Rituals of Purification and of Sacrifice to the Ancestral Souls

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Rituals of Purification and of Sacrifice to the Ancestral Souls
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Formation of the Anterior Heaven Ritual for Feeding, Saving and Refining Ghosts ( 先天斛食濟煉幽科儀Xiantian Jilian You Keyi )

The Anterior Heaven Ritual for Feeding, Saving and Refining Ghosts, commonly called the Three Great Pristine Ones ( 大三清Da Sanqing ) Ritual, is a famous ritual of Hong Kong Daoism. The scripture of this ritual goes back to the first year of the Tongzhi Era in the Triple Origin Palace in Yuxiu Mountain, Guangzhou City. It was said to have been transmitted by Ge Xuan of the Jin Dynasty, but without any proof from other materials or literature. The ritual is composed of three parts: feeding ghosts, saving ghosts, and refining ghosts. The skills for saving and refining are "the way to transcendence and holiness." "Running one's own Spirit and Vital Breath, combining the vital liquids of the Two Images ( 二象Er Xiang ), one can refine a dead skeleton and make it lively in both form and figure." According to Wang Qizhen, a Daoist of the Southern Song dynasty, "the ancient rituals of Gentleman Guangcheng didn't include the ritual for salvation and refining, which became popular only in recent times." The ritual, through "extinguishing all sins and grievances of ghosts", can lift ghosts from hell to heaven. This kind of ritual began to spread widely as early as the Tang and Five Dynasties. Through feeding hungry ghosts, the ritual "benefits sentient beings in the Three Realms of Illness and the Five Worlds of Suffering, and makes the lives of all kinds of people full, thus transcending death and obtaining immortality." As early as the Tang Dynasty, there were records about rites of feeding ghosts. By the end of the Song, they had become popular. The formation of the ritual through combining three kinds of rites probably happened in the Southern Song. The Supreme Ultimate Numinous Treasure Ritual for Saving and Refining Ghosts ( 太極靈寶祭煉科儀Taiji Lingbao Jilian Keyi ), revised and published by the eminent Daoist Lou Jinyuan of the Qing dynasty, has a similar text and process to those of the Anterior Heaven Ritual of Hong Kong Daoism. According to Lou's Preface to the Supreme Ultimate Numinous Treasure Ritual for Saving and Refining Ghosts, "this ritual was in the Golden Book of Great Achievement ( 《大成金書》Dacheng Jin Shu ) of the Song Dynasty," and "has long been widespread." The Golden Book of Great Achievement is now lost. But we know that the Anterior Heaven Ritual for Feeding, Saving, and Refining the Ghosts had formed by the Song Dynasty, and that Hong Kong Daoism has preserved this ritual in its original form for 700 years.

Contents of the Anterior Heaven Ritual for Feeding, Saving and Refining Ghosts

The content of the ritual includes:

  1. opening prayer,
  2. offering incense ( 祝香Zhuxiang ),
  3. purifying with water ( 灑淨Sajing ),
  4. visualization ( 存想Cunxiang ),
  5. petition to the Five Hells,
  6. breaking the hells,
  7. triple invocation,
  8. invocation of spirits,
  9. taming of ghosts,
  10. odes to Daoist Fasts and Offerings,
  11. prostrations to the Ten Directions,
  12. extinguishing grievances,
  13. reciting the Five Kitchen Book ( 五廚經Wuchu Jing ),
  14. feeding ghosts,
  15. Refining Ghosts with Water and Fire ( 水火煉度Shuihuo Liandu ),
  16. taking the Three Refuges ( 三皈Sangui ),
  17. transmitting the Nine Commandments ( 九戒Jiujie ),
  18. and singing hymns to see off the dead.

The ritual, with the Heavenly Lord of Supreme Oneness ( 太乙天尊Taiyi Tianzun ) as its main deity, cordially invokes twenty kinds of ghosts to enjoy salvation. They represent most professions of ancient Chinese society since the Song Dynasty, such as minister, general, man of letters, Confucian, monk, Daoist, doctor, diviner, fisherman, woodcutter, farmer, shepherd, traveler, warrior, prostitute, etc. The text generalizes the sufferings of all people, pays great sympathy to them and conducts rituals to feed and save them. The content of liberating grievances gives ten kinds of death, such as murder, hanging, drowning, etc., and expresses people's ideal to live in a world without grief and ascend to Immortality after death.


