What Does Buddhism Teach About Grief and Loss?

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Death and grief are universal human experiences. Maybe you want to know more about Buddhist grief. Perhaps you’re considering becoming a Buddhist, maybe you want to learn how Buddhist grief teaching can help you overcome your own sorrow after a loss, or maybe this topic simply interests you.

Jump ahead to these sections:

This general overview will help you better understand how many Buddhists approach the experience.

What Do Buddhists Believe About Grief?

It’s important to understand that there isn’t necessarily a consensus among Buddhists and scholars regarding Buddhist beliefs about grief. Various texts and teachings offer a range of perspectives on the topic.

That said, many Buddhists would equate grief with the concept of dukkha. This term refers to the various painful experiences we must endure, that, according to Buddhist teachings, are natural elements of human life. 

Grief is arguably one form of dukkha. In Buddhism, dukkha, or suffering, often arises due to our attachment to impermanent pleasures. Thus, if you’re grieving after someone’s death, your grief may be the result of you being attached to their presence in your life, instead of accepting the loss.

That said, while Buddhist teachings state that the nature of existence involves suffering, they also state that there are ways to end or escape your suffering. It’s also possible to avoid it entirely. You can end the grief you feel when a loved one dies, but if you’ve already taken proper steps, you may never have to feel grief in the first place, according to Buddhist beliefs.

However, this doesn’t mean Buddhism teaches its followers to treat death with an apathetic or ambivalent attitude. An argument could be made that Buddhist teachings actually emphasize the significance of acknowledging death when it occurs. Being more fully aware of death and the pain it may bring can help a person develop greater compassion for others. 

Because many Buddhist grief and mourning rituals also involve a focus on a spirit’s journey through the afterlife, by experiencing grief in some form, a Buddhist reminds themselves of their overall spiritual beliefs.

That’s a key point. Buddhists don’t reject grief as “bad” or “wrong.” You’re not a “bad Buddhist” if you grieve when someone dies. Buddhism simply holds that the experience of grief can be one of spiritual awakening if you grieve with intention and knowledge.

What Are Buddhist Grief Rituals?

The following Buddhist grief rituals aren’t universal throughout the religion. Different types of Buddhists have different rituals. These are merely some of the more noteworthy and common:

Monk visits

When a Theravada Buddhist dies, the deceased’s loved ones hold a funeral followed by a cremation. Monks will visit them at their home one week, three months, and one year after their loved one’s death.

The visiting monks conduct ceremonies that serve to increase the deceased’s positive karma. That’s the primary function of these visits.

However, in terms of Buddhist grief rituals, these visits can also offer comfort to mourners. It’s not uncommon in many religions and cultures for members of the community to acknowledge someone is grieving by regularly visiting them. These visits could have the same purpose.

The ceremonies the monks perform may also reinforce their faith that a deceased loved one is heading to a rebirth. This faith may help ease their grief as well.

49 days

Tibetan Buddhists believe that the process of rebirth takes 49 days to complete when someone dies. During the 49 days after someone’s death, monks may routinely visit the home of the deceased’s loved ones. Similar to Theravada Buddhists, they conduct prayer rituals that assist the deceased throughout the rebirth process.

These 49 days after death also give the deceased’s close loved ones an opportunity to thoroughly grieve. Additionally, family members generally participate in the prayer rites through the 49 days. This is partially because doing so can give them peace of mind. Participating in the rites for 49 days allows them to accept that they’ve done their part to help the deceased have a positive rebirth.

Those who’ve observed Buddhists grieving in this way note that it seems to be very effective psychologically. Even when someone is deeply sad in the first few days after a loved one’s death, by the 49th day, they’re often genuinely blissful.

This ritual is another reminder that Buddhists don’t reject grief entirely. Instead, in some Buddhist traditions, they specifically set aside periods of time specifically to allow mourners to grieve a loss.

Sky burial

Not all Buddhist funerals and cremations are the same. For example, many Tibetan Buddhists practice sky burials.

Monks place the body of someone who recently died up on a hill and allow vultures to eat it. After, the monks gather any remains that may be left and burn them.

This ritual could also provide insights into Buddhist grief. One of the purposes of a sky burial is to face life’s impermanence by giving a body back to nature. This may serve as a reminder that overcoming grief must involve accepting the impermanence of life.

