Saturday, September 1, 2012

Helping Sentient Beings through Rites and Rituals

There was a bereavement recently and I thank those who have sent their condolences earlier. For those who havenot, please don't start wishing me/my family. It's too late for that. People don't wish after the event is over. On 18 August 2012 I saw my grandmother-in-law for the last time. And the last thing I know of her alive was her sweet smile when I whispered to her to remember to pray ("Liam Keng" in hokkien dialect). Then she dozed off. Then on 25 August, her heart already stopped beating only within minutes to an hour of my arrival (not sure). "Amah" was cremated on 29 August at Batu Gantung. The wake was held at Farlim Khoo Kongsi funeral parlour. The final journey began after 1pm. It was a sad occasion for the many relatives who come back from far and wide (Singapore, Australia and America). We will miss her. There was no representation from my side, which was a disappointment. It is a disappointment if you know that even family members and close friends do not even send their condolences. It's quite a phenomena that happy occasions (like Chinese New Year) do not unite as many family members and relatives as a sad occasion would. But they are a more united family than mine. We bid farewell to a great lady!
On the night before the cremation, the family could not find any Buddhist temple/association that could do the chanting at the funeral parlour. Knowing that I am somewhat involved in Buddhism, one of the aunties suggested half-jokingly that perhaps I could stand in and lead the night chanting. I said okay. The only problem is there is no chanting book. In the end, I have to do the chanting alone. I used a youtube chanting to help. When she was alive, I used to recite the Heart Sutra for her, so now I recite it for her. For me, as mentioned by the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn, 100% sincere recitation is important. More important than how accurate or how nice you have recited is the heart. This is better than long chanting by monks that merely go through the procedures. And I used my finger to knock on an imaginary moktak. Hence that was enough to do my "duty" to do the chanting that night. When I came to the Heart Sutra mantra, I visualised strongly that she is crossing over - "Beyond, Beyond, go beyond, utterly go beyond... attaining Bodhi, Svaha!" Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha. With that, I "sent" her out of her body completely and visualised her going to Amitabha Pure Land. After the session, I did a short sharing of the meaning of the Heart Sutra to 2 young nephews-in-law.

What many people do not know is that this "grandmother" is that she had had a one-year life extension. In August 2011, she was admitted into the hospital and the doctor told the family that she only had a few weeks to live. Many family members and relatives from outstation/ other countries were called to return home. Obviously there was an intervention. But that is another story. She got to live until August 2012.
With this funeral, I have witnessed how a Toaist funeral is conducted in the past and now I have seen how a Buddhist (Chinese Mahayana) style is like. Basically the Buddhist Sangha recited the Amitabha Sutra, the 88 Buddhas Repentance, the Amitabha rebirth mantra, the sweet dew mantra, the Heart Sutra, the Great Compassionate Dharani and the Qing Liang Di prayers (refer to the City of Ten Thousand Buddha chanting book). Qing Liang Di Pu Sa actually refers to the myriad Bodhisattvas and Mahasattvas in the Pure Land awaiting our arrival there.
What Chinese Mahayana Buddhists do not practice (and which I find good) is shouting to the "soul" of the deceased to come out of the body just prior to it being pushed into the furnace. Taoist Sai Kong normally do that. This is because in Buddhism, our "soul" is actually the mind. And the mind consists of many consciousnesses and sub-consciousnesses. They leave the body in stages. Not all at once....
So, if due to some bad karma or some reasons, your sub-conscious is still inside the body, you may experience some burning sensation. For people who have done serious bad karma, that is equivalent to being reborn in hell, where you are literally burnt alive on and on. So, the body may burn for only a short while, but due to your karma, you experience it like almost forever. That's terrible, isn't it? But don't fret. There are indicators or signs that "Amah" has been reborn into a better place. One indicator is that her face is peaceful and serene. People destined for the hellish realms will not look that good. The second indicator is that on the 16 August, she told an aunt that she saw an elephant and a horse. Normally it is a horse and a cow headed ones. But  I am not sure she saw the animals or the animal-faced ones. But anyhow, to see an elephant is good. It is rare for a person to dream of an elephant, much less to see one while alive through a near death vision. I regard this as an auspicious vision. Then there was this big rat that I saw on the ground, suddenly appeared on the ceiling while we were doing a chanting in the evening, led by a Buddhist monk. Something that was on the ground, and suddenly appear so high up, while the chanting of Amitabha Sutra was going on, I regard that as a sign of auspiciousness. But yet, a rat is not such a good sign. So, generally the signs seem to point to a "a bit of good, a bit of not-so-good" rebirth or a "good" rebirth. 
I wrote about people criticising the Tibetan Buddhists for their apparent emphasis on rites and rituals sometime ago. Yet they do not realise that nowadays the Chinese and Theravadian monks have a lackadaisical attitude towards rituals and chantings that so much so that they think that it is okay to leave the rituals to the Taoist priests (such as death rituals). They say proudly that they emphasise on "cultivation" only, as if helping others obtain liberation through rites and rituals are not cultivation. Long time ago the Chinese Mahayana monks were only known for their rites and rituals, and not much teachings and cultivation. And these monks were criticised. That's where their attitude towards the Tibetan Sangha probably came from. But to go the other extreme of not caring about he lay people's everyday concerns and problems, and think that it is okay to leave the chantings to the Sai Kong (Taoist priest) is absurd. The Tibetan Lamas make it a point to regard the death process as very serious and an opportunity for them to liberate the dying through the bardo process. Hence the rites and rituals of the bardo process are important liberating activity for them. This is what is COMPASSION. Others merely regrd the death process as unavoidable and hence it is not so important. If anything, they think it is adequate that we can just leave a tape recorder playing "Namo O Mi Tuo Fwo" at the funeral parlour. They regard chanting services at funerals as a chore only to get more ang-pow (money). Not to the Vajrayanist. The latter do everything possible to help the dying obtain rebirth in the Buddha Pure Land or to be reborn as a human being again. This is something to consider. Helping sentient beings through rites and rituals is cultivation. But they must be done with explanation and understanding. The leaders of the rites and rituals must explain the significance of what they are doing. Otherwise over time, they could become mere tradition and custom or empty rituals that does not save or help anybody.

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