The Anterior Heaven Ritual for Feeding, Saving, and Refining Ghosts is mainly conducted through sitting and singing poems and odes matched with certain Talismans ( 符Fu ) and Incantations ( 咒Zhou ) at each unit. The ritual can be presided over by one master or held by the staff under the leadership of three masters. The ritual lasts about four hours. With its magnificently decorated altar and rich and varied music, the ritual is always praised as a representative display of Hong Kong Daoism.

Mind Skills ( 心法 Xinfa ) of the Anterior Heaven Rituals for Feeding, Saving and Refining Demons

This is the most complete Daoist ritual for the salvation of ghosts. The first step is the Homage to the Ten Directions ( 十方禮 Shifang Li ) (i.e., the east, the south, the west, the north, the southeast, the southwest, the northeast, the northwest, Heaven, and Earth). Invocation of the Masters ( 啟師 Qishi ) means to explain the purpose of performing the Ritual Offerings ( 醮 Jiao ). The Audience to the Spirits ( 朝神 Chaoshen ) refers to an audience conducted for all the spirits worshiped within the realm of that altar, so as to show respect. Later, one should ascend the altar to perform the rituals, sincerely invite the sages of the various heavens in the Three Worlds ( 三界 Sanjie ) and the City Gods ( 城隍 Chenghuang ) of streets, towns and villages to inspect the performance of the rituals in the Ritual Space ( 壇場 Tanchang ), and give offerings of incense, flowers, lanterns and fruits.


How can common followers of Daoism save the ghosts? We must have fasts ( 齋戒 Zhaijie ) and baths and be pious, wear the Daoist Robe ( 道袍 Daopao ) and the Daoist cap, and perform rituals in place of the masters. More important, we need to Sit in Meditation ( 打坐 Dazuo ) and refine our skills. "With the Vital Breath ( 氣 Qi ) wandering in the cauldron of perfect Yang and rising up and down in the middle yellow heart, one visualizes the Supreme Oneness ( 太乙 Taiyi ) and then the Three Ones ( 三一 Sanyi ), imagining communication with the Perfect Men and ascent on the jade steps with them." This means that with the running of the Vital Breath of "Perfect Yang" in the heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidney through the human body, the fire of the heart goes down and the water of the kidney goes up. Since the heart belongs to the Li trigram and the kidney belongs to the Kan trigram, this is called the mutual aid between fire and water, or the communication between Li and Kan. The Supreme Oneness refers to the Niwan Palace acupoint at the top of the head, and the "Three Ones" refers to the Essential Matter ( 精 Jing ), the Vital Breath and the Spirit ( 神 Shen ). Only when they assemble into one Vital Breath can they help the salvation of the ghosts. The spirit in the Niwan Palace is called the Heavenly Lord of Salvation from Misery ( 救苦天尊 Jiuku Tianzun ). It is the Heavenly Lord of Supreme Oneness and Salvation from Misery ( 太乙救苦天尊 Taiyi Jiuku Tianzun ) who is mainly in charge of the salvation of the ghosts.


The Anterior Heaven ritual of feeding is mentioned in the Book of the Five Kinds of Food ( 五廚經 Wuchu Jing ) on the creation of food preached by the Supreme Venerable Sovereign ( 太上老君 Taishang Laojun ). It teaches people to make their Spirit pristine and concentrated, and their wishes universal and kind, in order to refine the Vital Breath into the supreme harmony of the Five Agents ( 五行 Wuxing ) of food. Just after corresponding to sublimity, one must be pious and tranquil, and make one's visualization profound enough to reach the emptiness above and the depth below, and change one's Spirit and Vital Breath to worship the spirits and ghosts.


"Illuminate the Li to refine one's constitution, and acquire the Kan water to save the ghosts". Refinement by both fire and water is the key point in the salvation of the ghosts.


Refinement by Water ( 水煉 Shuilian )

In order to help the effective performance of the rituals, one should visualize the existence of the perfect Essential Matter between the two kidneys, as big as the moon. After a long period of such visualization, the fire and the water communicate with each other and water comes into being in the Jade Pond, and so the kidney water ascends to the top of the head as a heavenly river. The splashing yellow water tastes cool and sweet. One can see the broad and limitless expanse of cool water rippling before the altar, and all the ghosts entering the water, ready for refinement. After quite a while, they completely clean themselves of the old dirt and become clean both inside and outside.


