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Thread: A quick question... (JUNDO: That may take lifetimes to answer!!)

  1. #1

    A quick question... (JUNDO: That may take lifetimes to answer!!)

    Please forgive me if this has been covered before. I have just finished watching the documentary "Souls of Zen: Buddhism, Ancestors, and the 2011 Tsunami in Japan", and at a point where the narrator was speaking about the temples conducting services for those who had died, he mentioned something to the extent of "Buddhists believe that the soul of the person who has died does not enter the afterlife for 7 weeks, and chants sutras to help them get through that 7 weeks".

    A bit confused as he seemed to be saying this in the context of Zen Buddhism, and not another tradition. Just curious as to where this fits in, as I personally do not believe in an "afterlife" for a "soul".

    Please keep in mind that I am not trying to stir anything up other than to straighten out what it is that he may have been referring to.

    Last edited by Jundo; 10-09-2014 at 04:59 AM.
    "The moment has priority". ~ Bon Haeng

  2. #2
    Hi Tim,

    Well, that is a big topic. I would say that the description is actually rather correct.

    First, let me mention that in Japan, Buddhist beliefs and practices are all mixed together with traditional Japanese and Chinese views on the afterlife and ancestor worship, which sometimes conflict! Plus, Buddhism and even Zen Buddhism, have many traditional beliefs on death and rebirth. As well, people also mix and match their Buddhist beliefs sometimes.

    Another confusing point is that, in modern times, Western and many Japanese Buddhists are all over the place in their belief and emphasis on rebirth!

    Now, all that being said ...

    The word "souls" is problematic from a traditional Buddhist perspective because of the belief in "no abiding self". Nonetheless, Buddhists traditionally believed that something ... like a stream ... does pass on and continue into future lives. Furthermore, Japanese ancestor worship does talk about some kind of "spirit" for the deceased that does move on. So, the distinction can be very fine. "Souls" or "spirits" may not be so wrong after all if looking at what most Japanese actually believe about the deceased.

    Japanese Zen Buddhists do speak, traditionally, of a process of transition for the deceased that occurs over the hours, days and years following death. Dogen did not write so much on funerals, but other Soto Zen Priests in Japan and China certainly engaged in elaborate rituals to help the deceased cross the bumpy road into whatever came next.

    For more detail on this "quick question" of the afterlife in Japanese Soto Zen (and Japanese Buddhism in general) than you probably need or want (although fascinating), read here (some not so important pages are omitted, but I have a copy of the few missing pages if you need them and can send it to you):

    Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism
    edited by Jacqueline Ilyse Stone
    (Included Article by Soto Priest and Historian Duncan Ryuken Williams on Soto Zen Funerary Traditions)

    213-215 and 228-234

    As for me, I am one of those new fangled Westerners who do not make such a big deal, one way or the other, about the next life ... focusing enough on this one right here. You can read more on Karma, Rebirth and the Afterlife in my "BIG QUESTIONS" series ...

    I usually sum up my personal attitude this way ...

    My attitude, and that of many other Buddhist teachers, is that ...

    If there are future lives, heavens and hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.

    And if there are no future lives, no heavens or hells ... live this life here and now, seek not to do harm, seek not to build "heavens" and "hells" in this world ... let what happens after "death" take care of itself.

    Thus I do not much care if, in the next life, that "gentle way, avoiding harm" will buy me a ticket to heaven and keep me out of hell ... but I know for a fact that it will go far to do so in this life, today, where I see people create all manner of "heavens and hells" for themselves and those around them by their harmful words, thoughts and acts in this life.

    And if there is a "heaven and hell" in the next life, or other effects of Karma now ... well, my actions now have effects then too, and might be the ticket to heaven or good rebirth.

    In other words, whatever the case ... today, now ... live in a gentle way, avoiding harm to self and others (not two, by the way) ... seeking to avoid harm now and in the future too.
    Maybe it would really take lifetimes to properly answer your "quick" question!

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-09-2014 at 12:12 PM.

  3. #3
    Oh, and quickly , as to the significance of "7 weeks" (49 days) to Buddhists, I found this nice little comment from the Korean Zen folks in Master Seung Sahn's Kwan Um ...

