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[Editor's Note: Although, strictly speaking, ancestor veneration is not a part of Buddhism, one would have a hard time convincing most Chinese Buddhists that it is not. Tan Teik Beng finds the explanation for this paradox in "the tolerant attitude of Buddhist monks toward the laity not to interfere with the traditional practices that are so dear to their hearts." In fact, his book reports that a number of Buddhist groups, have accommodated themselves to this practice. Even some Theravada (and thus most likely non-Chinese) temples are now observing Qing Ming, the day of providing food for the departed and cleaning their grave sites, within their temples. See Tan Teik Beng, Beliefs and Practices Among Malaysian Chinese Buddhists (Kuala Lumpur: Buddhist Missionary Society, 1988), p. 64. Thus, it is only appropriate to include some material concerning this practice on this website. The following article was written by a pastor in Taiwan in order to help his Christian congregation learn how to approach this matter. ]
Worshiping the True God – Upholding Origins
Some Questions and Reassurances on Ancestor Veneration
within a Christian Context
by Pastor W.
Christians who live in a predominantly Chinese society are often caught in a difficult position sorting out what their stance should be towards those who have died before them, particularly when the deceased are members of their family. On the one hand, they know that they should not worship any other God than the one who has revealed himself in the Bible. (Technically speaking, ancestors are not worshiped, but venerated, but it comes down to the same thing from a biblical point of view. We shall observe this distinction when necessary, but use the terms interchangeably when it makes little difference.) On the other hand, chances are that Chinese Christians have grown up with ancestor veneration, or at least have lived alongside it for most of their lives, and they do not want to create the impression with their non-Christian neighbors that they neither value nor honor their deceased family members.
So, what should Christians believe on this topic? Do they believe that their ancestors still live? Do they believe that Christians should commemorate and honor their family members who have already died? Should Christians believe in spirits, particularly the malicious variety often called “ghosts”? This article will address the nature of ancestor veneration and how Christians should view this practice.
What precisely happens in the practice of ancestor worship? Let me give a true example to start answering this question. While I was in Houston, an American went to a cemetery with flowers in memory of his loved one. It happened to be the day of ancestor commemoration for Taiwanese people. A Taiwanese man was there to carry out his memorial rituals. He set up a table with various foods at the grave as an offering to the dead. The American, fascinated by the scene, asked the Taiwanese, “Will your deceased family really rise up and eat this food?” The Taiwanese gentleman was offended by this comment and snapped back, “If your deceased one will rise up and smell your flowers, so will mine get up and eat.”
Americans surely do not assume that their deceased will rise up to smell the flowers. Decorating a gravesite only symbolizes affection for the memory of the dead. Similarly, we should not assume that the Chinese person subconsciously, let alone explicitly, expects the deceased family members to come up to the surface and gather for a meal. Wouldn’t it be bizarre if the deceased did that or the living expected them to do so? One must consider, for instance, that, if the dead still needed food, that they would starve since they are served only once or twice a year. Furthermore, if souls really needed food, why would it be necessary only for Taiwanese, but not for American souls, to be served food? Clearly the practice of venerating ancestors merely to satisfy their souls is not entirely what is going on. What, then, is the purpose of this practice? Is it imperative to venerate ancestors in order to show them respect?
Question 1: Why Observe Ancestry Veneration? - Four Aspects
Some elements of ancestor veneration have obvious merit in any world view, but there are also some items that require a certain amount of scrutiny. In general, there are four purposes for this practice.
1. The Continuity of Life. Ancestor veneration is considered an expression of the transmission of life, fulfilling the function of bonding with ancestors and securing the succession of family name.
2. Social Importance. Ancestor veneration is also an act of filial obedience, being respectful at a parent’s funeral, and offering sacrifice to the remote ancestors. This is a principle taught by Confucius , “Serve with respect while living, bury and venerate with respect at death.”
3. The Importance of Family. Ancestor veneration implies a strong sense of family unity, which is the source to strengthen families and to bond together all kinsmen within clans or extended families.
4. The Religious Element. Ancestor veneration also suggests a strong element of “soul worship.” People feel compelled to worship ancestors due to the fear of being deprived of their family’s prosperity and peace because they are afraid that the souls of the dead could become lonely and turn into “hungry ghosts.”.
Alongside these four points, along with responsibility and duty to one’s ancestors, there is also a deep presence of fear entailed in ancestor veneration. Not only do people feel compelled to worship ancestors, but they are also concerned that they themselves might not be honored or worshiped after their own deaths.
