(Born Shinto) ... Die Buddhist!
Zen, Death, and the Ancestors

Japanese Temple Funeral
Icon representing the merging of Shinto and Buddhism with Chinese cultural influences
Chinese Ancestor Worship
 
Chinese characters for po and hun (yin and yang souls) with yin-yang symbol
The Chinese Roots of Japanese Funeral Rites
Yin & Yang Souls

Beliefs about the existence of supernatural or mysterious beings are based on the notion that, at some level, the soul or spirit of a person can survive the moment of physical death. Such conception of the soul and the afterlife is grounded in ancient cosmological schemes central to Chinese thought, which postulate fundamental order and unity in the universe. Customarily, Chinese believe in the existence of two kinds of soul: earthly soul (po), linked with the yin element, and heavenly soul (hun), linked with the yang element. Upon death the earthly soul — associated with darkness, sensuality, and corporality — moves downward towards the earth and can be transformed into a ghost. On the other hand, the heavenly soul — associated with brightness, intelligence, and spirituality — travels upwards and can be reborn as a god or an ancestor. Despite their apparent differences, there are therefore striking similarities between the ancestors and the gods, even though the gods are believed to be in possession of greater numinous power, and their influence purportedly extends beyond the confines of individual families. It is also possible for an ancestor to transform himself or herself into a god (but also into a demon). Accordingly, the two classes of supernatural beings, gods and ancestors, are usually worshiped in a similar manner. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 170)
 
Chinese character for po (yin soul)
Rituals for the Po (Yin) Soul
 
Click for video of paper house burning
 
Traditional Chinese grave
 
Traditional Grave
 
Contemporary Chinese cemetary (cremated remains)
 
Contemporary Cemetery
 
Hell Money
 
Hell Money
 
Burning hell money at the grave
 
Burning Hell Money at the Grave

Cemetary full of people celebrating the Qinming Festival
 
清明節
Qingming Festival (Spring)
Tomb Sweeping Day

 
Click for video of Qingming at the family tomb
bamboo page divider
Hungry Ghost Festival
 
鬼節
Hungry Ghost Festival (Fall)
 
Large paper car being incinerated
yin-yang symbol
Chinese character for hun (yang soul)
Rituals for the Hun (Yang) Soul
 
Shang Dynasty bronze vessels (for yang soul rituals)
 
The spirits of the ancestors are traditionally symbolized and commemorated by means of ancestral tablets, on which their names are inscribed. Within individual homes the ancestral tablets are placed at special altars or shrines. In cases of wealthier households, there might be separate ancestral halls, or even whole ancestral temples. Often ancestral tablets are also placed at a local temple, which might be a Buddhist or a Daoist establishment. Within the altar area the tablets are frequently accompanied with statues or paintings of popular deities such as Guandi, Mazu, or Guanyin. Offering incense and paying respects at the ancestral shrine are integral parts of the domestic routine of many Chinese households. On special occasions there are more elaborate rites and sacrifices, which usually involve the offerings of food and incense. (Introducing Chinese Religions, 170-1)
 
spirit table Spirit Tablet
spirit tablet
Spirit Tablets 
 

Chart showing placement of family and ritual altars for family rituals to the yang soul
Traditional Family Altar Plan
 
Chen Clan Ancestral Hall (in Canton)

Chen Clan Ancestral Hall

Chen Clan family altar (model for Japanese butsudan)
 
Contemporary family altar
 
Contemporary Family Altar
 
 
"From China to Japan"
 
Tokugawa Ieyas (overlooking picture below)
Buddhism itself was organized and controlled by the Tokugawa government. Each family was required to have membership in a Buddhist temple. Every temple, in turn, was made a branch of a well-regulated major temple, like Mount Koya in Shingon, Mount Hiei in Tendai, the two Honganji in Jodo-Shinshu, or their major auxiliaries, which trained and supplied priests for the local level. Japanese Buddhism had no geographical divisions or responsibilities, like the diocese or district in many Christian churches; each priest and local temple looked to its main temple for guidance and, if need be, the resolution of difficulties. ... [T]he Tokugawa ordinances meant that Buddhism now was at least a nominal part of the life of every village and family. (IJR, 175-6)
 
Danka register
 
[I]t was during the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) that Buddhism became deeply entrenched in the social system. During this era the relationship between Buddhism and the household and the position of Buddhism as the religion of death was formalised through a series of laws enacted by the government in the first half of the seventeenth century commanding all households to become formally affiliated to a Buddhist temple. The laws were enacted not to promote Buddhism as a religious faith but to tighten government control of the country, and were part of the move to exclude Christianity as an alien and socially disruptive force. Households, and all people in them, were obliged to register at a temple in their area, and all had to make at the temple an annual declaration of religious belief that involved a denial of Christianity. This declaration enabled them to receive a temple certificate (tera ukejo), non-possession of which was a serious crime.Participation in annual memorial rites and various financial obligations towards the upkeep of the temple, were mandatory for all, including even Shinto priests, who had to die as Buddhists. All households were obliged to have butsudan where the ancestors were enshrined and venerated. (RCJ, 85-6)


