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The Place of Ancestors in Buddhism and Christianity

by Mark R. Mullins

Over the previous century, many Christian churches and movements have instituted a wide range of post-funerary rites that resemble Buddhist practices in many ways.

Although one may rarely encounter an expression of concern for the "ancestors" in cultural contexts shaped by Protestant Christianity (Western Europe and North America, for example), ancestors have long held a place of central importance in multiple religious traditions and in many Asian and African societies. It is difficult to make generalizations regarding the place of ancestors in Buddhism and Christianity given the variety of interpretations and practices that have emerged in different time periods, cultural contexts, and traditions. Even though we often refer to Buddhism or Christianity as if they are "singular" traditions, in reality we find that there are multiple "Christianities" and "Buddhisms" that have developed over centuries of cross-cultural diffusion. While we can recognize "continuity" among these diverse forms--core symbols and rituals that we can easily identify as "Buddhist" or "Christian," for example--each religious tradition has also been changed through its spread and encounter with diverse human cultures. A concrete topic such as the "ancestors" provides one window from which we can view this transformation and variety within religious traditions.

With only a little reading and orientation to this field of research, one quickly becomes aware that the place of ancestors in Buddhism and Christianity has evolved and changed many times since their beginnings in India and Palestine over two thousand years ago. Early forms of Buddhism in India, which emphasized celibate and monastic practice, for example, often involved a rejection of family ties and ancestral concerns. However, as Buddhism spread to other Asian societies--particularly those shaped by Confucian teachings regarding filial piety and folk or shamanistic beliefs related to the spirits of the dead--Buddhism was adapted and mobilized to address questions about the ultimate fate and appropriate ritual care of the ancestors. This is especially apparent in the development of Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan.

In the case of Japan, it is widely recognized that "folk religion"--the constellation of beliefs and practices associated with ancestors and the world of the dead--represents the undercurrent of Japanese consciousness that continually reappears and reshapes other religious traditions. Hitoshi Miyake has explained: "It is within the frame of reference provided by folk religion that the organized religions have made their way into Japanese society. Only as they accommodated themselves to folk religion and its implicit norms did the institutional religions find acceptance and begin to exercise influence on people in their daily life."(1) It has long been recognized that the ancestral cult is a central feature of Japanese folk religion. Ancestors were originally understood as the founder of a household (ie) and successive household heads. Thus, ancestor veneration was essentially a patrilineal phenomenon.

Over many centuries, the indigenization of Buddhism in Japan led to the development of a rather detailed system of ritual care to address these ancestral concerns. The influence of the extended household, combined with Confucian teachings regarding filial piety, eventually transformed the monastic forms of Buddhism that had initially been transplanted to Japan.(2) The development of Buddhist-related memorial rites, however, was not limited simply to the care of household ancestors, but sought to address much broader concerns related to the "spirit world" or "world of the dead," which includes animal spirits, dangerous spirits, various kami, and protective spirits. According to this cluster of beliefs, one's situation in this life is causally influenced by the spirit world. Problems in this life are frequently attributed to the failure of descendants to properly care for their ancestors. If appropriate rituals are not performed, the ancestor suffers and cannot achieve lasting peace. Individuals suffering misfortune in this life often see the cause in the urami (rancor) of some unpacified spirit. In order to pacify such spirits, individuals must perform memorial services and make special offerings. Until the needs of the ancestors are met through these rituals, the ancestor will more than likely function as a malevolent spirit and bring a curse (tatari) upon, and cause problems for, the descendants. In order to pacify such spirits, individuals must perform memorial services and make special offerings, which transform these potentially malevolent spirits into beings that protect and bring blessings to the descendants.

While not based on "official" doctrines or sacred texts, these popular and widespread beliefs regarding the spirit world clearly shaped the development of Buddhist practices.(3) Today, proper care and respect for the dead in Japanese Buddhism involves much more than participation in rituals surrounding the funeral. In fact, family members usually sense an obligation to participate in annual festivals focused on care of the ancestors and perform a series of memorial rites on death anniversaries (meinichi) over the course of many years. These annual or cyclical rites are usually observed several times each year. On the spring and fall equinoxes (higan), families usually visit the household grave to clean the site and offer prayers and incense. In July or August (depending on the region of Japan), it is believed that the spirits of the dead return to the home place for the several-day period referred to as o-bon. This is a time of family celebration, which surrounds the welcoming and sending off of the ancestral spirits, and often involves visiting the household grave. Linear rites or memorial services (hoji) are normally conducted over a thirty-three year period and include services on the seventh day and forty-ninth day following a death, and on the first-year anniversary. Death anniversaries in subsequent years are often occasions for ritual observances before the family altar.

