Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Ancestor Appreciation in Improved Buddhism

Ancestor veneration is so common in virtually every society that has arisen on Earth that it would be beyond contemplation to not have it as part of any improved religion. But just exactly how should it be incorporated? 


This is connected to the beliefs of a society in an afterlife, in several variant ways. One belief is in temporary immortality where the dead person stays in some sort of conscious state without a body, and is still able to have some interaction with the world. Then the relationship that existed before death can still go on in some formalized practice. For example, the dead person's descendants could ask for assistance. This would apply in a society where one generation was actively involved in counseling or otherwise assisting lineal younger generations. Or the dead person could be shown respect in some manner, which would apply in a society where children were taught to be very respectful of their parents, grandparents and older people in general. Another sort of belief is in the existence of a spirit world, where the dead person's spirit has to travel some distance and certain ceremonies by his descendants is supposed to assist the spirit in that voyage. Alternatively, the spirit world could have different places, and moving from one to a better one is done with the assistance of a dead person's descendants. As a further alternative, the spirit world can be an unpleasant place, and dissolution of the dead person's spirit can only be assured by some ceremonies done on the part of his descendants or their surrogates. 


These and similar practices can be divided into two categories: those done solely by the descendants, and those which require the intercession of another person from some religious hierarchy. The latter category can be seen as a way to define tasks for the hierarchy, making them important in society and providing them with some support, which they likely need as they may not have their own source of sustenance. There may well be some precursor activities of the second category that descendants of a dead person feel they must have performed, even if most of their activities eventually are in the first category. 


Since science has demolished the antique beliefs in spirits and spirit worlds, these two categories of activities connected with a dead person no longer have the former rationales that they formerly did. There may be other justifications for certain activities connected with a dead person that do not conflict with any scientific world-view, and even have some psychological bases. Recall that a modern religion is focussed forward, rather than backward in time, and the principal goal is to improve future generations in every way possible. Ceremonies to honor the dead would only be appropriate if they have some value for the current or future generations. 


One obvious aspect is the grief that those close to a dead person may feel, and the grief may be very significant in some people, obstructing their ability to live a normal life after the passing away of someone. The usual way of mitigating these feelings, in many societies around the world, is to gather together those who were familiar with the dead person, and have some sort of ceremony dedicated to him. Possibly the way these are designed might provide more or less relief to those individuals who are most beset with grief. Buddhist wakes, funerals, and posthumous memorials are quite diverse among the countries where Buddhism exists in numbers, and often share many of the features of non-Buddhist ones in the respective countries. In an improved Buddhism, the same might be just as true. There is no harm in having a specific tradition related to deceased members of the religion, and in fact this may serve some benefit in relieving the grief felt by those close to the deceased. 


Beyond grief mitigation, three areas of concern exist for appreciation of ancestors. One relates to the teaching that the dead person might have done, not in a formal manner, but informally as a guide for how to live properly and how to make life decisions in the best manner. Those he shared this with might remember it, but not have it crystallized into something easily explained or transferred to further generations. Having memorials to the person, perhaps on some specific dates or approximately, such as seven days after the wake, or forty days or one year after the date of death, or some other traditionally chosen interval, in which what he taught or exemplified can be remembered, and through the interaction of those who knew him, might be codified into something that can serve as clear guidance for troublesome situations that those who participate in the memorials become involved in.


A second area of concern is closely connected to the first, but consists of regarding the person who has died as an example. To be an example does not mean that all details of a person's actions should be used as a basis for copying, but that at one time or another, or perhaps frequently, the dead person had shown some qualities which were admirable. Young people have flexibility in their personalities, and hearing about the best traits of someone who has recently died could have some beneficial effect on them, by giving them some part of their personality to emphasize and bring out, or by strengthening their resolve to master some ability or attribute. The attributes of the person might be some personal principle, such as honesty or integrity, or it might be some goal, such as supporting the education of his offspring. Any such attribute might be the aspect of that person that another individual takes as prominent, and tries to make it part of his characteristics as well. It could be that one of these attributes is recognized as a gap in the personality of one of the attendees at the memorials, and the example of the dead person is enough to give that attendee the psychological strength and will power to make it part of their set of attributes, over the short and long-term. It can also serve to sharpen the view of what the attendees think of as 'good', clarifying some aspect about how they judge and calibrate their opinions of third parties, or people in general. On the other side of the page, the discussion of the dead person might bring up some difficulties they had, or some undesirable traits, and that can serve as a motivation for others to either struggle through similar difficulties, or eliminate in themselves that undesirable trait or others similar to it. In short, these memorials serve as a way for others to improve themselves and their views of others in the community. If not done well, they could simply be a brooding session about what was lost when that person died, and how much worse the life situation of some of the attendees is because of this death. This is not beneficial, and should be avoided. There is no question that losses occur with the death of some people, but concentrating on the losses instead of trying to take what is the best of the situation and capitalize upon it is something that religious teaching should mention and discuss, as preparation.


The third aspect of memorializing deceased individuals involves deciding how to preserve their memory and share it with future generations, if it should be. Knowing about one's direct ancestors helps individuals to define who they are, to not feel alone or uncertain about how to live, and to be able to choose goals and characteristics to try and adopt. This means that, in this modern age, there should be some biographical material prepared and preserved for each person who has descendants. There has been a movement around the world to preserve the geneologies of ancestors, and there are individuals who have spent considerable time trying to trace their family trees back many generations. This is not as valuable as having some useful information collected about more recent ancestors. There is genetic dilution over generations, and someone five generations back only contributes, on average, one thirty-second of the genes that a person has. There is no simple way to measure or recount how much influence they had, by their actions and teaching, on later generations, but in older times, this must also have been diluted. The dilution of the latter aspects, not genetic but the intangible parts of inheritance, can be made less if biographical material is collected. Just what is collected might be a choice of the individuals directly connected to a dead person, but the occasions of the memorials to the person, at the specified intervals, could serve as an opportunity to have this material collected and saved somewhere as permanently as possible, for generations to come.


There are also more broad aspects of appreciation of ancestors, but not of one's specific ancestors but of those of the community that one is a part of. For example, there have been many, many wars in mankind's history, and it is not uncommon to memorialize those who sacrificed their lives in such wars. This can be part of the religious activities, but it might be broader. Those who have made great efforts that resulted in major improvements in the well-being of the community, for example, great scientists, might also be memorialized. This would serve to inspire others to follow in their steps as well.



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