Shinranʼs Teachings and Memorial Services

Can Sutra Reading Save the Dead? By Kentetsu Takamori

Q: There is a common saying that the greatest feast for the dead is the reading of sutras. Does having a sutra read by a priest benefit the dead? Please tell me what Shinran taught about this.

A: The idea that reading sutras at funerals and memorial services will benefit the dead is often taken for granted. But Śākyamuni Buddha himself, the founder of Buddhism, denounced such superstitious thinking, and Shinran conveyed his teaching on the matter in the strictest of terms.

Once one of Śākyamuniʼs disciples posed this question. “Master, people say that chanting a sutra as you circle the dead enables them to be reborn in a better place. Is it true?”

The Buddha silently picked up a pebble and tossed it into a nearby pond. As the pebble sank to the bottom, leaving only circles of water on the surface, he pointed and responded with this question: “If I walked around the pond chanting ʻStone, riseʼ would the stone float up to the surface?”

The pebble sank of its own weight. In the same way, every personʼs fate after death is the outcome of his or her own actions. There is no possible way that reading a sutra could have any effect on the fate of someone who has died. This was Śākyamuniʼs teaching.

Belief that rites and sutra readings could save the dead was not originally part of Buddhism. Indeed, the purpose of Buddhism was to break through such false notions and lead people to absolute happiness while they were living. Shinran declared that he never once said the nembutsu for the repose of his parents, a clear sign of how much he reviled such deep-rooted superstition.

But others, fearing the wrath and recriminations of Buddhist priests and others who make their living from rites and sutra readings, have failed to speak the truth and have declared that these rituals do indeed help the dead. Human sympathy for the dead and desire to ease their passage has also naturally too played a role in popularizing belief in the efficacy of these rituals.

People who think this way have no idea how sutras came into being in the first place. They are sermons of Śākyamuni, written down by his disciples so that we in later generations might be led out of our pain and suffering into happiness. Certainly Śākyamuni would not have preached to the dead. Sutras are all intended for the living, as are Shinranʼs Hymn of True Faith and Rennyoʼs Letters. Not one word was written for the dead. It is essential to understand that sutras were written to guide those in the midst of pain and suffering to happiness.

Then are Buddhist funerals, memorial services, and sutra readings totally without meaning? That all depends on the spirit in which they are approached. A solemn funeral can awaken attendees to their sinful nature and their mortality, and fill them with a desire to listen to Buddhism. This would be strongly to their benefit. In the same way, memorial services should not consist of the meaningless recitation of incomprehensible nonsense syllables. The sutras have meaning if listeners hear and understand their message, and are led to seek out Amidaʼs salvation with great urgency.

Once someone is dead, there is nothing more the living can do for that person, much as they might yearn to.

This admonition of Rennyoʼs should be taken to heart:

Close Translation:

Unless all doubt [about Amidaʼs Vow] is swiftly dispelled during this lifetime, regret will surely follow. Bear it well in mind. The Letters, Fascicle 1

Amplified Translation:

Unless you encounter Amidaʼs salvation while you are alive, you are sure to be sorry. Make sure you keep this in mind.

(Petals of Shinran, The Cherry volume, Chapter 11)

Source: The Buddhist Village Times #20 | 2012, Shinranʼs Teachings and Memorial Services

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