Buddhists/Memory of late parents
Usually Chinese will do prayer and offer food to the deceased in certain occasions such as cheng beng and on the fifteenth day of the seventh month in lunar calender. Do buddhist practice this? If not what should we do for the deceased on such occasions?
Good afternoon Poh Sim,
Thank you for asking this very important question especially for the Chinese community. Those Chinese who are born into so-called "Buddhist" families and do not have a good foundation of the pristine teachings of the Buddha, will face this dilemma if they are thinkers about spiritual and religious matters.
First let us consider Chinese culture and tradition. For thousands of years even before Buddhism appeared in China, Chinese culture and tradition were already very well developed. Religion in those days was not primary in Chinese culture, but just part of the Chinese way of life. Worshipping deities and spirits were the natural pattern since ancient times. So offerings of food and other praying paraphernalia like burning of joss-sticks and other paper items were the normal routine; and also lighting of candles.
When Buddhism was introduced to China, the Chinese incorporated the teachings of the Buddha into their "religious" rites and rituals. Buddhism being a universal doctrine, could accommodate local cultural and traditional practices, without losing its message of peace and compassion. That is why we have today different traditions of Buddhism like Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism and even modern day Western Buddhism. The beauty of this blending is that each community can still practise the teachings of the Buddha without having to discard its individual cultural and traditional identity. The downside of this accommodation and mixing of rites and rituals over the years is the gradual misinterpretation of the pristine teachings of the Buddha. A lot of non-Buddhist local practices gradually became entrenched as "Buddhist" rites and rituals and beliefs. And now we have this problem as in your question.
Now let's come to Buddhist practice with regards to praying for the deceased. Acually Buddhism is for the living. It is most important that we live right and enjoy peace and happiness now. Once a person is dead he is gone. Buddhism will not be able to help that person much anymore. It is our wrong perception due to our ignorance that we want to perform so much rites and rituals for the dead. It is more important that we provide for our loved ones while they are alive, rather that praying for them when they are already dead.
There are certain rites and rituals that Buddhists do practice. But then again depending on the different Buddhist traditions, their prayers and rituals also vary. However, the purpose of such practices are clearly understood; although many still misunderstand them and practise blindly. The Chinese Buddhists like to offer fruits and flowers to the deceased. But definitely not meat which is not a Buddhist practice. Using joss-sticks and candles are very entrenched practices of Asian peoples. But burning any kind of paper is not Buddhist practice. Buddhist believe that by performing good deeds and chanting the appropriate suttas may alleviate sufferings for those existing in the sorrowful realms like wondering ghosts and hell beings. This practice is called "transferance of merits" to the less fortunate beings who are suffering in the lower realms of existence.
The better Buddhist ways to remember our loved ones who have passed on, are to perform any of the following during any auspicious day:
1. If you are more comfortable with the Chinese Mahayana practices, go participate in proper Buddhist chanting with genuine Buddhist groups. This you can identify the reliable Mahayana Buddhist temples. Avoid any temple which asks for money for its services.
2. If you are more comfortable with the Theravada Buddhist practices, you can give dana (offering of food to the monks)in any Theravada temple, usually Thai, Sri Lankan, Burmese, or you can find some local Theravada centres as well.
3. You can also visit the graves and or any columbarium to pay respect to your loved ones who have passed on. You can light a candle and/or bring flowers to offer. This is just to satisfy our human emotions by offering something visible. A better way is just to clasp your hands and bow three times, and say a silent prayer in your own words. A simple Theravada way is to recite three times, homage to the Buddha "namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa".
The Chinese lunar seventh month is a controversial topic. To those superstitious people, this seventh month is the month that ghosts and other suffering beings are being released out to roam the world. To a person who understands the teachings of the Buddha, every month is an auspiscious month; in fact every day is an auspiscious day, if we live in peace and happiness. There are no doubt, Buddhist stories regarding hungry ghosts during this period; but there are other similar stories all year round too!
You would be surprised if I said the seventh month is actually a special auspicious month for the Buddhists. It was the month that Buddhist monks during the Buddha's time completed their 3-month raining-season retreat which called for happy celebration because they had successfully completed their 3-month spiritual cultivation!
If you are interest to know more about Buddhism, may I share this with you. There are two main aspects of Buddhism. One is knowledge, which you can learn from Buddhist sites or listening to Buddhist talks. The other, which is most important is the putting into action this knowledge. This is called "humanization" of Buddhism. I wrote an article on this relating to Tzu Chi. This is the link: http://hubpages.com/politics/Tzu-Chi-Foundation-Master-Cheng-Yen
Hope this helps.