Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Buddhist Funeral

Although my grandparents do not actively practice a religion or attend any type of church my grandfather had a Buddhist funeral. It was a very interesting experience for both me and my sister. Even though I do not hold the same beliefs as the Buddhist church, I felt it was a reconnection with my heritage and I appreciated the new experience and the time to remember my grandpa. From what I have heard, the majority of people in Japan have a Buddhist funeral even though they may be Shinto. This is because the Buddhist churches provide a funeral service whereas Shinto shrines or churches do not. This is just a little about what my experience was like.

The beginning of the service began with the ringing of a gong. A priestess dressed in a black kimono approached the podium and explained the procedures for the ceremony which were to include the chanting of sutras, the offering of incense, a reading from the scriptures, and then eulogies to be given by two of my uncles. The priestess was a very small girl. She didn't look much older than myself, but when she opened her mouth for the 20 minutes of chanting I thought my eardrums were going to burst a couple of times. After awhile I got used to it and it could have been relaxing, but Michelle and I were very nervous about the bowing rituals. In a Buddhist funeral, the closest of kin to the deceased sit in hierarchical order, males to females, and at a signal from the priest or priestess are supposed to perform a series of bows, prayer motions and offer incense before the urn and statue of Buddha. The urn is in front of the Buddah so I didn't know who we were actually bowing to. My mom made me and my sister practice several times the night before. The practice caused me to recall my years in elementary school spent getting ready for piano recitals. It went well though. No tripping or other such embarrassing things. During the priestess' reading of the scriptures there was a lot mentioned on the "impermanence of life". I did study Asian humanities and world religions in college so bits and pieces came back, although I could not remember what Japanese Buddhists believe happens after death. From what I gathered possibly something about meeting Buddha in the white field, or becoming a Buddha. I'm not sure. My uncle tried asking a few of the members of the church, but they had no clue.

Michelle was annoyed because she thought the flower arrangement from our family looked weird. It kind of did. My uncle Mike was very thoughtful and as his contribution he displayed several of the desert rose plants that my grandpa had been growing. That helped make it more personal.

Something embarrassing I must admit. Buddhists believe in cremation, so my grandpa had picked out an urn some time before he passed away. The symbol on the urn looked like the wheel of a ship to me and I thought it was supposed to represent his love for the sea. I know so little about my own cultural heritage. I learned today, after some research, that the wheel is supposed to represent the wheel of Dharma. Looks like I need to do some studying.
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Wiwi Kalawi said...

I met a lot of "Buddhists" like your grandfather in Hawai'i. They would only claim to be Buddhist as an excuse not to talk to Christian missionaries.

Dharma is the cycle of death and rebirth, which is symbolized by a wheel. The goal of Buddhism is to escape the dharma through following the middle path the Siddhartha Gautama taught.

Being Japanese, the funeral was probably part of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation (hence the gong). I lived near a Zen Hongwanji (Monastery) on Kaua'i that had a huge bell to bring the monks out of meditation. If you do some homework, researching Zen.

Another interesting story you should read is about Daruma dolls and Bodhidharma, the Budhist monk/missionary who brought Zen Buddhism to China (where it then spread to Japan).

Have fun!

Amanda said...

I took a Japanese humanities class (but I'm no expert) and that's pretty much what I learned...they believe in reincarnation until the person has reached a kind of perfection (the perfection that Buddha taught). Shinto was really neat to learn about though...very peaceful. When we get back to America I will see if I can find any of the notes I used to have and give them to you. Shinto plays a lot into Japanese calligraphy (which I can't remember what it is called) and painting. Also, if you look at Japanese gardens you can see that they look a lot like Japanese paintings. It's all tied together. It's neat to see what an incredible and beautiful cultural heritage you have. I want to hear more about it when you find things :)