While we looked at some of the blind spots in Buddhism, it maybe worthwhile to have a walk through of how dead ritual is developed within Buddhism to understand more about if we have really understood the Buddhism that we think that we know.
Below is an attempt to bring us back to the beginning of history till today...
2. The Beginning
In order to understand Buddhist deliverance ritual, we must first start from Brahmanism, which is an ancient Indian religion.
The ancestor of Indian today, the Aryan race perhaps was influenced by the belief of Dravadian people and created the Brahmanism together with the law of reincarnation.
According to the teaching, after a man died, his soul will transform into a subtle body known as 'suksma sarira'. Buddhists convert it to antarabhava or bardo (中陰身) or better known as the 'in between body'.
This in between body will be reincarnated according to the karma it accumulated in its previous lives: be it to the heaven,reborn as man or be cast to hell etc.
According to Brahmanism, this subtle body (or soul) shall linger within a certain realm before being reincarnated. The period is 49 days in Buddhism.
If the deceased family can pay Brahmin priests to recite Veda on behalf of the deceased as a means of deliverance, then this subtle body shall be benefited and it shall be reincarnated to a better realm without the worry of becoming an animal or being cast into hell to suffer.
The Buddha later adapted this idea of subtle body and formed the primitive dead rites. Such rites started to flourish around 5BC to 6BC.
During 5BC or so, Buddhism took shape in today's Nepal and then transmitted to the Ganges River Basin. At that time, the Buddha did not participate wedding ceremonies nor funeral ervices. Because the Buddha felt that human must engage in self practice so as to be liberated from cycles of reincarnation, hence free from the sorrow of life and death.
The Buddha felt that deliverance ritual is useless to salvage; and the deliverance ritual contradicts with the law of karma (In Buddhism, a person should be reincarnated according to the good or bad karma he accumulated in previous lives hence the karma cannot be cancelled by simple chanting of mantas).
So said, in early years; most Indian folks still employed Brahma priest for dead rituals.
3. Post-Buddha Era
After the Buddha has achieved 'nirvana' (died), Buddhism immediately be subdivided into two schools and then broken into many sects...
It was not until around 300BC to 1AD that Indian Buddhism has been divided into 11 sects of conservative Sthaviravada/上座部 (Sanskrit) or better known as Theraveda (Pali). And about 9 sects of Mahasamghika (大衆部). Both of the schools were later known as 'Hinayana' by the later formed 'Mahayana' School.
The Theraveda becomes the contemporary Buddhist school in Southeast Asia and the Mahasamghika became the Mahayana School that we see today in China, Korea nad Japan.
The most powerful sect within Theraveda is the Sarvasti-vada Sect (說壹切有部) and this sect flourished during 2AD during the period of Kanishka.
The Indian Sarvasti-vada Sect adapted the 'subtle body' of Brahmanism and converted it to 'in-between' (中有). The Sarvasti-vada is the same as Brahmanism believed in the theory: After human died, the dead soul becomes intermediate body and then passes through the reincarnation process.
But there was no agreement between the intermediate time: Some thinks it is 7 days while the others think more. Finally the period was fixed as 49 days.
This concept was adapted by Mahayana Buddhism between 2AD to 3AD in India and later this concept was brought to China.
3. Into China
Generally speaking, around 1BC the Chinese Buddhist has already performed dead ritals. However, not many detals were recorded because many of the records were destroyed by Mongolian and Islamic invasions in 12th Century.
Buddhism started to vanish from India and together with historical records. It is safe to assume that Chinese Buddhist deliverance practices started around 6AD during the rule of Emperor Wu.
Emperor Wu invited monks to perform deliverance ritual in his palace. According to records, Amoghavajra (不空金剛) brought 500 tantric ritual books to Cangan, China during 746AD. A few years later he started to build altar to perform dead rituals.
Also around the same period, another monk authored a false sutra 'Ulambata Sutra' (盂蘭盆经) and this Ulambata Sutra started to become popular among Chinese folks.
Those old practices are carried forward to our modern time:
The Buddhist adhered to the 7 day period memorial service (七日忌) and further added the 100 day period, annual, three years, century and etc. It has become a custom that monks must be employed to perform deliverance rituals during those timings.
4: Modern Day Critics Of Master Jingkong (净空法师)
Buddhist dead rituals begun by Xuanzong of Tang Dynasty.It was after the An Lushan Rebellion and many people died. The emperor built the Kaiyuan Temple (開元寺)to perform deliverance ritual so as to pacify those restless souls.
During that time, the deliverance rituals were just as our memorial service. Buddhist monks were employed to recite sutras, repentance and dedication of merits. The purpose was just remembrance of those died during unrest.
Since the deliverance rituals were advocated by the emperor, folks started to copy and follow. Perhaps this is the beginning of Buddhist deliverance ritual among the Chinese.
There was no such a thing beofre 713AD. The development has mutated until today.
Why say the purpose of Chinese deliverance ritual is distorted?
Well, originally, deliverance services were incidentally service done by the Buddhist temple. Further it is rarely done, at most once or twice a year. The main practice was still dharma talks and practices. Hence temple was then known as 'bodhimanda' or 'place of mind awakening'.
Let us make it clear that Buddhism is for salvation of human beings not to save ghosts! Buddhism is for the living and not for the dead!
This is why it is important that we must make it clear that a temple is only meant for 1: dharma talk and 2: dharma practices.
a. Deliverance ritual is against original Buddha teaching. Hence it is a no go.
b. Buddhism is for the living and not for the dead. So no use to talk about where one should go after death.
c. The law of karma is in conflict with dead rituals. So Buddhists today is in conflict with the original teaching of the Buddha.