Refinement by Fire ( 火煉 Huolian )

In order to help the effective performance of the rituals, one should visualize the existence of the perfect Vital Breath between the two kidneys, as big as the sun. After practising this visualization for a long time, the fire and water communicate with each other and the water comes into being in the jade pond, and so the perfect fire soon illuminates the Scarlet Palace. This splendid golden fire makes one feel warm all over the body as in spring. Then one can see the glorious raging flames before the altar brightening Heaven and Earth, and the ghosts entering the fire readily for refinement. After quite a while, their body and face look proper and dignified, and their bones become complete and firm. As explained in the scriptures, "heaven, the first, gives birth to water, and earth, the second, gives birth to fire. The mutual refinement by water and fire produces Perfection ( 真 Zhen ), which, mixed with the Spirit in it, communicates with the soul." Thus the ghosts can be immortalized and have a physical body. The salvation of the ghosts belongs to the numinous skills, and it originally existed in the Three Grottoes ( 三洞 Sandong ) in heaven. For example, the "Mysterious and Profound Incantation" ( 玄蘊咒 Xuanyun Zhou ) records that "The Imperial Man of Heavenly Perfection ( 天真皇人 Tianzhen Huangren ) holds the writing brush and first writes down the chapters of the interpretation of the grottoes and then the Numinous Talismans ( 靈符 Lingfu ). Then the ghosts can rely on them to ascend to the immortal cities." After the revelation of the chart during the "disaster in the years of Longhan", the skills for the salvation of the ghosts were spread to the earth. It is important for those who help the performance of the rituals to use the heart, the spirit, and the Inner Secret Names ( 內諱 Neihui ), namely the four characters "An, Hong, Zha and Li". That is to say, they must use the light of the spirit in their heart, for the spirit belongs to fire which goes up and so the ghosts can be saved and ascend to heaven. The character An turns left, Hong turns right, Zha turns left, and Li turns right. Turning left is Yang and turning right is Yin. It implies that there is Yin in Yang, and Yang in Yin. When writing down the texts of the precious Registers ( 籙 Lu ), people conventionally draw images of red mounds and fire houses in red ink on yellow paper. People should also Make Finger Gestures ( 掐訣 Qiajue ). The four characters are on the four knuckles of the middle finger, which links inward to the heart and upward to the Niwan point. Thus the spirit and the Vital Breath extend far and people can have quick correspondence with gods.


The false bodies of the ghosts are filthy and attacked by wind, cold, heat and humidity, and their physical nature is confused. The ghosts have not yet escaped the wheel of miseries, and they should be nursed and recuperated in accordance with their diseases, so as to wish for complete recovery. A Yang Elixir Talisman ( 丹陽符 Danyang Fu ) and the Numinous Talisman of Pervasive Brightness of the Yang Essential Matter and of the Yellow Vital Breath ( 黃氣陽精洞明靈符 Huangqi Yangjing Dongming Lingfu ) should be written for the transference of the Elixir ( 丹 Dan ) of the Vital Breath in the Middle Yellow Heart. The Yellow Vital Breath lies in the Middle Palace, and the Yang Essential Matter lies in the Life Palace. Creation (i.e., the perfect Essential Matter of water and the perfect Vital Breath of fire) takes place between the two kidneys in the Middle Palace, therefore the Yang Essential Matter and the Yellow Vital Breath are thus called. The Middle Palace is also called the Yellow Court ( 黃庭 Huangting ). Press the middle line on the middle finger, write the Yang Elixir Talisman, and think of the two colours of yellow and black. Yellow belongs to the Middle Palace, and black belongs to the Life Palace. This explains the meaning of the terms " Yellow Vital Breath" and " Yang Essential Matter". If the ghosts obtain the Yellow Vital Breath and the Yang Essential Matter, the halo of their soul will turn into brightness like the full moon on the evening of the fifteenth day of each lunar month.

Even if the ghosts are fed and refined and saved by water and fire, they still can't make achievements or be promoted without Acceptance of Commandments. In order to help the performance of the rituals, one must be tranquil and motionless, concentrate the mind and communicate with the soul. Ghosts can be helped if the spirit is complete. The perfect mind brings about sublime things, and the false mind brings about bad things. The mind and things correspond with each other, like a shadow following a person. What's more, one should put morality in the first place. Don't discriminate in favor of anyone, and only help those who have virtues. Make the ghosts divine and enlightened. People who perform the rituals have to be quite cautious in this respect.