Given the pervasiveness of beliefs and practices related to the ancestors and the spirit world, it is not surprising that transplanted Western forms of Christianity have similarly been transformed over the past century. It is well known that most mission churches regarded the Japanese ancestral cult as something incompatible with the Christian faith. Most churches initially instructed their members to avoid participation in traditional ancestral rites. Protestant missionary theology and practice--at least from the late-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries--was particularly strict and tended to emphasize a total discontinuity between the Christian faith and Japanese beliefs and practices related to the dead. The early history of Protestant Christianity in Japan abounds with stories of individuals being cut off from their families because of their refusal to participate in household ancestor rites. It was not uncommon for zealous new Christians, following the instructions of their missionary teachers, to burn their family Buddhist altars and ancestral tablets. When the stark and simple Protestant funeral and burial service was compared with the traditional post-funerary rites extending over a period of many years, it is not surprising that many Japanese regarded Christianity as an "anti-family" religion that did not show proper respect to and concern for the ancestors.

Japanese perceptions of Christianity over the years seem to have been deeply influenced by these stories of tension and conflict, but we should not generalize about the relationship of Christianity and the ancestors on this basis alone. Although the ancestors and concern for the dead appear to be largely "missing" in European and American Protestant Christianity, they have not been ignored by other Christian traditions. For example, scholars have discovered that in the early history of Christianity--at least by the third or fourth century--there was already a large cult of the dead in Christian communities in Rome. Special Eucharistic celebrations were held at cemeteries on behalf of the ancestors and the special dead (martyrs), which included eating meals with the family dead, anointing the gravestone, singing and dancing, and prayers for the dead.(4) Over the centuries, the Greek or Eastern Orthodox Church also developed memorial rites for the dead, which are often held on the third, ninth, and fortieth days following the death, as well as on death anniversaries, and in other special services dedicated to the souls of the deceased. All of this sounds very similar to the care of the dead in the Japanese context. The notion of purgatory--an intermediate place of the dead--became central to the Roman Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages and motivated a great deal of ritual activity on behalf of the dead in connection with the sale of indulgences, particularly in the period that preceded the Protestant Reformation. In short, the extreme religious individualism and neglect of the ancestors that has characterized Protestant Christianity is hardly true of the larger Christian tradition.

In spite of their early critical stance toward Japanese ancestral traditions, over the previous century many Christian churches and movements--Protestant, Catholic, and indigenous--have made accommodations for the Japanese concern for the dead and instituted a wide range of post-funerary rites that resemble Buddhist practices in many ways. Here we can only consider one example from the Roman Catholic Church, which has a more natural affinity with the ancestral cult than Protestant forms of Christianity because of its long practice of "offering liturgical prayers and Holy Mass for the dead."(5)

In 1985, the Catholic Church published a remarkable document entitled Sosen to Shisha ni tsuite no Katorikku Shinja no Tebiki [Guidelines for Catholics with regard to the Ancestors and the Dead]. This short pamphlet gave official endorsement to many of the adaptations and accommodations that had occurred and been taken for granted in many Catholic households and parishes for decades. It is a very practical handbook that uses a question-and-answer format to provide concrete guidance to the faithful.(6) In the earlier periods of Catholic mission, the faithful were often instructed to dispose of household altars or at least avoid participation in family rituals connected to the Buddhist tradition. This strict teaching has been relaxed considerably, as may be seen in the following Question and Answer:

Question 1: What should we do with the butsudan (Buddhist home altar)?

Answer: When the whole family has become Catholic, it is preferable to have only a (Christian) home altar. When it is not possible to remove the butsudan because of intercourse with relatives, the butsudan might be preserved. The home altar is the "place of prayer" for the family. When a butsudan is used as a home altar, Buddha images and scrolls should be removed to another place and a cross, a statue of Our Lady, and other Christian symbols placed in it. If there are ancestor tablets (ihai), they can be placed there together with these.(7)

The Guidelines also inform Catholics that they are also permitted to make offerings of fruit, liquor, or other items, as signs of love and respect for the deceased. They may also ring the bell and offer rice in Buddhist ritual contexts, but should pray in their hearts as Christians: "Lord, give rest to the deceased." The practical instructions for various situations are quite extensive, but the overall impact has clearly been to reduce the tension and potential conflict for Catholic minorities in familial and social contexts where participation in non-Christian rituals is expected. Space does not allow a consideration similar adaptations and accommodations that have been made by various Protestant churches and indigenous Christian movements in Japan.(8)

This brief and selective review has revealed the power of indigenous traditions to reshape transplanted world religions over the course of their indigenization. In spite of these developments, many observers predicted that beliefs and practices related to ancestors would decline and disappear in modern Japan. While modernization and urbanization have modified the family structure and conception of ancestors in significant ways, concern with ancestors and appropriate ritual care of those in the spirit world remains a dominant feature of contemporary Japanese religion and culture. Survey research reveals that the majority of Japanese still feel a deep spiritual connection with the ancestors and that both "old" and "new" religious institutions and movements continue to address concerns related to ancestors and the spirit world through various rituals and services. Studies of many new religious movements have revealed an ongoing concern for spirits and ancestors and an emphasis on rituals enabling their members to deal appropriately with the dead. Some of these movements have also contributed to the transformation of the ancestor cult from a focus on a family's patrilineal forebears to a broader concern with the ancestors of both sides of the family and often encourage daily ritual care of the ancestors before the butsudan as an expression of gratitude.

