Qing Ming – a Buddhist perspective

An Ancient Chinese Tradition and Custom . . .

This year Qing Ming Day falls on April 5th 2014.  Due to different traditions and different places, the date of celebration depends on family decision, any day from March 21st to April 5th 2014. Qing Ming Day is known by several names like Tomb Sweeping Day, Ancestors Day, Pure Brightness Festival Day, Memorial Day or Souls Day is an ancient Chinese tradition and custom.

Ancestor worship at the tomb, an ancient Chinese custom.

Ancestor worship at the tomb, an ancient Chinese custom.

Qing Ming Day is celebrated by sweeping the ancestors’ tombs and offering of food and drinks, and even presenting expensive items like bags or gadgets on the tombs.  These things are meant to be received by the deceased ancestors in their realm.  For those deceased whose remains were cremated offerings are made at niches in columbarium or temples where the ashes kept in urns and ancestral tablets are installed.

Offerings at temple where ashes in urns and ancestral tablets are installed.

Offerings at temple where ashes in urns and ancestral tablets are installed.

 . . . as well as an Ancient Indian Custom

 The tradition of offering food at the charnel ground was practised during the time of the Buddha.  An incident recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka (Pac 40) of a bhikkhu who used the shrouds of the corpses for his robes and ate food offerings found in the charnel ground.  The food offered by the relatives to the deceased, were good food and so he looked healthy.  It aroused suspicion and rumours circulated that he might have consumed human flesh.

When the Buddha heard the complaint, he set the rule that food must be offered to the monks before they could consume it, not because they are haughty and need to be served.  So, during the Buddha’s time, it was already an Indian custom to make food offerings to the departed relatives.

 Buddhism on Offering of Food and Drinks to the Deceased

The Tirokutta Sutta (Khudkka Nikaya: Khuddka Patha 7), is usually chanted by monks when invited to receive alms at the recently deceased person’s house. Departed spirits usually haunt their old dwelling places and their compassionate relatives would bestow on them in due time, food, drinks, etc. and also gifts to the monks in their name.

This Sutta was preached on the third day of the Buddha’s visit to Rajagaha. On the previous night, petas had made a great uproar in Bimbisara’s palace. In the time of Phussa Buddha, they had been workmen entrusted with the tasks of distributing alms to the Buddha and his monks. But they had been negligent in their duties and had appropriated some of the gifts for themselves.  As a result they suffered for a long period in purgatory and became petas in the time of Kassapa Buddha.  Kassapa told them in the future, Bimbisara, who once been their kinsmen, would meet and invite the Buddha Gotama and make over the merit to them. They had long waited for this occasion and when Bimbisara failed to fulfil their expectations they made great outcry.

Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads

               At doorposts they stand, returning to their old homes.

               But what a meal with plentiful food and drinks is served,

               No one remembers them, such a kamma of living beings.

                Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives

               Give them timely donations of proper food and drinks.

               Thinking: “May this for our relatives and may they be happy!”

               The deceased relatives gathered and assembled there,

               Rejoiced the ample food and drinks with appreciation give their blessing:

               “May our relatives live long because of whom we have gained this gift.

               We have been honoured, and the donors are not without reward!”

               For them there in their realm there is no farming, no herding of cattle,

               No commerce, no trading with money.

               They live on what is given there, hungry shades whose time here is done.

                As water raining on a hill flows down the valley,

               Even so does what is given here benefit the dead. 

               As rivers full of water fill the ocean full

               Even so does what is given here benefit the dead.

              “He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,

               They were my relatives, companions, friends.”

               Offering should be given for the dead

               When one reflects thus on things done in the past.

               For no weeping, no sorrow on other lamentation

               benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way.

                But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha,

               It works for the long-term benefit and they profit immediately.

               In this way the proper duty to the relatives has been shown,

               Great honour has been done to the dead, and monks have been given strength:

               The merit you have acquired is not small.”  Tirokutta Sutta

Qing Ming Day at Mangala Vihara (Buddhist Temple)

 Mangala Vihara (Buddhist Temple) marked Qing Ming Day (Cheng Beng Day) traditionally with a  service according to the Theravada practice. The Bhantes led in the recitation of the Tirokudda Suttta, after the evening Buddha puja whereby members and devotees participate in the mass transferring of merits. Names of donors and their past relatives or friends were read out as well as projected on the screens in the Shrine Hall.

