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Since converting to Buddhism, I've been unsure how to express condolences when people pass away. Everything familiar that I might say comes from a Christian perspective such as "being in a better place" or "with the Lord now".

Simply letting the family know that I'm thinking of them works. But I'm wondering what is typical or traditional in Buddhist countries (or among experienced Buddhists in the west) where teachings of impermanence and rebirth may change the mindset regarding death. What is the typical way to express condolences among Buddhists?

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Great question Robin111. I have had the same concern myself, even though I wasn't raised in a Christian family, Christian values seem to pervade my entire culture and language. – Anthony Jul 17 '14 at 19:33
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Here in Sri Lanka, we typically say "Anicca Vata Sankhara" or "Vaya-dhamma Sankhara" in the bereavement notices. When you meet the family members, you put your hands together and greet without smiling. You are not expected to say anything unless you are giving an eulogy. When you talk to people, you are expected to talk quietly and not to gossip. You can either inquire about funeral arrangements or engage in a Dhamma discussion.

I suppose in the West, it's customary to say something. So you can probably say "May he/she attain Nibbana soon!"

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One concern for Westerners like myself is, if we say something like "May he/she attain Nibbana soon!" it will make us look strange, because the idea is not common in our culture. – Anthony Jul 17 '14 at 19:32
That would be a good entry point to introduce Buddhism to your relatives and friends. You can of course use an English word instead of 'Nibbana'. Ex: Enlightenment, Final Liberation. But using the word 'Nibbana' can also make them curious to find out what that is. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 17 '14 at 20:37
@qweilun, I agree mentioning anything about Nibbana to a grieving family who believes their loved one is now in heaven for all eternity; probably wouldn't be appropriate. But Sankha, I really liked your answer. It's interesting to see how things are done outside this little corner of the world. Thank you! :) – Robin111 Jul 18 '14 at 10:54
You are welcome! – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 18 '14 at 11:00

Most buddhists knows the process of death and that understanding would be preceeded by their feelings of loss, so most do not mourn the way other cultures might. Most buddhist would wear white clothing during this time to show mourning. Just let them know you're there for them if you should need you.

This article from BuddhaNet deals directly with this, discussing funeral arrangements, ceremonies and rituals.

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Buddhist philosophy teaches you to act with sincerity and not to speak for the sake of speaking. Given that, I don't think you need any particular line for expressing condolence. A simple "I'm sorry for your loss" or letting them know you are available to talk/listen should suffice as long as you mean it.

Remember that there is nothing you can say to end their grief. Your condolence/compassion is (ideally) expressed through your behaviour and intent to act for their long term good.

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With true understanding and sincerity we cannot be sorry for their loss, as they have not lost anything. They never 'had' anyone to lose to begin with, yet we know we have always and always will have each other as we are never truly separate - of course a funeral is not an appropriate time for explaining such concepts.

For me, the only appropriate speech from my Buddhist perspective, would not to be sorry in the conventional sense, i see that as pity with false emotion, indeed it is better to say nothing. We should focus more on remembering the great times spent and celebrating the life that touched everyone there. We can do no more honor than to pass on the love and compassion the deceased gave us in their lifetime.

Speak truthfully and with correct understanding, you'll know what to say.

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