All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


The meaning of ancestor differs among different cultures, depending on their kinship system and their beliefs regarding the deceased. Ancestor could refer to the originator of an ancestral lineage or the soul of a dead person who is memorialized in a family shrine. The Sanskrit word for ancestor, preta, is related to the Vedic term pitarah (fathers). According to an abhidharma commentary, MahāvibhāṢā (Chinese, Dapiposha lun; Great Exegesis), Yama, the first mortal who died and became the king of the netherworld, is called preta-rāja (king of the dead) or pitṭṛ-rāja (king of fathers). Thus, in ancient India, the words preta and pitarah were almost interchangeable in their use. This reflects the patrilineal kinship system of ancient India and the ancestral rites that were performed and maintained through the male line.

In Asia, various forms of ancestor worship were incorporated into Buddhist rites. Ancestral rites and ceremonies are particularly prominent in East Asia, where MahĀyĀna Buddhism and Confucianism predominated and interacted. Southeast Asian societies, where TheravĀda Buddhism flourished, observe similar Buddhist rites for ancestors, but the continuity of a family lineage is not the main motive of their rites. In general, ancestor worship entails belief in the protective power of the deceased members of a particular family, lineage, or a tribal group. It is also based on the desire to overcome fear of the corpse and elevate the newly deceased to the level of respected ancestors, which continue to interact with the living.

Buddhist ideas of soul and afterlife

According to Buddhist scriptures, questions regarding existence in the afterlife constitute one of the fourteen issues on which the Buddha did not elaborate because such matters cannot be proven by experience or logic. Buddhist teachings denied any unchangeable or permanent entity, such as a soul, since all phenomena are seen as subject to anitya (impermanence). The Buddha is said to have instructed his disciples not to deal with funerals, unless they were for family members. The Buddha's funeral is said to have been performed according to the ancient Indian customs for the funeral of a cakravartin (wheel-turning emperor or king, who rules the world), and no Buddhist funerals for the dead were established at that time. Buddhist ideas of no-self (anātman) were the opposite of Brahmanical beliefs concerning the continuity of the self. Later, however, some Buddhist schools modified the idea of no-self by, for example, positing the ĀlayavijÑĀna (storehouse consciousness) as that which undergoes rebirth. One widely accepted theory is the Sarvastivada school's stance on karma (action) as the continuing force that sets in motion a new existence after death. Whatever philosophical terms the Buddhist scholars used, continuity of the individual after death was more or less assumed. These ideas, such as karma, provided the theoretical background for ancestral rites for the Buddhists.

Buddhist ancestral rites developed and incorporated non-Buddhist beliefs and practices from Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Shintō, as well as from the popular folk beliefs of the people in Asia. In almost all Asian cultures, indigenous spirit cults play a major role in ancestor worship and veneration: for example, the phi spirit of Thai people, the nat of the Burmese, the tama of the Japanese, and the po and gui of the Chinese. These potentially dangerous spirits can become ancestors through Buddhist pacification rituals and memorial rites.

The Ghost Festival and merit transfer

The most widespread Buddhist ancestral festival is the Ghost Festival, or yulanpen (Japanese, Obon), which was recorded in Chinese Buddhist sources as early as the fifth century. During the Ghost Festival, ancestors are invited back to this world for a feast, which is prepared by the family members. This festival is based on the Buddhist legend of MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, one of the ten leading disciples of the Buddha. Mahāmaudgalyāyana is well known for liberating his mother from hell. His mother was unable to eat since all the food she tried to eat changed into fire before she put it into her mouth. Mahāmaudgalyāyana's offerings to the community of monks saved her from hell, and she was reborn in an upper heaven. This yulanpen festival unites the Buddhist components of hungry ghosts and salvation with Chinese indigenous belief in pacifying dead spirits. In China, imitation paper money and miniature furniture and houses are burned to enrich the dead in the netherworld. With proper family offerings, these spirits can be transformed into protective ancestors.

This legend of yulanpen is based on Chinese Buddhist scriptures, but the idea of food offerings for ancestors also existed in pre-Buddhist India. An example of this is the main feature of the śrāddha feast, where sacred rice balls, or piṇḍa, were offered to ancestors. In these Indian rites, a feast is provided for the Brahmans, and the merit of this act is transferred to the ancestors. This kind of direct and indirect ritual feeding of ancestors has been incorporated into Buddhist ancestral rites such as yulanpen and other rites to feed hungry ghosts.

In yulanpen and related rites, an altar outside the main chapel was set up with food for the hungry ghosts, and various sūtras were recited in order to feed them and provide prayers for the pretas' possible future enlightenment. This kind of ritual act of pūjanā or, as Lynn deSilva calls it, "spiritual nourishment" (p. 155) was made for various revered objects such as the "three jewels" of the Buddha, dharma, and san ˙ gha, as well as for parents, teachers, elders, and the souls of the dead. The objects of offering were primarily food but also included incense (fragrance), clothes, bedding for monks, flowers, lights (candles and other bright lights), music, and right actions. In these offering ceremonies, the Buddha is symbolically invited into the ceremonial place and given praise and offerings. Confessional prayers are recited and certain mantra (e.g., nenbutsu,dhĀraṆi, or daimoku, depending on which Buddhist school one belongs to) are chanted in front of the Buddha. The merit accrued from these offerings and sūtra recitations is transferred to the dead.

