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Prayers for the Victims of the Capsized Ferry Sewol
Cheondojae: Prayers for the Deceased
Korea’s Traditional Funeral Ceremony
Korea’s Traditional Funeral Ceremony
The Buddha taught that human beings live in a sea of suffering due to their desire, anger, and ignorance. He also expounded that life itself is suffering (苦), pointing out the fact that we must all undergo birth, sickness, old age, and finally face death.
Since life is suffering, it would seem that the only way to put an end to this suffering is death. Consequently, virtually all religions attempt to understand death and existence / non-existence after death. Western religions, including Christianity, maintain the worldview of an afterlife (in heaven and hell). Buddhist practitioners also keenly investigate where the souls of the deceased will be after death.
Cheondojae, the after-death ceremony (荐度斋), originates from the prayer for spirits to find peace and repose in the afterlife. Thus, the Cheondojae is commonly referred to as a Traditional Buddhist Ceremony of Death and the Afterlife. Chun (荐) means to recommend and Do (度) is to guide the spirit of the deceased to find a rebirth in a better place or direct them along the path of virtue. Chundo ultimately means to guide or save souls after death in order that they might have a blissful rebirth in the Pure Land or heavenly realms. Cheondojae in fact contains a very broad meaning, which incorporates diverse Buddhist ceremonies such as the 49-days service, Suryukjae (ceremony to pray for the lonely spirits and hungry ghosts in water and on land), and the Yeongsanjae Buddhist rites (honoring Sakyamuni’s sermon at the sacred Vulture Peak Mountain and praying for all sentient beings, including the spirits of the deceased).
What is referred to as the spirit (靈驾) (that which is subjected to the Cheondojae), recognizes the endless cycle of existence (or permanence due to one’s karma, a profound concept difficult to understand and accept). It also implies a reasonable recognition of spirits being led to the Pure Land, independent from the substantial teachings of ‘selflessness’ of Buddhism. The soul is acknowledged as an entity, and depending on the karma (cause and effect of one’s actions) of each individual, the soul will be transferred from one physical body to another and reincarnate in endless cyclical rebirths. This is often referred to as Traditional Buddhist Death Rites, to help the spirit of the deceased to find a rebirth in the Pure Land or in the heavenly realms (靈驾荐度).
The chanting of mantras (眞言) is mostly commonly utilized in Cheondojae ceremonies to call upon the spirits and offer them Dharma teachings (法门). This is done so that they might realize the futility of attachment to life, and to teach them to let go of any attachments and habitual obsessions from this life. Through sincerity (and prayers) from the living, spiritual powers and protection from the Guardians of Buddha-Dharma, and with the blessings from the Buddha and teachings of the truth, prayers are offered to the deceased, in which they are guided to find a blissful rebirth in the Pure Land.
Depending on ritual procedures, rites are categorized as Sangjugwongongjae (常住劝供斋) a form of the 49-day funeral service, Gakbaejae (各拜斋) prayers offered for the deceased to pass onto a better realm, and Yeongsanjae Buddhist rites. The Sangjungwongongjae ceremony is often interchangeably used to describe the 49-day funeral ceremony, the most basic ritual of them all. Gakbaejae rites have additional beliefs in Myeongbu or the ten kings of the nether world, enshrined to judge the fates of the deceased according to their deeds in this life. Yeongsanjae Buddhist rites symbolizes Sakyamuni’s sermon at the sacred Vulture Peak Mountain to lead the spirits to enlightenment.
The Cheondojae ceremony, commonly held at Buddhist temples, is thus becoming an alternative plan for funeral rites and after-death ceremonies chosen by many people. This is possible regardless of one’s belief in Buddhism. The Cheondojae ceremony ultimately allows the living to realize a sense of closure with those who have passed on by providing this important ritual for the souls of the deceased, guiding them to a blissful rebirth in the Pure Land.