Dissimilarities Between Singaporean Chinese And Thai Buddhist Funeral Religion Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
In Singapore, majority of the Chinese originated from areas of the Kwang-tung and Fukien provinces of China. As a result, Chinese religions were highly influenced by the homeland of these migrants, however different from those in urban China as the Chinese in Singapore enjoyed a greater freedom in expressing religious activities due to the limits of approved and permitted religion in China (Topley. 1961). Besides that, the Chinese believed highly in practices of folk religion and cultural practices which were often a mixture of Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
History and Ideas of Buddhism (Theravada)
On the other hand, Buddhism consists of two major forms, the Theravada and the Mahayana. In this essay, I’ll be focusing on the Theravada School of Buddhism as it is the main form of Buddhism in Thailand. Theravada Buddhism was established during the 3rd Century B.C India, in reign of Emperor Asoka (Gombrich 1988). One of the key aspects of the Theravada Buddhist is the emphasis on a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness and that the life of an Arahant is ideal and is considered the paramount approach towards Nirvana/Nibanna (Keown 2000).
This aim of enlightenment can be interpreted as liberation from cycles of rebirth or an illumination from the limitations of existence as a result of overcoming of desires and accumulation of karma in one’s life (S. Radhakrishnan, Iqbal Singh, Arvind Sharma., 2004). A person that does not obtain nirvana or enlightenment cannot escape the cycles of death and rebirth and would inevitably be reborn into the 6 possible states; Heaven, Human life, Asura, Hungry ghosts, Animals or Hell (S. Radhakrishnan, Iqbal Singh, Arvind Sharma., 2004).
Stages and Significance of a Singaporean Chinese Funeral
Based on my recollections two years ago, my beloved grandmother passed away when my family was away on a holiday in Malaysia. We received a phone call from Singapore and hasty flew back to attend her funeral. As soon as we arrived, all the items in the main living room of the house were cleared for the ceremony as it was believed that objects that had been in contact with the departed were impure and not suitable for the funeral (Chee-Kiong 2004). A red blanket or fen bu was also placed over her as a symbolic meaning of the division between heaven and earth, with her still residing on earth as she is yet prepared for her journey (Chee-Kiong 2004). The blanket also served three other functions of preventing other spirits from entering the house, preventing the soul of the departed from wandering out of the house and protecting us from harm (Chee-Kiong 2004).
A few hours later, a Chinese priest arrived at the house with a bucket of water scented with pomegranate flower identified as tian shui or heavenly water. This bucket of water was considered appropriate for the cleansing of the body as it was not taken from the house, which is believe to be impure. This ritual was an important part of the preparation as an impure body would be despised and punished in Hell (Chee-Kiong 2004). Following the cleansing, she was then dressed up in her shou yi or generational clothes, consisting of 9 layers of clothing to ensure that she had adequate garments for all the seasons in Heaven. Pearls were then placed in the mouth and hands so that she could use them to bribe the judges in Hell (Chee-Kiong 2004).
Following that, the funeral preparation proceeded to the phase called ru mu or entering the coffin. The body was placed into the coffin with personal articles such as toothbrush, comb, spectacles and even her favorite pillow. This ensured that the coffin was prepared as comfortable as possible as she would use them in the otherworld (Chee-Kiong 2004). This was followed by a bag of rice, joss paper and paper money for her so that she would not go hungry and would have sufficient funds for both the bribing and personal expenditure. Once this was done, my father and his brothers took turns to take a spoonful or rice and symbolically fed her. I was told that this process was crucial in order to prevent my grandmother from becoming a hungry ghost. Next we took turns to whisper hao hua or pleasant words into my grandmother’s ears to comfort her soul before nailing the coffin shut. A chair was then placed in front of the coffin with her clothes and shoes. The Chinese character hun or soul was also written on the chair along with a large picture of her, this picture is known as the “longevity portrait” as it is believe that my grandmother would be present and sitting on the chair for the funeral (Chee-Kiong 2004).
