Buddhism and the Role of Ritual in Processing Grief and Ambiguous Loss

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 30, 2023

The Missing and Their Families: Buddhism and the Role of Ritual in Processing Grief and Ambiguous Loss

Alex Wakefield
Independent Scholar

This article considers the support that Buddhist ritual practices may offer families and relatives of missing people. Families of missing individuals experience a specifically defined form of grief known as ambiguous loss. Such loss is usually denied the traditional funerary or commemorative practices of other forms of bereavement. Nevertheless, psychologists and humanitarian organizations stress the importance of such practices and their socio-cultural context as a way for families to effectively process ambiguous loss. I highlight the value in these practices coming from Buddhist religious groups within Buddhist communities, while noting that disappearances often present exceptionally difficult circumstances for many religious traditions, including Buddhism. Examples are drawn from the Pāli Nikāyas supporting the argument for a “reconfiguration” of ritual to meet these needs, and case studies are cited to demonstrate religious communities supporting, via ritual practices, families of missing individuals. I therefore propose ritual as an element of Buddhist praxis that may effectively address the psychological and social requirements for families of missing people.
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One thought on “Buddhism and the Role of Ritual in Processing Grief and Ambiguous Loss”

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. If I may, I’ll make a few comments from my perch in rural NE Thailand.

    First, part of the problem here is that with ambiguous loss, closure, or resolution are impossible without basically writing the missing person off. Any processing must be a continued management of grief and anxiety until the fate of the missing is made known.

    The article relies too much on Premasiri and the British reconstruction of Buddhism as a rational, even proto-scientific religion that he continues. On my reading, much that is interpreted as “ethicization of ritual” (Gombrich) i.e., replacing ritual with ethics, is as much ritualization of ethics—giving what we call ethics sacral-cosmic significance—and neither, I think, are rituals given as utilitarian means of cultivating spiritual and psychological goals. Giving to monks does generate puñña, which then does by mysterious means redout to one’s future happiness.

    In any case, that rationalized Buddhism is not at all Buddhism as lived in the countryside here in SE Asia. All that is just to say that there is no argument against ritual per se. Ritual is a (or the) way of harmonizing with and influencing the invisible beings and forces that populate the cosmos. Moreover, Buddhism here is flexible enough to allow for innovations to include and support those dealing with ambiguous loss in ritual life.

    A loose notion: It’s generally understood that bun/puñña (merit) can be transferred to the living as well as to the dead and it is common to bestow a portion of the bun generated in religious observances on one’s loved ones—spouse, children, parents. Given the believed continuity between lifetimes afforded by rebirth, it makes perfect sense, in bun transfer rites, to send it to missing loved ones whose fate is unknown, as well as to the living and the dead. Rituals for that specific purpose might be a good idea, or at least mention of the missing in the context of such rituals. Thanks again.

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