A good practice to maintain . . .

 In the Sigalovada Sutta (Digha Nikaya Sutta 31), on filial piety, the Buddha extols, “Young householder, in five ways should a son minister to the parents thus: My parents have supported me, I shall support them in turn; I shall manage affairs on their behalf; I shall maintain the honour and tradition of the family: I shall make myself worthy of the inheritance and furthermore, I shall offer alms on behalf of the departed parents.”

As it was customary to offer food and drinks to the departed since the time of the Buddha; and to uphold and maintain the tradition of the family in offering alms in honour of the departed parents would also include offering of alms food to the deceased relatives and family members.

The Sigalovada Sutta is for lay people and lay followers or devotees should faithfully follow the teachings and put them into practice in their daily lives.

. . . and beyond doubt

There are doubts persisted in the minds of many devotees and lay people as to whether the intended deceased relatives or family members can benefit from such an offering or gift. The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ depending on the place reborn.

In a dialogue or debate between King Milinda and Nagasena: “Is it possible for all deceased relatives to share in the merit of a good deed?” “No. Only those who are born as hungry ghosts who feed off the merit of others are able to share in the merit. Those born in hell, those in heaven, animals, and hungry ghosts who feed on vomit, or hungry ghosts who hunger and thirst, or hungry ghosts who are consumed by craving, do not derive any profit.”

Is it, then, a fruitless effort of the donor or giver whose purpose and intent to make offering and yet not received or consumed by their deceased relatives and family members?  No. it is not fruitless as the donor or giver, who is the owner of the gift, would have it and derive benefits from his almsgiving. “Then the offerings in those cases are fruitless, since those for whom they were given derive no profit.” “No, O king, they are not fruitless nor without result for the givers themselves derive benefit from it.” “Convince me of this by a reason.” “If some people prepared a meal and visited their relatives but those relatives did not accept the gift, would that gift be wasted?” “No, venerable sir, the owners themselves would have it.” “Just so, O king, the givers derive benefit from their almsgiving.” (“The Debate of King Milinda” by Bhakku Pesala, Chapter 15, 74. Sharing of Merit). [Milindapanha is Book 18 in the Khuddaka Nikaya].

A brahmin, Janussoni once asked the Buddha what happened to the offering or gift when a deceased relative or family member who has not been reborn in the place to benefit from the gift.  Then, “other blood-relations, dead and gone, who have reached that place, enjoy it.” “But suppose, Master Gotama, that both that blood-relations and the others have not reached that place, who then enjoys that offering?” “That, brahmin, is impossible, it cannot come to pass that that place is empty for so long a time of blood-relations dead and gone. Anyhow, brahmin, he who offers to the dead and gone is not without reward.”  (Janussoni Sutta, Anguttra Nikaya Sutta 177) [Pali Text Society edition]).

Positive Conclusion

Making offering and gift to deceased relatives and family members is not a fruitless effort. So do continue to maintain and uphold with confidence and joy the tradition of Qing Ming Day, not forgetting the Luna Seventh (Hungry Ghost) Month as well, to make offerings or gifts to the deceased relatives or family members. Although they may not benefit from the offerings or gifts but other deceased relatives and family members from distant past would receive them, and also merits accrue to the donors or givers.

“The food that’s given in faith, with heart made pure:-

That finds him out in this world and the next.

Hence should he suppress avarice, and make

Offerings to charity, mastering taint.

Sure planted in some other future life

Rewards of virtue on all beings wait.”

               (Samyutta Nikaya, 1, 5, S3 Food. [Pali Text Society edition])

Sadhu!  Sadhu! Sadhu!

Contributor: Chin Kee Thou

March 15th 2014.

About Chin Kee Thou

Reading Buddhist scriptures and writing articles for the blog and newsletters.
This entry was posted in Buddhism in Daily Life, Dhamma in Daily Life, Events, Sutta in Daily Life. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Qing Ming – a Buddhist perspective

  1. We just recently celebrated the The Qingming Festival at our monastery. It was a long, beautiful ceremony full of meaning and hope. Great post, thank you. Amitofo.


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