Daoist Funeral Rites

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Daoism has been involved with funerals since the time of its formation. Daoist funerals or funerals involving Daoism are a part of Chinese folklore. The Chinese are very serious about nourishing life and sending off the dead. The Confucians advocated being serious with death and reminiscing over the departed, which implies the idea of emphasizing death and recalling ancestors. Such Confucian thought needs certain rituals for its expression and intensification. Confucian rites have strong rational connotations, but there are also religious ceremonies among the commoners and in upper-class society. Their main purpose is to secure peace for the souls of the deceased, and separate the living and the dead, so that the shadow of death will not linger among the living, in order to guarantee their safety. At the same time, ancient people also tried hard to help the souls of the dead to ascend to Heaven to join their ancestors. On a silk book excavated in the Mawangdui Han tomb buried at the time of emperor Wen of the Western Han dynasty, the woman who was the owner of the tomb was shown being guided across a bridge and accompanied to Heaven. One person is in front of her holding a plate with the golden elixir. It was evident that the contemporaries associated the ascending of the deceased's soul with the refined elixirs of the Magicians (predecessors of the Daoists). This became an important ideological basis to Daoist funerals.

Early Daoism was more active among the common masses, and taking part in their funerals was very natural. Relieving Rituals ( 解除 Jiechu ) (magic rituals conducted for the dead at the tomb gate, aimed at separating the living people and ghosts and guarding the tomb ( 鎮墓 Zhenmu ), which were conducted at the gate of tombs, were very popular. They relieved deadly contagions ( 復連 Fulian ) (by protecting the living against the adversity and misfortune which cause death). The theme of filial piety was stressed in the later development of funerals. It emphasized that Daoist priests' magic could make the dead ascend to heaven quickly and let them leave the sufferings of the nether world ( 幽冥 Youming ). Such activities have long been popular customs among the masses. In the Tang Dynasty, Tang emperor Xuan Zong did not allow the literati and commoners to keep contact with Buddhist and Daoist priests. If one family had good or ill fortune and needed rituals, it should first present a certificate to the prefecture or county government, which would inform the temple, and only then was permission given to go to the temple. This shows that inviting Buddhists and Daoists to deal with unlucky incidents had become a custom. In the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang recognized Daoism and Buddhism's position and influence in common people's funerals, and tried to make them into fixed forms. So he had the Efficient Ritual of Fasts and Offerings of the Doctrine of Mysteries of the Great Ming Dynasty ( 大明立成玄教齋醮儀 Daming Licheng Xuanjiao Zhaijiao Yi ) compiled and personally wrote a preface to it. It reads: " when the families of officials and of the masses have funeral arrangements, they have to invite Buddhists and Daoists. If they are not invited to take part in the funeral, parents will be regarded as not benevolent if it is the funeral of their child, and children will be thought of as unfilial if it is the funeral of their parent. They will feel ashamed to meet their neighbors." This emperor was once a monk; he knew that the custom of inviting Buddhists and Daoists for funerals was deeply rooted, so he made it into a fixed form for disseminating filial piety and benevolence. Confucian scholars in the Ming Dynasty complained about Buddhist and Daoist participation in funerals, but they couldn't stop it. Wang Langchuan once said: "Nowadays, when somebody dies in a family, people employ Buddhists and Daoists to conduct rituals, have Water and Land Rituals ( 水陸會 Shuiluhui ), copy scriptures, and print Buddhist and Daoist images, in order to reduce the dead's sins and demerits and allow them to ascend to heaven and enjoy happiness. If not, the dead will descend to hell. Even the national laws cannot prohibit it, nor reasoning can make them understand. The literati also follow this custom, saying that they cannot help being vulgar, etc. " ([Ming] Wang Langchuan, Collection of Words and Deeds) ( 言行匯輯 Yanxing Huiji ). The literati he mentioned were the literate Confucian scholars. As followers of Confucius, they were supposed to guard the sage's teaching and not invite Buddhists and Daoists to attend their funerals. They failed to do so, for they wanted to follow the customs.

Daoist funerals have a complete ritual. It is mixed with folklore when conducted among the masses.