The following day marks the commencement of a 7 days funeral where guests and friends of our family attended. My family and I were dressed in mourning clothes consisting of coarsest cloths, white shirts and trousers, straw overcoats, hats and slippers. Upon arrival, the guests performed a ritual bai which is a bow before the altar with a single lighted joss stick in the hand, as an act of respect towards my grandmother. They were then served with food and invited to take a sit and proceed onto conversations. Throughout the funeral, we continuously burn paper money for my grandmother to spend in the otherworld and offered food in the mornings, noons and evenings, so she would not go hungry. Before the visitors left, they were given a red thread to ensure a safe journey home and protection from evil spirits.
On the final night of the funeral, an elaborate altar was constructed, representing the shen zuo or altar to the Gods which consists of pictures of several gods in Daoism (Chee-Kiong 2004). Around 6pm in the evening, a group of musicians along with priests dressed in white robes arrived at the funeral. Musicians stroke their gongs signifying the start of the ritual or qi tang, while the priests startled chanting to invite the deities to observe the funeral ceremony. The priests then invited us to perform the ritual of crossing the bridges or nai be qiao, which involved procession over the wooden bridge 13 times, leading to the “Gates of Hell”. At each of the crossings, we threw coins onto the ground to appease dangerous spirits. This signified us accompanying and assisting my grandmother on her journey (Chee-Kiong 2004). On the 13th crossing, we bid a final farewell to her as her soul is now making its way through the “Ten Courts of Hell” and trailed at each level for actions and deeds carried out on earth. At the 10th level, she would be given a final verdict on what she would be reborn as based on the actions and deeds carried out (Chee-Kiong 2004). This was also where she could use the pearls and paper money to bribe the judges for a better rebirth. Right after this ritual, a peculiar event occurred, as a dragonfly flew into the house and landed onto my mom’s shoulder. I was later told that this signified that my grandmother had a pleasant rebirth.
Early the following morning, my family gathered once again, in preparation for the cremation of my grandmother. Her body was placed on a ling che which is a decorated van with recorded Buddhist chats playing inside. I suppose this is to provide her with peace before the cremation. The van then made its way to the temple with us walking behind followed by a band of musicians playing discordant music to scare away malicious spirits on the way (Chee-Kiong 2004). At the arrival of the temple, Buddhist monks chanted prayers for my grandmother and lead us round the coffin three times, before the coffin was pushed into the enclosed burner for cremation. The next day we returned to the temple to pick up the ashes and bones to store them in a joss urn, which was placed in a columbarium at the temple where we still visit at the moment.
As we can observe, this Chinese religious funeral encompasses elements from different beliefs, for instance the Taoist deities from Daoism and the Buddhist chants for the cremation, which I will illustrate further in the subsequent section based on a funeral in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Stages and Significance of a Buddhist Funeral in Thailand (Chiang Mai)
In Thailand, “Ghan Sop” translates into the ceremony for a deceased person. When someone in the family dies, the corpse is kept in the house for 7 days for a funeral rite before the cremation. In my opinion, these 7 days transcends the 7 steps which Siddhartha Gautama or Buddha took immediately after birth, as Buddhism focuses on rebirth, this might reflect the amount of time needed for the deceased to reach the phase of liminality for the preparation of rebirth (Dhammananada 1993).
Upon death, the corpse of the deceased is left alone for 3-8 hours after the last breath ceases as Buddhists believe that the spirit of the deceased will linger on for a moment, and that it is important to allow it to calmly make its journey to ensure a pleasant rebirth. Subsequently, before the commencement of the funeral, the undertaker puts a coin into the mouth of the deceased, for him/her to pay fees during the journey and binds sacred thread known as “Sai Sin” onto the neck, wrist and ankles of the deceased. These different parts the body represents the attachments the deceased had during life. With the neck representing the burden of having children, wrist as a link between the wife or husband of the deceased and the ankles symbolizing the material goods that the deceased every tried to achieve during life.
The ceremony commences from the 1st to the 6th day, but never begins on a Friday (“Wan Suk”) as “Suk” in Thai means happiness. Guests often arrive at the house of the decease dressed in dark or white clothes and Monks arrive every evening around 7pm for the 6 days to help chant Buddhist Scriptures while holding the sacred thread which stretches into the coffin. This sacred thread is believed to help infuse or transfer the monks chanting to the deceased to aid the deceased in acquiring the words of the scriptures for his/her journey (Buddha Dharma Education 2010).