Christians uphold within their own world view the first three of the above-mentioned values: the continuity of life, cultural and social order, and family unity. However, Christians do not concur with the practice of soul worship. A Christian need not practice all four, but can practice the first three with freedom and full intent. However, that does not mean that Christians, always being careful to abide by biblical teachings, will do the exact same activities as the person carrying out traditional Chinese practices.
Question 2: Why do Christians not worship their ancestors in the full sense of the Chinese tradition?
Christians certainly stress the importance of honoring parents while they are alive. Furthermore, they value the memories of their ancestors. No one is more concerned than Christians about maintaining the social order and retaining the family as a treasure in society. Yet they need to raise some questions concerning the fourth aspect—worshiping (i.e. religiously venerating) ancestors.
[Please allow the interjection of an editorial comment at this point. Westerners need to understand that in Chinese culture, one of the highest values is called “being filial.” Strictly speaking, this term is redundant because it literally just means “being a son or a daughter.” However, Chinese culture associates this term with complete submission to one’s parents, always honoring them, and never embarrassing them, even if they should be wrong in some respect.]
To return to the topic, frankly speaking, when traditional Chinese people carry out ancestor veneration, they are often more concerned for themselves than for their ancestors. For most people, the actual reason behind these acts of worship is that they dread being accused of lacking the proper filial attitude, and that they also fear the possibility of being harassed by the souls of dead. People also appeal to their ancestors for protection.
Now, let us think for a moment as we bring the two ideas together. Is it fitting to be called “filial” if one worships ancestors out of fear and a need for supernatural aid? The fact of the matter is that some children were not necessarily respectful while their parents were alive, but you might find them rushing to carry out the rituals after their death. What kind of “filial” respect is this? People confuse the superficial outward acts with the all-important inward attitude. They focus only on the “worship” for dead ancestors, but ignore their responsibilities for parents who are still living, losing sight of the original meaning of “filial obedience.”
Question 3: Where are the Ancestors?
Ancestor veneration is based on the assumption that the deceased have a need for worldly enjoyments. This need requires to be satisfied by those in the world of the living, and it only makes sense if one has the perception that the underworld is an extension of our present world. In this view, people have to find out where their ancestors are before worshiping them, so as to provide exactly what they need. In general, Chinese people stipulate three places as an abode of the dead.
1. The Underworld
After death, a person is presumably waiting in the underworld for the ritual by their family to be transmigrated and reborn. In this world, the children of the deceased are supposed to provide every need, including clothing, food, housing, transportation, and entertainments. They do so by making offerings by way of burning fake money, paper houses, paper cars, paper credit cards, paper cell phones, etc. The deceased may even take an underworld train to visit and chat with relatives who died earlier. This way of thinking is perplexing to Christians in many ways and leaves them with many questions. If those dead ancestors depend on children for their needs, how can it also be possible for them to protect or bless their descendents? If those ancestors remain in the underworld, doesn’t that fact imply that the rituals by Daoist priests or Buddhist monks are ineffective? If they worked, the “ghosts” evoked by the priests or monks in séances must have been “fake”, not “real” persons. Besides, counting so many generations of ancestors, there must be more ancestors who have been missed than those who have been worshiped. If “the one who is worshiped gives protection and the one who is missed pesters”, are you able to satisfy all of them? Alternatively are you able to bear the harassments? Given the fact that any one living person probably has more ancestors than living relatives, should not every person be living under the perpetual annoyance by spirits?
If the ancestors are fortunate and are released into reincarnation, do they still need our worship anymore? In fact, “ancestor worship” and “reincarnation” are contradictory to each other. If a person is reborn into the next life, be it into another human or animal, the person goes back to the world and has a new home with the ability to make a living. Why would this person need those offerings and fake money? Has anyone among us ever received offerings from “the children of one of our previous lives,” assuming that our existence right now is the last in a chain of reincarnations? If those animals supplied in the offering are someone’s ancestors, aren’t we using “ancestors” to worship “ancestors”? This notion does not seem to match the idea of worshiping ancestors. We need to face the reality that our assumptions about rebirth may not be true. Where and how a person is reborn is supposed to be unknown and theoretically under the control of karma. What if some ancestors are born as an animal –will they like Chinese food if the offerings are given by Chinese people? Don’t you think that a McDonald’s hamburger would appeal to those who are reborn as Americans? Would not grass and feed be better for those who are reborn as animals?
