Monday, March 15, 2010

Buddhism & Ritual

 Lovely Lion: Bye bye, beautiful boy!

Today, my wife and I held a brief funeral service for one of our dogs that died earlier this week. His name was Lion - because of his lion-like appearance - and he was not quite a year old when he died of unknown causes. After several days of intermittent grief, we went to his graveside, burned incense, offered ice, a dog treat, and I recited the following Buddhist verse which is commonly heard at funerals here in Thailand:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.

All things are impermanent,
Arising and passing away.
Being born, they must cease;
Their calming is happiness.

Both my wife and I were deeply affected by this little hound's demise, perhaps especially myself as I spent the most time with him, writing many of the Buddha Space articles on this blog while he sat by my chair. He even used to lie down next to me every morning when I meditated. Anyway, despite my Buddhist understanding and practice, Lion's death was a blow out of the blue that triggered some serious suffering in this mind. And, alongside associating with awareness rather than the painful memories arising in it, it seemed appropriate and therapeutic to have a small ritual to mark Lion's life and death.

 Daily rituals, which are very common in the Buddhist temples here in Thailand have never appealed to me much. Sometimes I use them, or truncated versions of them, and sometimes not, for attachment to rules and rituals is said to be one of the initial impediments to enlightenment, after all. But, in dealing with the complicated and powerful emotions associated with the loss of a loved one - and we did love this dog - a ritual marking the ending of a life and the continuance of the lives of those left behind seemed a wise thing to do. It is both an act of closure and a moving on. Done with awareness of the moment, it can be an intense way to focus on the perfectness of the present, perfect in the sense of being just the way it is, and reflective of the clear knowing that lies at the heart of being.

So, Lion is gone, remaining as memories and images (like the one above), and in being thankful for the short nine months that he was with us, and all the lessons we learned and failed to learn in his presence, my wife and I are truly grateful. For, the Dharma is expressed in a multitude of ways, much of which passes us human beings by without us ever noticing, but once in a while we are presented with events that are so earth-shatteringly attention-demanding that we are driven back towards the innate wisdom that we all posses - if we can wake up to it. Reflecting on suffering and its origin in our attachments is a lesson never more obvious and potentially inspiring as when we're really hurting inside. And little Lion has given us this opportunity by giving up his life.

By marking this important event in our lives with an albeit brief but heartfelt ceremony, my wife and I have turned suffering into the basis for awakening to the way-things-are (the Dharma). It has been brought back into sharp focus, and in the glare of awareness is seen for what it is: a conditioned process arising in unconditioned knowing. The latter is dubbed 'Buddha Space' on these pages, and rituals can be used to highlight this liberating peacefulness that is so easily overlooked. Whilst it's unlikely that either of us will take up daily rituals as a result of this experience, it has given us some insight into the skillful use of such activities, as opposed to the blind attachment to ceremonies. What is your experience of rituals? If you have anything to share on this, or anything else in this article, please click on the comments link below and leave your thoughts for reflection. May all beings be happy!


Anonymous said...

Dear Gladstone,
I am so sorry to hear of Lion's passing. My heart goes out to you and your family. I have no idea how Buddhist funeral service are conducted for animals but I have came across an article “Animal burial with Buddhist rituals in Bihar”. I would like to share this article with you and your readers. Thank you.

“Animal lover”

Animal burial with Buddhist rituals in Bihar
By Surya Pratap Singh

Bodh Gaya, Bihar (India) -- Maitri, a non-Government Organisation, has made arrangements to give special medical care to pet animals, and if they die, give them a dignified burial. Being run by an Italian lady in Bodh Gaya, the NGO Maitri tends to stray and pet animals in a way that is rarely heard in other parts of the country, even abroad.

The animals brought to the Maitri are rendered all possible medical care such as immunisation and anti-rabbies treatment. In case of death, these animals are given a dignified burial at the organisation's specially maintained graveyard as per Buddhist rituals.

Adriana Ferranti, the Italian director of Maitri, says: "I do what one does when a human being dies. We circumambulate the dead remains, be it a dog or any other animal, around a Stupa to seek Buddha's blessings for the dead being. Thereafter, we bury the animal with due rituals. It is done to ensure a better rebirth for the animal."

Many volunteers, including some workers of Maitri, consider it their social duty to tend to all uncared animals including cattle, cats, rats and goats.

The dead animal is wrapped in a clean white cloth and a Buddhist or Hindu priest performs all the required rituals.

Remains of more than 150 animals, mostly dogs, have been buried here with their epitaphs carrying names, possible date of birth and death and in some cases even their pedigree.

"When an animal dies, madam (Adriana) ensures that it is buried or cremated with honour," said Jumman, an employee of Maitri.

These last rite services are offered free of cost.

The service is also availed by many poor owners for their livestock or pets to avail the veterinary services from the NGO.

Maitri animal burial ground is probably the first of its kind in Bihar and Jharkhand.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry about your dog- anyone who owns pets will understand the loss. The need for rituals for the big moments in life, the births, weddings and deaths, is a part of being human- they help us to bond with other humans and to deal with our emotions in a healthy way. Modern humanist ceremonies are becoming more and more popular, as they cater for the need for these rituals in a secular way.

The little daily rituals you mention sound like a good way of 'focusing' but it sounds as if it would be important to do such things with awarness and not to slip into doing them simply out of habit or tradition.

I've read suggestions for little rituals when beginning or ending a meditation session that I can see the value of, but don't think I'd go in for that sort of thing myself (it's an English thing, we don't like to think we might look silly ;) )

G said...