Strictly speaking, Daoist funerals belong to the category of Fasting. After the Song Dynasty, Offering was more widespread than Fasting. There are Fasting and Offering Rituals whether the dead is a Daoist priest or a common lay person. When Qiu Chuji, the Complete Perfection's patriarch, died, his disciples conducted the Yellow Register Fasting Rituals of the Numinous Treasure ( 靈寶黃籙齋儀 Lingbao Huanglu Zhaiyi ). In the thirteenth chapter of the Dream of the Red Mansion ( 紅樓夢 Hongloumeng ), when Qin Keqing died, it was decided to keep her corpse for forty-nine days. One hundred and eight monks and ninety-nine Complete Perfection Daoists were invited to conduct the Offering for Renouncing Misfortune and Clearing Bad Karma ( 解怨洗業醮 Jieyuan Xiye Jiao ) for forty-nine days. This is surely a description of the ostentation and extravagance of the aristocrats. Common people just went to the temple to have one or two Offerings, or invite Daoist priests to their home for some rituals. The Seven Day Ritual ( 做七 Zuoqi ) was most frequently performed, i.e., rituals were performed every seven days after the death. The process usually began from the first Seven to the fifth Seven; the longest ritual being performed on the seventh Seven.

Daoist rituals are quite rich in content. If you have a look at the Most High Efficient Fasting Ritual of the Yellow Register ( 無上黃籙大齋立成儀 Wushang Huanglu Dazhai Licheng Yi ) and at various kinds of important magic in the Numinous Treasure School, the perfection of their funeral rituals and richness of their content will make you astonished. The rituals examined and approved by Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang himself are comparatively simple. They are divided into a one-day Offering and a three-day Offering. Take the one-day Offering as an example. It has the following fifteen stages:

  1. Granting talismans ( 發符 Fafu );
  2. Setting up the supervising altar;
  3. Chanting scriptures;
  4. Inviting the master;
  5. Inviting the gods and ascertaining their intention;
  6. Communicating with spirits through the lantern ( 關燈 Guandeng );
  7. Summoning the dead and taking a bath;
  8. Saluting and uttering incantations over the food;
  9. Sacrificing food for the lonely soul and transmitting commandments;
  10. Arranging offerings;
  11. Presenting offerings;
  12. Sacrificing wine ( 祭酒 Jijiu );
  13. Reading memorials;
  14. Sending gods off; and
  15. Communicating with spirits through the lantern ( 化財滿意 Huacai Manyi ).

This long process has been much simplified, and several items have been combined into one. The practice of these rituals among the masses changes in accordance with the financial ability of the hosts and the amount of time available. Connecting with folk culture, it also absorbs local cultures and customs in different areas. From the perspective of folk customs, we can find that Daoist funerals have the following stages:

Chanting scriptures

For Daoism, chanting scriptures is the foremost merit. Chanting sutras for the dead will release them of the sufferings in darkness. The Book of Salvation, the Book of the Jade Emperor ( 玉皇經 Yuhuang Jing ) and the Book of the Three Officials are often recited in funerals. When common people have funerals, they either invite Monks or Daoists, or even both; there are no fixed rules. Thus after the Ming and Qing dynasties, there have been Buddhist monks chanting Daoist scriptures, or Daoists chanting the Buddhist Universal Salvation Chapter of Guanyin ( 拜懺 Baichan ). If the funerals are conducted in Daoist temples, however, they will surely chant Daoist scriptures.

Litanies and Water and Land Rituals

A Litany means a ritual conducted in front of gods for confessing one's sins and imploring forgiveness. Litany rites conducted in a funeral are to pardon the dead's guilt and help them to ascend to heaven or have a good reincarnation. In its later development, specialized litany rites such as "relieving disaster in the nine dark hells" ( 九幽脫厄 Jiuyou Tuo’E ), and "dispelling crimes in the nine dark hells" ( 九幽拔罪 Jiuyou Bazhui ) also evolved. The common believers would go to the temples and have litany rituals for the dead. The rich would invite Daoists to their home to build an altar and conduct litany rituals. The more ostentatious and extravagant litany ritual is the Water and Land Ritual. It lasts seven days or longer. "Water and Land" means to enshrine and worship the spirits in the Heaven above, in the Earth in the middle and in the Water below. It covers the dead's soul and hungry ghosts ( 餓鬼 E’gui ) in the three worlds and six paths, and helps them to break away from suffering and bitterness, so it requires a large scale, many segments, and plenty of deliverance rites. Parts of the ritual can be conducted independently as small-scale rites. There is a Water and Land Ritual in Buddhism, too. It contains Daoist techniques such as distributing talismans, showing the clear influence of Daoist Water and Land Rituals.

