In general, Buddhism rejects the idea that someone else can save you. One is one’s own saviour and even the Buddhas are only teachers. The Buddha said: “I show you the path to liberation but liberation depends upon you.”
However, if a person is the cause of a deed, whether or not he or she actively performed it, the person is said to experience some results of those deeds. Similarly, if a person has been the cause of dedication of merit, the person will enjoy the results of such dedication. The Bhutanese perform gewa rites of merit for deceased persons with the belief that the spirit of the deceased persons will benefit from the gewa rites, because they are the cause of the rites and the rites are dedicated to them. The rites also help the survivors emotionally and psychologically to cope with the loss.
Indo-Tibetan Buddhists believe that if a person failed to get enlightenment before or at the time of death, the dead person's consciousness goes through a state of intermediate existence between lifetimes called bardo. This bardo in general lasts for seven weeks and it is believed that the consciousness enters a new stage and takes a new form every seven days. Thus, people believe that it is important to do religious rituals every seventh day so that the bardo spirit takes a better new form or rebirth. This is why Bhutanese do gewa rites on the seventh day.
During each cycle, the spirit increasingly loses the propensities of the past life. The twenty-first day is seen as a milestone after which the spirit develops more inclination for the future life. The end of third week is considered a turning point for the existential identity of the deceased person and that is why Bhutanese often say goodbye to the spirit on the twenty-first day. Most persons are said to take one or another form of rebirth within forty-nine days and that is why funerary rituals normally finish after seven weeks.
In the state of bardo, the spirit of the deceased person is believed to see a lot of visions, hear sounds and experience many other things based on their karmic propensities. Through the funerary rituals such as the reading of the Bardo Thodrol, lamas guide the dead person to be not frightened and confused by these visual, auditory and other experiences but rather to see these experiences in positive light and embrace them as enlightened forces. For example, the person is said to come across five blazing lights, which he or she is exhorted to view as the brilliance of the five Buddhas. The gewa rites deal with this process of helping the spirit of the deceased person to approach the frightening visions, sounds and experiences in the bardo with a positive attitude. By recognizing them as expressions and energies of enlightenment with positive attitude, the deceased person gets enlightened or obtains a happy rebirth.
In Bhutan, the most common religious practices for funerary rites are based on the meditation on the Hundred Wrathful and Peaceful Buddhas, the Buddha Akṣobya or the Buddha Vajrasattva. The Central Monastic Body normally performs rituals based on Buddha Akṣobya, or Mitrupa, while the Nyingmapas generally perform the rituals based on Zhitro or the Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Buddhas. The manuals for performing these rituals vary from tradition to tradition.
The gewa rites also include undertaking meritorious deeds such as hoisting prayer flags, asking lamas to remember the deceased in their prayers, giving charity, chanting mantras and reciting prayers for swift rebirths in the happy realms of the Buddhas. Often an astrologer carries out the funerary astrological reading and prescribes the list of rituals or practices to be carried out depending on the person and the nature, time and location of his or her death. Butter lamps are lit as offerings of light and also to lighten the afterlife path for the deceased. Sur or smell offering is constantly made as the spirit is said to feed on smell in the state of bardo.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas
It is important to remember that géwa rites are performed for the benefit of the deceased. Thus, its real value and effectiveness lies in the spiritual difference it makes to the consciousness of the deceased person and not to the image of the survivors. It is important to conduct rites with sincere intentions and pure thoughts and make the rites spiritually efficacious. It is better to do a simple heartfelt prayer than to engage in massive funerary ceremonies which are spiritually ineffective and empty. Unfortunately, many people miss this point and carry on lavish rituals of worldly show and material ostentation, which ironically would only hinder the spiritual edification of the deceased person. The symbolic ceremonies are also expensive adding only more burden to the survivors instead of relieving their misery. It is also important to undertake the géwa rites in order to benefit all sentient beings while thinking of the deceased person as the primary beneficiary.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.