Question: During Qingming Festival (Chinese tomb sweeping day to commemorate and pay respects to ancestors, usually around 5 April; 15th day from the spring equinox), with some non-Buddhist family members, we would visit deceased relatives’ graves in cemeteries and urns in columbariums to pay respects. I would bring fruits, flowers and vegetarian food, while others bring non-vegetarian food, joss sticks and paper offerings. After cleaning up the area and setting up the offerings, we would hang around to chat. After a while, they would throw two pieces of wood (shengbei) to enquire if the meal has been eaten, before packing up. I know much of this isn’t Buddhist practice. What should I do instead?
Answer: Qingming is a traditional Chinese festival. Although its origins are not Buddhist, Buddhists can still participate with right understanding and practices, as we shall see. For Buddhists, an annual festival for remembering and aiding the deceased is Ullambana (Yulanpeng) Day. Qingming Day in effect, for Buddhists, serves as a ‘second(ary)’ Ullambana Day as practices done are often similar, other than formal making of offerings to the Sangha (which can be done too when possible).
Q: What is practised on Ullambana Day?
A: ‘Ullambana is an expression of Buddhists’ respect for their ancestors and their compassion for all beings suffering in the realms of misery. The observance of Ullambana on the fifteenth [full moon] day of the seventh lunar month is based on the incident of Maudgalyayana (Mogallana), a disciple of the Buddha, who discovered through his meditative powers that his mother had been reborn a hungry ghost. Distressed, he approached the Buddha for help, who then advised him to make offerings to the Sangha [on this day, when many monastics gather to report to the Buddha on their spiritual progress], as the merits from doing so would help relieve the suffering of his mother, and that of other beings in the realms of misery. Making offerings to relieve the suffering of the departed and other suffering beings thus became a popular practice. Ullambana is observed by making offerings of necessities to monastics, reciting sermons and performing acts of charity. The merits from these deeds are then shared with all beings.’
Q: Why do we, to the deceased, make many offerings similar to those made to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas?
A: Some of the practices and offering items made during Qingming are indeed similar to those used for offering to the Triple Gem. The significance is similar, but not exactly so, as we shall see. However, these practices and offerings can also be made directly to the Triple Gem during Qingming, with the merits from doing so dedicated to the deceased for their well-being.
Q: Why do we practise bowing?
A: ‘Prostration before an image of the Buddha [or Bodhisattva] is not idol-worshipping – it is an expression of deep veneration. It acknowledges that the Buddha has attained perfect and supreme Enlightenment. Such an act helps one to overcome egoistic feelings, to become more ready to learn from the Buddha.’ [In terms of bowing before remains of deceased relatives, this is out of respect with a sense of gratitude for their past kindness towards us, instead of acknowledging their spiritual attainments, unless they are truly accomplished. In this sense, it is not really ancestral worship as in ‘deifying’ them.]
Q: Why do we practise putting our palms together?
A: ‘Placing one’s palms together at the chest level is a traditional gesture to express deep reverence to the Triple Gem. When Buddhists [laity and monastics] greet one another, they hold their palms together like a budding lotus flower (the Buddhist symbol of purity). This greeting acknowledges the seeds of awakening or Buddhahood within the other person, as we wish one another well-being and happiness. Placing the palms together also has a focusing and calming effect on the mind.’ [In terms of placing our palms together before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too be well and happy, and swiftly awaken.]
Q: Why do we make objects of offering?
A: ‘Making shrine offerings is an act of devotion which expresses appreciation and veneration to the Triple Gem. Each item of offering has its significance.’ [We shall see how this relates in terms of making these offerings for the deceased. They are not so much for appeasing them, but for reminding them of the Dharma.]
Q: Why do we offer light?
A: ‘The offering of light reminds us of the illuminating brightness of wisdom, which dispels the darkness of ignorance on the path towards Enlightenment. This urges us to seek the light of ultimate wisdom.
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer candles and lamps:
To Him, who is the light, we offer light.
From His great lamp, a lamp we light within us:
The lamp of Bodhi (awakening) shining within our hearts.’
