This month, I am in Sri Lanka to study Buddhist traditions of merit-making—acts that Buddhists perform in order to generate positive karma. It’s my view that in the process of merit-making, Buddhists align themselves and learn the deeper values of their tradition. In addition to taking interviews, I’ve been working over the past weeks to walk and pray right alongside the Sri Lankans I meet: to bow before monks, to bring flowers to the Kandyan tooth relic, to wear white to temple on poya day, to sit on the floor and chant in Pali. Mostly this has been standard ethnographic participant-observation—just following along and doing whatever the people you’re studying happen to be doing.
Last week, though, I went a step further, and I asked the people and the traditions I’ve been studying not just to reveal themselves to me, but to help guide me through a sadness from my private life. This principled extension of intellectual pursuits into other frames of meaning is one of the most interesting potentialities of The Enhancing Life Project. I have been thinking through ways that my research might be able to speak to a more personal concern.
Right after I arrived in Sri Lanka, I learned that a friend is dying of cancer. Perhaps following Christopher Scott’s advice not to chase simple life extension if it comes at the cost of life quality, my friend declined further invasive efforts to slow the disease, and he was discharged home into hospice care. He is reportedly enjoying his last few weeks with his parents, spending a few last hours sitting on the porch in the sun or listening to friends come to play music or sing for him.
The White Protestant culture I grew up with provides me few responses to my feelings of distress, distance, and impending loss. Having not been raised in a family much given to praying, I’m pretty much left with sending an inadequate email to my friend or his family, or sending some cash to a cancer-research fund.
Sri Lankan Buddhism, though, offers another option. When someone is sick or dying in Sri Lanka, people perform religious acts—they feed or clothe monks, they commission chantings of sacred texts, they worship at Bodhi trees—and they transfer the resulting merit to the person who is suffering. This is not an empty feel-better gesture: especially in the case of impending death, this merit is held to be of material assistance to the sufferer. Because the state of one’s karma and one’s mind at the moment of death impacts (some even argue, determines) the quality of one’s rebirth, sending extra merit near death may help the loved one find their way to comfort and security rather than misery and dislocation.
In response to my research, I decided to commission a Bodhi puja for my friend. This is a formal ritual worshipping a pipal tree, the kind under which the Buddha sat the night he achieved his enlightenment. I had been repeatedly assured that Bodhi puja was the correct gesture for terminal brain cancer; plus, venerating a tree seemed appropriate to my friend’s own academic research on forest sustainability.
On a recent afternoon, I arrived at the Buddhist temple in the village of Mawilmada, home to my assistant Dewanmini. I came equipped with bananas, a box of powdered milk, my four-year-old, and my camera. Dewanmini, her mother, and several other women from the village met us, all in their temple white. We sorted an armful of flowers into basins, filled seven pots with water, arranged the milk powder and some bananas on a tray. My son and I brought the rest of the bananas to the temple’s elderly senior monk; we bowed at his feet, and asked his blessing for our Bodhi puja.
The women then proceeded to the Bodhi tree in front of the temple, where we lit oil lamps and incense. We distributed the pots of water (one per person), and walked single-file around the Bodhi tree, three times, to honor the Triple Gem (the Buddha, the Dhamma he taught, and the Sangha of monks who follow his path). We each poured our water at the base of the tree, recalling my friend and wishing him well.
We then sat on mats under the Bodhi tree, and the junior monk of the temple sat on a chair before us and began to chant call-and-response style. He led us in the Tisarana, as well as several other gatas. He then delivered a short sermon, out of which I could pick out a number of familiar Sanskrit words: punya (merit), bhagawan (lord), priya (beloved), videsha (foreign country), ashirvada (blessing).
It then began to rain, so we moved into the temple itself to finish chanting by the main Buddha image. After the final gata, I carried the tray of offerings around so that everyone could touch it and thereby share in the gift and the merit being sent to my dying friend. I prostrated myself before the monk, and placed the offerings on the altar before the Buddha. Everyone briefly stood around smiling and chatting before going our separate ways.
I found my Bodhi puja to be a surprisingly soothing and meaningful occasion. Not only did the puja enrich my understanding of vernacular Buddhist practice, but it made me feel significantly better about my friend. I still feel sad, but I also feel less helpless, more peaceful for having had the chance to express outwardly my care for him and my hopes for his coming journey. Not least, I feel better for having solemnized my feelings in the company of others. It was healing to have half a dozen women and two monks spend two hours sitting with me, carrying and chanting and pouring with me, helping me make merit, and sending on my behalf the merit that they themselves made.
I am reminded here of a conference presentation I heard several years ago on traditional Indic medicines for dealing with snakebite. Before the advent of allopathic anti-venom, there was little medical recourse for snakebite victims. Yet there evolved elaborate treatments in pre-modern India, requiring those who loved the snakebite victim to rub her/his hands and feet, recite mantras, chew a particular leaf and breathe the aroma over the patient. Even if these things didn’t directly change the course of venom through veins, the prescribed gestures provided a repertoire to express concern, distress, and love. It allowed the family and friends of the victim to show care, and the victim to feel cared for. It’s a far cry from the awkward helplessness of well-wishers standing around modern hospitals, waiting for experts to perform all the treatments.
So perhaps, then, one of the ways that religious practice enhances life is that it provides both the scripts and the collective community to help us through the inevitabilities of our embodied existence. It provides responses to lives begun and ended, and frames for us right things to do in unsettling times.
Let me close with my wish for my friend, recited in my heart as I poured water at the foot of the Mawilmada Bodhi tree, with the hope that this small merit might find him and ease his journey:
Oh, my friend – may you find peace.
May you find a smooth path forward.
May your parents find healing.
May your memory be cherished.
Sadhu – sadhu – sadhu
Read a blog post with Anne Mocko about her research here.
Photos courtesy of Anne Mocko.