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Buddhist Funeral Rites: The Concept of the Afterlife

Buddhism is one of the oldest religions since Hinduism. It was founded thousands of years ago in between the late 6th century and early 4th century (The exact founding date is still unknown) by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. Since then, Buddhism spread eastwards from India, to China, Japan, other parts of Asia, and then the rest of the world.

The Path to Nirvana

Buddhism is the way of life. Its main teachings are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Paths. The Four Noble Truths, as taught by the Buddha, are the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the end of suffering, and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering.

Whereas the fourth truth is the Eightfold Paths. They are: having the Right Views; the Right Thinking; the Right Speech; the Right Action; the Right Livelihood; the Right Effort; the Right Mindfulness; and the Right Meditation.

By achieving these, one will gain enlightenment (Nirvana) and escape from samsara (the cycle of life, death, and rebirth). The concept of the afterlife came about when the Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. That was where the Buddha remembered his past lives.

In Buddhism, we also need to know the Law of the Cause and Effect (Karma). Whatever good fortune or suffering that we experience in our current life, was the cause created in our past lives. And whatever good deeds that we did in this lifetime, we will be able to enjoy the good fortune in the future. This law is often depicted by the Lotus Flower because the plant is both seeding (cause) and flowering (effect) at the same time; furthermore, the muddier the water it gets, the better the lotus flower will grow.

Depending on one’s deeds in the present, an individual can be reborn into a human, animal, an insect, or even a deity. The most noble of all is to be reborn as a human being, this has the higher chance of escaping samsara to achieve Nirvana. The Buddha taught that once Nirvana is achieved, one can then see the world as it really is.  

 Henceforth, in Buddhism, we believe in reincarnation and achieving enlightenment. And the objective of the Buddhist funeral rites for deceased devotees, is to make sure that their journey from death to rebirth or nirvana (a period of 49 days after day) is smooth sailing; and well-protected from negative spirits.

The Two Choices to Make When One Achieves Nirvana

The Buddha taught that when one achieves Nirvana, he or she will have two choices to make. The first choice is to break free from samsara, the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. The second choice is to choose to continue living in samsara, to help others gain enlightenment. The second choice is known as the path of Bodhisattva.

One key example of Bodhisattva is Kṣitigarbha Bodhisattva of the Great Vow (地藏菩薩) who chose to stay in samsara even after his enlightenment. It is because he vowed to help all individuals achieve Buddhahood and seek to help those that are trapped in hell. In one Buddhist sutra contained his famous vows which quoted, “Not until the hells are emptied will I become a Buddha; Not until all beings are saved will I attain Bodhi.”

Buddhist priests doing the ritual to bless the residents at Nirvana Memorial Garden
Buddhist priests doing the ritual to bless the residents at Nirvana Memorial Garden

Buddhist Funeral Rites in Singapore

Though customs and practices vary among various school of thoughts, the fundamental of the afterlife in Buddhist perspective remain somewhat similar. In Singapore, Buddhist funerals are in fact solemn events to celebrate one’s life attainment and journey into the next life, or even Nirvana.

When a Buddhist devotee pass away, he or she will enter the bardo state, a transition stage between death and rebirth. The rebirth will take exactly 49 days after death. Hence, during this stage, prayers and chanting of the Buddhist scripture need to be made in order to guide and protect the individual. One of the popular Buddhist sutras that is often recited in funeral rites, is the Diamond Sutra.

Cremation

When Gautama Buddha passed away, it was said that he was cremated on a funeral pyre, hence most Buddhist schools of thought followed this practice. Though in some countries, land burial is also allowed for Buddhist devotees.

The Buddha taught that when one’s body dies and go through cremation; the soul will leave its mortal physical body and then enter the transition stage. Hence, cremation is often the recommended choice for Buddhist devotees.

Ash collection of the loved one at Mandai crematorium
Ash collection of the loved one at Mandai crematorium

49 Days of Mourning Period (Ji-Ling)

Earlier on in this article, we touch on the understanding of the transition state or bardo state. During this state, the soul of the individual may be unclear on the path into the next life. Moreover, there may be evil spirits and obstacles along the way.

Henceforth, it is important to send prayers to the newly departed loved one during the funeral rites as well as every 7th day of the 49 days mourning period. To be exact, it is the 7th ( 头七), 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th day (尾七) after death. This 49-days of mourning period is called ji-ling (祭灵).

There are two reasons why Ji-ling is essential for the departed. Firstly, it provides a guiding light to help the departed finds its way into the next life or nirvana. Secondly, it provides protection against the evil spirits and obstacles.

49 Days of Mourning Period (Ji-Ling)
49 Days of Mourning Period (Ji-Ling)

The Final Resting Place

Once the ash remains of the departed is collected, the family member will then transfer the ashes into an urn. This urn will then be placed inside a columbarium, a solemn place for family members to pay respect to their departed loved ones. In the next article, we will be touching on the factors to select the final resting place.

In closing the funeral practices may differ within the individual Buddhist schools of thoughts, but the concept of afterlife and the reasons why Buddhist funeral rites are done, so as to safeguard and lead the departed’s journey into the next life, remains the same.

Nirvana Singapore provides a conducive and comfortable environment for individual to pay respects to their departed loved ones
Nirvana Singapore provides a conducive and comfortable environment for individual to pay respects to their departed loved ones
Nirvana Singapore (Nirvana Memorial Garden) always aims to provide best funeral and columbarium services

About Nirvana Singapore

Nirvana Singapore is one of the biggest private columbaria in Singapore. With quality facilities, it provides a conducive environment for people to pay respect and send prayers to their dearly departed. We also provide quality Buddhist funeral services.