Thank you "Animal Lover" for your kind words and the interesting article on the rituals in Bihar. It seems a really worthwhile endeavor. Maitri appears to supply a service with genuine motives of kindness, which makes it worthy of its name. (Mentioning names, I am not Gladstone - he is a frequent commenter on Buddha Space - I am Gary, shortened to G on this blog.)

How fitting that Maitri should be based in Bihar state, the site of Bodh Gaya, forever associated with the Buddha's enlightenment. Considering the many teachings he gave praising the compassionate and kind treatment of animals, what better place to have such an organization?

G said...

Yes, Uyulala, we British don't like to look silly, even though the world seems to be laughing at us all the while! Of course, there are plenty of rituals in British forms of Christianity, but as they are part of the culture, most people that practice them don't give them a second thought.

Your point about the mindful use of rituals was something that I'd hoped someone would write about. I know that in the Thai forest tradition and in Zen Buddhism rituals are used in this way as skillful means to cultivate awareness in the present moment. They can, as you indicated, simply be robotic actions without meaning if devoid of awareness however.

Thanks for the kind words, too - much appreciated!

Unknown said...

Tesam vupasamo sukho

One of the best rituals is to do something useful and then donate the merit to them (by thought, although there are probably Pali words for such). As for its actual effectiveness, you never know, but at least someone benefits.

My teacher told me of what happened when he learned of both his parents dying in the same period. At the time, he was a junior monk and one of the other monks was always on his back, how to walk how to do this, etc. (he would have been lost without my teacher). This monk even opened the telegram when it arrived, even though it obviously wasn't addressed to him, and spent the rest of his time as a monk feeling guilty.

My teacher read the telegram and was the same as usual. However, when he was back in his kuti he heard the voices of his parents talking to him nonstop, for the whole night, so he just stayed up all night, practiced and ignored them. The next day when he was leaving the Wat to collect food his own Ajarn addressed him as Tan (he had never told anyone but no doubt the news got to his Ajarn who agreed with his reliance on the practice).

Following that, he was never troubled by thoughts about them again, and when he does occasionally think of them it is always with gratitude and respect.

He said that monks tend to have what may appear to be an irreverent view, and often find it amusing when people are so sad at funerals. However, this is simply because people don't have respect for their own minds, and tend to allow their minds to be taken over by the morbid aspects of life.

Obviously, your dog wasn't quite a person, almost there, but no doubt was a valued member of the family and a loved friend. Thus, the right solution has probably arrived when you can think of him fondly, and feel happy rather than hurt, that he was able to spend some time with you.

When you have arrived at this stage, what better tribute than to get another dog and call him Lion; that is, if you want to.

G said...

Thanks for the comment, Gladstone. Yes, following the ritual, my wife and I have focused more on the positive contribution that Lion made to our family life. We are beginning to let go of our grief...slowly.

As to getting another dog and calling him Lion, we will wait and see. This idea reminds me of when I was a child and my pet gerbil Nipper died. The following week I got a replacement gerbil and named him Nipper II. The innocence of childhood!

Unknown said...

One interesting comparison is of when I was younger and went to the Catholic funeral of my friend's young wife. The priest really laid it on thick with his talk and made a tragic situation even worse. Something I found somewhat distasteful.

In contrast, I have been with my own teacher to a lunch invitation where a young mother lost her 4yr old son the previous night (died from no apparent cause). When we arrived she was crying her eyes out, and within an hour she was happily smiling along with everyone else.

Generally, I have noticed that with senior Ajarns, or those who have practiced correctly, it is impossible for anyone to experience suffering in their presence because their puremindedness is so powerful. Thus, Buddhism really does put an end to suffering, given the right minds.

Jamie Dedes said...

Lion was your teacher.

Still it's hard.

Jamie Dedes

G said...

Thank you, Jamie.
Yes, Lion was our teacher, and now via this blog, he may well be the teacher of anyone that reads about him - now there's merit! It is indeed hard, but then again perhaps the most worthwhile of lessons in life are the hard ones.

Anonymous said...

Dear G,

So sorry, I thought G was Gladstone...

"Animal lover"

G said...

Easy mistake to make - think nothing of it, "Animal Lover."

Robbie C said...

I know it's hard to lose those we have come accustomed to having in our lives! My thoughts are with you and your wife.

I, myself, am transitioning from a Vajrayana view with the intricacies of ritual, to a Theravadan view of simplicity in reflection. So my developing thoughts are: rituals create an attachment of repeative energy, that would be better used to focus on changing our attachments and perceptions. Although it seems rituals are a comforting method of producing a familiar surrounding (or completing an emotional yearning), I think it is, in the end, a diminishing of focus/energy, an adverse distraction.

Certainly your choice of minimizing ritual and concentrating on the moment would be MY way of handling such an emotional event. As I have certainly not obtained the dispassionate pinnacle of awareness, as I so "cleanly" write but so poorly reflect.

I am sure Lion's kamma was much enhanced, even under such a brief time, in your care!

G said...

Thanks for the reflections on ritual and the kind thoughts, Robbie.
Intricate rituals do seem something of a distraction from pure awareness, but then awareness must be aware of something, I suppose! Nevertheless, it's interesting to read of your move from Vajrayana rituals to simpler Theravada Buddhist practice. May it be the Path to pure awareness for you!

Thickethouse.wordpress said...

I am sorry for the passing of Lion, especially at such a young age. But I feel as if he will be with you forever, part of the universe forever, and in a good way.

Unknown said...

Yes dear Kristi, as you well know, there are things unwritten, things we know in our hearts to be true.

G said...

Thanks for the kind thoughts, Kristi. Lion is still with us, for sure - in our hearts. The initial shock of his death has passed, and now he is a pleasant memory in the present moment. Love you, Lion!