Soka Spirit
Clarifying the Funeral Ceremony

Volume 1, No. 5 (Part 3) November 11, 1991

By Soka Gakkai General Director
Kazuya Morita

In any society, the issue of bidding farewell to the departed always involves questions of religion. As practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, who believe in the eternity of life and that the law of causality permeates birth and death, the moment of death represents a truly important transition. In the Gosho ‘Heritage of the Ultimate Law of Life,’ the Daishonin states: ‘Be resolved to summon forth the great power of your faith and chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with the prayer that your faith will be steadfast and correct at the moment of your death. Never seek any other way to inherit the ultimate law and manifest it in your life. Only then will you realize that earthly desires are enlightenment and the sufferings of life and death are nirvana’ (MW-1, 25). Here Nichiren Daishonin teaches us that only through steadfast faith and practice can we truly prepare ourselves for the final moment and manifest the quality of ‘eternity’ in our lives at each and every moment.

The involvement of Buddhist priests in funeral or memorial services was not established during the Daishonin′s time. It was only later that Buddhist temples in Japan increasingly emphasized funeral rites and memorial services. During the Edo Period (1601-1865), the policies of the Tokugawa shogunate mandating universal registration at Buddhist temples also served to institutionalize the practice of priests conducting funerals and memorial services, until this became the major social function and source of income of Buddhist temples. It is for this reason that the Buddhism of the established sects in Japan became derisively known as ‘funeral Buddhism.’ Because funeral ceremonies did not originate from the teachings of Buddhism, many of the rites and rituals surrounding them in Japan were incorporated from Japanese folk custom and religions such as Shintoism.

In recent years, the elaborateness and the required amount of donations to priests conducting funeral and memorial services have become excessive. Often the donations expected by Nichiren Shoshu priests for presiding over such ceremonies is equivalent to thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Because of the extravagance many priests have shown in their lifestyles, episodes of insincerity or contempt toward believers, or revelations of other transgressions, many Soka Gakkai members have been opting to hold informal services attended to by Soka Gakkai members. As a result, many priests have been issuing incredible claims, their intent being to frighten believers into feeling obligated to invite a priest to such services and offer the requisite donation. Soka Gakkai General Director Kazuya Morita addresses this issue in the following speech which he gave at the Ishikawa Culture Center on Oct. 26, 1991. It is our hope that it might serve to answer some questions or concerns of those who may have to plan for such events for a family member, and to shed further light on an important aspect of the current issue affecting all practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin′s Buddhism.

Recently, many Soka Gakkai members have been conducting funeral and memorial services for their departed family members or friends without the attendance of a priest to officiate the services. This has been done either in accord with the last will of the deceased or due to the expressed desire of the family.

Many members and friends who have participated in this sort of funeral gave impressions such as ‘The funeral was very refreshing. It was a wonderful ceremony,’ or ‘The way the Soka Gakkai members recite the sutra and pray wholeheartedly for the deceased really impressed me. I felt this is how funeral ceremonies should be.’ As I heard these comments, I felt deeply that the age of new thinking has actually begun.

In some areas, especially in the early days of the Soka Gakkai, funeral ceremonies were conducted by fellow members as a matter of course. Even today, this is a common practice in the SGI countries outside of Japan. Recently, however, the priesthood has contended that in funerals where there are no priests present, the deceased cannot achieve enlightenment.

Does this mean that those who pass away on distant islands or overseas where no priest is available cannot attain enlightenment?

We have received many confident reports from island and overseas members that in almost every case after funerals were held (even without the attendance of a priest), the countenance of the deceased looked peaceful and sublime, leaving no doubt of their enlightenment.

Since this is the case, I have to wonder why the priesthood persists in creating an atmosphere in which members must feel worried or threatened if they don′t invite a priest to the funeral.

It has already been 23 years since discussion arose in Japanese society about the reformation of the funeral ceremony. At that time, a new institution, initiated by doctors and scholars of law, was established to reform funeral ceremonies.