[In terms of offering light, e.g. by candles, lamps and such before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too ignite the lamp of wisdom within, to swiftly awaken.]
Q: Why do we offer flowers?
A: ‘The offering of fresh and beautiful flowers, which soon become withered, scentless and discoloured serves as a reminder of the impermanence of all things, including our very lives. This urges us to treasure every moment of our lives while not becoming attached.
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer flowers:
Flowers that today are fresh and sweetly blooming,
Flowers that tomorrow are faded and fallen.
Our bodies too, like flowers, will pass away.’
[In terms of offering flowers before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too realise the truth of impermanence, to swiftly awaken.]
Q: Why do we offer incense?
A: ‘The offering of burning incense which fills the air with fragrance symbolises the virtue and purifying effect of wholesome conduct. This urges us to cease all evil and to cultivate all of the good.
Reverencing the Buddha, we offer incense:
Incense whose fragrance pervades the air.
The fragrance of the perfect life, sweeter than incense,
Spreads in all directions throughout the world.’
[In terms of offering incense before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too cultivate virtues wherever they are.]
Q: Why do we offer water?
A: ‘The offering of water symbolises purity, clarity and calmness. This urges us to cultivate our body, speech and mind to attain these qualities.’ [In terms of offering water before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too realise the qualities of purity, clarity and calmness, to swiftly awaken.]
Q: Why do we offer fruits?
A: ‘Fruits symbolise the truth of karmic cause and effect, and the fruits of spiritual attainment that lead towards the ultimate fruit of Enlightenment, which is the goal of all Buddhists. This urges us to strive towards Enlightenment for one and all.’ [In terms of offering fruits before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too realise the truth of karma, to swiftly awaken.]
Q: Why do we offer chanting?
A: ‘Chanting (puja) is a melodious way of reading as one reflects upon the Buddha’s teachings [e.g. sutras]. Besides aiding memorisation, chanting in a soothing tune has a calming effect on both the reciter and the listener. Chanting should be done solemnly with mindfulness and energy. Like meditation, chanting helps one to develop a focused and peaceful state of mind… Though the choice of the material chanted varies from tradition to tradition, some of the general contents include: Going for Refuge, the Five Precepts, Praise to the Triple Gem, Sutras, Mantras, Homage to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Confession of Faults, Rejoicing in Merits and Sharing of Merits.’ [In terms of chanting before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the respectful wish to share the Dharma with them, so that they too realise the Dharma, to swiftly awaken.]
‘Mantras are strings of short sacred phrases or syllables, which symbolise certain teachings or qualities (e.g. the six syllable mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which symbolises compassion), representing the truth in its various aspects. Reciting mantras helps to bring the mind to peace and calmness. Specific mantras can also help to develop certain positive characteristics such as compassion, wisdom and courage.’ [In terms of chanting mantras before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the respectful wish that they too recite the same mantras, to realise their qualities, to swiftly awaken.]
‘Homage to [or ‘Refuge in’] (the names of) Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (e.g. “Namo Amituofo” or Homage to Amitabha Buddha, and “Namo Daci Dabei Guanshiyin Pusa” or Homage to Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva of Great Loving-kindness and Compassion) can be chanted single-mindedly to recall and invoke in oneself the virtues and qualities they personify. Doing so helps to reminds us that we too can attain perfection in various qualities like them.’ [In terms of chanting Amituofo’s name before the remains of deceased relatives, this expresses the same respectful wish that they too recite his name with right faith single-mindedly, and to aspire to be born in his Pure Land, where they can swiftly awaken. It is noteworthy, that Amituofo’s name is considered a supreme mantra too: https://purelanders.com/2011/12/16/the-name-of-amituofo-is-the-supreme-mantra/]
Q: Will the deceased know the meaning of these practices?
A: If their consciousnesses are not around, they might not know them. However, merits dedicated to them will be able to benefit them. If they are not yet reborn, the merits can help them to have a better rebirth. If they are already reborn, but in a lower realm, the merits can help to alleviate their suffering, and to more swiftly have a better rebirth. If their consciousnesses are around, they have the ability to read our minds to know what is it we are trying to convey. This includes the sutras we chant. As such, it is important to know the signficance of Buddhist practices ourselves, instead of just going through motion in a confused way.
