Exploring the Differences Between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist Funerals

Buddhism, a spiritual tradition rich in diversity and practice, is an integral part of many lives in Singapore. Among its various teachings and rituals, Buddhist funerals stand out for their profound symbolism and deep reverence for life and death. In this article, we dive into the heart of Buddhist funerals, particularly comparing the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, two main branches of Buddhism that have shaped beliefs and practices across Asia and beyond.

Whether you’re part of the Buddhist community, planning a funeral, or simply curious about cultural practices, understanding these differences can offer valuable insights. We aim to present this information in a straightforward and respectful manner, making it accessible for everyone in Singapore. Join us as we explore the unique elements of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist funerals, their significance, and how they reflect the core beliefs of these Buddhist traditions.

Basic Beliefs in Buddhism Relevant to Funerals

At the heart of Buddhist funerals lies the belief in Samsara, the cycle of rebirth, where life is viewed as a continuum, passing through birth, death, and rebirth. This cycle is driven by Karma, the law of moral causation, suggesting that one’s actions in this life will influence the next.

Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists view death not as an end, but a transition to a new beginning. However, their approaches to funerals are colored by differing interpretations of these core beliefs.

  1. Samsara and Rebirth: Central to both Theravada and Mahayana traditions is the belief in Samsara. Funerals are thus seen as critical junctures, aiding the deceased’s journey through this cycle. The rituals performed aim to ensure a favorable rebirth and lessen the suffering of the departed.
  2. Karma and Its Influence: The belief in Karma underscores the significance of one’s actions. Funeral rituals often involve merit-making activities. These are thought to benefit not only the deceased by improving their karmic balance but also those who perform these acts, contributing positively to their future lives.
  3. The Pursuit of Enlightenment: While Theravada focuses on the individual’s journey towards Nirvana (liberation from the cycle of rebirth), Mahayana emphasizes collective salvation. This distinction is evident in funeral practices, where Theravada rituals focus on the individual’s karma, and Mahayana practices often involve prayers for universal salvation.

These basic beliefs form the foundation upon which the funeral practices in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are built. Understanding these concepts provides a window into the profound spiritual significance of these ceremonies and their role in the broader context of Buddhist teachings.

Theravada Buddhism: An Overview

Theravada, known as the “School of the Elders,” is the oldest form of Buddhism. Predominantly practiced in countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, it holds a significant presence in Singapore as well.

  1. Historical Roots and Geographical Spread: Originating in India, Theravada Buddhism spread to Southeast Asia, where it has thrived for centuries. It is known for adhering closely to the original teachings of the Buddha.
  2. Key Beliefs and Practices: Theravada Buddhism emphasizes strict adherence to the Pali Canon, the oldest recorded Buddhist scriptures. Its teachings focus on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as the means to attain enlightenment. This branch encourages a life of simplicity, ethical conduct, and meditation.
  3. Focus on Individual Enlightenment: A distinctive aspect of Theravada Buddhism is its emphasis on personal enlightenment. Practitioners strive for the status of an ‘Arahant,’ a person who has attained Nirvana in their lifetime. This pursuit of individual enlightenment shapes many of its practices and rituals, including those performed at funerals.

In Singapore, Theravada Buddhism is practiced with a deep respect for tradition, emphasizing personal responsibility in spiritual development. Understanding these principles is essential to appreciate the nuances of Theravada Buddhist funeral customs, which reflect a profound respect for the individual’s spiritual journey.

Mahayana Buddhism: An Overview

Mahayana Buddhism, known as the “Great Vehicle,” represents a diverse and more expansive interpretation of Buddha’s teachings compared to Theravada. This form of Buddhism is widely practiced in countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and has a significant following in Singapore.

  1. Historical Roots and Geographical Spread: Emerging several centuries after Theravada, Mahayana Buddhism developed in northern India before spreading across Asia. It is characterized by its adaptability to local cultures, which has led to a rich variety in its practices and expressions.
  2. Key Beliefs and Practices: Mahayana Buddhism places a great emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal — the pursuit of enlightenment not just for oneself, but for the sake of all beings. It introduces a broader scope of scriptures beyond the Pali Canon, including texts like the Lotus Sutra and Heart Sutra. Practices often involve elaborate rituals, chanting, and a strong emphasis on compassion and altruism.
  3. Focus on Collective Salvation: Unlike Theravada’s focus on individual enlightenment, Mahayana Buddhism advocates for the enlightenment of all beings. This spirit of collective salvation and compassion is a cornerstone of Mahayana beliefs and influences its funeral practices, where rituals often include prayers and ceremonies aimed at benefitting all sentient beings.

