There is a place which I always visit whenever I go on a pilgrimage to the holy land of India. In a riverbank of the Ganges in Varanasi countless people come to experience life and death. At the early dawn on the banks of this river the scene of cremating the body unfolds with white smoke being sent up; and there are those who bathe in the river and brush their teeth, and those who get on boats to distribute cremated ashes and pray for rebirth in the Pure Land (land of ultimate bliss). To see this, countless people of the world come in flocks.

Especially, photographing the scene of cremating the body is absolutely forbidden. This scene is one of the unique Indian rites of passage, which is invisible in other places in the world.

Recently in our country the rite of a funeral has been gradually simplified, and nowadays a funeral, which had been held at home, is being held at a funeral hall. Therefore, the customary formalities of a family (家禮), which had been traditionally performed in every family, has long since perished.

Even as recently as dozens of years ago, at the death of a great Confucian scholar, the funeral ceremony of Confucian scholars such as a five-day funeral or a seven-day funeral, were conducted, but even these ceremonies have languished. It might be within bounds to say that the only traditional funeral ceremony which has narrowly remained is the Buddhist cremation ceremony. The funeral ceremony of the sunims of the Jogye Order is still being conducted in the way of the traditional cremation ceremonies, in the mountains, without using a crematorium.

The history of the Buddhist cremation ceremony goes back even further to the period when the Buddha was alive. The Buddhist funeral ceremony is called “sidarim” (尸茶林: a place for exposing corpses); and the Buddhist cremation ceremony is called “dabi” (茶毘: cremation of a corpse) and it is “jhāpeti” in Pali meaning igniting a fire, which can also be transliterated as “sabi” (闍毘) or “yayu” (耶維). This term originated from when the Buddha stayed at Rājagṛha (王舍城) in the state of Magadha (摩揭陀). The name of a forest lying in the northern part of the castle was the very “sidarim” (尸茶林).

In that forest there was a cemetery, which was the place for burying a corpse or for having a funeral. Hence in our country we came to call “dokgyeong” (讀經: reading the scriptures), or the Buddhist or other funeral ceremonies where there is praying for the repose of the deceased, as “sidarim” (尸茶林). On the other hand, dabi (茶毘) means cremating a corpse, and the Longer Agama Sutra (長阿含經) and the Sutra of the Deathbed Injunction (遺教經) preach about the cremation ceremony of the Buddha.

The Indian way of cremation was introduced into China and adopted widely; and at last it was established as the Buddhist cremation ceremony. Especially, the Chinese Zen school made this ceremony one of Pure Rules (淸規) and performed a solemn and magnificent cremation ceremony to pay a tribute to the Patriarchs’ virtues; in addition, the school collected “sari” (舍利: relics or ashes left after the cremation of an eminent monk) and set up “budo” (浮屠: a round stone pagoda inside which “sari” is preserved), making the Patriarchs a model of future generations. Related to this, the Huanbo Qingqui (黃檗淸規), the Seonrim Sangjeon Honcheonmun, and many kinds of rite collection recorded the procedure of the ceremony in detail.

At the time when the traditional funeral culture of our country has perished, it is really fortunate that the Buddhist cremation ceremony, which has a 1500-year history since Silla’s King Munmu, has been maintained in its original form. Of course, nowadays, voices in the Buddhist clergy (僧家), advocating the simplification of sunims’ cremation ceremony, are sometimes heard. However, if even the Buddhist cremation ceremony, the only remaining traditional funeral ceremony, disappeared, the traditional funeral ceremony of our country would perish completely.

As the doors to preserving the Lotus Lantern Ceremony were opened by the designation of it as an Intangible Cultural Asset, it is thought that the Buddhist cremation ceremony also has value and that there is a necessity to have it preserved as a part of our traditional culture. Ven. Jaseung, the president of the Jogye Order, also urged Expert Advisors of Cultural Properties to be considerate of Buddhist meals consumed with traditional bowls, the culture of the cremation ceremony, the ritual of circling a pagoda etc. In addition to this, there are innumerable Buddhist Intangible Assets that should be preserved such as Palgwanhoe (八關會: a Buddhist ceremony performed as a national event), the ceremony of releasing caged animals for merit (放生), an advance funeral ceremony in one’s lifetime (生前預修齋), etc.

Among these, preserving the Buddhist cremation ceremony is urgent at the level of the preservation of the traditional way of funerals in our country. I earnestly pray for the designation of the cremation ceremony such as a funeral of the Jogye Order or that of Council of Elders as Intangible Cultural Assets, in order to preserve these ceremonies in their entirety.

[불교신문 2820호/ 5월26일자]