecessary. In fact, the very many superstitious practices and taboos that normally accompany a traditional Chinese ceremony should all be discarded, bearing in mind the Buddha's words that a true lay-follower of his has five qualities: "He has faith; he is morally disciplined; he does not believe in superstitious omens; he relies on kamma, not on omens; he does not seek spiritually worthy persons outside of here (ie. outside of the Buddha's dispensation) and he shows honour here first (ie. he has respect for the Buddha's dispensation and should not subject himself to un-Buddhistic practices)."
Wearing of mourning clothes is unnecessary. The Buddha does not want us to mourn or grieve but to accept the fact of separation and death with wisdom and equanimity. Soka or grief is an unwholesome state of mind and it is to be overcome through mindfulness and wise reflection. Thus, the anagami and arahant (who have attained the third and fourth stages of sainthood respectively) are incapable of mourning and grieving. When the Buddha died, the monks who had attained anagamihood or arahathood, shed not a tear. Understanding the nature of impermanence, they did not grieve even though the Buddha was passing away before their eyes.
Neither did the Buddha grieve when his two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, died within two weeks of each other, about six months before him. The Buddha himself remarked: "Marvellous it is, most wonderful it is, monks, concerning the Perfect Ones that when such a pair of disciples have passed away there is no grief, no lamentation on the part of the Perfect One." And the Buddha added: "For of that which is born, come to being, put together, and so is subject to dissolution, how should it be said that it should not depart? That, indeed, is not possible. Therefore, monks, be ye an island unto yourselves, a refuge unto yourselves seeking no external refuge; with the Teaching as your island, the Teaching your refuge, seeking no other refuge."
Grief is not suppressed, but acknowledged and dispersed through mindfulness and understanding.
So if we can bear in mind the Buddha's teaching, we can remain calm in the face of grief. Here we should emphasize that we are not saying that you should suppress your grief by force, ignore or deny its existence. No, that too would be an unskillful approach.
Our approach then is to acknowledge and observe our sorrowful state of mind. Through mindfulness and wise reflection, we can contain our grief and become calm. Mindfulness and understanding is the middle and best way - it involves neither suppression nor giving vent to negative and destructive emotions. Mindfulness is acknowledgment and observation, out of which understanding, acceptance, reconciliation and wisdom can arise. We do not deny or suppress our emotions. We acknowledge and observe them.
In that acknowledgment and observation, we can better cope with the turmoil and conflict that may be going on in our mind. We can exercise wise reflection on the nature of impermanence, suffering and no-self. We can draw from the wisdom of the ancients, and thereby come to terms with our grief. In other words, wisdom can arise. We can understand and accept our sorrow. And it will not take control over our mind or overwhelm us. This is what we mean when we say the gentle application of mindfulness leads to understanding and self-composure.
In this way, we will not be wailing our heart out. We can observe the emotion of grief in us, and it can be contained quite naturally, without us having to give gross outward expression to it. There will be calmness, acceptance and understanding. Even if we should lose our control and cry, we can do so in a somewhat restrained manner. We will eventually regain our control and calm down. Mindfulness will come to our aid, and help us to reconcile with our grief. We will understand the fact of suffering, the truth of what the Buddha and other wise teachers had taught, and we can smile again.
Coming back to the subject of mourning, we can see that in the context of wisdom and non-grieving, the wearing of mourning clothes is unnecessary. It doesn't mean that we are not filial, or that we love our loved ones less, if we do not wear mourning clothes. No, we still have great respect for our loved ones but we do not see any merits in making a public and superfluous show of our grief. Respect and grief are here a very private matter. They are felt in our hearts and we are not bound to make a public show of them.
Rather than emphasizing on outward and superfluous forms of mourning, filial piety should be associated with actions towards elders while they are alive. Deeds speak for themselves. It would be most unfortunate if some people think that elaborate funeral rites and rituals and the wearing of mourning clothes, can serve as a redemption for deeds of love and care not showered upon the deceased when he or she was living.
Nevertheless, in line with the decorum for a solemn occasion, "solemn" clothes can be worn. One can select some appropriate dark, white or plain-coloured clothing from one's wardrobe. That to my mind should suffice, though the deceased person, if he had been a joyful and understanding Buddhist, might not even want us to wear "mournful" clothings but to rejoice that he had led a good life and had gone on to a better rebirth. So a person could, before his death, stipulate that he does not want any mourning and superstitious practices but just a simple funeral. He can delegate a responsible person to see that all his wishes are carried out. He can have it all written down on paper and signed in the presence of witnesses so that all concerned would know and abide by his wishes.
The general atmosphere in the house and throughout the funeral should be one of serenity and understanding. Unbecoming activities such as drinking and gambling should definitely not be allowed. All should be respectful and conduct themselves with due decorum. Meaningful passages from the Buddhist scriptures can be read from time to time and reflected upon by the family members and all those present. One person can lead in the reflection. If all concerned have a good understanding of the Dhamma, they would be able to contain their grief. The more stoical can comfort those who are grieving. In this way a peaceful and understanding atmosphere can come about during the whole proceedings. And those present can also feel further resolved and motivated to strive harder in their spiritual quest, and to live with more love and compassion.
A service for the deceased can be conducted in the house. Senior family members can lead in the service, during which the life and good deeds of the deceased can be recounted. Children can recount the great kindness and love of their parents [*8] and resolve to lead an exemplary life in their memory.
A monk too can be invited to give a pertinent Dhamma talk. Meditation sessions can also be held in the hall. It would be both a meritorious deed and a mark of respect for the deceased. The deceased, if he had been a staunch meditator, would surely be very happy if he could know that everybody was sitting around his casket, meditating. If he has been reborn in heaven and could see what was going on, I am sure he would be delighted. I, for one, will be very delighted if I were to look down and see people all meditating around my casket. I will be pleased to no end. And if possible I will come down and sit happily in meditation with everybody but, of course, you must pardon me: I know I'm giving free rein to my imagination.
