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Religion Library: Zen

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Julia Hardy

Like most monks throughout the Buddhist world, Chan and Zen monks spend much of their time presiding over rituals for the benefit of the lay participants in the tradition. These include all of the events on the Buddhist ritual calendar, especially, in Japan, Obon, the yearly Ghost Festival during which spirits of the dead visit the living. Zen monks preside over rituals on behalf of individuals as well, particularly funerals and other rites on behalf of the dead.

The structure of the current Japanese Buddhist funeral ritual is derived from funeral rituals for Chan abbots that emerged in China in the 11th century. While funerals for ordinary Chan monks were geared toward assuring their rebirth in the Pure Land, these emerging rites for Chan abbots followed some of the Confucian traditions for burials of members of the nobility, specifically those for the burial of deceased parents. A uniquely Chan element was that the abbot would be placed in a round coffin, in the posture of seated meditation.

By the late 13th century, a ritual structure similar to this had been adopted in Japan for funerals of deceased lay patrons. These rites included a variety of key aspects: a portrait of the deceased was prominently displayed; the deceased was ordained as a Buddhist monk; the corpse was dressed in monk's clothing; and the deceased was given a Buddhist name and a certificate that placed that name at the end of a lineage of enlightened masters beginning with the Buddha and extending to the current head of the presiding temple. In effect, the deceased became an enlightened Zen monk, having posthumously received a direct mind-to-mind transmission of the dharma.

By the 15th century, elements of this ritual structure had been incorporated into all Zen funerals, not only for members of the nobility, but also for people from any class. There is some indication that these funerals were even targeted toward the lower classes. The deceased would be ordained and dressed as a monk; even the head would be shaved. The body was typically cremated, and while the body burned, the officiant preached a sermon that typically repeated a question-and-answer sequence such as one might encounter during a koan session with the Zen master. It was a dramatic performance that enacted the process of reaching enlightenment on behalf of the deceased.

Ordination could take place after death, but this ritual process of funerals was also associated with ceremonies that included mass ordinations of lay followers, all of whom took the precepts of a monk. These ordination ceremonies included vows not to lie, kill, steal, and so forth, as well as bodhisattva vows to postpone one's enlightenment until all sentient beings have been liberated. The power of having taken the precepts was considered to be permanent, regardless of subsequent behavior.


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