3. The Ancestor Tablet
People often deem the tablet as the ancestor’s personification, believing that the ancestor is in the tablet and worshiping it. Again, this notion certainly is in conflict with the belief in reincarnation. If the ancestor has been reborn, he or she must have changed their name and become someone else’s ancestor. How could this person still stay in the tablet? It is understandable to keep a tablet inscribed with the ancestor’s name as a memorial. Yet, does it make sense to worship the tablet when the ancestor has been reborn as someone else’s ancestor?
Question 4: Where would you like to go after death?
Everyone desires eternity after death. Without eternity, all the commemoration we do for the dead would be meaningless. Regrettably, no religions are able to provide a clear promise for eternity, except Christianity.
I have asked many elderly, “Do you know where you are going when one day you leave this world? Are you definitely sure you will go there? Have those gods you have been worshiping all your life prepared a place for you?” Sadly, no one could answer these questions except for Christians.
If the underworld or the Western Paradise for the dead still requires provisions from offspring in order to avoid difficulties there, it would not be an attractive “Pure Land” worthy of our time. Perhaps it unfortunately resembles a trip that an incompetent travel agent may have arranged for you—or worse yet, did not arrange for you. Not only would you need to take care of your own transportation, bed furnishing, entertainments, food, fruits, etc. --but your children would also need to keep sending you provisions. Are you interested in going on that kind of trip?
Further, it is not necessarily good news, maybe even an affliction, to be reborn after death. According to Buddhism, there are six realms of reincarnation: heaven, human, asura, animal, hungry ghost, and underworld. Among these six realms, only the realm of “heaven” has a better life than that of “human”. And being reborn in the realm of “human” does not guarantee that you next life will be better than this one. The other alternatives are even more miserable. Further, those who get into heaven are not guaranteed happiness forever. Someday, the person still has to end life in heaven and come back to the cycle of six realms. Isn’t it more depressing to come back to an ordinary life after being used to the joy of paradise? No matter which realm you are in, the fear of death, the dread of death after life, and the endless need for penance always stay with you. If you should be lucky enough to become enlightened and exit the cycle, there are still no “pure delights” in store for you. “Enlightenment” means entering into an empty world of nothingness. Your spirit has removed itself from the cycle and disappears into the universe. The idea implicit in ancestor worship is an everlasting death of the spirit, forever parting from your family and friends. The Christian wonders, “What is good about this?” It gives no hope for eternity. In any event, the cycle of rebirth gives no choices but death and fear--they are always nearby. It devastates our dreams and hopes to reunite with our loved ones someday. It is nearly impossible to be reborn among the myriad of rebirths into the same family at the same age of time.
Among all the orders of belief, Christianity is the only one which gives us an infallible promise of eternity. This eternity does not mean forever for this physical life. It is neither a continuation of the mortal flesh, nor the endless cycle driven by guilt, let alone the supposed life in the underworld where one is still troubled by lack of necessities if not provided. The Lord Jesus promises us, “He who believes has everlasting life.” This “eternity” indicates that our sins are forgiven and that we are born again into God’s family, restoring our relationship with our heavenly Father. Our spirits go to heaven where God, our heavenly Father, has prepared a home for us. Understanding this, we are able to see three kinds of grace in this promised eternity.
1) Our Lord Jesus has prepared a place for us.
Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms….” (John 14:1-2). No other God, except for the one incarnate in Jesus, has promised to prepare a place for us after death, away from the cycle of rebirth, so that we won’t be wearied by our flesh, constantly worried if our children have made sufficient provisions. Our God, our heavenly Father, has provided for all of our needs.
2) Our Lord Jesus leads us home.
Jesus says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me...” (John 14:3) When someone dies, people in some places will ask a Buddhist monk/nun or a Daoist priest to guide the spirit. However, the clergy has never died before, neither been to the underworld nor stepped on the path to the “Western Paradise”. How is this person able to guide the spirit? Only Jesus has come from the Heavenly Father, been through death, and risen again. He has been on that path. Only he can lead us back to Heavenly Father’s home.
3) Our Lord Jesus promises reuniting
Jesus says, “…that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:3) People often feel devastated when their family members die, and they desire to be united with them again. Yet, in the concept of the never-ending cycle, the chances of being reunited are negligible. On the other hand, Jesus has promised us that we will be with the Lord, as well as with all who believe.
Question 5: Do we need other choices if the three promises above meet expectations and also satisfy our needs?
