Birth, Marriage and Death
Lay people have a close relationship with the ordained Sangha, and provide the material and economic support to the temples and monasteries. Some do work in the temples, for instance, cleaning the premises, dusting the Buddha images, arranging the flowers, teaching, helping with the celebrations and so on.
In traditional South Asian societies before a baby is born the mother and father may visit the temple to receive the blessings of the Sangha. After the baby is born the family may visit the temple again to receive the blessings. In some communities a senior monk is consulted as regards suitable names for the child. The child of Buddhist parents is brought up as a Buddhist, and is taken by the parents to attend the various festival celebrations. Most temples have Dhamma classes for children, and some temples in Asia have a junior school which the children attend until it is time for them to attend a senior school.
Some communities arrange special blessing ceremonies, to which relatives and friends are invited, when the baby is about four weeks old. The Sangha are invited to the home to conduct a celebratory worship. Sacred threads are tied round the wrists of the baby, alms food is provided for the Sangha who then chant appropriate auspicious Buddhist texts, called pirith, as a blessing to the family. The Sangha then return to the temple, and the celebration ends with a sumptious meal for all those present.
In some countries such as Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, teenagers take novice ordination and spend some time, often a few weeks in the temple, learning the Dhamma.
We see many differences in the marriage customs in the various communities. This is because marriage involves social practices which differ from community to community. The registration of marriage and exchange of wedding rings is common. Generally the marriage is considered a secular matter. It is considered more a family matter than one concerning the two parties only. The couple may visit the temple before or after the wedding to receiving the blessings from the Sangha. In some traditions there is a wedding ceremony conducted by a priest in the temple.
Though registration is required by law today, if the parties live together with a serious commitment to family life they will be considered a family in Buddhist terms. In several teachings Gotama Buddha explained the importance of the family as a social unit. Here the family has a wide meaning, and will include one parent families and groups of people living as a family.
Because of the idea of rebirth, death has a special meaning in Buddhism. The body’s energies come to an end but the mind continues in a new life. When a person is ill or dying it is the common practice to recite or chant Buddhist texts dealing with life and death, in order to ensure that the person is of a comfortable frame of mind.
The funeral service is conducted by the Sangha. It includes a talk referring to the person’s life as a Buddhist and the chanting of appropriate Buddhist texts. In some traditions the funeral service is considered an ordination for the next stage of life.
It is normal for the family and friends to arrange memorial services either at home or at the temple. The service, similar to an ordinary worship, is performed before a Buddha image. Offerings are made consisting of a plate of alms food, flowers, lights and incense, accompanied by the recitation of certain words of worship. The Sangha are then offered alms food. After that there is a transference of merit ceremony where water is poured from a jug into a dish till it overflows, again accompanied by chanting. This symbolises the transfer of merit of the memorial service to the deceased person. After that there is the chanting, called pirith, of appropriate Buddhist texts. During the chanting the sacred thread is dipped at one end in the water contained in a jug, the roll of thread is unrolled and passed among those present so that each person holds a part of the thread. At the end the roll of thread is rolled in, and each person is given a few drops of the holy water to drink and a portion of the thread is tied around the wrist of each person, as a blessing.
The family and friends give gifts in memory of the deceased person to the temple, small personal gifts such as writing material to members of the Sangha, Buddhist books and necessities for the temple, and money for the upkeep of the temple. Often they provide money for the publication of books in memory of the deceased person. Some families arrange memorial services on the anniversary of the death each year.
Japanese Buddhists often place memorial tablets of the deceased relatives at the shrine at home and celebrate the festival of Obon in remembrance of departed relatives.
Lay People – Specific Human Relationships
On his father’s advice a young person named Sigala used to worship the six geographical directions. Gotama Buddha saw him one day, and on inquiry, Sigala said that he was following his father’s advice. The Buddha explained to him, as set out in the Sigalovada Sutta, that the six directions his father meant were parents, teachers, spouses, friends, employers and religious persons. They were to be honoured and respected by performing the duties owed to them. This contributes to a harmonious Buddhist community.
Parents and Children
A child should support elderly parents, maintain family traditions, be worthy of the parents, and perform the necessary funeral rites. A parent should guide the children, attend to their education and give them good advice.
Teachers and Pupils
A pupil should respect the teacher and follow the teaching. A teacher should teach to the best of his ability, and give good advice and references.
Husband and Wife
A husband should honour and love his wife, be faithful to her and provide her with security and comfort. A wife should similarly honour and love her husband. They should both look after the family, and manage the household skilfully.
Friends and Relatives
One should be helpful, generous, and sincere to friends and relatives. They, in turn, should give good advice, give help when needed and show consideration to the other’s family.
Employer and Employees
An employer should assign suitable work according to the abilities of the employees, pay adequate wages and look after them. Employees should be loyal and industrious.
One should respect religious persons, provide them with material support and follow their teaching. A religious person should clarify the teaching and give good advice.