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I generally had the understanding that there is no way one can save the deceased from the consequences of their Kamma. At most, we can send Metta to the deceased which may comfort them wherever they exist. This understanding of mine is based on this story, wherein the Buddha using the analogy of butter and stones in two earthen pots makes the son of a deceased father understand that one cannot help the deceased escape from their Kamma by performing rites and rituals.

But I was surprised to come across the Ullambana Sutra in another answer in this forum, where the Budhha seems to suggest the contrary - recommending rites and rituals for the benefit of the deceased and in fact their liberation from woeful states.

Can anyone clarify this contradiction and elaborate on how one can help the deceased? Is Metta for the deceased effective for their well being?

P.S. My question is not to create controversy. I'm more interested in learning the right view than the contradiction, if that helps anyone answer. I would be glad even if anyone answered the question without touching upon the contradiction part.

  • Are you looking for the Mahayana answer or the Theravada answer? – MatthewMartin Sep 14 '15 at 12:36
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    I had kept it open ended since from what I could gather, the sutta I have quoted seems to be a Mahayana Sutta as per the internet. But if the answer were to depend on one of the two, I prefer to have the Theravada one. – kilocharlie Sep 14 '15 at 12:40
  • The Ullambana is a Mahayana sutra, and from the Theravada standpoint, isn't Buddhavacana, isn't authoratative. In Theravada, merit isn't transferable, except in the limited case of letting your friends know about your success so they can be happy about your success and do a little mudita. – MatthewMartin Sep 14 '15 at 16:55
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    Within the Theravada I believe there is one classification of hungry ghost which can receive a transfer of merit. II believe this is why they leave offerings of food out in Thailand and build small houses – Ryan Sep 15 '15 at 16:41
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I like to make the following points (from a Theravada standpoint.):

  • Sañcetanika Sutta and Loṇa,phala Sutta deals with how Karma can be eradicated or results can be limited.
    • If you have done a large amount of +ve Karma then a litter -ve Karma has limited effect
    • Your Karma ceases to exist when you experience the result. This is something you want to avoid if it is a bad Karma but when doing Vipassana your old stock of fabrication come into the surface and gives you a sensation and passes away if you are equanimous to the experience. These experiences tend to be more milder than Karma giving results in the normal course. See: The Discourse Summaries
  • Rights and rituals have a place in Buddhism:
    • This is to keep the institution going and as means to attract people to Buddhism especially who are not yet ready or mature for deep insight
    • Rights and rituals can be a steppingstone to liberation if the rights and rituals foster morality (sīla,vata), as in (Ekā,dasaka) Cetanā’karaṇīya Sutta
    • Rites and rituals cannot eradicate Karma at least as per Theravada tradition
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There is a sutta (can't find it now) documenting a case when someone asked Buddha about posthumous prayers helping a sinful person obtain better rebirth and his reply basically was that this was like throwing a heavy rock into a lake and chanting "swim good rock, swim" :))

So here is your Theravada answer :)

Now, Ulambana Sutra is a Mahayana sutra and as such should be taken as a skillful mean to motivate people to spread Dharma and make offerings to improve the future rebirths situation in general - not to circumvent individual karma.

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