    When someone passes away, in addition to a funeral service that usually occurs three or seven days after the death, we have a ceremony on the 49th day. Traditionally, the period of 49 days after someone dies is seen as a time for that person to check their consciousness and digest their karma. According to Buddhist teaching the bodhisattva Ji Jang Bosal (Jizo) helps the deceased during these 49 days to perceive their karma so when they return they are reborn to help this world, rather than continue in the cycle of birth and death. Religious Buddhism teaches that there is a life in this body, then a time of investigation or consideration, and then a new life in a new body.

    But the truth is, we don’t know what happens when we die. The Buddhist teaching about death can be helpful in that it gives us a good feeling, some sense of comfort in this mystery. This framework that can be helpful in the grieving process, but the Buddha taught that originally there is no life or death. Our true self is infinite in time and space. Don’t Know Mind doesn’t have a beginning or an ending. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching is to wake up in this moment and attain our true nature. When we keep a Don’t Know Mind we are addressing the big question of life and death moment to moment. The big meaning of a 49-day ceremony is to wake up just now. Actually, whenever anybody dies, they are teaching us that we must wake up, because our lives only occur in this moment [snaps fingers]. Just that.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-09-2014 at 06:13 AM.

  4. #4
    Blimey - not very keen on the belief behind 'The Blood Pool Sutra'

    Thanks for the info Jundo - fascinating.



  5. #5
    Many thanks, Jundo. I believe he also said in the documentary something like "Japanese tend to like Christian wedding ceremonies, but when it comes to death, they tend to opt for Buddhist death rituals", and I figured that perhaps, like many cultures, the predominant beliefs and traditions tend to mingle a bit and folks choose what 'works best' for them. For example, my family is mostly protestant, but yet there are some who are Catholic. At family gatherings, there is a 'crossing-over' if you will, of rituals and beliefs that help them to get through whatever is thrown at them.

    "The moment has priority". ~ Bon Haeng

  6. #6
    Yes, Tim.

    By the way, most of the "Christian Wedding Ceremonies" in Japan are not what they seem ... but are pretty much "image only" in faux-Christian chapels. I have several foreign friends who make a good side-income as weekend faux-priests for weddings here in Japan. In fact, my friends take the role very seriously, and work hard to bring happiness to the couples ...

    I was married here in Japan, about 23 years ago, in a Shinto Shrine in my wife's family's town. Buddhist weddings are very rare here, so I did not even really consider it at the time. I was more concerned about keeping my father-in-law happy!

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-09-2014 at 03:16 PM.

  7. #7
    When Daido Loori Roshi died, Zen Mountain Monastery observed the 49 days and then held the funeral and celebration of life. Soul or not, I think it is helpful for the bereaved to have such rituals.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Nindo View Post
    When Daido Loori Roshi died, Zen Mountain Monastery observed the 49 days and then held the funeral and celebration of life. Soul or not, I think it is helpful for the bereaved to have such rituals.
    Nindo where is my will so I can force the kids to wait 49 days to divvy up my meager spoils when I check out! LOL!
    "The moment has priority". ~ Bon Haeng

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by TimF View Post where is my will so I can force the kids to wait 49 days to divvy up my meager spoils when I check out! LOL!
    There is no legal requirement for them to wait. That is a matter of civil inheritance law. Frankly, the way lawyers and courts work, that might take much longer than 49 days, although some joint property transfers at the moment of death.

    Now Karma and Rebirth. that is another story. That is not Civil Law, but Dharma Law.

    Gassho, J

  10. #10
    By the way, ceremonies are supposed to happen in Japan on the following schedule. The funeral itself occurs fairly quickly, usually a few days after death (there may be a kind of "Irish Wake" in between, depicted in the wonderful movie I recommend to all, "Okuribito/Departures" ...

    ... and also the movie that makes fun of Japanese funerals and priests, Soshiki/Funeral, a dark comedy) ..

    However, given how busy people are in modern times, the ceremony for the funeral and 7th day are now frequently combined on the same day!! Don't ask me how, except that Buddhist priests can sometimes bend time and space. The 49th day is important, but the intervening 7 day ceremonies are often missed or abbreviated.

    Also, because people gradually forget, it is rare now to see the long term ceremonies past the first decade or two.

    A short article from the Soto-shu webpage ...

    Hoji, literally translated as "dharma event", is an important Buddhist practice to commemorate a deceased person and to pray sincerely for the repose of his or her soul. It also provides a wonderful opportunity for surviving family and friends to reconfirm human ties which the departed brought about, to realize that they owe much to the deceased, to renew their gratitude to him or her and to deeply reflect upon themselves in connection with him or her.