During the funeral ceremony, food is also offered and guests are encouraged to partake in conversations, even when the monks are chanting. This helps lifts the atmosphere and reduce the sorrows and tears, because for a Buddhist, death is a passage to rebirth and by lifting the atmosphere, it would help provide the deceased with peace and assurance without concerns of undue attachments regarding leaving, which might bring about more sufferings (Dhammananada 1993). As accordance to the Buddha’s teachings people should treat each other lovingly when alive and continue leading a good life even after the passing of a loved one (Dhammananada 1993). Sometimes, a book containing stories, poems and personal writings of the deceased person would also be given out during the ceremony to represent the Buddhist teaching of spreading wisdom and knowledge to others. I believe this might help the deceased acquire good karma or merit to help carry a pleasant rebirth.
On the 7th day, a funeral procession is organized for the cremation and transportation of the body to the temple. At the head of the funeral cortege, monks and sons or grandsons of the deceased who become temporary monks for this ceremony would escort the coffin with the women following behind. However, nowadays the coffin can also be transported using a van with the men standing beside the van.
Upon reaching the temple, a final rite is performed by washing the body of the deceased with juice from a green coconut to purify the body. The funeral cortege then walks three times around the funeral pyre with the monks holding the sacred thread while chanting and, the son of the deceased holding the portrait of the deceased. This symbolizes 3 Buddhist beliefs of life impermanence, the life suffering and the life vacuum (Mishra 2004).
Before the cremation, guests place flowers, incense sticks and candles in front of the coffin. The flowers are called “Dork Maijian” which are sometimes made from paper thin wood. This process represents the guests providing wood for the fire to help the cremation. After the cremation, the remains can be kept by the family, scattered onto rivers or just left behind. This is because what is left are just remains of the elements of earth, water, wind and fire as the deceased has already departed and has taken rebirth into a new form (Dhammananada 1993).
Differences between the two funerals
In the context of a Singaporean Chinese funeral, a hybrid of beliefs can be identified (Oxfeld 2004). Firstly, the Confucian principle that caring for the dead is a filial duty in the same way as repayment (bao) and profound kindness for the years of sacrifice parents make for upbringing of their children, have long been emphasized in Chinese culture (Yan 1996). This explains the elaborate detail of items in the coffin to ensure that the deceased is comfortable and resources given to aid the deceased in the journey. Secondly, the idea of salvation and reincarnation in Buddhism is incorporated into the fear of punishment and unpleasant rebirth if obligations to the deceased are not properly made (Oxfeld 2004). Similarly to the Thai Buddhist beliefs, both rituals engaged in cleansing of the body and chanting to ensure a pleasant rebirth. Nevertheless, differences can still be observed as the Chinese place pearls into the mouth and hands of the deceased while the Buddhist only place a coin into the mouth. Both encompass the idea that the deceased will use these objects during their journey. In my opinion, the Buddhist ritual didn’t focus on this as much as the Chinese, which even burn paper money for the deceased to use. And lastly, the notion of summoning the soul of the dead back to transform and deliver it can be observed in both the Singaporean Chinese and Taoist funerals (Davis 2001). For instance the chair represented the presence of the deceased.
The Thai Buddhist funeral in contrast, revolves around preparing the death for a proper rebirth. The result of the rebirth is highly dependent on the deceased as an individual as compared to the Singaporean Chinese funeral, which can involve bribing the judges in hell. The route to rebirth also varies in different ways, in the Chinese funeral, evil spirits can be found on the way to the 10th level of hell which requires the company of the family to aid in the rebirth. The Chinese ritual also focused on the “otherworld” where the deceased would use items in the coffin such as toothbrushes and combs. Which I believe seems to contradict the idea of rebirth at the 10th level of Hell.
Furthermore, the Chinese funeral incorporated the Thai ritual of walking round 3 times before the cremation of the body. Another different aspect of these two funerals is that in views of Thai Buddhist, the cremation of the body represents the phase of rebirth. But for the Chinese, the rebirth appears to occur at the 10th level of Hell, during the crossing of the bridge. This in my opinion seems to show that the Chinese funeral concentrates on the certainty of a good rebirth by including the aspects of different beliefs.