Every family was legally required to belong to a Buddhist temple and had to be questioned periodically by the temple priest. “At one stroke, all Japanese were incorporated administratively into the existing Buddhist structure.” Births were registered and deaths were recorded in the local temple to which the family belonged. ...
butsudan (Buddhist altar for the home)
The death of a person sets in motion a series of rites and ceremonies that culminates in the observance of a final memorial service, most commonly on the thirty-third or fiftieth anniversary of death. Between a person’s last breath and the final prayers said on his behalf, his spirit is ritually and symbolically purified and elevated; it passes gradually from the stage of immediate association with the corpse, which is thought to be both dangerous and polluting, to the moment when it loses its individual identity and enters the realm of the generalized ancestral spirits, essentially purified and benign. ...
       An outstanding feature of the ceremonies for the dead is that from start to finish they are primarily the responsibility of the household and its members, for all of whom, regardless of sex and of age at death, these same devotions will be performed in some degree. Indeed, the longer the time since a person’s death, the more likely that only household members will look after his spirit. Many people will attend the funeral; fewer will attend the rites of the forty-ninth day; and the number will dwindle over the years as the memorial services are marked. The priest, too, has less and less to do with rites for the deceased as time passes. It can be said without exaggeration that the household members alone, through their observance of the rites, prevent the ancestors from becoming wandering spirits. ...
 
Traditional cremation ceremony
 
During the first forty-nine days after death, steps are taken both to separate the spirit of the newly dead from its association with the corpse and to free it from its attachment to the world of the living. To achieve these ends the survivors undertake first to confuse the spirit. The coffin may be carried in a circle around the room of the house where it has rested and only then be borne outside for the funeral procession. The mourners may return from the grave by a route other than that taken by the procession. The path of the cortege may be swept clean in order to obliterate the footprints of the mourners and prevent the spirit from using them to find its way back home. The funeral service itself ends in the symbolic separation of the corpse or ashes and the spirit: a temporary memorial tablet representing the spirit is taken away from the cemetery and serves as the object of veneration during the first forty-nine days. ...
Placement of ritual objects in the butsudan (with legend)
The temporary tablet is first set on a low table in front of, but not within, the altar, and it is often accompanied by a photograph of the deceased, candles, an incense burner, and a bell or gong. On the forty-ninth day in most instances ... the temporary tablet is disposed of and the photograph put away. A permanent tablet, inscribed with the deceased’s posthumous name, is placed with the others already in the altar, to be separated from them only once when it is singled out for special treatment at the first bon. On that occasion the tablet will be placed on its own altar in the main room of the house and will be the object of far more elaborate offerings than are made to the other tablets. It is obvious that the special bon altar for the newly dead is constructed “to keep the observance for purified souls of distant ancestors from contamination with mourning for the newly dead.” ... With the conclusion of the rites of the first bon, the spirit is thought to have begun the long process of becoming an ancestral spirit. Over the years, on occasions marked by successive memorial rites, the dead person becomes more and more remote and fades from the memories of family members. At length, the final services are held for the individual ancestral spirit, which thereupon passes from the ranks of the household dead into a larger collectivity [i.e. it becomes one with the family’s ancestral kami]. (Religion in the Japanese Experience, 186-8; cf. 128-9)
 
Kanji for Tama (Soul) on a photo of the entrance to Yomi (Land of the Dead)
 
Traditional Japanese cosmology considered that each person had a soul (tama) which invested the physical body with life: death was a result of the severance of the tama from the physical body. The soul did not, however, cease with death but journeyed to the world of the dead while continuing to maintain an interest in this world, especially in its extant kin, looking over and protecting them as a guardian ancestral spirit. The journey to ancestorhood necessitated a series of rituals conferring a new role and status on the dead soul and ensuring that it adjusted to these happily and without resentment, and would thus look benevolently on the living. These rituals, which have long been carried out under the auspices of Buddhism, involve the household and the Buddhist temple in a relationship that has been crucial to the status of Buddhism in Japan and to the continuing role of the household as a religious center in its own right, themes that will be discussed in Chapter 4.
  