What kind of ancestor do you want to be? Do you care only if your children worship you after your death, not if they respect you while living? Some children do not pay any attention to their parents. Are you sure that those descendants who have never known or been associated with you will worship you? Is it sensible to trust your destination, happiness and peace after death in children or unknown descendants who have choice but to carry out the ancestor rituals? What if there are no descendents? Why not make arrangements while you are still living? Why not decide your own destination you can make choices concerning your life and destiny? Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) On this path with Jesus, we realize the truth, receive eternal life, and reach the Father’s place of everlasting peace. Simultaneously we are assured that we will stay away from the cycle of repeated lives, and we avoid the chance of becoming a hungry ghost. On top of these benefits, we would not burden our children or pester them to carry out obligations against their will. We are not only doing this for our own sake and benefit, but we are relieving our children from this unbearable burden and are giving them comfort. Trusting in Christ would resolve the issue of ancestor worship totally. Why not do it?
Question 6: What should a Christian do with the tablet?
What does a person do with the tablets of their ancestors when they become a believer in Jesus Christ? We will find that if we examine carefully the origin of the tablet, tablets are merely a token for memory, nothing magic or spiritual needs to be attached to them.
In the Second Book of Han, “Tin-Lan lost his mother at a young age and carved a piece of wood, serving as a reminder.” In this one of the 24 filial piety stories, Tin-Lan was originally a disobedient son, treating his mother harshly. One day while chopping wood in a mountain, he saw a lamb kneeling and lapping milk from its mother. He was so touched by the scene that he regretted his disregard for his mother. He resolved to change and be obedient to his parents. On that day, his mother brought him lunch as usual. When he saw his mother, he ran down to meet her so that she would not have to come all the way up. In the past, his mother had been intimidated by him. He would be annoyed if she brought lunch too early, or, even worse, if she was late. This day, she wondered why Tin-Lan was rushing down, which she took as a warning. With such an unruly son, she would rather die than be abused by him once again. So she jumped into the lake and drowned. Tin-Lan rushed to the lake, but it was too late. He could not even find her body. In despair, he picked up a piece of wood from the water and carved his mother’s name on it. He worshiped it to show his veneration for her. This is the story of the tablet.
People want something tangible as a memorial when commemorating their loved one. Without his mother’s body, nor her picture at that time, he had no choice but to carve her name on a piece of wood for a memorial and then to worship it as he deemed the piece of wood to be his mother’s personification. Now, a piece of wood has no life. But implicitly it can take on a spiritual force and accept worship when people by their actions transform the symbol of memory into an object of worship. A wooden figure could be simply an object of art if it is only for display. However, this neutral, lifeless object, could start to demonstrate some activity of a spiritual being if it is being worshiped as, say, “Quan-Kon” or “Ma-tsu.” This not to say that it has become the real spirit and being of “Quan-Kon” or “Ma-tsu”. Many fabricated figures were created by storytellers, like the monkey king or the pig in the “Journey to the West”. However, if you worship it for a long period of time, it likely will produce some spiritual force, or possibly some spiritual beings will attach themselves to this object. Apparently these spiritual forces or beings are not necessarily those great heroes whom you respect. Instead, they are fake forces that pretend to be someone worthy of your respect and accept your worship.
Thus, it is possible that the tablet may draw a force from a spirit after being worshiped for a long period. It may accept offerings, exploiting people’s love toward parents. But the tablet, when it has become contaminated with spiritual forces, is not your “ancestor’s spirit.” The Bible says, “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” (Hebrew 9:27), and “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10) If the ancestors went up to “heaven” or a “western paradise” as a reward for good deeds, such persons definitely will not come to this world to trouble his or her children; after all because they love them dearly. If, regrettably, they went down to “hell” or the underworld as punishment for his wickedness, would the righteous judge let them out to bother his or her children? With such persons’ own suffering in hell or the underworld, would they not stop doing any more harm and wish to forewarn the children to turn away from wickedness?
The Bible talks about a wealthy man who suffered in hell after death. He recalled his five brothers left in the world and pleaded with Abraham, “Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” (Luke 16:27). After death, a person’s mind is set right, so as to be able to discern between right and wrong. This person will not bother us if he or she is our real ancestor. Those who pester and leave no peace for children are surely “evil spirits” who mock us playing the role of our ancestors. From our perspective as living humans, if we genuinely respect our ancestors, we should not rashly accept traditional folklore so as to accuse our forebears and bruise their reputation. If they were conscious of our thoughts, they would be grieved if we had wronged and they would have no resources to rectify the injustice. Should we allow our ancestors to carry this un-rectifiable injustice after death?
Instead of worshiping the tablet, it is better to turn to other means to show respect to our ancestors if we intend to thwart whatever harassment may come our way from spiritual forces pretending to be our ancestors. After believing in Jesus as Lord, you may ask your pastor to have a “purification service” at your house. There are three purposes in this ceremony.
