Guiding the departed's consciousness to a better place

The New Straits Times, Dec 11, 2005

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- The sonorous drone of a handbell struck at intervals with a small rod accompanies the chants of "Namo Amitabha Buddha" by a group of Buddhist volunteers dressed in black robes. They are at a wake.

"There are many who die and are not fortunate to have chants at their funeral," says Heng Fook Wing, a 37-year-old freelance designer. He believes that chants help the soul depart for a better place which he calls "pure land".

"The chants with texts taken from holy Buddhist scriptures help the departed's consciousness take the right path to the celestial pure land.

"I never knew I could chant, but I made the effort to learn from seasoned volunteers, especially when it would help to free the consciousness."

Heng got interested in the activity and his drive to help fellow Buddhists after watching VCDs on Buddhism.

"I met others who were already chanting for the dead, and soon I started to join some sessions."

Today, Heng is part of a group of 50-80 regular volunteers from Pureland Amitabha Buddhist Association. They attend wakes whenever a request is made.

There is network of volunteers who chant and they are available 24 hours, says 31-year-old Ong Chiew Bee at the association.

The service is free and most Chinese-Buddhist families who received the service are touched by it.

It is especially meaningful in Asia where funeral rites often involve a lot of money spent on engaging the services of a funeral crew that includes musicians and singers.

"People usually ask for our assistance when they hear about the service we offer," says Heng.

"Our chanting service at funerals is voluntary, we just think about getting the departed's consciousness to pure land, although some families insist on giving us ang pow," says Heng.

Heng isn?t musically inclined so he spent time learning to chant effectively. "It was not easy at first. I had to memorise the words and learn the techniques," says Heng who started chanting in 2000. I even took some time to learn to use the handbell."

Members drop whatever they are doing upon request for a chanting session. The dedication shown by the members has earned admiration from the community.

Everytime Cheras-based Heng?s handphone rings, he answers immediately. "All calls are important and you never know when it is a call asking for my service," he says.

Fellow chanter Ng Foong Keng, 52, believes that few things are as important as helping to attain a better rebirth. "We are there to help them let go of attachments and we encourage the family to help as well," she says.

Heng, who has chanted at countless funeral, says it is important that family members refrain from crying so that the consciousness of the dead person is not confused and is easily conveyed to the pure land.