The Significance of the 49-Day Journey After Death

Last November marked the 40-year anniversary since I first became an overseas minister. Since then, I have spent these past several months reflecting on my various experiences throughout my journey as a Buddhist priest in the United States. It led me to realize that while I have much more that I wish to tell to you about Buddhism, there are also many concepts that need further explanation. One example that comes to mind is the importance of the 49th day memorial service for the deceased, which is specific to Buddhist traditions. Its significance is often times downplayed or even forgotten, when compared to the notion of holding funeral services. I wish to elaborate on this topic by briefly taking you through the 49-day journey of the deceased.

When an individual passes away, it is said that 49 nails are hammered into their body and soul, restraining both the physical body and soul from moving. Every seven days, starting from the day of the individual’s passing, until the 49th day, we hold memorial services for the individual. Seven nails will be removed every seventh day, until all 49 of these nails are removed, to ultimately free the deceased’s soul. On the 49th day, there will be a trial or hearing held in front of the so-called ”judge”, who will be standing in front of six gates, bearing no signs. However, we all know that each of these gates leads the individual to six possible realms of existence. These include hell, those of hungry spirits, animals, ashura, humans, or the heavenly beings. Everyone wants to either return as a human being, or enter the realm of heavenly beings. This judge in front of the six gates, will not guide this individual to the proper gate, but only instruct them to choose one. The individual will choose the gate based on what they may think is only instinct, yet this decision will also be guided by the actions that the individual took during their time on this earth.

While it may seem as if we take little part in the deceased individual’s 49-day journey, this is not the case. One way we can assist them, is by chanting ”Namu myo ho renge kyo”, which as you know, is the name of the Buddha nature that we all possess. We chant this odaimoku throughout the 49 days to call upon the deceased individual’s Buddha nature. If you recall, the Buddha nature can be imagined as the inside of a seed, while the outer shell represents bad karma resulting primarily from previous actions. Whenever we chant the odaimoku, the Buddha nature slowly grows. While this is a slow process, the more we chant, the more the Buddha nature shows, until it finally appears by sprouting through the outer shell. If the Buddha nature does not appear at the end of the 49 days, the individual will not be able to reach Enlightenment.

While death signifies the end of an individual’s time in this world, it does not mark the ultimate endpoint of their spirit. Please remember that your Buddhist practice can serve an important purpose in providing happiness for not only yourself, but also others, including the deceased.

Ven. Kenjo lgarashi
May 2016