Pre-sky burial rituals

The rituals monks perform prior to a sky burial offer a deeper look into some Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife. Typically, for four to nine days before a sky burial, monks will hold vigil with the deceased’s body. Someone will read passages from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to the deceased during these vigils.

In Tibetan Buddhism, when a person dies, they must move through a transition phase, or bardo, before they are reborn. This involves overcoming various challenges. Other factors, such as a person’s deeds in life, can influence how long this period lasts. Monks read from “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” to guide the deceased through the bardo.

Family graves

Many aspects of Zen Buddhism grief and mourning rituals are fairly similar to funeral practices in other religions and cultures. After someone dies, relatives keep vigil for up to 24 hours, monks chant Buddhist prayers for the dead, and guests offer money to the deceased’s loved ones — similar to a wake.

Cremation follows. After the cremation, loved ones collect the remains of the deceased, place them in an urn, and place the urn in a shared family grave. This illustrates how a focus on grieving as a family and community can help Buddhists overcome their sadness after a death. It also reflects the emphasis on family prominent among cultures in the areas where Zen Buddhism is common.

Mizuko kuyō

Mizuko kuyō is a unique Japanese Buddhist grief and mourning ritual that is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. and other countries.

This particular ritual involves mourning after an abortion or miscarriage. Traditionally, in Japan, the significance of the ritual is to calm what might otherwise be an angry spirit.

However, it’s taken on a new purpose, particularly in the U.S. Many American women who’ve learned of or participated in mizuko kuyō react with surprise when they consider how natural and useful the idea of such a ritual seems, and yet how uncommon such rituals are throughout the world. For example, one woman who had an abortion in high school endured grief for years even though she felt comfortable with her choice.

She also felt she couldn’t talk to anyone about this grief. This prevented her from fully healing. It was only after participating in a mizuko kuyō ritual that she was finally able to move on.

A standard mizuko kuyō ritual involves making some token for the spirit, such as a necklace. Chants to Jizo, who you could describe as the Buddhist equivalent of a patron saint for children, follow. This often occurs at statues of Jizo when possible. The woman doesn’t even have to be present. Some may choose to be, but others may derive enough comfort from knowing the ritual occurred and don’t feel the need to participate.

That said, while this ritual is certainly new to the U.S., it’s also relatively new to Japan. Scholars believe Japanese Buddhists didn’t start practicing it until after World War II.

That’s significant. After World War II, the abortion rate in Japan rose sharply. Some believe the rise of mizuko kuyō was a response to that. If so, this ritual serves as an example of how a religion can evolve over time to serve the new needs of its followers. Its growing popularity outside of traditionally Buddhist environments also reminds us that grief practices from other religions and cultures can help us overcome sorrow when practices from our own culture lack.

Buddhist Grief: A Spiritual Response to the Human Condition

This is by no means a complete representation of all Buddhist grief rituals and beliefs. Hopefully it gives you a deeper look into Buddhism and grief.


Sources

  1. “Adopting A Buddhist Ritual To Mourn Miscarriage, Abortion.” NPR, NPR, 15 August 2015, www.npr.org/2015/08/15/429761386/adopting-a-buddhist-ritual-to-mourn-miscarriage-abortion
  2. Borges, Paolo. “Suffering, death, grief and overcoming it from a Buddhist perspective.” Academia, Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Lisboa, 2017, www.academia.edu/35035122/Suffering_death_grief_and_overcoming_it_from_a_Buddhist_perspective
  3. “Buddhist Death Rites.” Tricycle, Tricycle, 2012, tricycle.org/magazine/buddhist-death-rites/
  4. Novick, Rebecca. “49 Days, 49 Years: Dalai Lama Leads Prayer Service for Tibetans Killed in Protests.” HuffPost, Verizon Media, 6 December 2016, www.huffpost.com/entry/49-days-49-years-dalai-la_b_99335#:~:text=Advertisement-,49%20Days%2C%2049%20Years%3A%20Dalai%20Lama%20Leads%20Prayer%20Service,for%20Tibetans%20Killed%20in%20Protests&text=According%20to%20Tibetans%2C%20after%20death,one%20life%20to%20the%20next.&text=Generally%2C%20groups%20of%20monks%20come,that%20often%20last%20all%20day.
  5. “Practices in Buddhism.” BBC, BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zh67xfr/revision/6#:~:text=In%20the%20Mahayana%20tradition%2C%20when,stage%20of%20rebirth%20to%20occur.
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