    Nowadays in Japan after a funeral is held, hoji is performed every seven days after the day of death, seven times altogether. These memorial services are called kinichihoyo. This is based on the ancient Indian idea that the soul of the deceased would stay in an intermediary realm (chuin, or chuu in Japanese) for 49 days after death, wandering between this world and the next. Each period of seven days marks a gradual loosening of the connection with this world and on the 49th day the deceased is reborn according to his/her karmic retribution.

    Dogen Zenji wrote in Shobogenzo Doshin (Heart of the Way),
    "…When you leave this life, and before you enter the next life, there is a place called an intermediary realm. You stay there for seven days. You should resolve to keep chanting the names of the three treasures without ceasing while you are there. After seven days, you die into another intermediary realm and remain there for no more than seven by seven days (49 days)...."

    Through a funeral ceremony, a deceased person is made to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha and to become an ordained Buddhist. And then while being in an intermediary realm, the deceased one devotes oneself to Buddhist practices under the protection of many buddhas. Family members and friends also support and encourage the deceased to diligently practice the Dharma by observing hoji every seven days. This is also a period of time for the bereaved family to mourn the loss, gradually coming to terms with it, and to regain a sense of peace.

    There are also further memorial services after the 49th day, such as the service on the 100th day, the 1st year, 3rd year, 7th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 27th, and 33rd year. These anniversary memorial services are called nenkihoyo. They are performed in order to support the deceased who have already gone to the pure land to continue walking on the path of the Buddha. Normally the 33rd year (sometimes 37th, or 50th year) is the last (tomuraiage, "end of mourning"), marking the time when the individual deceased is thought to have become absorbed into the general ancestral spirit. It means that the spirit is gradually purified by the power of tsuizen-kuyo, eventually loses its individuality and becomes a full blown bodhisattava (in Buddhism) or a guardian god (in Shinto).
    Fortunately or unfortunately, these funerals and memorial services are also the primary sources of income for most Japanese Buddhist Priests these days, and they are also feeling the pinch from funeral companies that now hire the priests on contract ...

    Gassho, J

  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Fortunately or unfortunately, these funerals and memorial services are also the primary sources of income for most Japanese Buddhist Priests these days, and they are also feeling the pinch from funeral companies that now hire the priests on contract ...

    Gassho, J
    Hello Jundo,

    You may find interesting a certain book called "Practically Religious" by Prof. Tanabe and Reader. It was an extensive on-the-ground study of Buddhism in Japan and it challenged some notions about "Funeral Buddhism", but also showed how some Buddhist institutions were adapting to modern times and modern needs. The basic gist of their book (which was quite fascinating actually) was that the "parochial" style of Buddhist temples, the ones people associate with funerals and such, are slowly being sidelined by other Buddhist temples that are adapting to modern needs of the community. It doesn't defend funeral Buddhism, but points out that it is but one facet of Japanese Buddhism.

    My wife's family works in the funeral industry in Japan (making gravestones), so we happen to know a number of Buddhist temples of various stripes. You definitely see the parochial ones, especially in the suburbs, but then you see ones like Tsukiji Honganji in Tokyo which are pretty modern and "hip" for lack of a better term. We like visiting Tsukiji when possible. I'm sure you've probably noticed this too. As I only visit for a brief period each year, I only know what little I see every visit.

    Anyhow, well worth the read if you get a chance.

  12. #12

    From my experience, most of what is now practiced in East Asian Buddhism wiht regard to funerals mostly comes from the Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra (speaking of Jizo == the Earth Store Bodhisattva). It's one of the more graphic sutras in the Mahayana-Buddhist canon (Zen is one branch of Mahayana by the way) because it talks in depths about death, the transmigration of the "stream of consciousness" and so on. It's particularly popular even to this day in Chinese Buddhism. Nevertheless, the gist of it is that one should not underestimate the importance of Karma:

    “Karma is tremendously powerful. It is capable of covering Mount Sumeru, is capable of plumbing the vast ocean depths and is even capable of obstructing the holy doctrines. Therefore, sentient beings should not neglect lesser evils as being not sinful; for retribution will be meted out to them after their deaths for every bad intention or violation, even though it be as small or insignificant as an iota. Even beings as closely related as fathers and sons will part their respective ways, and one will not take the punishment of the other even if they chance to cross paths….”
    Compare this with a famous letter by the 14th century Jodo Shinshu-Buddhist named Rennyo, called the Letter of White Ashes:

    Thus our bodies may be radiant with health in the morning, but by evening they may be white ashes. If the right causes and conditions prevail, our two eyes are closed forever, our breathing ceases and our bodies lose the glow of life. Our relatives in great numbers and with great wealth can assemble, but they are powerless to change our situation. Even the rites and rituals of grief and mourning change nothing. All we can do is prepare the body for cremation; all that is left is white ashes.
    Or from the Buddha in early sutras such as the Assu Sutta:

    "This is the greater: the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — not the water in the four great oceans.
    And yet, and yet, as Rev Jundo stated, it's important to stay focused on now just as the Buddha taught in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:

    You shouldn't chase after the past or place expectations on the future. What is past is left behind. The future is as yet unreached. Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there.
    Thus, in my humble opinion, it's important to square with one's mortality, but at the same time, never forget that the most important thing is right now.
    Last edited by jphiled; 10-10-2014 at 05:20 AM.

  13. #13
    Thanks Doug, I will look for the book.

    I was also just looking at this recent article on how New Religions and schools of Buddhism in Japan are doing much as your describe ...

    Gassho, J

  14. #14

    The book I mentioned doesn't really cover the new religions much, but generally stuck to the more traditional ones if I recall right. For example at Tsukiji, I remember they had a memorial to the famous singer who died, Hide, just inside the main chapel, not to mention disaster relief charities, etc.

    But I've also had experience with Rissho Kosei Kai (a modern school of Nichiren) which also had similar stuff. So you're right in that new religions are getting into the act too.

  15. #15
    Just wondering - do these rituals/beliefs come from the same root source as The Tibetan Book of the Dead?



  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by willow View Post
    Just wondering - do these rituals/beliefs come from the same root source as The Tibetan Book of the Dead?
    It's certainly possible but personally I don't know. Tibetan Buddhism is a later "version" of Mahayana Buddhism imported from India (11th century vs 5th century in China) so a lot may have changed. Or not. (shrug)

  17. #17
    Quote Originally Posted by willow View Post
    Just wondering - do these rituals/beliefs come from the same root source as The Tibetan Book of the Dead?


    Hi Willow,

    First, and interesting thing is that the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" may be more important in the West than in Tibet, and not even really fully Tibetan!

    as acclaimed writer and scholar of Buddhism Donald Lopez writes, "The Tibetan Book of the Dead is not really Tibetan, it is not really a book, and it is not really about death." In this compelling introduction and short history, Lopez tells the strange story of how a relatively obscure and malleable collection of Buddhist texts of uncertain origin came to be so revered--and so misunderstood--in the West.

    The central character in this story is Walter Evans-Wentz (1878-1965), an eccentric scholar and spiritual seeker from Trenton, New Jersey, who, despite not knowing the Tibetan language and never visiting the country, crafted and named The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In fact, Lopez argues, Evans-Wentz's book is much more American than Tibetan, owing a greater debt to Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky than to the lamas of the Land of Snows. Indeed, Lopez suggests that the book's perennial appeal stems not only from its origins in magical and mysterious Tibet, but also from the way Evans-Wentz translated the text into the language of a very American spirituality.
    That being said, the notion of "49 days" is found in Tibet and is a real belief there. However, the notion of an "intermediate state", and a belief in the significance of "49 days" reaches way back to India, so certainly came to be shared throughout Buddhist countries, especially in north Asia. (I confess to relying for my facts here a bit too much on google and wiki on this last claim). Sujato Bikkhu, a westerner and Buddhist scholar, writes some interesting tidbits on the significance of 7 and its multiples in Buddhism ...

    Let’s have a look at some of the basic numbers used in early Buddhist texts, and their basic symbolic connotations. This is something I’ve noticed here and there over the years, but have done no systematic study. So this is just a few random suggestions.

    ... Seven – satta: This is the primary number of magic, especially life and death magic. It relates to two cosmic phenomena: the lunar cycles (and hence menstrual cycles); and the number of visible planets (5 = sun and moon). In both of these there is a sense of a cycle and a return, but also a death and rebirth. The moon dies each month, the sun each night; women’s fertility governs life and death; the wandering planets are an erratic curiosity compared with the static nobility of the stars. 7 is found all through myth and ritual, there being too many examples to even begin to cite them. But the general idea, as in the 7 days of Genesis, is ‘the entire cycle of birth and death’. 7 appears in this sense repeatedly in the Buddha’s mythology: taking 7 steps after his birth, Maya’s death 7 seven days, and so on. It carries on into folk Buddhist belief, where the soul crosses over after 7 (or 49) days. Some cases are not so clear: the 7 lives of the stream enterer is presented as literal, but it carries similar connotations of crossing over the cycle of birth and death.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 10-10-2014 at 04:41 PM.