In Sri Lanka, the deceased who did not reach the proper afterworld are feared by the living. Various sicknesses and disasters are alleged to be caused by these floating spirits of the dead. In order to pacify such ghosts, Buddhist monks are called upon to perform the pirit rites and to distribute magic threads and water to those afflicted. These floating spirits are eventually transformed into benevolent ancestors by the power of the pirit rites. Thai and Burmese Buddhists observe the same rite, but it is called the paritta ritual (Spiro, pp. 247–250). In Thailand, bun khaw saak (merit-making with puffed rice) and org phansa (end of Lent) are held annually in wats (monasteries), and offerings are made to the ancestors collectively (Tambiah, p. 190). The merit of such acts is transferred to the deceased, yet Stanley Tambiah is reluctant to call these ceremonies ancestral worship since they do not involve systematized or formalized interaction between the deceased and the living. Nevertheless, he notes that the Buddhist monks act as mediators between death and rebirth, and they eliminate the dangers and pollution of death. In Korea, Buddhist monks do not widely deal with death rituals or rites of feeding deceased spirits and ancestors, unlike Thai or Japanese monks, even though Koreans have similar beliefs in spirits as those of other East Asian people. Shamans (Korean, mudang) largely deal with these ancestral rites.

Intermediate states and memorial rites

The timing interval of memorial rites for the dead varies. In Sri Lanka, the rites (pūjanās) are to be held on the seventh day, three months, and one year after the death day. These memorial rites are called mataka dānēs, and monks are invited for the memorial feasts. The AbhidharmakoŚabhĀṣya and other Buddhist texts describe the judgments said to be undergone by the dead in the intermediate states (Sanskrit, antarābhava; Chinese, zhongyou) every seven days after death, up to the forty-ninth day. The forty-ninth day is the final date when the realm of rebirth—whether in the hells, the heavens, or other realms—will be decided. Thus it marks the end of first mourning period for the living. In China, memorial rites for the deceased assume the form of Ten Buddha Rites (Chinese, shifoshi), which include seven weekly rites held every seven days up to the forty-ninth day, and on the hundredth day, one year, and the third year anniversaries—in total, ten memorial rites.

In Japan, three to five more rites were added, including rites held on the seventh, thirteenth, and thirty-third anniversaries. Observing ancestral rites is a major part of Japanese Buddhist practice, and death related rituals and services, such as funerals and memorial rites, have become the major source of monastic financing. According to folklorist Yanagida Kunio, the deceased souls, which are called hotoke (buddha) or spirits (Japanese, shōrei) are purified through these memorial rites. Once pacified, they become kami (deities) after the thirty-third anniversary memorial rite. These deified ancestors eventually lose their individual personalities as time passes and converge into the collective group of divine ancestors, which resides in the ancestral tablets (Japanese, ihai) and in ancestral family tombs. In Japan, ihai tablets are the most significant object in a Buddhist altar. They are enshrined in Japanese homes, with the exception

of those of Jōdo Shinshu, one of the major lineages of Pure Land adherents. The ancestral tablet is Chinese Confucian in origin but was popularized by Buddhist monks during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Fujii, 1988, p. 20).

Family tombs are also important objects of ancestral worship in Japan. Early tombs are modeled on the stŪpas in India, where relics of the Buddha are enshrined. Japanese ancestral tombs are visited by family members to commemorate their ancestors during the Obon ancestral festival. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, Thai and Burmese Buddhists do not show much interest in building and maintaining elaborate graves because tombs are not regarded as ancestral residences.

Founder worship in Japan

Another characteristic of Japanese Buddhism in relation to ancestor worship is worship of the founders of various Buddhist schools and sects, many of which were established during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Those most frequently worshipped include KŪkai (774–835) of the Shingon Tantric school; Eisai (1141–1215) of Rinzai Zen; DŌgen (1200–1253) of Sōtō Zen; HŌnen (1133–1212) of the Pure Land sect or Jōdoshū; Shinran (1173–1263) of Jōdo Shinshū; and Nichiren (1222–1282) of the Nichiren school. These founders are worshipped and revered as divine "fathers" of their respective lineages. The followers of these founders are considered the "children" of the father-founders, using a family analogy. The blood lineage (Japanese, kechimyaku) is interpreted in a spiritual sense as the bond connecting the founder and the followers through various rites. This founder worship is the basis of salvific and devotional Japanese Buddhism, since schools and lineages were formed and developed upon the basis of the revelatory experience of these founders. Several annual rites are performed to commemorate the birth, death, and other major life events of the founders or prominent monks who contributed to the different schools of Buddhism in Japan. The stupas, which contain the remains of founders and prominent monks, are usually constructed within a monastery complex of the headquarters of a particular lineage or sect. Furthermore, statues of the founders and prominent monks are made and placed near the central objects of worship, usually Buddha figures or maṆḌalas.


