Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Buddhist Treatment of the Dead


  • Richard Gombrich Oxford University



Indian and Chinese Buddhist traditions, karma, rebirth, ancestors, mortuary rites, ambivalence


Every culture is concerned about what happens to people when they die. Even when the dominant religion/ideology provides an answer, an examination of what people actually say and do generally discloses various inconsistences, for example between what they claim to believe and what their actions (notably rituals) suggest that they believe or at least consider possible. In every traditional Buddhist society, adherents are supposed to believe in rebirth, a fate which only those who achieve enlightenment escape, and yet in both the Indian and the Chinese Buddhist traditions people worship and to some extent interact with their dead ancestors and in doing so preserve local pre-Buddhist beliefs and customs. In both traditions there are likewise inconsistencies between what people believe about themselves and what they believe about others, as well as beliefs about how to treat dead parents and how to treat dead strangers. Much in the observable mixture of beliefs and practices may be ascribed to the Buddha himself.

Author Biography

Richard Gombrich, Oxford University

Richard Gombrich was Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford from 1976 to 2004, and went on to found the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. He has published such works as Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon (Clarendon 1971, and 1998 Motilal Banarsidass), Theravāda Buddhism (Routledge 1988 and 2006), How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings (Athlone 1996), and What the Buddha Thought (Equinox 2009); he has written extensively on early Buddhism and Pāli studies, and has served as President of both the Pali Text Society (1994-2002) and the UK Association for Buddhist Studies (2006-2013).


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How to Cite

Gombrich, R. (2018). Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Buddhist Treatment of the Dead. Buddhist Studies Review, 35(1-2), 97–110.