All religions develop ceremonies to mark the key stages in a person’s life. In Buddhism, two kinds of ceremonies have special importance. The first are rituals of initiation, in which a child or teenager is welcomed into adult Buddhist society and becomes a part of the monastic community for a short while. The second are funeral rites that mark a person’s passing from life and signal their future rebirth. Buddhism has spread so widely around the world that these ceremonies vary greatly. But they are all occasions during which Buddhists meet to share a special moment and celebrate their faith.
Some Buddhist monks, like this one in the UK, invite new parents to have their babies blessed. But Buddhism does not place great importance on rituals to mark the birth of a child. Parents who wish to mark their child’s arrival often use local traditional rituals. Monks are not necessarily involved in these ceremonies.
These boys are having their initiation ceremony at the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, Burma. After this, they will join the monastery for a short period. Unlike boys in some other Buddhist countries, they are not immediately given monks’ robes to wear. They are dressed in rich clothes, like those Siddhatta wore before leaving his father’s palace to seek enlightenment.
COMING OF AGE
Before they can be accepted as full members of the Buddhist community, young boys are taken to their local monastery. Monks shave their heads and give them an alms bowl and robes. They stay at the monastery, sometimes just for one night, but often for several days. At the end of this period the boys are no longer regarded as children.
Buddhism stresses the importance of the role and life of monks and nuns, so weddings are not looked on as religious events. Buddhist couples choose to have a civil, or nonreligious, ceremony sometimes followed by a blessing from a monk or nun. The blessing reminds the couple that the sangha will remain important in their lives.
When a person dies, relatives usually make offerings such as flowers and candles to the local monks. They gain merit by doing this, and hope that the merit will be transferred to the deceased, helping them on the way to a more favorable rebirth.
When Buddhists die, they are usually placed in caskets decorated with cloths and flowers. They are then taken in a procession to the temple, where monks chant scriptures concerning kamma and rebirth. In the Theravada tradition, the deceased person is usually cremated, as the Buddha was, but Mahayana Buddhists bury their dead.
IN THE NEXT LIFE
This ornate stupa-shaped case was probably made to hold the cremated remains of a notable Buddhist saint or teacher. The cremation is the climax of Theravada funeral services. Family members usually keep the ashes in an urn. After the funeral, the relatives may burn the favorite possessions of the deceased so that he or she can enjoy them in the next life.
“Sweet-scented barks and leaves, aloewood, sandalwood, and cassia they heaped on the pyre, sighing with grief all the time. Finally they placed the Sage’s body on it.”
Although it is sad when a friend or relative dies, funerals are positive occasions for Buddhists because they lead to a rebirth. Ceremonies to honor the deceased may involve burning incense. This reminds those present of the Buddha’s enlightened teaching that death is merely an interval between two lives.