What Buddha activities should be conducted for the deceased, and how should they be done?Foshi (Skt. buddhakarya) means “Buddha activities,” and concerns practicing and advocating Buddhism. The main objects of the activities are people, and the activities include conducting liturgy practices, listening to Dharma talks, expounding the sutras, almsgiving, upholding precepts, cultivating samadhi, practicing the Noble Eightfold Path and the Six Paramitas.
In Chinese society, most people do not have a proper understanding of Buddha activities. Usually, people only think of Buddha activities when a family member, relative, or friend passes on, and only as some sort of compensation or redemption. These so-called rituals of deliverance entail inviting monastics to recite sutras and conduct repentance chanting for the deceased.
When this kind of affair is conducted, family members mostly act as “employers” of the monastics and do not directly participate in the chanting. Often, while the rituals are going on, family members would stand aside socializing, or even playing mahjong. To them, the rituals are just accessories to their mourning. This practice is virtually a folk custom, and it is disrespectful not only to Buddhadharma, but also to the deceased. It cannot be called conducting Buddha activities.
Buddha activities should be conducted with sincerity, respect, solemnity and dignity. It would be better for the family to themselves lead the sutra recitation, repentance prayers, and chanting. When necessary, monastics can be invited to instruct and lead as teachers. The site should be void of chaos, noise, and messiness. Buddha activities are not just rituals within a funeral service for people to watch. All family members, relatives, and friends should engage in the practices if possible, and do their best to follow the sutra recitation, or at least to listen, accompany others in the practices and participate in prostrating. Sincerity and respect from the family and relatives would move the buddhas and bodhisattvas to use their power and the merits of Dharma to assist and guide the deceased. Conducting Buddha activities is a way to invite the deceased to listen to the Dharma in order to defuse their karmic afflictions, and to help them transcend death and be delivered from suffering. If family members, relatives, and friends are indifferent to the Buddha activities, not participating, or not showing proper etiquette, the effects of the practices could be drastically reduced.
Buddha activities should be conducted within forty-nine days after death. Generally, a person with extraordinarily bad karma would fall straight into the three lower realms. A person with an abundance of virtuous karma would ascend to heaven immediately, while a person who cultivated pure conducts [in accordance to Pure Land practices] would be reborn in the Pure Land. Otherwise, within forty-nine days the deceased would wait for causes and condition to ripen, in order to be reborn in accordance to their karma and conditional factors.
Deliverance practices conducted before the deceased is reborn may transform the force of bad karma into the foundation for good karma; they may open the mind of the deceased and dissipate old habits, helping them to transcend to heaven, or even be reborn in the Pure Land. If unfortunately, one has already descended to the three lower realms, the power of the accumulated merits from the Buddha activities may help reduce suffering and pain for them, and improve their outlook.
Even if the deceased has already ascended to heaven, the activities can still enhance their enjoyment of fortune and bliss. If he or she has already been reborn in the Pure Land, the activities may help to elevate the status of their rebirth. Even after the forty-nine days period, Buddha activities can still be conducted and the power of deliverance and salvation will still reach the deceased. However, if the deceased has already been reborn, there would be no way to alter the realm of their rebirth.
According to Kshitigarbha Sutra, one must pay homage and make offerings to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as recite and uphold the teachings in various sutras, in order to deliver deceased family members. According to Ullambana Sutra, one should practice almsgiving and make offerings to monastics. In general, with money and belongings that the deceased leave behind, family members and relatives should try to make offerings, support the Three Jewels, aid the poor, and benefit society. They should do this by treating all sentient beings equally, enabling them to alleviate suffering and gain happiness and bliss. These are all ways to help the deceased to transcend death, be delivered from suffering, and be reborn in the Pure Land.
For forty-nine days, starting when the deceased passes on, it would be best to chant the Buddha’s name continuously. This would help the deceased focus on the Dharma. If the deceased practiced Pure Land when alive, then Amitabha Buddha’s name should be chanted either in groups, or by individuals taking turns. If the deceased did not adhere to a specific school, it would still be correct to recite Amitabha’s name to help him or her transcend; if he or she followed a specific school, recited a certain sutra regularly, or venerated a certain buddha or bodhisattva, it would be best to use the methods of that school to chant and transfer merit.
By traditional Chinese custom, it is best if Buddha activities were conducted daily in the first forty-nine days after death. Otherwise, the first seven days, three days, or even just one day after the passing; or on every seventh day for seven weeks would be acceptable. Depending on the family’s collective energy and resources, the number of days can be more or less. If there are insufficient resources for engaging monastics to conduct Buddha activities, even if there is only one family survivor, they should still recite sutras for the deceased. If one does not know how to recite sutras, at least one could chant the Buddha’s name. As for burning paraphernalia made of paper or bamboo, such as houses, furniture and vehicles, as well as sutras and mantras, paper money, imitation silver sheets, and the decease’s clothing, these are folk customs that have no relevance to Buddhist ritual. However, we cannot completely reject the practices, since they sometimes serve as condolences to the deceased and as ceremonial objects in funeral rites.
From the point of view Buddhadharma, any lavish, extravagant funeral is excessive or superfluous. Rather than waste the money of the deceased and the efforts of the family in a vain display of condolences, it would be better to support the Three Jewels, promote Dharma, help the poor, benefit sentient beings, and transfer merit to the dead; these kinds of acts would be more consistent with the Dharma.
In summary, funeral services should strive to be dignified, solemn, and respectful, simple and proper. Otherwise, they would not be Buddha activities but merely exercises in familial vanity. It is surely not appropriate to bury exquisite clothing and precious objects with the deceased; aside from being a waste of valuable resources, it does not benefit the departed person.