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Buddhist rituals of death and rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan practice and its origins

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In Buddhist thought and practice, death has always been a central concept. This book provides a careful and thorough analysis of the rituals and social customs surrounding death in the Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka. Rita Langer describes the rituals of death and rebirth and investigates their ancient origins, analyzing social issues of the relationship between monks and lay people in this context. This aspect is of particular interest as death rituals are the only life cycle ritual in which Theravada Buddhist monks are actively involved. Drawing on early Vedic sutras and Pali texts as well as archaeological and epigraphical material, Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth establishes that Sri Lankan rituals are deeply rooted in their pre-Buddhist, Vedic precursors. Whilst beliefs and doctrines have undergone considerable changes over the centuries, it becomes evident that the underlying practices have largely remained stable. The first comprehensive study of death rituals in Theravada Buddhist practice, this is an important contribution to the fields of Buddhist studies, indology, anthropology and religious studies.

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Chapter
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Funerals play a key role in grief and mourning, but little is known about the culturally scripted processes after a disaster. Cambodia has faced multiple disasters, from the Khmer Rouge killing fields to COVID-19. Drawing upon a case study of the 2010 Diamond Island stampede, which killed 347 people, this article focuses on the period leading up to the funeral ceremony, while a companion article discusses events that unfold in the months that follow. An ethnographic study was carried out in Phnom Penh and nine provinces with members of the families of those who were killed, villagers, and monks and Buddhist lay officiants. Buddhist ceremonies conducted at the cremation and at seven- and hundred-days, helped families accept the irreversibility of loss and allow the dead to be reborn. Complications comprised the misidentification of bodies, managing the dangerous ghosts of ‘bad death’, getting the souls safely from the mortuary to the cremation site and dealing with disruptions along the way, convincing the souls that they are really dead, and ambiguous losses in the case of ‘counterfeit funerals’ conducted without the corpse. The mourning hinges on the maintenance of continuing bonds as evidenced by the ‘dream work’ by the bereft families, enabled by the ‘emergency Buddhist disaster relief’ provided by the monks. It is proposed that understanding the cultural deathscapes can provide insights into developing culturally-responsive interventions after a disaster.
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This article considers the litigation in Ghai v Newcastle City Council in which the legality of open air funeral pyres under the Cremation Act 1902, and under the right to freedom of religion and belief in article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, was considered. Ultimately the Court of Appeal held that open air funeral pyres within a walled enclosure were not unlawful. But at first instance the Administrative Court, which had assumed that domestic law prohibited such pyres, held that such a ban would not breach article 9 since it was legitimate to prevent causing offence to the majority of the population. It is the approach of the Administrative Court to article 9 (which was not considered by the Court of Appeal) that forms the basis of the critical analysis in this article. In particular it is argued that the Administrative Court undervalued the right to freedom of religion and belief, as against the need to prevent offence to others, and adopted a stance which was overly deferential to Government and Parliament.1
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In my tours throughout the interior, I found ancient monuments, apparently defying decay, of which no one could tell the date or the founder; and temples and cities in ruins, whose destroyers were equally unknown. SIR JAMES EMERSON TENNANT(1859: xxv). There are competing, yet interlinked, identities in Sri Lanka through which people ‘establish, maintain, and protect a sense of self-meaning, predictability, and purpose’ (Northrup 1989: 55). These have become established over hundreds of years, and communities are attributed labels including Sinhala, Tamil, Vadda, Buddhist and Hindu (Coningham & Lewer 1999: 857). Sri Lanka is now experiencing what Azar (1990) has called a ‘protracted social conflict’, wherein a section of the Tamil communities led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are engaged in a struggle to establish a Tamil honieland or Eelam . International links, especially with south India, have had important implications on the formation of identities in Sri Lanka. Here we will focus on a key influence which has deep archaeological and political implications, whose interpretation has informed and distorted the present understanding of the concept and evolution of identities. This theme, the Vijayan colonization of the island, illustrates the formulation of identities, especially as derived from a historical chronicle, the Mahavamsa , which was ‘rediscovered’ by colonial officials in AD 1826 and has played a major role in determining the dynamics of this conflict.
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Tout en soulignant que les bouddhistes indiens ne partagent pas la meme pensee ontologique et metaphysique, l'A. suggere neanmoins qu'il existe une orientation generale qui tend a localiser la realite dans l'esprit. Il existe une tendance idealiste dans l'ensemble de la pensee bouddhiste indienne. L'A. met l'accent sur les idees cosmologiques qui concernent l'expansion et la contraction de l'univers et leurs consequences sur notre comprehension de la nature et de la signification de la quatrieme meditation dans le recit des etapes du chemin bouddhiste presentees dans les Nikāyas et l'Abhidharma
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L'A. replace le conte Pāli de la stūpa de la none anonyme et le recit Mūlasarvāstivādin de la stūpa de Phalguna dans le contexte de ce qui a ete dit ailleurs des stūpas. Le Canon Pāli et la Vinaya Mūlasarvāstivādin demandent explicitement l'erection de stūpas par les moines pour leurs freres decedes, mais aucune demande similaire n'est formulee a l'egard des nones. Le conte Pāli de la stūpa de la none anonyme est le seul texte connu par l'A. ou il est fait reference a l'erection d'une stūpa pour une none. Il s'agit d'ailleurs d'une stūpa detruite par des moines qui ne recoivent aucune sanction pour leurs actes
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This paper is an attempt to look at Indian Buddhism ‘on the ground’ and is an exercise in what might be called ‘the archeology of religions’. It focuses on one distinct aspect of Buddhist sacred sites in India: the fact that stūpas housing the physical remains of the Buddha or marking a spot where the Buddha was thought formerly to have been present are frequently surrounded by large numbers of smaller secondary stūpas. It attempts to show that these secondary stūpas have mortuary associations and suggests the resulting pattern parallels what is known in the Medieval West as burial ad sanctos. It then attempts—through known archeological parallels, inscriptions, and literary sources—to give meaning to this pattern and suggests that, in spite of doctrinal statements to the contrary, the historical Buddha remained a living presence in the midst of Indian Buddhist communities.