In Singapore, with its diverse cultural landscape, Mahayana Buddhism manifests in various forms, influenced by Chinese, Tibetan, and other Asian cultures. The funeral customs in Mahayana Buddhism, practiced in Singapore, thus not only reflect religious beliefs but also cultural traditions and values. Understanding this context is vital to appreciate the rich tapestry of Mahayana Buddhist funerals.

Theravada Buddhist Funeral Practices

In Theravada Buddhism, funeral rituals are steeped in tradition and focus on providing merit for the deceased, as well as expressing compassion and respect.

  1. Rituals and Chanting: Funeral services often include chanting of sutras (Buddhist scriptures) led by monks. These chants are believed to bring peace to the deceased’s mind and aid in their journey through the afterlife.
  2. Merit-Making for the Deceased: Central to Theravada funerals is the practice of making merit for the departed. This includes giving alms, donating to charity, or sponsoring religious activities in the name of the deceased. It is believed that such acts of generosity can positively impact the deceased’s karma, aiding in a more favorable rebirth.
  3. The Role of Monks and Laypeople: Monks play a crucial role in Theravada Buddhist funerals, leading prayers and providing guidance to the family. Laypeople, meanwhile, participate in rituals, prepare offerings, and often wear white as a sign of mourning.
  4. Cremation: Cremation is common in Theravada Buddhism, symbolizing the impermanence of life. The cremation process is accompanied by prayers and rituals, emphasizing the release of the spirit from the physical body.
  5. Post-Funeral Rites: In many Theravada traditions, there are additional ceremonies held days or weeks after the funeral. These rites, such as the sharing of merits with the deceased, continue to provide spiritual support for the departed soul.

In Singapore, where a diverse array of Buddhist practices coexist, Theravada funeral customs are observed with a blend of traditional reverence and contemporary adaptation. These rituals not only serve as a farewell to the departed but also reinforce the Buddhist teachings on impermanence, karma, and the pursuit of enlightenment.

Mahayana Buddhist Funeral Practices

Mahayana Buddhism, often termed the “Great Vehicle,” embraces a more diverse and expansive approach to Buddhist teachings than Theravada. This diversity is reflected in its funeral practices, which vary widely across different cultures like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan. However, some common elements unite these practices.

  1. Focus on Compassion and Universal Salvation: In contrast to Theravada’s focus on individual enlightenment, Mahayana funerals often emphasize the altruistic wish for all beings to attain enlightenment. This is evident in the chanting and prayers that are part of the funeral rites.
  2. Use of Sutras and Prayers: Mahayana funerals typically involve recitation of sutras and mantras. These are believed to aid the deceased’s journey to the next life and benefit all beings. The ‘Heart Sutra’ and ‘Amitabha Sutra’ are commonly recited, especially in Chinese and Japanese traditions.
  3. Rituals Aiding the Departed’s Journey: Many Mahayana traditions hold ceremonies that guide and support the deceased’s journey. For instance, in Tibetan Buddhism, there are elaborate rituals like the Phowa, aiming to transfer the consciousness of the deceased to a higher state of being.
  4. Memorial Services: In addition to the immediate funeral rituals, Mahayana Buddhism often includes periodic memorial services. These services, which may occur over several weeks or even years, are meant to continue offering support to the deceased’s ongoing journey and to accumulate merit on their behalf.
  5. Cultural Variations: In Singapore, where Mahayana Buddhism has a significant following, funeral practices often blend traditional Mahayana teachings with local customs, creating unique and meaningful ceremonies.

Understanding Mahayana Buddhist funeral practices requires an appreciation of their focus on compassion, community involvement, and the belief in a broader interconnection of all beings. These practices not only provide solace to the bereaved but also reinforce key Mahayana teachings about altruism and the interconnectedness of life and death.

Comparative Analysis

While both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism share the foundational Buddhist principles, their funeral practices exhibit notable differences, influenced by their unique doctrines and cultural contexts.