Lighting Lanterns and Disposing Water Lanterns

Both Buddhism and Daoism conduct these rituals. For Daoism, the Numinous Treasure Rituals usually involve lighting lanterns and candles. Daoism also has some independent lantern rituals. The Nine Darkness Lantern Ritual ( 九幽燈 Jiuyou Deng ) can make the divine light shine over Hell, so that the soul of the dead will be enlightened by the light and be guided to leave the realm of death. The Jade Reflection of the Numinous Treasure ( 靈寶玉 Lingbao Yujian ) doesn't regard lantern rituals as "glorious and beautiful". Instead, it implies "using light to break the darkness", for "the soul of the dead, once it has fallen into the darkness of the endless night, can hardly leave it without the shining of the light. So the ritual must have lights patterned on the sky and earth and distribute talismans." To show the pattern of the sky and earth, the arrangement of the lantern altar must be disposed according to the locations of the sun, moon, stars and constellations above, and the Eight Trigrams and Nine Palaces below. The sunshine is let in to mix and break the darkness, so that the soul of the dead can be delivered through the light. Following folk custom, when someone dies, an oil lamp will be placed by the corpse's feet for the purpose of illuminating the dark path ( 冥途 Mingtu ).

Besides lighting lanterns in rituals, an additional water lantern will also be used in the funeral. The legend goes that when people die, they need to pass a dark river. To avoid falling into it, it is necessary to light a lantern and illuminate the dark river. So people put paper lamps in rivers or lakes as symbols. The paper lamp is in the shape of a ship or lotus with a tile or wood board bottom, and candles burning in it. It will be put into water after chanting incantations and empowering magic. Generally speaking, if the water lamp floats a long time without turning, it shows that the magician is more powerful and that the dead will have a better fortune.

Feeding Hungry Ghosts ( 施食 Shishi )

This is also called hushi ( 斛食 Hushi ) or panshi ( 判斛 Panhu ) in Chinese. Such rituals in Buddhism are called Rituals for Feeding the Hungry Ghosts ( 放焰口 Fang Yankou ). Some Buddhist scriptures tell people that those who have fallen into the path of a hungry ghost ( 餓鬼道 E’gui Dao ), do so as a result of their previous Dharmic actions ( 業力 Yeli ). The throats of hungry ghosts are as small as a needle, so it is hard for them to drink even a drop of water. Whenever there is food in front of their month, a flame will spurt out automatically and burn the food. So they are eternally hungry and in suffering. Only magic power can make the flame die out and open their throat, and release them from such suffering. We call these rituals fangyankou or just yankou for short. Buddhist yankou rituals ( 焰口儀 Yankouyi ) were finally completed by the Dharmic Tantric master Bu Kong. The most important part of the ritual is fangyankou, which gives free food to the hungry ghosts. Such rituals in Daoism were recorded in the Tang document yiwen leiju, which is earlier than Bu Kong's compilation. Thus Bu Kong may have consulted Daoist methods. Later, Buddhism and Daoism borrowed from each other. In Daoist Deliverance rituals, there are elements such as ' opening the throat'. So people like to call such Daoist and Buddhist rituals together as fangyankou. But the original Daoist term is Relieving Refinement, Refinement Deliverance or Sacrificing Refinement. Its purpose is not only to relieve the soul of the dead from the suffering of hunger and thirst. The Daoist master will also use his positive spirit and energy to refine the negativity of the dead and free them from spiritual suffering, so that they can ascend to Heaven as soon as possible. During the time of Refining, it is necessary to build a water pond and fire zhao (zhao is a fire basin lit after the master gives magic power, which symbolizes the fire god). Water is used for cleaning and fire for refining, so it is also called Refining and Deliverance through Water and Fire ( 水火煉度 Shuihou Liandu ). The Three Pristine Ones' Refining Deliverance is a popular ritual in Hong Kong. This ritual doesn't use water and fire as symbols, believing that the master's inner energy is powerful enough. But it still keeps the functions of water and fire, if not their form.

There are other rituals emphasizing the suffering of the dead's soul. They are given a general term: "giving free food". They discard the typical Daoist Refining and Deliverance. These rituals are generally conducted for ghosts who haven't been relieved from the darkness during important festivals. The conduct of these rituals is mainly determined by the host ( 齋主 Zhaizhu ), so they have a close relationship with folk customs, and have strong folk and local characters.

These rituals may vary in different places, but their purpose is the same, i.e. to practice filial piety, bring security to the family, and help people to get rid of the psychological fear of death.

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