Buddhists don't believe in an absolute soul; they believe that a being exists to be reborn only as long as the identification with personality persists. The conditions of rebirth depend on many factors, including karma and the state of mind of the deceased, but all signify the continuation of suffering. A well-known Buddhist mantra, spoken at the time of death, celebrates the liberation of Nirvana, which is dissolution into the Absolute and the end of suffering.
The Heart Sutra
The Mahayana branch of Buddhism, which is the one that spread throughout China and Japan, ascribes certain teachings to idealized aspects of the Buddha rather than to the historical Buddha. One such teaching is the Heart Sutra, said to have been uttered by Avalokiteshvara, a manifestation of the compassionate Buddha, to his disciple Sariputra, a disciple of Buddha noted for his wisdom. The Heart Sutra is one of the most profound teachings in Buddhism. It speaks of non-duality and the emptiness of the five aspects of human existence, which are body, feeling, thought, will and consciousness.
The Perfection of Wisdom
At the end of the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara presents the distillation of the perfection of wisdom, or prajnaparamita, in a mantra. The mantra is: "Gate, gate; paragate; parasamgate. Bodhi! Svaha!" The mantra in the Pali language, which is the language spoken by Buddha and his disciples, has more than one translation into English. One such translation is "Gone, gone; gone beyond; gone altogether beyond. Awakened! So be it!" These words convey the essence of Buddhist aspiration and practice.
The Power of Mantra
Spiritual practitioners use mantras to focus the mind and to transform the energy around them through the power of sound and intention. The phonetic quality of the words, especially when uttered in the original language, create a vibration of meditation and deep wakefulness. The Prajnaparamita Mantra, in particular, conveys a sense of mystical transcendence. It helps transform the environment around a deceased person into one that encourages the relaxation of holding patterns that bind the soul to rebirth. The words and the energy of the mantra may be as freeing for those chanting it as for the deceased.
Other Prayers for the Dead
Of the many other prayers that Buddhists offer for the dead, few are as telegraphic as the Prajnaparamita Mantra. Some speak directly to the departed soul, reminding of the inevitability of what has just occurred and the need to stay focused and of a clear mind, while others implore the deities for compassion and a good rebirth for the departed. One short but powerful prayer for the dying from the Theravada tradition is the Prayer for Loving Kindness. It asks for kindness and healing, not just for the departed, but for everyone. It encourages the departed to drop individual identification and to merge with all beings, thus attaining liberation.
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