There is not one typical Buddhist burial ritual, just as there is not one sect of Buddhism. Burial rituals are unique to the three major sects of Buddhism: Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Mahayana. The sects are identified with geographic regions: Mahayana Buddhism is practiced in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan; Theravada Buddhism is practiced in Southeast Asia; Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Mahayana Buddhism practiced under the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Although each sect has different burial rituals, the common belief is that the soul is on a journey to seek nirvana, perfect enlightenment. All actions have consequences, good or bad (karma). Attaining nirvana depends on a life of good deeds.
Mahayana Buddhists believe there is a network of souls who help each other. Bodhisattvas are souls who, out of compassion, have returned from Nirvana to guide others on their journey. Chinese Mahayana Buddhist burial rituals include traditions for the body as well as for the house. Color is an important part of the ritual symbolism. Red cloths are placed over holy statues in the house of the deceased. White cloths are hung outside the house, since white is the Buddhist color of mourning. The body is washed and dressed in white, black, brown, or blue. Red is not worn because it is the color of life and interferes with the soul’s crossing over. A yellow cloth is placed over the face, and a light blue cloth is placed over the body.
It is believed by Mahayana Buddhists that the body enters a waiting period before rebirth. During this time, the prayers of family members help the soul on its journey. The first of two prayer ceremonies then takes place for a period of at least 49 days. The second prayer ceremony is held every ten days for a total of three ten-day ceremonies. Bodies are interned in caskets. After the first and second ceremonies are complete, the burial takes place. There is also an optional prayer ceremony after 100 days.
What makes Theravada Buddhists funeral traditions different? Traditional Theravada Buddhists believe in self-responsibility. Each soul is responsible for its own salvation. However, to help the soul, mourners may transfer good deeds (merits) to the deceased. Bodies are usually cremated, unlike the Chinese Mahayana tradition of casket burial. Buddhist monks play an important role in the funeral process. They chant over the body as part of the preparatory ritual in order to aid the journey to the next life. The family later repays the monks with food or ritual items such as candles. This is an important way of preserving the monks’ status in Buddhist society. Theravada Buddhists believe that the soul is released from the body immediately, so there is no lengthy period of mourning.
Tibetan Buddhists are part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Tibetan Buddhism places a high value on rituals. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is read aloud to the deceased as a set of instructions for the journey. Upon death, the dead enter an intermediate state known as bardo. There are three bardo states. During the first bardo, monks chant sacred words over the dead. The second bardo begins when the deceased acknowledges the white light and accepts death. The final bardo occurs when it is time to assume the next life.
Other than casket burial, there is also an ancient tradition, called Sky Burial. The body is wrapped and placed outside, usually at a mountain location, and left for scavenger birds and animals to eat. It is the last act of compassion to provide food for the creatures of the earth, since the body of the deceased is no longer needed.
Different rituals, common ground
Buddhist burial rites are an interesting combination of culture, symbolism, and tradition. Each sect has unique ceremonial rituals, but all are joined together in the belief of karma (consequences) and nirvana (ultimate enlightenment). Monks are an integral part of funeral rituals, as are prayers of both monks and family members. Regardless of the sect of Buddhism, the funeral rituals are in place to help the soul of the deceased on the journey to nirvana and to comfort the mourners through time-honored traditions.