Friday, August 12, 2011

Burning Offerings to Hungry Ghosts & Hell-Beings

The month of the hungry ghost offers great opportunity to Buddhists to do great things for the benefit of the departed ones. There are 2 Sutras that this practice came from. One is the Ulambana Sutra (a Sutra that both Mahayana and Theravadian Buddhists share) and the other is Ksitigarbha Sutra. It is practiced in the seventh lunar month mainly due to the 30th day seventh month being Ksitigarbha’s birthday. That’s the date devotees of this great bodhisattva assigned to him and commemorates this with celebrations involving emulating his compassionate deeds to benefit the departed ones suffering in hell and those languishing as hungry ghosts. It is believed that Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is able to traverse all levels of hell to help those suffering there. And since it is said that the hell gates are closely guarded with iron gates, (an allegory to our heavy negative karma preventing us from any escape from its consequences), it is only Ksitigarbha’s compassion that is able to penetrate open these gates (an allegory that only through great compassionate action that we can help sentient beings). With these “gates” open, Ksitigarbha is able to liberate sentient beings and send them back to other higher realms, including being reborn as human beings. That’s probably where the local folk believe of the gates of hell opening during the seventh month and the hell-dwellers are sent free to roam earth for a month before being brought back. Ordinary folks despite being ignorant of Buddhist wisdoms, are basically compassionate people and tried to benefit these “roaming ghost or hell-beings” by burning for them money, clothes, shoes, etc. And even offer them food and drink for the entire month. I personally find this very good practice or culture. I would call this a culture of compassion. Even though the latter things are not real and the ghosts or hell-beings would never be able to get these money, clothes or shoes, still as a Buddhist, I will never condemn these practices. I know a lot of Buddhists who advise people not to burn and offer these “paper things”. They say these practices are wrong and very “Taoist”. Are we so sure it is 100% wrong? Are we sure Buddhists practices do not have these “burning” practices? I still do burn these “money” for the benefit of these “beings” but there is a difference in the way I do it. I convert the practice into a fire puja style offering to the Triple Jewels (what generates more merits than offerings to the Triple Jewels!) before dedicating the immense merits to the liberation of the beings in the lower realms. So, if people are thinking I will advise people to stop burning these things, well, I won’t. If people have a different way of benefiting the lower realms beings, and do not wish to burn these offerings, that’s fine with Buddhism. But if there are people who wish to continue to burn offerings in the month of hungry ghost, that’s also fine with Buddhism, but do it the way I suggested. It’s the Buddhist fire puja way. This is seldom mentioned by Buddhists, but I say this so that people can still see that there are still some good in burning these gold and silver papers. Tibetan Buddhists are especially good in making things as an imagery of the actual thing and offering the substitute (or visualised images) instead of the real thing. Anyway, even Pachok Rinpoche refused to say bad thing about this practice. He said that there are beings that can benefit from the smoke that comes from the burning. So, that’s exactly what I do when I burn those things. I recite “Om Ah Hum” and transform them into spiritually charged smokes so that both humans and non-humans who smell the smokes can benefit from them. Of course, we have to compromise a little bit with regard the environment.

Also this month of prayers and offerings to King Yama, offers me a chance to say “hi” and give my respect to him. By giving him some offerings of joss-sticks, it is my way of saying “I respect the work that you do”. In that way, I purify any pre-existing negative affinities I might have with him. It clears my path for me of any obstacles I might face in the after-death world. Buddhists who intends to practice phowa or enlightenment by bardo, had better have a good relationship with King Yama. So, go give your respects to him. Don’t be arrogant. Make friends with him. There’s no need to wait till we die to say “hi” to him. If we hope to be a great bodhisattva like Ksitigarbha, and also help hell-beings, we had better get acquainted with King Yama. In Buddhism, the King Yama in charged of these roaming ghost beings is a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara. And that’s why when Avalokiteshvara works hand-in-hand with Ksitigarbha, lots of beings can be liberated. In case some Buddhists think he is just a Taoist deity, let me reiterate that he does exist in our Buddhist world too, even as a non-manifestation of Avalikiteshvara. And if you can take initiations of some unknown deities that originate from Tibet, you cannot even say “hi” to King Yama, a deity we see often in Chinese temples? Think about that.

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