  1. Individual vs. Collective Focus: Theravada funerals typically concentrate on the individual’s karma and path to enlightenment, reflecting the tradition’s focus on personal liberation. Mahayana funerals, conversely, often emphasize collective salvation and compassion, incorporating prayers and rituals for all beings’ enlightenment.
  2. Rituals and Ceremonies: Theravada funerals usually involve chanting of Pali scriptures, merit-making for the deceased, and a focus on the impermanence of life. Mahayana rituals often include the recitation of sutras like the ‘Heart Sutra’ or ‘Amitabha Sutra’, aiming to assist not just the deceased but all sentient beings.
  3. Cultural Influences: In Theravada practices, customs are relatively uniform, reflecting the tradition’s adherence to early Buddhist teachings. Mahayana funerals, however, display greater diversity due to Mahayana’s spread across various cultures in Asia. This results in a richer variety of funeral practices within the Mahayana tradition.
  4. Memorial Services: While both traditions hold post-funeral memorial services, Mahayana Buddhism tends to place more emphasis on these ongoing rituals, which may extend over several weeks, months, or even years.
  5. Philosophical Underpinnings: The fundamental philosophical differences between the two branches – with Theravada’s focus on the Arahat path and Mahayana’s emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal – manifest in their funeral practices. Theravada funerals tend to underscore the notion of impermanence and personal enlightenment, while Mahayana ceremonies highlight universal compassion and interconnection.

Understanding these differences is crucial for Singaporeans, especially in a multicultural and multi-religious context, where respecting and appreciating each other’s beliefs and practices is paramount. Recognizing the nuances in Theravada and Mahayana funeral customs allows for a deeper appreciation of the rich tapestry of Buddhist practices in Singapore.

The Role of Funerals in the Buddhist Path

Buddhist funerals, whether Theravada or Mahayana, play a significant role in the spiritual life of the community. They are not merely a way to bid farewell to the deceased, but also a profound reminder of Buddhist teachings and principles.

  1. Reflection on Impermanence: One of the central teachings of Buddhism is the impermanence of life. Funerals serve as a stark reminder of this reality, encouraging participants to reflect on the transient nature of existence and the importance of living a virtuous life.
  2. Merit-Making for the Departed: In Buddhism, performing good deeds or merit-making is believed to have beneficial effects on one’s karma. During funerals, activities such as giving alms, chanting, and making offerings are performed to generate merit that is dedicated to the deceased, aiding in their journey after death.
  3. Supporting the Bereaved: Buddhist funerals provide a space for the community to come together in support of those who are grieving. This communal aspect helps in the healing process, offering comfort and solidarity during times of loss.
  4. Reinforcing Community Bonds: These ceremonies reinforce the sense of community and shared beliefs. Participating in funeral rituals strengthens the bonds between members of the Buddhist community, uniting them in their common spiritual path.
  5. Educational Aspect: For many, especially in a multicultural context like Singapore, funerals can be an opportunity to learn about Buddhist teachings. The rituals, chants, and sermons often present core aspects of Buddhism in a tangible and impactful way.
  6. Integration of Cultural Elements: In Singapore, Buddhist funerals often incorporate elements of local culture and customs. This integration demonstrates the adaptability and relevance of Buddhist teachings across different societal contexts.

The role of funerals in the Buddhist path extends beyond the immediate ritual of bidding farewell. They are a profound expression of key Buddhist concepts like impermanence, karma, and community, and serve as an important occasion for reflection, learning, and spiritual growth.


In summary, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist funerals, while rooted in the same fundamental principles of Buddhism, exhibit distinct practices reflecting their individual philosophies and cultural influences. The Theravada approach, with its focus on individual enlightenment and adherence to ancient scriptures, contrasts with the Mahayana tradition, which emphasizes universal salvation and compassion, encompassing a wider variety of rituals influenced by diverse Asian cultures.

For Singaporeans, understanding these differences is more than an academic exercise; it is a step towards deeper mutual respect and harmony in a society known for its cultural and religious diversity. Recognizing the unique approaches each tradition brings to the universal experience of death and mourning allows for a greater appreciation of the varied ways in which Singapore’s Buddhist community honors the departed.

Ultimately, both Theravada and Mahayana funerals serve not only as a farewell to the deceased but also as a profound reminder of Buddhist teachings on impermanence, karma, and the pursuit of enlightenment. They reinforce the communal bonds within the Buddhist community and offer a moment of reflection on the deeper meanings of life and death, regardless of the specific rituals performed.

This exploration of Theravada and Mahayana funeral practices highlights the rich tapestry of Buddhist traditions in Singapore and underscores the importance of understanding and respecting these practices in a multicultural context. As we continue to navigate our shared spaces, such knowledge becomes crucial in fostering a community that is united in its diversity and compassionate in its understanding.

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