Buddhism: The Death and Dying Practices
Emily B. Niehues
Angelo State University
Buddhism: The Death and Dying Practices
Understanding many ethnic, cultural, or religious groups and their practices is an important part of being a nurse. Nurses should not stereotype based on race or ethnicity, rather they should ask patients what groups they associate themselves with. The nurse can then perform care that is appropriate for the ethnic, cultural, or religious group they are a part of. When caring for a hospice patient who associates with the religion Buddhism, one must learn the history, customs for symptom management, what is considered acceptable or taboo, and the rituals and customs performed for the deceased.
Buddhism first began in North West India about 2,500 years ago (“Buddhist Funerals”, n.d.). It is the law of nature and was first taught by Siddhartha Guatama, who is known as the Buddha, also called “the Awakened One” (“The life of the Buddha”, n.d.). His teachings are known as “Dharma” and have spread from India to China, Tibet, Japan, Thailand, Sri Lanka and many other places (“Buddhist Funerals”, n.d.). Those that practice Buddhism in the additional countries follow the general practices of the religion; however, they have made changes and accommodations and essentially have created subtypes of the religion. For example, there is Theravada Buddhism and Thai forest tradition in Thailand, Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Chan and Zen Buddhism in China, Nichiren Buddhism in Japan, and Buddhism of Sri Lanka (One Mind Dharma, 2017). Knowing the history of Buddhism will help one understand the measures done or not done for those who practice the religion and are dying.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation, the rebirth of a life, and karma, the belief that good and righteous actions will provide one happiness and bad and obscene actions will bring them suffering. They also believe in compassion. Many practicing Buddhists in hospice or palliative care, state that the goal is to be as comfortable as possible, reduce any suffering, and have a peaceful death. In the article, Buddhist Ethics and End-of-Life Care Decisions, it is stated that some Buddhists will refuse medical intervention and will perform various forms of meditation (McCormick, 2013, p. 222). A few may even refuse pain medication. The article also states that many will accept the reality of death to help prepare themselves for their upcoming death (McCormick, 2013, p. 222). Some Buddhists may offer up dedication prayers too.
There are many different medical interventions that Buddhists find acceptable and some that are found as taboo. When it comes to life-sustaining treatment, Buddhists believe in the natural process of dying. Therefore, they believe that tube feedings are acceptable when they are considered not a medical treatment but moreover a human need (McCormick, 2013, p. 216). However, if the tube feedings are used to prolong the life of a dying person, then it is thought of as taboo (McCormick, 2013, p. 217). Buddhists understand that delaying the death of a dying life may cause anger and frustration in that person and eventually cause them to suffer. Furthermore, they will not be able to die peacefully. Buddhists also do not believe in intentionally ending one’s life. For example, this would include euthanasia, assisted suicide, or withdrawing mechanical ventilation. On the other hand, Buddhists are allowed to donate their organs. Many believe that this action is a form of compassion and good karma since they are giving life to others in need.
Buddhists’ goal for the dying is to help them make an easy transition to the afterlife. From a Buddhists’ perspective, when a person dies, they are reborn and sent to the Pure Land. According to the article, Buddhist Realities Concerning Death, it is stated that Buddhists should die in a calm state, surrounded by loved ones, and saying their goodbyes (Rosenblatt, 2016). For these reasons, Buddhists should not die unexpectedly such as in a car crash or in any other serious injury. Once someone is dead, Buddhists believe that their soul stays close to the body for a couple of hours (Fowler, 2017). Many families ask that the body not be moved during those hours to give the soul time to detach and be reborn. Although, if the person who has passed away did not give up their attachments to people, things, or symbols then it is harder for the person’s consciousness to move on (Rosenblatt, 2016). Before one dies, the family can help the person give up their attachments so that they can have a peaceful death and move to the Pure Land faster. A monk or nun may also be sought out to chant from the Buddhists scriptures to help the dying person be in the right place spiritually (Roberson, Smith, & Davidson, 2018).
Once someone has passed away, the body will be prompted by a monk to be taken to the temple (Fowler, 2017). Buddhists’ funerals vary between each subtype of the religion and can last a couple of hours. Some funerals will consist of a short and straightforward service performed by monks who may chant scriptures and be held at a crematorium chapel. Offerings performed by family or other mourners that transfer worthiness and value to the deceased may be completed too if a monk cannot be contacted (“Buddhist Funeral Service Rituals”, n.d.). Other funerals, such as traditional Buddhist funerals, may consist of the family wearing white or white cloth, chanting or singing prayers, bringing fruit or flowers as offerings, burning incense, and ringing gongs or bells (“Buddhist Funeral Service Rituals”, n.d.). The body may either be cremated or buried, but cremation is preferred. If the body is not cremated, there will be an open casket. If a burial has been chosen for the funeral, a monk will perform the last rites before closing and sealing the casket (“Buddhist Funeral Service Rituals”, n.d.).
The Buddhist religion is based upon the law of nature where they believe in reincarnation and karma. These characteristics set rules and help people live a life full of compassion and selflessness. As a result of living life like that, they will be able to have a peaceful death. Anyone who works in the healthcare field needs to learn the customs of many ethnic, culture, and religious groups, especially those who work in hospice. They need to know these rituals because many people want to die knowing that they died following their beliefs.
Buddhist funerals. (n.d.). Retrieved August 5, 2018, from https://www.thebuddhistsociety.org/page/buddhist-funerals/
Buddhist funeral service rituals. (n.d.). Retrieved August 05, 2018, from https://www.funeralwise.com/customs/buddhist/
Fowler, J. (2017). From staff nurse to nurse consultant: Spiritual care part 3: Buddhism. British Journal of Nursing, 26(12), 710.
McCormick, A. J. (2013). Buddhist ethics and end-of-life care decisions. Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life ; Palliative Care, 9(2-3), 209-225. doi:10.1080/15524256.2013.794060
One Mind Dharma. (2017, December 09). Understanding the different types of buddhism. Retrieved August 05, 2018, from https://oneminddharma.com/types-of-buddhism/#respond
Roberson, K., Smith, T., ; Davidson, W. (2018). Understanding death rituals. International Journal of Childbirth Education, 33(3), 22-24.
Rosenblatt, P. C. (2016). Buddhist realities concerning death. Death Studies, 40(10), 648-650.
The life of the buddha. (n.d.). Retrieved August 05, 2018, from https://www.diamondway-buddhism.org/buddhism/buddha/