Makuragyo (Pillow Sutra)

There is a Japanese Buddhist custom of performing an end-of-life service commonly referred to as “Makuragyo (lit. Pillow Sutra).” The purpose of the service is to chant the sutras in gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching and the Nembutsu, which have served as one’s guide during the journey of life in this world. As many people are unable to chant the sutras on their own at the end of life, it is customary for the minister of the local temple to be called to lead the service on their behalf. In principle, the Makuragyo service would be performed prior to the moment of death.  However, in practice a minister often arrives to perform the service after the person has already passed over to the Other Shore. In some cases, the Makuragyo service may be held after the deceased has been moved to a funeral home or other location.

Upon arrival, the minister will assist the family in setting the room in order for the service. If there is not an obutsudan (Buddhist shrine) in the room, one may be brought in from another room or a portable Buddha image will be provided by the minister. The focal point of the service is the Buddha image (a painting or statue of Amida Buddha or the Name of Amida Buddha written in the words “Namo Amida Butsu”), not the body of the deceased. Once all of the family and close friends who are able to be present for the Makuragyo have gathered, a brief service will be held, consisting of sutra chanting, offering of incense and words of comfort from the teachings of the Buddha. The burning of incense may be omitted from the service if hospital or assisted living facility guidelines prohibit the smoke.

If you sense that your loved one’s time to pass over to the Other Shore is drawing near, or if they have passed away, please call the San Mateo Buddhist Temple at (650) 342-2541, anytime, day or night. If no one is at the temple to answer your call, it will forward to my cell phone. If I am not able to answer when you call, please leave a message including the number where you can be reached, and I will return your call as soon as possible.

In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition, we are taught that those who live in the Nembutsu, entrusting themselves to Amida Buddha’s wisdom and compassion, immediately realize birth in the realm of peace and bliss at the conclusion of their life in this world. The life of the Nembutsu is perfect and complete just as it is, so there is nothing that needs to be added on our part to ensure the realization of peace by our loved ones after they depart from this world. With that in mind, we do not conduct the Makuragyo service in order to bring about a favorable rebirth for our departed loved ones. Also, in the Jodo Shinshu tradition, there is no need to keep candles and incense burning throughout the night following the passing of a loved one.

For the family of the deceased, the Makuragyo serves the therapeutic purpose of enabling the grieving loved ones to receive focus and support from the Dharma. “Amidst the chaos and emotional confusion, the Makuragyo becomes a focal point of stability and peace of mind for the grieving family. It is an intimate moment when everyone may listen to and hear the very profound and compassionate teachings of the Buddha; which is meant as an instruction of how to continue living for the grieving family members and friends.” (Rites of Passage: Death by Rev. Arthur Takemoto, Rev. Masao Kodani, and Rev. Russell Hamada, p. 57)

In the days that follow the passing of a loved one, a Funeral Planning Meeting is held at the temple or in a family home. This meeting is an opportunity for the minister and representatives from the temple to reflect on the life of the deceased and discuss the details of the funeral and other services. If the deceased received a Dharma Name at a Sarana Affirmation Ceremony conducted by the Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America (Kieshiki) or the Gomonshu of the Hongwanji Temple in Japan (Kikyoshiki), please bring it to the meeting. If you have received a Dharma name, please make sure your family members know where the information is kept. If the deceased has a Japanese name, the minister conducting the service may also ask for the kanji.

The Makuragyo is not intended to mark the end of life. Rather, it is the start of our process of coming into a new relationship with our loved one who has realized birth on the Other Shore of peace and bliss.


Namo Amida Butsu