The Significance of the Qing Ming Festival

Venue: Kew Ong Yah Temple (Temple of Nine Emperor Gods)

In view of the Qing Ming Festival, we are having our dana here at the Kew Ong Yah Temple instead, as the Hokkien Cemetery is very crowded today.

The Chinese observe many rituals during Qing Ming. Most just follow the rituals blindly without knowing or understanding their significance. For example, do you know why people spread pieces of multi-coloured paper on the graves? Is this done to make the grave more beautiful or are you doing it just to follow the crowd?

Nowadays when people go for Qing Ming, they usually regard it as a day to remember their ancestors and a time to spring-clean their ancestors’ ‘dwelling’. The Chinese believe that if they are filial to their departed ones, their ancestors will, in return, bless and take care of them, resulting in good feng shui for all future generations.

In the early stages of developing SBS, Tenaga Nasional had to put up electrical poles all along the road up to our place and one of these poles was located just before the ‘Hor Yah’ (Tiger General) Shrine. One day, an elderly couple visited us at TIMS and complained that they were unhappy with the placement of this particular pole as it had disrupted the good feng shui of their plot of burial land. This shows how strongly the Chinese believe in the significance of feng shui in their lives.

Yesterday, I read an article on Qing Ming that was downloaded from the Internet by Ven Ku-mara. In China, there are 4 seasons in the year and Qing Ming is usually regarded as the first day of spring. This usually falls around the first few days of April. Traditionally, there are 3 things that are done during Qing Ming. The first is to clean up and weed the burial plot and, if necessary, reapply paint to the wordings on the tombstone. After that, food, flowers and in-cense will be offered to the ancestors. Thirdly, the coloured papers and hell bank notes will be offered. (In modern times, people even offer replicas of cars, hand phones, VCD players, computers, etc). These paper paraphernalia have to be burned; otherwise the departed ones cannot receive them. When they are burnt, we can no longer see the form of the substance and this signifies that they have been sent forth.

Hell bank notes are burnt as offerings, not to our ancestors, but as ‘bribes’ to the ghosts who are believed to be roaming around at this time, as the hell gates are opened. By offering them the hell bank notes, they will not want to compete with our ancestors for the edible foodstuff that we have offered as well. However, this belief is not in line with what Buddhists believe. The Pali scriptures state that departed beings born in the ghost realm can only partake of the food offered and not the burnt paper paraphernalia. They can also receive sustenance through the transference of merits under favourable circumstances. Moreover ghosts and hell-beings exist in different realms that are not interconnected.

Qing Ming is also a time for family reunions. In China, family members from far and wide will return to their ancestral home in the countryside to celebrate Qing Ming together. There is a festive spirit in the air and there will usually be singing, dancing, kite flying (because it is very windy during springtime) and the making of garlands out of willow flowers. The womenfolk believe that the wearing of such garlands help to perpetuate their youth.

It is believed that descendants who are not filial and do not attend Qing Ming will not prosper in life while those who are filial will succeed. The other explanation for this is that some de-parted ancestors still cling around the proximity of their loving relatives as spirits, and if their descendants are not filial to their memories, they will create havoc in their lives.

In Sigalovada Sutta (DN 31), the Buddha said that descendants should frequently honour their departed relatives by making offerings to them. There are 2 ways of attending to the departed ones. One of them is during Qing Ming and the other is the daily or frequent ritual of attending to the ancestral tablets in the house. Usually, the offerings of food in the house is more lavish than that during Qing Ming because it is believed that too lavish a preparation of food offerings during Qing Ming will likely tempt the hungry ghosts around to partake of them as well.

In front of every tomb, there is usually a smaller tomb-like structure. This is to house the guardian spirit of the tomb and must be honoured during Qing Ming as well. This, in summary, is the Chinese belief or perspective of Qing Ming.

I mentioned in my recent book, Honouring the Departed, that some Buddhists are of the opinion that it is not useful to make material offerings to the departed directly but it is more beneficial to offer dana to the Sangha and then transfer the merits to the departed ones. How-ever, I have shown in the book that both making material offerings to the departed as well as sharing merits with them after Sanghadana are practices equally supported by the Pali scrip-tures. In fact, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not our departed relatives have actually received the material offerings or the merits that are shared. Therefore, to create a win-win situation, it is better to do both during Qing Ming. Anyway, the mere act of being filial will also result in good karma.

Therefore, to honour our departed relatives, be it through material offerings or trans-ference of merits, helps create a good store of merits. However, we must always remember to ‘invite’ them to partake in the offering. To illustrate this, I will tell you a story.

There was a forest dwelling Sayadaw in Myanmar who had an aged mother who was a nun. She, however, didn’t die peacefully and as a result, was reborn in a lower plane of existence. Her daughter dreamt that her departed mother requested for offerings of food, clothing and merits. In the dream, her daughter replied that she had already offered these things at the tem-ple. Her mother told her that as she had not been ‘invited’ to partake in the offerings, she could not receive them because the guardian deity of the temple refused to let her in. When consulted, the Sayadaw asked his sister to offer dana once more and this time to remember to ‘invite’ her mother. Subsequently the daughter did not have the dream again.

The offering of dana is, however, not the only manner of merit-making available. It is in fact, one of the lowest kinds. The highest form of merit-making is through vipassana meditation, followed closely by metta meditation. In between, there are many other different ways of making merit. We can also accumulate merits when we give to welfare organizations, donate blood or pledge our organs, take the 5 or 8 precepts and the 3 refuges, print Dhamma books (for the gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts), listen to the Dhamma, teach the Dhamma, do chanting or give voluntary service. Many devotees like to offer food dana but, sad to say, very few will come forward to serve in the many different committees where they are most needed. There is merit obtained when you provide dwelling for the Sangha. Very soon, TIMS will be shifting and they will need money to build the new centre. Donating to the building fund is a good source of merits because one is helping to create conducive conditions for people to practise vipassana meditation, the highest form of worldly merit.

I hope that today, you have learnt meaningful ways to honour your departed relatives, i.e. through merit-making. Please don’t forget to share your merits with your departed relatives and all other beings.

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top