This movement protested the corruption in Buddhist circles that disregarded the solemnity of death and wallowed in over-formalized ceremonies. This movement reflected the voices of the people who no longer saw the purpose of funeral ceremonies, or felt that they did not want to burden their families with elaborate rites in the event of their own death. Taking such feelings into consideration, SGI President Ikeda, then Soka Gakkai president, stated at a headquarters leaders meeting in November 1968: ‘First of all, what I am about to say is the result of a discussion I had with the head temple. As you know, newspapers lately have been carrying articles about the movement to modernize the funeral ceremony. This movement aims to reform the traditional Japanese funeral ceremony, which has degenerated into a state of mere ritual or formality. People behind this movement contend that it is not necessary to invite a priest to the funeral ceremony; all that is necessary is to report a person’s death to the proper governmental office within your community. I agree with this thought. As we chant daimoku to the Gohonzon morning and evening, we ourselves manifest Buddhahood, which is embodied in the form of the Gohonzon in accord with the principle of ichinen sanzen. Why should it be necessary to ask someone else to recite the sutra for our own enlightenment after our death? [Because we are responsible for our own enlightenment] we ourselves are the foremost pioneers in modernizing the funeral ceremony. Therefore, when you discuss improving the funeral ceremony with others, you can state confidently that we agree with such improvement. We can even say we are taking the initiative in such a movement.’

Nichiren Shoshu is not a ‘funeral Buddhism,’ as many Japanese refer to Buddhism in general, but rather it is Buddhism for the living. It is not always necessary to invite a priest to the funeral ceremony. Of course, if you wish to invite them, you can. But you do not have to if you don’t want to. In this way, Nichiren Shoshu is most progressive as far as the funeral is concerned. Nichiren Shoshu is a front-runner. Regarding this the head temple has said, ‘Such thinking accords with the fundamental spirit of Nichiren Daishonin.’ President Ikeda made the above speech 23 years ago.

Thus the current practice of funerals being conducted by Soka Gakkai members is consistent with this guidance, which was condoned by the head temple. The priesthood, however, though once stating that this stance was in accord with the fundamental spirit of Nichiren Daishonin, has recently been causing trouble for the members whenever it has learned of funerals conducted without the presence of a priest. Clearly, it is not the Soka Gakkai that has changed its stance, but the priesthood itself.

Consider how funerals were observed in the days of Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni treated matters after death as secondary. In those days, priests refrained from participating in funerals except for their own parents or members of the Samgha, or Buddhist Order. Generally, the funeral ceremony is said to have been conducted by lay people. According to the Nirvana Sutra, just before his death, Shakyamuni stated to his disciples, ‘When it comes to cremating my body and constructing and dedicating a stupa that will contain my ashes, this should be left to the lay believers.’ When Shakyamuni passed away, his funeral ceremony and the construction of his stupa was carried out entirely by the laity, just as he had requested; priests could not even attend.

Buddhism is originally a teaching of how to live, not a teaching of mere formality and ceremony.

Utsubusa Nyobo, a lay believer, reported to Nichiren Daishonin about about the 100th-day observance of her father′s death. The Daishonin responded with a compassionate letter, writing: ‘Let me describe briefly the virtue of Myoho-renge-kyo. The five characters of Myoho-renge-kyo can change poison into medicine, evil into goodness. A spring called Gyokusen transforms stones into gems. These five characters turn common mortals into Buddhas. If this is true, because he chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in this life your precious father has attained enlightenment in death without changing his present form (sokushin jobutsu)’ (Gosho Zenshu, p. 143).

Enlightenment is something we attain through the power of the Buddha and the power of the Law inherent in the Gohonzon, coupled with our own power of faith and practice. It is not something that is determined by the power of a third party.

In addition, nowhere in the Gosho does Nichiren Daishonin state that the deceased cannot attain enlightenment without a priest as an intermediary. In the Gosho ‘The Real Aspect of the Gohonzon,’ Nichiren Daishonin writes: ‘A woman who devotes herself to the Gohonzon invites happiness in this life, and in the next, the Gohonzon will be with her and protect her always. Like a lantern in the dark, like a strong supporting arm on a treacherous path, the Gohonzon will protect you, Lady Nichinyo, wherever you go’ (The Major Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 213).

Whether or not we attain enlightenment is a function of our faith. Enlightenment is not determined at a funeral or a memorial ceremony, or by the sermon that a priest offers on such an occasion. We who dedicate ourselves to the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin by striving in faith, practice and study and by promoting kosen-rufu will doubtless attain enlightenment.

In January 1977, Nittatsu Shonin stated: ‘Ultimately, we are able to attain enlightenment through the power and virtue of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

No matter how great your status in Nichiren Shoshu may be, your sermon at a funeral ceremony is not what guides others to enlightenment. Any one of us, through the power of our own faith and borrowing upon the power of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, can pray for others to achieve enlightenment as they are at the moment of their death….

In other words, because of the benefits of the daimoku and because of the beneficial power of the Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren Daishonin, the deceased can move in the direction of enlightenment. It is not your personal power that moves the deceased toward enlightenment. If you think that it is because of your personal power, and that the family of the deceased should bring offerings for the funeral on that basis, your attitude is very wrong.’