Yumoto Reiko's Butsudan
 
The rituals themselves are believed to guide the dead soul not simply from this world to the next, but also to transform it into an enlightened being in its own right. The Japanese word for a departed soul, hotoke [仏], also means a Buddha or enlightened being, and this dual meaning has produced a gloss between the two to the extent that for many in Japan the aims of Buddhism have become enlightenment not in life but after it. Buddhist rituals for the dead have strongly transformation and purificatory motifs, seeking to lead the soul to enlightenment by bestowing a Buddhist identity on it and eradicating the impurities of death, physically by cremating the corpse and metaphorically by chanting Buddhist texts and prayers that are believed to guide the soul away from this world, purify it of its shortcomings and transform it into an enlightened state. Attaining the state of peaceful rest after death (that is, completing the journey to ancestorhood) and attaining Buddhahood or enlightenment are also denoted by the same word, jobutsu [成仏]. Here again there is a sense of continuity between human and other states, the human progressing throgh death to become a hotoke and an ancestor. (RCJ, 40-1)
Sculpture representing "no soul" (anatman)
It was the apparent spiritual and magical powers accumulated by those who trained in the Buddhist tradition, aligned to the powes possessed by Buddhim in the form of its Buddha figures, statues, prayers, incantations and rituals, that were responsible for convincing the Japanese that Buddhism had the ability to transform the spirits of the dead and lead them to enlightenment after death, thereby eradicating the impurities and pollutions associated with death. Such recognition aided Buddhism’s expansion, allowing it to plant its roots more firmly in the Japanese cultural soil and hence to expand the numbers of people to whom it could extend its teachings. It also wedded it to Japanese folk concepts of the tama as an entity that continued to exist after death, a view not especially compatible with basic Buddhist philosophical perceptions of transience, transmigration and rebirth. Such concepts still may be discussed in philosophical terms within the Japanese Buddhist world, yet they have never carried much weight at the popular level, where Buddhism now as in the past tends to talk of the soul as an entity that continues to exist in some form after death, a view that certainly fits more harmoniously into the Japanese religious world than do more traditional Buddhist ones. (RJC, 84-5)
 
Click for scene from the film "Departures"
 
The general situation tended to stifle religious devotion, especially at parish Buddhist temples where family membership was obligatory; temple members’ “relationship with Buddhism often came to be more formalistic and pragmatic rather than a matter of individual religious conviction.” The Japanese historian Anesaki has described the general situation:
 
“For the people at large religion was rather a matter of family heritage and formal observance than a question of personal faith.” ...
 
To the present day, the organized sects of Japanese Buddhism have not been able to escape completely the unfavorable stigma of disinterested affiliation. Both enlightened priests and devout laypeople have often deplored the inertia of Tokugawa “feudal” patterns of Buddhist ancestor worship and have lamented the lack of a strong, personal Buddhist faith in the setting of parish temples. (Japanese Religion, 146-7)
 
Click for scene from "The Funeral"
 
Chinese characters for po/hun souls with yin-yang symbol
Drawing of family performing rituals at the grave
Haka Mairi and the Rites of O-Bon
Kanji for Haka Mairi and Obon
Along with the butsudan the other great focus of unity and centre of ancestral rites is the haka, the family grave, where usually ashes of all the family decesased are interred. ... The grave is simultaneously a special place of contact between the living and their ancestors, a receptacle for the spirits of the ancestors, a site for ritual offerings to the dead and a symbol of family continuity and belonging. ... The graves are usually in some sanctified ground, such as within the precincts of the family temple which thus oversees and protects the grave, with the priest conducting occasional rites to this effect. But maintaining the grave properly is the responsibility of the family and involves making offerings and periodically cleaning it, and this is a vital aspect of the relationship between the living and the dead, a means through which the living may express their feelings for the dead and uphold the vital balance and relationship through which the ancestors look after the living. Failure to do this correctly may, just as with neglect of the butsudan, invite problems: it is not infrequent for people who go to diviners or to the new religions for help with personal problems such as illness to be told that the cause of the problem lies in their failure to look after the grave properly or that the grave has been badly sited and requires changing. (RCJ, 96-97)
 
Photo of family performing rituals at a family grave
 
The grave, then, continues to be a central element in all the rites surrounding death: in fact haka mairi remains the single most widely performed religious activity in Japan, carried out, as was mentioned in Chapter 1, by close to 90 per cent of all Japanese people, young and old alike. It is primarily done at a number of set times in the year, especially at higan (literally the ‘other shore’), the period around the spring and autumnal equinoxes, and the o-bon festival in mid-July or August (the timing varies depending on the region). Many families also visit their ancestors’ graves over the New Year period as well. At these times it is customary to visit and clearn the graves, making offerings of food and drink to sustain the ancestors in the other world and calling in a priest to read Buddhist prayers for the benefit of the dead and to help them in their journey to full enlightenment (the ‘other shore’ implied in the name higan). ...
 
Photos of various aspects of the Obon festival
 
The most active and demonstrative time for family unity and festivities connected with the ancestors is the summer festive time of o-bon. This is the period when the souls of the dead are considered to return to earth to be with their living kin: since the ancestors are also felt to reside in the ihai and to be encountered at the butsudan throughout the year there are clearly some logical inconsistencies here, but these appear of little relevance and are hardly ever commented upon. (RCJ, 98-99)
 

 
Bon Odori (dance performed at Obon)
 
Bon lanterns adrift in the water