even to spiritual rituals,
furthers spiritual blindness.
It is very common for many Chinese to believe that a death in the family means the immediate survivors are rendered ‘unclean’. Not surprisingly, this belief is also held by some other cultures. (For example, in Numbers 19:11 of the Bible, it is stated that ‘Whoever touches a human corpse will be unclean for seven days.’ Interpretations on why this is so includes death in Christianity being seen as a result of ‘sin’, which is thus ‘spiritually defiling’ in nature.) Perhaps, in ancient times, there could also be the fear of infectious diseases from the deceased spreading, thus labelling the survivors as ‘unclean’? If so, this is less relevant these days with more proper hygiene and sanitisation being readily available?
In Buddhism, there is no concept of handling a body or funeral rendering the survivors spiritually ‘unclean’. If ‘death-handlers’ are ‘unclean’, funeral parlour workers would be condemned for life – even by their family members! Also, death is seen as part of the natural cycle of existence. Indeed, if one dies unenlightened, it does represent one’s karma to retain this particular rebirth has come to an end. However, it does not mean one is or will be condemned, as one might take a better rebirth due to having more positive karma. Even if an evil person dies, contact with the body cannot ‘infect’ us with evil. Handling the last rites well to facilitate a good rebirth best we can would be a crucial act of kindness. As such, death is no taboo in Buddhism, with its eventuality practically discussed and meditated upon instead.
Some however, imagine that if someone passes away in the family, and having actively participated in funeral rites, they are automatically rendered ‘unclean’, and thus disqualify themselves from entering Buddhist temples, seeing such visits to be ‘disrespectful’ and ‘offensive’ to the Buddhas. This is an unfortunate misconception that can deter family members from diligently offering more prayers at temples for creating more merits to guide the recently deceased for better rebirths. In fact, this is the period when there should be more sincere participation in Dharma ceremonies, which have the added advantage of synergised collective spiritual power of monastics and other lay devotees. If this what all Buddhas hope we will do, why would any Buddha be offended?
If death offends the Buddha, why are there funerals with Buddha images, along with crematoriums and columbariums in some temples? It also severely limits the Buddhas’ and Bodhisattvas’ absolute purity and graciousness to think they can be tainted by any external elements. The only ‘things’ considered ‘impure’ by the enlightened are our defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. Yet, even so, the Buddha himself does not cling to the concept of ‘impurity’ and interacted with the spiritually defiled all his life, out of great compassion to share his wisdom. Not for an instance did he become stained, just as a lotus flower is never smeared by the mud it stands upon. If we truly wish to revere the Buddha, we should more wholeheartedly learn, practise, realise and share the Dharma taught by him, so as to become spiritually pure like him.
As all spiritually polluted beings are impartially embraced by the Buddha, he also famously invited a conventionally ‘lowly’ human waste cleaner to join his retinue to learn from him, despite the latter’s initial surprise and reluctance. Along this line on physical defilements, are menstruating women barred from Buddhist temples? Of course not! Menstruation is simply a natural and vital biological process. If the menstruating are banned, imagine what Buddhist nuns would have to do each month, to seek shelter elsewhere – in non-temples! Blood is blood, be it in or out of the body. Are we not all ‘guilty’ of carrying entire ‘body bags’ of blood into temples each time we visit? What is more, if excretion of human waste, which is much more regular and physically unclean is allowed in temple restrooms, why should the menstruating be disallowed, as long as none go around physically defiling temple grounds? Beyond Buddhist temples, some worldly deities attached to their relatively greater refinement versus our ‘grossness’ might take some offence? However, the fully enlightened and thus equanimous Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas) are free from any aversion. True Buddhist temples thus welcome all who are sincere. (Incidentally, Leviticus 15:19-23 of the Bible says anyone who touches a menstruating woman, or anything she lies and sits on, ‘shall be unclean until evening’.)
To truly learn Buddhism, we must be mindful not to muddle up its pure teachings with other clashing personal or cultural beliefs. This would be a right way to express respect to the Buddhas. As all Buddhist teachings have clear rationales, if you can find no sound reason for any ‘practice’, even upon active enquiry with qualified Buddhists, well, it is probably not a Buddhist ‘practice’ after all.
especially of spiritual rituals,
furthers spiritual clarity.