As is clear from this guidance, it is the Gohonzon and the daimoku we chant to it that have power. It is important that people gather together and sincerely pray for the deceased. By centering on the Gohonzon, reciting the sutra and chanting daimoku, we thus share our benefit with the deceased.

It is wrong to assume that it is the priest′s sermon that allows one to attain enlightenment. The priesthood′s current contention that its involvement is a requisite for the attainment of enlightenment conflicts with this guidance of Nittatsu Shonin.

I also heard of many horrible accounts of services that involved priests. For instance, there have been cases in which the priest wrote the posthumous Buddhist name of the deceased incorrectly, or forgot to bring the Doshi Gohonzon (a special Gohonzon for such services) to the funeral and had to borrow the family′s Gohonzon for the ceremony. There have even been cases when priests have forgotten to bring their surplice and prayer beads, or have dozed off or even fell backwards because they fell asleep during the ceremony.

The priesthood asserts that conducting the funeral ceremony and preaching for the deceased requires tremendous mental preparation.

But the more we find out about the corrupt nature of many priests, the more we wonder about the frame of mind they have been developing in themselves to prepare for the funeral ceremony. If the priest presiding over a funeral ceremony is insincere, this would certainly be tragic for the family.

Nowadays, while funerals are being held by members who offer their heartfelt prayers for the repose of the deceased, priests, in contrast, have been distributing flyers criticizing these funerals and claiming that the deceased have certainly fallen into hell. Some priests have even been sued by lay believers for such irrational conduct. There have been a number of cases in Japan where the priesthood has slandered and defamed the deceased and their families. This is unheard of in any other sect.

Based on these facts, we are forced to conclude that Nichiren Shoshu has degraded itself into a ‘funeral Buddhism’ that seeks only to maintain its role in funerals as a source of income.

Believers have frankly voiced their intent to refuse to invite arrogant priests who lack pure faith to their funeral ceremonies. Some have already refused to invite priests who are negligent in propagating the Law, do not perform gongyo regularly or who adorn themselves in extraordinary luxury while looking down on the believers.

Regarding the funeral ceremony, President Toda once said: ‘We all live to seek happiness. Therefore, religion should be the fundamental principle or standard upon which we can build true happiness and a peaceful and happy society. Formalities such as funerals and other ceremonies are not religion itself.’ We, too, must clearly discern what is genuine and essential. We should not allow ourselves to be deceived.

The priesthood self-righteously states that the relationship between priests and laity is that of master and disciple. If so, then the wives (who are technically lay believers) of the high priest and general administrator of Nichiren Shoshu must be their disciples. Yet it seems that these particular disciples are spending exorbitant amounts of money in places like Kyoto on shopping sprees to purchase extremely expensive clothing. The money they have been spending naturally comes from the sincere offerings of Soka Gakkai members. If these priests’ wives, being lay believers, are their disciples, why can’t they give them proper guidance concerning their spending habits? What does being a ‘master’ mean to them? Also, some priests have skipped funeral ceremonies to which they have been invited and chosen to play golf instead. Some, while failing to propagate the Law, have donned wigs to hide their tonsured heads in order to spend their time at nightclubs. Yet they claim to be masters of Buddhism.

Recently, articles in the mainstream media in Japan have recently focused on again revising outdated funeral customs and the practice of kaimyo (posthumous names bestowed by priests upon the deceased). It costs so much to conduct a funeral nowadays. The mass media is asking whether such funerals have any meaning to the deceased or the bereaved family. Thus many people are reflecting on the value of expensive ceremonies.

People are asking whether traditional Japanese Buddhist funeral ceremonies reflect genuine sympathy toward the deceased and their family, for such funerals have degenerated into mere rituals, losing their original purpose of expressing condolence to the family and sharing their sorrow.

Our Soka Gakkai funeral is not a mere formality. Through it, believers who have experienced the struggle for kosen-rufu share warm feelings and encourage one another. Our sincere recitation of the sutra and chanting of daimoku can help propel the deceased to Eagle Peak (enlightenment).

This is the most humanistic way to share our sympathy with the family and a way which, I believe, accords with spirit of Nichiren Daishonin. Just as President Ikeda set the course 23 years ago, the Soka Gakkai has been consistently taking the initiative to modernize the Buddhist funeral ceremony. The Gakkai’s aim is to pursue Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, and in so doing has been paralleling the development of modern society.

Let us continue to put the Daishonin′s Buddhism into practice wholeheartedly as we strive to build a foundation for kosen-rufu in our contemporary society.