A Contemporary Buddhist Ritual


This story is about death and resurrection. Incorporated in most Buddhist belief systems is reincarnation. Everyone moves on to their next life after passing out of this one and depending on how well they have lived their life will determine the kind of life they will be able to have in the next. Incarnations go on and on as the person progresses toward enlightenment. The purpose of this text is not to review such beliefs, but to describe one particular ritual which has a specific purpose for the person seeking to go through the process. Buddhist followers, as all of us do from time to time, can reach a point where they feel that their life is all wrong, they are going in all the wrong direction, there is no good luck in their life, and so start to dispair about their entire circumstance. The depression caused can be very deep and they to turn to their belief systems for a solution. To symbolically die and be reborn is a way that they can feel that they can cast off all the past and the effects of the events in their life that they believe are now hampering their attempts to have a better life.

The event described here took place on Friday 20th June 2008 in a Buddhist temple about 240km north of Bangkok Thailand. I was privileged to be invited to go along and witness this ritual, although they did not call it by that name – that is my interpretation of what this thing really was. The heroine of the story is a young and beautiful Thai woman who has indeed has more than her fair share of bad luck in her life.

In the western cultures, she would be told that she should just pull herself together, make a determined effort to move on, and positively step forward and do what has to be done to make a real change as she wants it to happen. But very few people can actually do that without some sort of catalyst or event to which they can point and say that it was from that time that things changed.

So it was with my Thai friend. What she needed was a tangible event to prove to herself that she was capable of turning the corner – allowing change to take place without the past resurfacing and interfering. Like most Thai people, she is very superstitious, believes absolutely in ghosts, being visited by spirits of the dead especially family members, and takes very seriously the teachings of the monks.

We arrived at the temple at mid morning, and the processes began in the normal way, monk seated and ready to listen to the people and help them with advice or whatever support that he can give. The usual offerings of food money are handed over along with other merit making exercises. The monk proceeds to do the chants and all of us seated on the floor listen and participate at the relevant points. The subject of this ritual then lies down on the floor in front of the monk, holds lotus buds together in praying hands position above her chest and assumes the posture of a person in a coffin in death repose. She was then entirely covered in a white sheet and the monk carries on with the death chant. She has now died and is burried. When the death chant is completed, about 5 minutes, the monk then asks her to rise, and reverse the direction that she is lying in. Her head is now to th eeastern side where before it was at the western side. Again she is covered in the white sheet and holds the lotus buds in praying hands above her chest. I am not sure what was the chant given by the monk at this point, but it was quite short and took only a couple of minutes, and when he stopped, the sheet was quickly lifted away from her as she stood up. The look on her face was one of relaxed joy and I think that she was feeling some relief that she has now passed through to a new phase of life – a new start that she was clearly looking forward to very much.

This whole experience was so special, and certainly a rare and fantastic opportunity to peek into this belief system and see the effects on the true believers. For one with a western upbringing, one who was programmed as a child to totally poohoo any of this kind of stuff, I do have a very different perspective from which to view this ritual, and many of the other rituals in the Buddhist belief system. Interestingly enough, I now poohoo the western religion and feel that these Eastern ways are much more relevant to people and provide support that these people can really identify with and go with.

In discussion after the event, I was told that she was now free to leave behind all of that bad karma, all that following of bad luck will stop and cannot follow her through the ritual. She was now “disconnected” to all that past and so would surely be able to enjoy a great change for the better. I did offer the proposition that the only change that had taken place was inside her head, and that it was only her outlook that would be different from this time on. Nothing in the real world had changed at all, no “bad spirits” had been confused by her pretend death so would not find her again.

My views, of course, as an outsider are simply not relevant, and generally not welcome so I only enter into the discussion and express such views as a point of interest and to see how such observations are received. The main thing here is that she has achieved a psychological change which is a benefit to her. What she thinks happened, what I think happened, and what actually may have happened are all irrelevant as merely differing points of view. The outcome is what is important – a change was effected and it was a positive change, so the means is totally justified.

Different ways in different cultures with different belief systems generally seek to achieve the same thing. In America, people are paying psychologists huge amounts of money to help them overcome the sadness, confusion and losses in their lives that are inhibiting their personal development. This ritual is just another “way” in the Buddhist system, and it sure does work for the believers, so there is no bad thing happening, only help to those in need and able to participate with the mindset that allows them to take away a benefit.

12 Responses to “A Contemporary Buddhist Ritual”

  1. Lovely reflection on what is an interesting ritual and I feel pretty much the same as you do. I’ve blogged my own take on my wife’s family experience at http://beautifulthailand99.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/life-death-and-rebirth-in-thai-buddhist.html

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