In Buddhism, shaving the head and eyebrows signifies a renunciation of worldly desire. While Buddhist monks keep their head and sometimes their eyebrows shaved for life as a symbol of their priestly status, head shaving also takes place during Buddhist funerals. Monks preside over these shaving rituals, performed on the deceased and the attendant mourners. However, traditions vary between Buddhist cultures -- Tibetan Buddhists often wait to shave their head several weeks after the funeral in commemoration of the deceased.
At a Zen Buddhist funeral, a monk shaves the head of the deceased to "ordain" him posthumously as a holy person. This procedure, called a tonsure, is accompanied by the prayer: "In shaving off beard and hair, we pray that all living beings should forever be free from mental afflictions and in the end attain nirvana." The monk then waves the razor through fragrant incense smoke, and shaves the head and eyebrows of the deceased.
At some Buddhist funerals, such as those in Cambodia, the family members of the deceased are the next to have their heads shaved by the presiding monk. While this symbol of mourning is not performed at every modern Buddhist funeral, it typically represents the severing of ties between the deceased and the living, and serves as an external signal of mourning.
The 49th Day
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, followers will observe the death of a loved one by shaving their head on the 49th day after his passing. Similar to Zen Buddhism, the ritualized shaving symbolizes mourning, but in Tibet the belief is that the soul of the deceased is reincarnated on the 49th day after death. Tibetan Buddhists shave their head on this day to commemorate the passage of the deceased into the next life.
Whether at a funeral or among the monks of a Buddhist "sangha" or monastery, a shaved head indicates modesty and a conscious denial of the material world. Monks shave their heads to confirm their vows of ascetic poverty and to follow the teachings of the Buddha Siddharta Gautauma, who shaved his head in rejection of the greed of the wealthy who wore their hair long and luxurious.
- Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand; Carol Stratton
- Zen Ritual : Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice; Steven Heine et al.
- Patheos Library: Zen Rites and Ceremonies
- Canada Tibet Committee: Minnesota Tibetans and supporters hold Special 49th day Prayer Vigil
- EthnoMed: Death in Cambodian Buddhist Culture
- Life Magazine: The Path of Buddhism
- Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images