Q: As there are many practices shared, must they all be done on Qingming or Ullambana Day?
A: The practices above can be done not just during Qingming or Ullambana, but whenever and wherever you wish, as frequently as you wish. They are however, especially urgent when one has just passed away (within the span of 49 days), since the person might not be reborn yet. This is when guidance and merits are needed the most. They need not be done in the presence of the remains of the deceased (e.g. urns or graves, or even ancestral tablets) too, as long as merits are dedicated to the deceased. However, being in the presence of the remains does help to express sincerity. If the deceased have passed away a long time ago, it is most likely that they are already reborn; and are not where their remains are. Even those not yet reborn need not be around their remains, but where they are more attached to instead, e.g. home. However, in the case that there are signs that the deceased are near their remains or anywhere in particular, the practices are ideally done there to better catch their attention, to benefit them directly.
Q: What is the main practice that we should spend more time on, that is more crucial, especially when there is lack of time?
A: You can Nianfo (recite Amituofo’s name) as sincerely as you can, as much as you can, with these thoughts as the starting motivation, ‘If you are not yet reborn, please Nianfo along with me now, and whenever you can by yourself, until you see Amituofo coming to receive you to his Pure Land, where there is no suffering… Amituofo, Amituofo, Amituofo…’ If it is awkward to say or chant the above aloud in a public place or where there are other relatives who might not like it, you can do so silently but clearly in your mind. As mentioned, unseen beings have the ability to read our minds to understand our intentions. Remember that you can Nianfo regularly to share merits beyond the festive days too. If you have time, it is good to first chant Amituojing (Amitabha Sutra) to summarise who Amituofo is, what his Pure Land is like and why we should aspire to be born there. This is as if a crash course, for educating the deceased, if they are around. The more understanding we have, the more powerful our practice will be. Even if deceased relatives are not around any more, other unseen beings around can benefit too.
Q: What is the significance of registering and writing deceased relatives’ names on paper tablets in temples, where monastics chant over?
A: The paper tablets are practical points of focus for us to make offerings, dedicate prayers and merits to the deceased. Again, it is not so much that the deceased will definitely be there. This might be useful when the deceased has had a sea burial or when the remains are lost or elsewhere too far away.
Q: How should I see the non-Buddhist practices by other relatives?
A: The offering of meat is not advisable as it is linked to creating demand for slaughter in the name of the deceased. However, if other relatives are unable to vegetarian offerings for now, you can volunteer to gradually take over the food offerings in future. The burning of paper items is also not advisable as it pollutes the environment, also in the name of the deceased. The deceased are also unable to receive paper offerings. Here are Buddhist views on burning of paper offerings: https://groups.yahoo.com/group/zeph/message/306 & https://groups.yahoo.com/group/tde-intl/message/198. Again, if relatives are unable to accept this, you can volunteer to take over the burning in order to burn less. On the use of shengbei to decide if the offered food has been eaten, there is not much ‘harm’ in this practice, though it is most unlikely that the outcome of the shengbei thrown reflects the intentions of the deceased, especially when they are no longer around. Offered food can also only be consumed by hungry ghosts and wandering spirits, whom deceased relatives might not have become. After making offerings, if other relatives are doing mostly chatting, which is not beneficial for the deceased, you can practise chanting instead. For those who understand your intention, you can gather them to Nianfo aloud with you.
Q: Are there other means to help the deceased?
A: As above, you can do more good deeds in the name of the deceased in everyday life, support Dharma projects, sign up their names for occasional Dharma ceremonies which welcome dedication of merits to the deceased, and even attend Dharma classes, talks and retreats to create merits for further dedication of merits to them. Daily personal Dharma practices can be for dedicating merits to them too. You can also practise vegetarianism or veganism, animal liberation and such.
With excerpts from ‘Be a Lamp Upon Yourself’: www.tinyurl.com/bealamp (Editor : Shen Shi’an)
Please be mindful of your speech, Amituofo!