1) By praying in Jesus’ name, one will annihilate all the wicked forces engaged with this “tablet”, and rid oneself of all “evil spirits”. Cleanse the tablet in the name of Jesus, and trust that Jesus is protecting you from any further disturbances.
2) Surrender all the responsibilities and vows that you had made previously concerning ancestor veneration to Jesus. He will carry all the afflictions that you may feel if you believe that you are burdened by wicked curses. (Galatians 3:13)
3) Entrust the destiny of all the ancestors of every generation to Jesus who gives life. Romans 14:9 says, “… Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” Jesus is not only the Lord of the living, but also of the dead. He even “holds the keys of death and Hades.” He will make appropriate arrangements for our ancestors, according to his mercy and righteousness. We are relieved and in peace.
After the purification ceremony, my church usually wraps the “tablet” with a piece of red cloth in a solemn and respectful manner and brings it back to the church for proper treatment.
Question 7: How should a Christians treat their ancestors?
The change in a Christian’s home after he or she becomes a believer is the abolition of the “tablet,” but not of the “ancestors.” Actually, Christianity is, among all religions, the one stressing filial obedience more than others. The first precept in the 10 Commandments concerning morality says, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” (Exodus 20:12) “‘Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long life on the earth’.” (Ephesians 6:2-3. The filial obedience emphasized in Christianity can be explained in two ways.
1) Respect the living; commemorate the dead.
There is a Taiwanese saying, “A bean received while living is worth more than an offering of a pig’s head after death.” We would be heading toward pure superficiality and neglecting the essential if filial obedience were meant only for the dead, but not for the living. What is taught in Christianity is “May your father and mother be glad; may she who gave you birth rejoice!” (Proverbs 23:25) An even stricter law is found in Moses’ books, “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17) After our parents have died, their life stories could be put into family records for later generations. We may also have commemoration services on anniversaries or holidays in family gatherings. We may talk about the love our parents had for us, their contribution to the family, and all of their virtues that should be remembered. The younger generations may learn from their good deeds and be cautioned by whatever iniquities may have been a part of the reality of their lives. We may also appropriate a portion of an inheritance, depending on the amount, to charity or education funds, helping those in need in society. In this way, our parents’ good deeds and virtues can be passed down generation after generation, fulfilling the meaning of continuity of life. This will make our ancestors happier than sticking with the worship of a tablet.
2) Hold a respectful funeral for your parents and give honor to remote ancestors; be attentive to your ancestry and be mindful of your origins.
The teaching on death in the Bible is totally solemn and respectful. (Genesis 1-14, 22-26). The earnestness and sincerity in a Christian’s funeral service presents thoroughly not only their mourning and respect for the dead, but also comfort amidst sorrow and hope amidst desperation. This attitude will abate the fear of death and lead people to search for eternity. Anyone who has ever been a part of a truly Christian memorial service should have been touched by the scene. In addition, Christianity underlines strongly our relationship with our forebears. The Bible uses family trees and genealogies in the teaching of family relations. (Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38). Such relationships are not limited to the most recent 2 or 3 generations, but lead all the way back to the first ancestor, the beginning of humanity – and our Creator, our “Father in heaven.” A Chinese local saying says, “Man is born by heaven and brought up by earth.” Though we have earthly parents, undeniably we also have the most original, the “first” and “great” ancestor, whom we call “heavenly”. He is the Creator of the universe and the Life Giver. He is “The God who made the world and everything in it.” (Act 1.”24-28) The Bible calls him “Heavenly Father, our God.” The original purpose of an “ancestry veneration” ceremony among people was to remind people of our origin. It is inappropriate to worship ancestors of any generations, except the greatest “heavenly Father”. The mind of a Christian toward ancestors stays not only at “being respectful at the end of parents’ life”, but “offering sacrifice to the ‘greatest’ ancestor ‘, our heavenly Father, our God’. Therefore, worshiping God for a Christian is not “rebelling against ancestry”, but “recognizing our ancestry and returning to the origin” – the only real “origin,” which alone fulfills the purpose of “ancestor veneration.”
In summary, the belief of Christianity is to “respect parents, commemorate ancestors, and worship God, our heavenly Father.” Once we embrace the formula, “filial while living, commemorating after death, being respectful at the end and attentive to our ancestry, and returning to the origins,” we can rest in peace. We also have the mighty protection of our heavenly Father, so we don’t have to worry about any harassment by “evil spirits”. The filial teaching in Christianity not only satisfies the functions of the continuity of life, culture and family, but also relieves us from the fear of “worshiping dead spirits”. Isn’t this the most appropriate and the most needed belief for us?
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