Improving Buddhism

Is it Possible?

Ancestor Worship and Improved Buddhism

The words 'ancestor worship' bring to mind some oriental practices that involve some formal methods of venerating ancestors, mostly recently deceased ones. This post is about the general concept of venerating or honoring ancestors, which seems to be a very universal phenomena. The exact words themselves refer to the traditional, thousands-of-years-old Chinese practices relating to the deceased members of a clan. There are specific burial rites, mourning practices, praying rituals, and other activities that connect the living with the dead, and these differ according to the social rank of the deceased person. On the supernatural side, some commentators talk about everyone having two souls, one of which departs for some blissful region after death, while the other soul stays behind to monitor what goes on near their former living area.


Virtually all cultures have elaborate ceremonies involving the dead, usually not just for burial, but for remembrance. Mexico is home of the world-famous “Dia de Muertos”, the day of the dead, an official Mexican holiday. This tradition grew from an Aztec one, existing long before Spanish conquest, and this in turn seems to have originated with the Mayas. No doubt there is a longer lineage. The “Dia de Muertos” happens nowadays around November 1st, which is the same day the Spanish and other Europeans used for Halloween, when departed spirits came back to visit the Earth, which is actually an ancient European tradition. 


Other cultures do not use the annual calendar to mark the time of venerating and remembering the dead, but instead fixed periods after the date of death. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, and older Russian culture itself, commemoration of the dead occurs on the third, ninth and 40th days after death. Relatives and friends gather together on these days to dine together and talk about their memories of the departed. Forty is a special number in Russian, and it has a special word for it, unlike those for 30, 50, 60 and so on, probably indicating it was regarded as special for centuries before the language was codified. It is a special word in some other languages as well, implying some commonality.


Since Buddhism has absorbed the concept of reincarnation from the predecessor Indian religions, there are not rituals embedded in it for tending to the deceased, or commemorating them. Instead, regional rituals prevail. For example, in Laos, there is a 'ghost month', when departed spirits come back to the Earth and have to be catered to.


The common explanation of these rituals, including burial ceremonies, cemeteries, commemorative dates, annual events and more is that they are to help the dead's spirit find peace or move on to a better life when reincarnated, as well as to help those left behind to weather their grief. But there is undoubtedly more to it.


Any cultural tradition, including elements of religions, has to have a means of reproducing itself from generation to generation. These rituals are things that children can be exposed to, and learn about, and participate in. The rituals become part of their own history, and will possibly become part of their own habits. A ritual which is performed before a child's eyes may be performed by that child when he becomes an adult. It can become a goal of the child to know how to do it and how to do it well. There is also a great amount of novelty in it for a child, which appeals to them, and a bit of excitement as well. It is beyond obvious that if a cultural tradition has persisted for hundreds or thousands of years, over many generations, it has to have built within it the means for transmitting itself to the young in a way that a significant number of them will accept as their own. Any tradition which does not have this reproductive component will disappear, and we would never hear of them. Thus, everything which exists today has mastered the art of inter-generational propagation.


In all these rituals, children are present, at least as observers and often as participants. They might have a special role to play, or else are guided into copying the behavior of the adults. This serves as another aid to acceptance and preservation of the tradition.


There is something more subtle. Of all possible traditions and traditional rituals, ones associated with death and remembrance are very common, virtually universal, and prominent. For a tradition to take that role, it does not only need to preserve itself by indoctrinating a young generation, but it has to provide a benefit to the society that maintains it. If it was detrimental, or did not provide a benefit exceeding its cost, it would disappear as the society would falter in comparison with those societies that do have have it. What is the benefit?


One not discussed is that the rituals serve to buttress the behavioral code that regulates the culture. There are behavioral codes which are written down, such as the Inca's three line rules of life and Ashoka's script inscribed on steles throughout his kingdom. But there is much more to behavioral rules than what can be written down in a short table. They are transmitted through oral teaching, but also through role models. The dead serve as role models, and the commemorations serve to remind the living of how the deceased conformed to certain aspects of them in exemplary fashion, or perhaps did not. Every child has to figure out how to live, as there is nothing genetic which conveys this; it is all learning. Ancestor worship, and all the many ways in which the preceeding generations can be remembered for the good deeds they did, or should have done, go into the memory of children so they can have a subconscious set of guidelines for situations they find themselves in.


There is both a clan-level collection of methods of commemoration, but also those of wider scope, where monuments are built by others to commemorate an individual who made great contributions to the society. Statues are common, as are obelisks or other columnar shapes. Posthumously naming things after an important individual, from cities down to parks, is another way of doing this.


Behavioral rulesets that work, and which are passed down through commemoration of ancestors as well as more explicit ways, help the society transmitting them to survive and prosper. Faulty rulesets, or ones which become outdated and non-helpful, lead to the breakup of the society which tries to preserve and implement them. Improved Buddhism is an example of a deliberate creation of a ruleset for our period of history, one which will allow its followers to prosper and to transmit the ruleset, and other knowledge, onward in generational time.


What this means is that Improved Buddhism must have its own kind of ancestor worship, specifically the local and immediate type. Let's think about what this should be. The goal of the Improved Buddhist equivalent of ancestor worship is to provide those comfort mechanisms which assist the living to cope with the loss caused by someone's passing away, but also to provide children with another assist in staying within the religion and also to provide them with a repetition of examples of behavior of role models. There is probably nothing new that has not been already devised by multiple cultures around the world, so a list would be in order. First, there are burial ceremonies and practices. As long as there is a time, or multiple times, when people gather together with children to remember and discuss the good deeds and successes of a deceased individual, the remaining activities can be quite varied, and the more memorable the better. Second, the Russian tradition of having three times for commemoration has the benefit of allowing people an interval of time in which to more carefully remember the passed person, and then to bring up these memories when the group convenes.


Third, the idea of a stele in a cemetery, alternatively called a gravestone, is also a good one for increasing the impact of the role model's example on the minds of children. This is something which has a cost, so somehow budgeting for it needs to be done.


Fourth, for longer term remembering, the Asian tradition of having a place in a home where mementos of the deceased are collected and displayed is also a worthwhile idea. Pictures, awards, possessions, artwork, and adornments are possible choices. The existence of a place for remembrance is of no use unless there are periodic times when the commemoration is done, and this has to be set; perhaps once a month is enough to instill the virtues of the role models into the children of the home.


Fifth, an annual holiday, such as Mexico has, is also a splendid idea, but one which cannot be done within the confines of a religion. The choice of such a day should therefore be on a weekend, so celebrations within the religion can be conducted without disturbing the worklife of members. The celebration needs to remind members to visit the cemeteries of their parted ancestors, at least for a generation or two back, and to participate in the proper burial ceremonies and commemorations, and to ensure a place in the home is set aside for commemoration and it is visited. Absorbing and taking over an existing holiday might be an excellent idea.


All in all, the importance of instilling good feelings about good behavior is so important for a religion that it deserves all the effort described here. A religion which does not assist its children in this way simply cannot survive.

Go Back


Blog Search


There are currently no blog comments.