There are times when situation makes us wiser to initiate bold changes, some even questioning the very basis of our customs and traditions.
This week, His Holiness the Je Khenpo in addressing the nation through a recorded sungshey on the national TV, left many with folded hands, nodding in agreement. The message was on the importance of social distancing in the wake of the new coronavirus, but HH the Je Khenpo’s wisdom had more. It reminded of our attitude or perceptions of things that we do. And the way we do.
When his HH said that the number of cars in a convoy, food items or the size of the crowd is immaterial for the dead, it questions our attitude rather than the belief. It is created by social pressure rather than belief or Buddhism.
Cremation draws crowd. If it is complicating the effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it has, on the hindsight, been very complicated. Everybody attends funerals to pay the last rite. That is not a problem.
The problem is when it starts becoming a burden to the already bereaved. Burden can be from misconception that not many had attended the funeral, that the food was not good or that there were only countable cars in the convoy that went around the town before reaching the crematorium.
Quite often, apart from the physical presence, the duthroe become a gossip ground. Men and women sit in decorated tents and talk about everything under the sun including the veg juma on the menu. Jokes abound and laughter loud when the host is mourning. When help is needed, it is mostly the hired hand that tends to the oven from the start to the end.
In the kitchen, it is soldiers or police personnel who had been called from duty to help cook and do the dishes. The appreciation is so much that everybody agrees that a relative in the armed force is a must. Attending a funereal is an unquestionable excuse to miss work. It is worse when a whole office is empty for hours.
His Holiness’s pragmatic message is a reminder that it is not religious traditions, but our own attitudes and misconceptions. Funeral rites need not be presided by a high lama always. People are convinced when His Holiness stopped presiding funeral rites followed by the four Lopons. At the Thimphu duthroe, the Dratshang has arranged monks headed by a Truelku. That does not mean everybody should rush to Thimphu.
There is no logic in stacking Bangkok-imported tshogs wrapped in plastics. Cleaners at the duthroe are overwhelmed by the amount of junk they collect. Some must be returning to the shops.
It is difficult to change our customs driven by pressure and not reasoning. People will go to attend funerals, crack jokes, gossip and feel satisfied with their presence. The host will keep note and return the favour.
Having listened to His Holiness’s sungshey, it gives us reason to change. Traditions have evolved with time. Another initiative of His Holiness, banning packaged tshogs, is not only working, but it is also appreciated in the face of mounting plastic waste problem.