Preacher and Ritualist: the role of the Theravada Buddhist monk

Project Details

Layman's description

Death rituals are the only life cycle ritual in which Theravada Buddhist monks are actively involved and thus provide an excellent context in which to observe the monk-laity relationship. The Theravada death rituals are rather complex and include protective chanting (to prevent a 'bad death'), 'confusing' the spirit of the dead, feeding crows and ancestors, inviting gods to be present, transferring merit, ridding a place of ghosts, gambling and dancing. The monks' involvement, however, is confined to three main areas: preaching, chanting and a ritual called "offering of the cloth of the dead". This project brought together material on those connected areas, which form the "Buddhist core" of the funerals.

Key findings

Death rituals are the only life cycle ritual in which Theravada Buddhist monks are actively involved and thus provide an excellent context in which to observe the monk-laity relationship. The Theravada death rituals are rather complex and include protective chanting (to prevent a 'bad death'), 'confusing' the spirit of the dead, feeding crows and ancestors, inviting gods to be present, transferring merit, ridding a place of ghosts, gambling and dancing. The monks' involvement, however, is confined to three main areas: preaching, chanting and a ritual called "offering of the cloth of the dead". I have collected material on those connected areas, which form the "Buddhist core" of the funerals, and produced as outcome two independent articles and a book.
1. Buddhist Chanting
The use of Pali, the ancient and sacred language of the Theravada Buddhists of South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) is not widely understood by lay people or even monks. This raises questions regarding the interplay of sacred language and ritual activity. So far research has tended to concentrate either on the doctrine and philosophy expressed in the ancient Abhidhamma texts used in the rituals or on the ritual act itself (e.g. ethnographic reports which largely ignore the actual wording of the chants). The present study is unique in that it examines the interplay of text and ritual and establishes a common core of Theravada rituals while still paying close attention to the differences in the performance of these rituals in different Theravada countries. The output has been one research article analysing the field data (recordings and interviews) and outlining a model (bricolage) that allows an explanation of the common core of Theravada chanting while taking into account regional differences.
2. Buddhist Ritual
The core of the Theravada Buddhist funeral rites, which can be observed from Sri Lanka to Laos, is the offering of a white piece of cloth to the monks. The offering is made by the close relatives and accompanied by the chanting of the appropriate Pali verses. The cloth is referred to in secondary literature as either mataka-vastra ('cloth of/for the dead') or pamsukula ('refuse rag'). The latter term refers to the ancient ascetic custom of wearing robes made from discarded rags and is the usual starting point for the interpretation of this extremely common ritual given in secondary literature. The present paper challenges this interpretation by focusing on the former term ('cloth for the dead'), which links this ceremony to the ancient Vedic practice of providing the deceased with a new garment for the life to come. In a second step the article shows how this new cloth (which is donated to the priest/monk who receives it on behalf of the deceased) came to be referred to as a 'refuse rag' from a charnel ground and other unclean places. The reinterpretation is not based on a mistake or misconception, but is rather a creative act in the form of the Buddhicisation of a pre-Buddhist ritual. More generally it provides a beautiful example of the workings of inclusivism, which is a general feature not only of Indian religions and, therefore, of interest to anyone engaged in the study of religions. Based on these findings I have then analysed why and how this ancient custom came to be firmly associated with the monastic ascetic practice of wearing robes made from discarded rags, including shrouds, etc. and published the findings in a peer reviewed journal (JRAS).
3. Buddhist Sermons
Preaching is as important in Buddhism as it is in Christianity, but while sermons have attracted ample attention from scholars of Christianity the same cannot be said for Buddhist Studies. Buddhist sermons are a curiously under- researched area. Besides, sermon texts themselves are not widely accessible to a Western audience. Some famous monks' sermons are available on MP3 and CD but only a few of those are in English. I have transcribed (in Sinhala) a set of funeral sermons and made an annotated translation (in English). These translations of sermons recorded in a small village represent an unheard voice of ordinary village monks, and give insights into everyday religiosity. This material proved to be rather more substantial than expected and has provided interesting insights into everyday religiosity in rural Sri Lanka. The results were published as a monograph in the peer reviewed series Studia Philologica Buddhica (Japan).
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date1/03/101/07/10

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  • Research Output

    • 2 Chapter in a book
    • 1 Authored book
    • 1 Article (Academic Journal)

    From Riches to Rags: how new clothes for the dead become old robes for monks

    Langer, REM., Jan 2014, In : Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society. p. 125-144 20 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

  • 69 Downloads (Pure)

    Sermon Studies and Buddhism: A Case Study of Sri Lankan Preaching

    Langer, REM., Apr 2013, Tokyo: International Institute for Buddhist Studies. 238 p. (Studia Philologica Buddhica; vol. 30)

    Research output: Book/ReportAuthored book

    Chanting as 'bricolage technique': a comparison of South and Southeast Asian funeral recitation

    Langer, REM., 2012, Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China. Williams, P. & Ladwig, P. (eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 21-58

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

    1 Citation (Scopus)
    77 Downloads (Pure)

    Projects

    BUDDHIST DEATH RITUALS OF SOUTH EAST ASIA AND CHINA

    Williams, P. M., Kieschnick, J. H., Ladwig, P., Langer, R. E. M. & Laxton, A.

    1/01/071/04/10

    Project: Research