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Religion Library: Zen

Afterlife and Salvation

Written by: Julia Hardy

There are specialized funerary rituals for Zen monks, just as there are in other Buddhist sects, and for masters there are various pre-death rituals as well. In addition, Zen monks in all Buddhist countries, like those of all other Buddhist sects, spend a significant amount of time conducting funerals. They also conduct rituals at periodic intervals after death, which are believed to ensure a positive experience in the afterlife.

It is likely that the funeral rituals of all Japanese Buddhist sects are modeled after those of Chan rituals created initially for the spiritual heads of monasteries. These, in turn, were modeled after Confucian rites for parents, but important Buddhist elements were added. By the time this ritual structure reached Japan, performed originally for the nobility and then later for all, funerals included ordaining the deceased as a Buddhist monk, dressing the body in monk's clothing and shaving the head, providing the deceased with a Buddhist name, and adding that name to a lineage chart that begins with the Buddha.

Effectively, these rites provide the deceased with enlightenment, generated not by his or own efforts, but by virtue of the merit generated by the Buddhist monks who conduct the ritual. It is possible that this ritual structure evolved as a response to Pure Land, as both provided the means for a better situation after death based, not on one's actions, but on the actions of others.

In actual practice, it appears that there is no guarantee, as spirits of the deceased are believed to be able to cause problems for the living. To avoid this, periodic rituals are usually conducted at set times after death, and in China paper objects and money may be burned during these rituals. Burning is a means of sending these items to the deceased in order to assure their comfort and wellbeing in the afterlife. There are also "hell texts" that describe realms where evildoers may be punished. The money that is burned may be used by a deceased individual who has ended up in one of the Buddhist hells to bribe the officials there so that they might go easier on the deceased, or perhaps release them to a more comfortable realm. Rebirth as a sentient being, not necessarily a human, is also a possibility.

Zen, like other Buddhist schools, offers a range of possibilities for salvation and multiple concepts of the afterlife—ranging from enlightenment, to existence in the Pure Land without the fear of rebirth, to a good life in another realm after death, to punishment in hell, to rebirth.

Study Questions:
1.     What is the Buddhist Pure Land? How does it differ from enlightenment?
2.     What is the relationship between the Pure Land and rebirth?
3.     Why is the funeral an important ritual to Zen and Buddhist practitioners?


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