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Pastoral Thanatology and Buddhism

Pastoral Thanatology and Buddhism

There are rare occasions when the counselor or pastoral agent may find himself or herself in a situation that is beyond the monotheistic theologies of the West.  In such cases, a pastoral care goes beyond administering theological guidance but merely treating the person in a humane way and being well informed regarding their dying rites.  One distant theology that most pastoral thanatologists rarely study is Buddhism. 

A altar to Buddha

A altar to Buddha

Buddhism is an Eastern religion stemming out of India and China.  Its basic idea of God differs from Western theology.  God is not a being, but the idea of God is merely creation as it is.  The cosmos has always existing within itself and everyone shares in that existence on multiple planes and dimensions.  Among the many worlds one can exist is Earth.  On Earth, a person’s status as a human being or animal is determined by one’s karma or how they existed in the previous life.  The importance of good living is emphasized due to this because one hopes to achieve a better next life-whether on Earth or in a celestial heaven.  These reincarnations, however, are limited and the eventual key is to attain the state of Nirvana, or nothingness.  In this state, one can escape all form of suffering .  Various enlightened men or beings achieve certain elevated states known as Buddhas, who aid the common people in their aspiration for enlightenment or Nirvana.  Under the guidance of these enlightened beings, preparation for the next life is examined as well as proper death to achieve the desired end in the next life.  It is for this reason that family of the dying or soon to be deceased take great care to ensure that all the spiritual needs of their loved one are met.  It is imperative that spiritual rituals are conducted so that the soon to be deceased may make a good transition into the next life.  This is especially critical during the final hours of life.

Death is seen as an opportunity for a new life.  Mourning and other human emotions are ideally held back to prevent any excessive regret or drama in the dying person.  It is important to clear the state of mind so that the dying person can find good rebirth.   The dying person, if trained under the guidance of Buddhist principles, or trained by religious monks, hopes to control his or her subconscious as much as possible during his or her final minutes on Earth as he or she enters into the unknown of death.  This is something most Buddhists prepare for their whole life via mental and spiritual exercises. As death approaches, the Buddhist approaches the eight stages of death.  The first stages deal with physical symptoms as the life force leaves the body, while the later stages deal with visions of the soul.  In these later stages, the consciousness exists simply as a subtle mind sustained by very little energy.  In these later stages, the more trained the Buddhist, the more it is said he or she remembers of his or her previous life. 

 After death is completed, family members and religious leaders begin a series of prayers, offerings, mantras and other rituals for the person’s benefit.    For 49 days, prayers are said for the deceased to aid the person in his ghostly wandering.  The purpose is to help the soul find a good rebirth and to be safe from evil entities who may guide one wrongly into a bad rebirth.  After the 49 days, the soul, if lucky, finds either a higher state of being or at least a human state to exist in.  The reincarnated state then begins the entire cycle over until eventual Nirvana.

While odd and incompatible with Western ideals, the pastoral thanatologist or counselor can help those who suffer no matter what the creed.  When dealing with Buddhists, it is important to remember that death is a doorway to rebirth.  In many ways, they have prepared for death their whole life and welcome it as a way to improve themselves.  With this in mind, it is important to be respectful of such traditions and try to ease the mind of the suffering as much as possible, preparing them within their tradition for their final breathe.

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