Although Śākyamuni Buddha did not affirm the existence of an unchanging soul, Buddhism, in its development over many centuries in different parts of Asia, provides a rich theoretical and ritual basis for ancestral rites. One aspect of this basis is the idea of repeated birth in the lower six realms of existence: the realms of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demigods (asura), or heavenly deities, depending upon one's karma from past lives. This idea of karma, of ancient Indian origin, was inherited by Buddhists and is understood as the continuing individual process that undergoes the cycle of rebirth. The concept of pratĪtyasamutpĀda (dependent origination) also contributed to ancestor worship, as the theory was understood, especially by the laypeople, to mean that past, present, and future lives are connected. Moreover, the idea of nirvĀṆa, which is often explained with the analogy of extinguishing a candle, evolved into the idea of dharmakāya or dharma body, which is not affected by the death of the physical body of the Buddha (Sanskrit, nirmāṇakāya). The Buddha's funeral and the subsequent development of relic worship gave further impetus to the worship of ancestors.

The main concept underlying Buddhist ancestral rituals is the transfer of merit, which is practiced in almost all Buddhist countries. In the rituals of merit transfer, giving offerings to the Buddha is regarded as the same thing as offering to ancestors. The unity of the living and the dead or the bond between descendants and ancestors is assured and affirmed by participating in and observing the Buddhist ancestral rites. In Southeast Asia, ancestor worship is not as evident as in East Asia, but the continual transfer of merit though offerings to monks and the san ˙ gha provides the opportunity to commemorate and nourish ancestral spirits.

See also:Cosmology; Death; Lineage; Merit and Merit-Making


Ahern, Emily M. The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1973.

deSilva, Lynn A. Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices in Sri Lanka. Colombo, Sri Lanka: de Silva, 1974.

Freedman, Maurice. Lineage Organization in Southeastern China. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1958.

Fujii Masao. "Soshi shinkō no keisei to tenkai" (The formation and development of founder worship in Japan). Taishō daigaku daigaku-in kenkyū ronshū 6 (1982): 23–39.

Fujii Masao. Sosen saiki (Ancestral rites). Bukkyō minzogu-gaku taikei, Vol. 4. Tokyo: Meicho shuppan, 1988.

Gombrich, Richard Francis, and Obeyesekere, Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Holt, John C. "Assisting the Dead by Venerating the Living: Merit Transfer in the Early Buddhist Tradition." Numen 28, no. 1 (1981): 1–28.

Jordan, David K. Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Lee, Kwang Kyu. "The Concept of Ancestors and Ancestor Worship in Korea." Asian Folklore Studies 43 (1984): 199–214.

Smith, Robert J. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper, 1970.

Takeda Chōshū. Sosen sūhai (Ancestor worship). Kyoto: Heirakuji Shoten, 1971.

Tamamura Taijo. Sōshiki Bukkyō (Funeral Buddhism). Tokyo: Daihorinkaku, 1964.

Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

Teiser, Stephen. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Yanagida Kunio. Senzo no hanashi. Tokyo: Tsukuma shobō, 1946. English translation by Fanny Hagin Mayer and Ishiwara Yasuyo. About Our Ancestors: The Japanese Family System. Tokyo: Bunshōdō, 1970.

Mariko Namba Walter

views updated

15. Ancestors

See also 153. FATHER ; 204. HEREDITY ; 281. MOTHER ; 304. ORIGINS ; 307. PARENTS ; 341. RACE .

an inclination toward old-fashioned things, speech, or actions, especially those of ones ancestors. Also archaicism . archaist, n. archaistic, adj.
the reappearance in the present of a characteristic belonging to a remote ancestor. atavist, n. atavistic, adj.
Ancient Rome. the malevolent ghosts or spirits of a familys dead ancestors.
descent through the female line, as in ancestry, inheritance, etc. matrilineal, matrilinear , adj.
relationship or descent by the male line, as in ancestry, inheritance, etc. patrilineal, patrilinear, adj.
the person from whom a line of descent originates.
views updated

Ancestors. The maintaining of ancestors in memory is a fundamental part of religious life and practice. Even during the millennia in which belief in personal life after death was extremely rare, this remembering—and often veneration—of ancestors was extensive. Yet the term ‘ancestor-worship’ is usually misleading (see AFRICAN RELIGION): it is not so much that ancestors were worshipped as that they continued in relation to the living family, both sustaining it (provided they were in fact appropriately remembered) and being sustained by it. If they were forgotten or neglected, they might well turn into restless or hungry or avenging figures. Rituals therefore developed to ensure proper respect to these continuing members of the family, as well as to provide means of consulting them.

views updated


This entry consists of the following articles:

ancestor worship
mythic ancestors
baltic cult of ancestors