While ancestors may still be a prominent aspect of Japanese religious culture, it must be recognized that there is today a great deal of skepticism and disillusionment regarding the commercialization of these practices, which often are cynically expressed as "funeral Buddhism" (soshiki bukkyo). Echoing the widespread denigration of the Catholic Church centuries ago in connection with the sale of indulgences, many Japanese today complain about the high cost of the ritual care of ancestors provided by established Buddhist institutions. Criticisms usually focus on the fees charged for sutra reading at funerals and memorial services and for the purchase of kaimyo or posthumous precept names for the deceased.(9) These criticisms suggest that many religious institutions have not adequately or persuasively addressed the issue of "why" these rituals should be continued on behalf of the ancestors. While many individuals may participate in these rituals out of a sense of gratitude and indebtedness, others may be primarily motivated by fear of tatari, or be deeply concerned about the posthumous salvation of the family dead. Is the ultimate salvation of the deceased--conceived variously in terms of eternal life, gedatsu, or jobutsu--actually influenced by ritual acts conducted on their behalf by the living? How do Buddhist and Christian institutions explain these ritual practices and reconcile them with central affirmations of their scriptural and doctrinal traditions? To what extent do the rituals "required" for the appropriate care of the dead exploit the faithful both emotionally and financially? These are difficult questions, but they cannot be avoided if religious institutions expect to have a significant role in the future.

Few would deny that it is appropriate to express gratitude to the ancestors, but rituals of remembrance should not focus exclusively on the other world. Religious communities must find a way to assist individuals and families in honoring those who made their own life possible, but at the same time assist the living in learning from their predecessors the wisdom needed for a meaningful life in this world. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the way we remember and honor our ancestors inspires us to live and work in a way that will contribute to the creation of a viable world to pass on to our children and future generations.

(1) Hitoshi Miyake, "Folk Religion," in Noriyoshi Tamaru and David Reid, eds., Religion in Japanese Culture: Where Living Traditions Meet a Changing World (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1996), p. 80.
(2) In a fascinating study of the transformation of Soto Zen from a monastic and meditative tradition into a religion of the household, Ian Reader remarks: "This orientation, focusing on the souls of the dead as fixed entities, appears to be somewhat antithetical to traditional Buddhist thought, which holds that everything is impermanent and that there are no such things as 'souls.' Certainly this is a case of Buddhism being modified to fit into a more generally Japanese religious environment. However, there is little in Japanese Buddhist literature that deals with this apparent conflict or seeks to account for the seeming contradiction." "Buddhism as a Religion of the Family: Contemporary Images in Soto Zen," in Mark R. Mullins, Susumu Shimazono, and Paul Swanson, eds., Religion and Society in Modern Japan (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1993), note 5, p. 155.
(3) For a detailed treatment and comparative study of these concerns for the dead and spirit world beliefs, see Yoshimasa Ikegami, Shisha no Kyusaishi (History of the Salvation of the Dead), Kadokawa Sensho 354 (Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2003).
(4) On the concern and care for the dead and ancestors in early Christianity, see Graydon F. Synder, AntePacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1985) and Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead: The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
(5) J. M. Berentsen, Grave and Gospel (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985), 196--98.
(6) Sosen to Shisha ni tsuite no Katorikku Shinja no Tebiki [Guidelines for Catholics with regard to the Ancestors and the Dead], edited by the Episcopal Commission for Non-Christian Religions (Tokyo: Catholic Bishops' Conference of Japan, 1985). For a helpful explanation and translation of portions of this guide by an individual who served on the Episcopal Commission for Non-Christian Religions that prepared this document, see Jan Swyngedouw, CICM, "The Japanese Church and Ancestor Veneration Practices: The Mahayanization of Japanese Catholicism?" Japan Mission Journal. See also his essay, Jan Swyngedouw, "Japan's Roman Catholic Church and Ancestor Veneration--A Reappraisal," Japanese Religions, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1984.
(7) This translation is drawn from the introduction by Swyngedouw, "The Japanese Church and Ancestor Veneration Practices: The Mahayanization of Japanese Catholicism?" Japan Mission Journal, 59.
(8) I have examined these developments in considerable detail in chapter 7 of Christianity Made in Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998). For a very helpful analysis of adaptations in one Protestant denomination, see Mark D. Luttio, "The Passage of Death in the Japanese Context: In Pursuit of an Inculturated Lutheran Funeral Rite," The Japan Christian Review, 1996, 62: 18--29.
(9) See Stephen Covell's discussion entitled "The Price of Naming the Dead," chapter 8 in Japanese Temple Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005).

Mark R. Mullins is a member of the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Graduate School of Global Studies at Sophia University, Tokyo, where his teaching and research focuses on religion in modern society. He is the author and coeditor of a number of books, including Religion and Society in Modern Japan, Christianity Made in Japan, and Religion and Social Crisis in Japan.
This article was originally published in the July-September 2007 issue of Dharma World.

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