There is a skillful and beautiful Buddhist tradition for families and friends of someone who has passed away. The family members and friends come to the monastery and make offerings that support the monastic community. They receive puñña, merit from these offerings, and they dedicate that merit to the deceased, in whatever state of being he or she may have moved on to. In countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and for Buddhists who live in the West, there are certain occasions when family and friends come to make these offerings—some short period of time after the death, then perhaps six months after the death, and then the year anniversary of the person’s passing away.
In the chanting that is done on those occasions, we don’t recite verses like, “Don’t worry, he’s gone off to be with the angels forever. The Lord is looking after him, and he’ll be happy up in heaven with the bunnies and the blackberries.” Rather, we chant in a more reflective way in terms of the wholesome, unwholesome, and neutral dhammas, the internal and external dhammas, which comprise the different mind states and qualities of experience. Also, for those left behind, there are recollections such as, “All that arises passes away. Whatever comes into being disintegrates, and in its passing there is peace.” They’re not deliberately consoling on an emotional level, but very realistic: “Yes, life came to be, and now it’s ended. It’s dissolved.” This acknowledges the sadness when someone close to us dies, without wallowing in that sadness. At the same time, we don’t suppress it, trying to sugar over everything by thinking, She’s gone to a better place. Well, maybe she has or maybe she hasn’t.
In the Buddhist tradition there’s a great deal of realism around the process of death, and it’s important for us all to cultivate this quality of realism. What we know is that a life came into being, and now it’s ended. That much we can be absolutely sure of. There’s a natural feeling of loss and sadness, a sense that the person was around, a friend, close to us, but now gone. Even the Buddha experienced the loss of those close to him. There’s a famous passage that takes place after the Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna, had passed away. The Buddha says to the gathered Saṅgha, “The assembly seems empty now that Sāriputta and Mahāmoggallāna are no longer here.” So even a fully enlightened being like the Buddha can know and sense the loss of friends and companions. That’s only natural and to be expected. It’s realistic.
The customs of gathering together, taking precepts, making offerings, and dedicating the merit to benefit an individual are ways of taking that feeling of sadness and loss on the occasion of a person’s death and uniting it with an act which is intrinsically wholesome, a brightening act of generosity and kindness. Acts of generosity and dedicating merit bring happiness, brightness, and invigoration to the mind and the heart. Over time, a succession of gatherings, making offerings, and creating wholesome kamma in relationship to that person slowly transforms the occasion of their death from being something associated with an experience of loss and absence into something that is much more a cause for brightness and happiness to arise.
_This reflection by Ajahn Amaro is from_ _[Beginning Our Day, Volume One.](/books/beginning-our-day-volume-one)_