Concepts of Sacred
Based on Eliade’s theory of sacred and profane and Van Gennep’s terms of the rite de passage, both the Chinese and Buddhist funeral can be perceived as a form of ontological transformation whereby the deceased shifts from a profane space of amorphousness to a sacred space of hierophany revealing its purpose or fixed point of journey, marked by the three phases: separation, margin, and aggregation (Turner 1987; Eliade 1959). The first phase is denoted by the last breath the deceased takes which detaches him/her from his state of fixed point or profane state and into the phase of margin which is a period of ambiguousness, characterized by the funeral ceremony lasting 6 to 7 days to prepare the deceased for rebirth.
The deceased is then regarded as a neophyte, whereby pearls or sacred threads are placed or bind onto different parts of the body and then cleansed with water or coconut juice. These rites symbolize detachment from the profane world in order to enter the sacred in a Tabula rasa or clean slate. The decease would then be in the very state of sacred poverty, with no obligations, status, property, or attachments. According to William James’s “law of dissociation”, “whatever that’s associated now with one thing and now with another, is dissociate from either, and grown into an object of conceptual contemplation of the mind (Turner 1987)”. In this state of betwixt and between, associations with the decease are detached and are only reflected in the memories of the living. This stage of liminality may as well be a stage of reflection for both the living and the deceased, with the deceased reflecting on the good deeds that will carry a good rebirth and the living reflecting on the religious significance of the ritual and the recollections of the decease’s past.
The crossing of the bridge or cremation in this aspect is the axis mundi which centers round this transformation, and sets the funeral into the phase of aggregation where the deceased detaches from the profane and into the sacred space of rebirth, hereby giving his/her existence a value that can be understood as the accumulation of karma or good deeds during life. It opens the door for the deceased and symbolizes that the deceased is no longer present and has progressed onwards into another world.
Social context of the funerals
With reference to the two funerals mentioned in this article, it seems that both the Singaporean Chinese and Thai Buddhist funerals share a common meaning, with the intention of getting together to help the deceased prepare for a final journey. This elaborate process of rituals involving the community helps provide socialization experiences that transmit the values of the culture from generations to generations (Yoder 1986). The knowledge to these ritualistic funerals can then be carried over through generations, and represents the people of the culture itself.
Apart from that, it aids in the needs of the living in three different aspects. By means of helping the living to face the reality of death, realize the physical and emotional separation from the deceased and guidance towards a new view of life (Jackson 1963). During the preparation of the body, the family members recognize that the deceased has to continue his/her journey without them as they cleanse the body and nail the coffin shut, they face the reality of death.
At the start of the ceremony, the living proceeded onto a new stage of the ritual, where relatives and friends start coming into the picture and accompany them (Yoder 1986). This then allows them to experience the start of life in a new social setting, without the deceased around, allowing them to focus on the physical and emotional separation.
Additionally, this allows the relatives and friends to provide support and reflect on how the roles of the deceased can be replaced in the future. This aids the living as a guidance and social support towards the future (Yoder 1986). As time passes, the living can also reflect on the comfort and kindness received during the funeral to draw upon pleasant memories. These important social aspects of the funeral cannot be neglected as it is a significant channel for the bereaved to express them and also receive help from others.
Unlike western beliefs, funeral rituals mentioned in this article emphasizes on the different ways of attaining a good rebirth, some aspects of the Chinese ritual appear to be built upon the basis of the Thai ritual, pertaining to good deeds or karma to attain a pleasant rebirth. However in the Thai Buddhist ritual, judges of Hell did not exist and burning of money was of no importance towards a good rebirth.
This does not mean that one is superior to another or is an enhanced version, but should be viewed as a cultural practice or belief that binds the community together and support each other in times of need. Besides that, these rituals can also be used to observe how different cultures employ their beliefs to handle the bereavement of death and progress onwards. In a sociological sense, it helps bring emotions and values of a community mutually as one in terms of understanding the requirements needed for one another. These funerals denote the foundational basis of a culture and community as death begins with life’s first breath and life begins at the touch of death.
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