On the day of the cremation, all the merits that have been made can again be shared. A list of the charities that have benefited from the donations received can also be read out. A meaningful service can be conducted at the crematorium just before the casket is pushed into the incinerator. Meaningful passages can be recited from the scriptures. They can be about the impermanence of life, the inevitability of death and the need to live a good life, to meditate and to serve our fellowmen. It might be even more edifying if the service be specially composed and read out for the occasion. It would be good if a monk can lead the whole service but if that is not possible, then a senior member of the family, relative or friend can take the initiative.
After the cremation, what should we do with the ashes? In Buddhist Burma I am told that usually a body is cremated to ashes, which is then left to be disposed of by the crematorium attendants. The relatives do not collect the ashes as it is believed that the deceased had immediately on death taken a new rebirth, and the body left behind is just an empty shell. The Chinese practice in
All the proposals with regard to funerals that I have made above are, I believe, more meaningful and significant than present practices. But of course it is up to the reader to decide for himself or herself. These are just my feelings, the way I look at it. I understand that others may feel differently. They may disagree with me and they have every right to do so. For it has always been my firm belief that no-one should impose his or her views on another. We all have a mind of our own and must be allowed to think and decide for ourselves.
Therefore I must make it very clear here that I am not imposing my views on anybody. Instead I am just expressing and sharing them. And I leave it to each person to decide for himself or herself what he or she would like to believe or follow. Each person must feel free to do as he or she deems fit. Furthermore, in deciding on a funeral after a person has died, there should be discussion and concensus among the family members. It is best therefore that a person, before he dies, makes clear the type of funeral he desires. And it should preferably be done in writing, signed and witnessed. Then there would be no quibble after his death. Family members should respect and follow his wishes.
Of course, the suggestions I have given are not all-comprehensive. They have not covered all the details and aspects of a funeral. They are just a rough framework, just some food for thought. There can be other variations too. It will therefore be good if a team of like-minded and respected Buddhists can sit down and formulate a simple Buddhist funeral covering all aspects and details, and answering all the questions that may be raised. Firstly, what should be looked at are our present practices. What are they? What are their significance? Do we know and understand what we are doing? Why do we practise them? Do they make sense? Are they in line with the Dhamma? Or are they superstitious practices or practices which cannot be reconciled with our understanding of the Dhamma as preached by the Buddha?
From what I can see, many of the present practices in a Chinese family, which professes the Buddhist way of life, cannot be reconciled with the Dhamma. It would appear that many people just follow funeral rites without any idea of what they are all about. They just follow instructions without question or understanding. They are, at the time of the funeral, really quite confused and distraught. They just follow what they are told to do because it is the tradition and they can't possibly go against it without being criticised and accused of being unfilial and so on. So there is really no meaningful participation. To me, it all seems quite pathetic. Ignorance and resignation to whatever is being conducted seems to be the order of the day.
So a team of respected Buddhists looking into all these practices can come up with meaningful alternatives in line with the Buddha Dhamma. Details of the proposed funeral service with various options can be drawn up after having conducted a thorough study of the local situation. A comprehensive book providing all the various funeral options and necessary information can then be compiled and published. Such a project will be a great service to the Buddhist community who are often confused as to what constitutes a proper Buddhist funeral.
As for me
As for my own funeral, I have given due thought as to how I would like my own body to be disposed after death. The body is actually nothing more than a corpse after death. It will just return to the earth. So I might as well do one last good deed with it - ie. donate it to the hospital. Doctors can remove the cornea from my eyes and give the wonderful gift of sight to a blind person. Imagine what joy it is for one who is blind to be able to see again, and how precious such a gift would be to him. And imagine how happy I would be too, to know that I have given him this gift of sight. This gift too is no sacrifice on my part at all, as the body is of no more use to me after death. So I might as well do one last good deed with it before it decomposed.
If possible, the doctors should also remove my heart, kidneys, lungs, liver and whatever organs that could after my death be transplanted to others. And whatever is left may be of benefit to medical students in their studies. They could do dissection practice on it. Later, they could dispose what remains of the body as they wish. Perhaps it could become fertilizer for the soil and some plant can grow into a strong tree that provides shade and pretty flowers. In this way too, nobody need to worry about giving me a so-called proper funeral. Everybody can just leave it to the hospital to dispose of everything as they deem fit. It will make it so much easier for everybody. It will, so to speak, take a load off their mind. No-one need to be unnecessarily inconvenienced on my account.
And if anybody speaks about a proper funeral for me and the paying of last respects, I will say: Please do not bother about all that. A funeral is not for me. But if you really wish to remember me, then do a good deed. Do any good deed you like in my memory. Live a good life. Be caring and sharing. Be forgiving and loving. Be generous and big-hearted. Be kind and gentle. That is all that I ask. That will make me very happy - to know that I have been able to spread some good message and be of some good influence.
[*7] The Tibetan belief that there is an intermediate stage or an interval of up to 49 days between death and rebirth runs contrary to Theravada Buddhism, which states that rebirth takes place immediately after death. For more details on rebirth in the Theravadin Buddhist perspective, see Narada's "The Buddha and His Teachings", chapter 28.
[*8] In this regard, parents may well take to heart the reality that deeds outlive the physical life. A life well-lived will be the best legacy they can leave behind for their children. A legacy that will both inspire and provide dignity to their inheritors. The fragrance of their exemplary deeds and life will remain long after they are gone.