  18. #18
    Jundo - thank you!

    This is one of the many reasons I appreciate the shared knowledge here. I've been reading 'The Tibetan Book of the Dead' for some time - mainly as an
    inspiration for an art project, but knew nothing about it's background other than what is written in the introduction.

    The Donald S. Lopez book is not something I would have come across - but it looks really interesting. I think I'm going to read it because it will fill in historical gaps in the same way that David L. McMahan's 'The Making of Buddhist Modernism' did when I read it.

    There's a good summary of Lopez's book in this archive,

    History aside - there is fantastic imagery in the Tibetan Book of the Dead - and taken as metaphor for the machinations of the conscious/unconscious mind I find it useful.

    Thanks for an interesting thread,


    Last edited by Jinyo; 10-11-2014 at 12:07 AM.

  19. #19
    Interesting thread. Thanks Tim and Jundo. The Zen and the afterlife book looks interesting - I feel it's one aspect of Zen Buddhism I haven't really read anything about. Looking forward to it.


  20. #20
    Thanks Jundo for the clarification. Don't feel bad about using the Internet for this. There's so much diversity in Buddhism, it's hard to keep track of it all, let alone one's own branch/lineage. I am much worse about it.

  21. #21
    Quote Originally Posted by jphiled View Post
    Thanks Jundo for the clarification. Don't feel bad about using the Internet for this. There's so much diversity in Buddhism, it's hard to keep track of it all, let alone one's own branch/lineage. I am much worse about it.
    We do have a couple of online book sections I have posted to help new folks (even some confused new-old folks) to make their way through the various flavors of Buddhism ... and various flavors of Zen! ... that one might encounter. Even within the Zen world, folks might be confused (I sure was, for years!) why books and talks by various Teachers, all called "Zen" ... might be recommending various rather different things. Even "Soto Zen" has various sub-flavors!

    I like to say, "All Just The Same, yet sometimes very different. Often different, yet precisely the Same."

    My main caution about the following is that they paint with a rather broad brush and overstatements ...

    Special reading - eight types of enlightenment

    Special reading - once born twice born zen (part 1)

    Special reading - (more) once born twice born zen

    For more in depth reading, we have the following on our recommended reading list ...

    • Buddhism For Dummies by Jonathan Landaw & Stephan Bodian (Jundo: I have been looking for a very long time for a book for people very new to Buddhism who want to know basic information and all the many flavors of Buddhist schools, their beliefs and practices. Despite the silly title, this is a very smart, well written, comprehensive and detailed yet easy (and fun) to read, humorous and serious guide, covers most of the major bases and in quite some detail, gives fair treatment to the many flavors of Buddhism, is very down to earth about the more magical aspects of Buddhism (it tries to present a more psychological than literal take on Karma and Rebirth, for example) .... and it covers everything and the kitchen sink. I learned a thing or two. I just wish they would change the title. If I have one criticism, I wish they had done a better job in contrasting the various approaches of Zen. I recommend this book primarily for people very new to Buddhism in general.)
    .................................................. .................................................. .................................................. .................................................. ...................

    • Simple Guide to Zen Buddhism by Diana St. Ruth (Jundo: For folks who are completely new, puzzled and perplexed about Zen Buddhism's history and practices of various flavors. It is detailed in its explanation, balanced and quite comprehensive in the many topics it covers. I would not recommend the book for anyone who had been practicing for even a few months, but it may still answer some questions and be good to give to your dad or sister who is completely confused by what we are doing here ... and may think that we are wearing bed sheets while dancing in drum circles with the Dalai Lama during the Soltice. As with any book, it is not perfect. It could still do even a better job in explaining the various different approaches of Soto and Rinzai, Koan Centered Zazen and Shikantaza ... but they are touched upon. But compared to most other books on the subject, it is well researched, comprehensive, very balanced and gets it right.)
    Gassho, J

  22. #22
    What a great discussion. This was quite enjoyable..
    Thanks everyone

  23. #23
    Thank you Jundo for the helpful links and the book readings. I might read the "Dummies" book, since we're all beginners anyway.

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