Q083: Master Lu, it is difficult to ask our family members to not burn joss papers and spirit money. Not everyone within a family may believe in Buddhism. Under the influence of Chinese tradition and customs, trying to prevent the non-believers from burning joss papers would affect the harmony in family relationships. They may say that it is their freedom to burn joss papers and that we should mind our own business. What should we do?

A083:

  • Generally, after we have performed the transferring of merits to our deceased relatives and helped them to be reborn into the Asura realm or Deva realm (known as “heaven” in English), they tend to fall down from the Asura realm or Deva realm under the following three conditions:
  1. burning of joss papers, spirit money, or any joss materials belonging to the underworld, including joss cars, joss houses, and joss clothes;
  2. family and friends frequently miss the deceased person, or even cry when thinking about the deceased;
  3. family and friends often talk about the deceased person at night time, such as past events that happened while this person was still alive.
  • The Little House (Hsiao Fang Tzu) is a combination of four sutras and mantras. It is similar to an internationally recognised currency, and it can be used in all of the heavens and all other spiritual realms. In the underworld, it is considered to be the largest currency. When deceased people receive Little Houses, they can use the Little Houses as money, or use the energy from the Little Houses to proceed to a higher realm. If they are already in the Asura realm or Deva realm, then they can use the energy from the Little Houses to proceed to a higher level in the realm. Joss money and joss materials are for beings in the underworld, and cannot be received by beings in the higher spiritual realms, including the Asura realm or Deva realm. Even if you burn a lot of joss money, they are considered to be small currencies or coins in the underworld, and do not make a significant difference to the deceased.
  • Sometimes we transfer merits to our deceased relatives and they are able to be reborn into the Asura realm or Deva realm using the energy from the Little Houses that we have recited and burnt for them. However, because they have not proceeded to these higher realms based on their own cultivation, their foundation is not very stable. When they see joss materials being burnt for them, greed may arise in their mind and they may come to the lower realms to claim these joss materials. Once they fall down to the lower realms, it would be difficult for them to return to the higher realms. They need energy to proceed to the higher realms, but joss materials do not provide energy. Joss materials can only be used in the underworld and they are not worth much. If we want to help our deceased relatives to return to the higher realms, the only method is by performing the transferring of merits for them using Little Houses.
  • Some people are concerned that the Little Houses they recite for the deceased will be wasted because family members are burning joss materials for deceased relatives at the same time. They burn these joss materials with good intentions. However, good intentions do not always lead to good results. For example, if a child does not behave, plays too much and is unproductive, the parents would try to help and save this child. But while the parents are trying to save the child, a group of lazy and unproductive friends may be influencing the child. The parents would not give up on their child simply because others are influencing the child. The same principle applies for the burning of joss materials.
  • Family members may burn joss materials and spirit money during the Ching Ming Festival and the death anniversaries. However, we still need to save our deceased relatives and help them to be liberated from the sea of suffering. Therefore, it is extremely important to persist and continue the recitation of Little Houses. If we recite a sufficient number of Little Houses for our deceased relatives, and as a result they have proceeded to the Asura realm or Deva realm, then they generally would not fall down to the lower realms.
  • We can transfer merits to our deceased relatives and they would be able to be reborn into the Asura realm or Deva realm. However, if they fall down to the lower realms due to their desire to collect joss materials, and then we transfer merits to them again to help them to return to the Asura realm or Deva realm, it would be difficult for them to proceed to higher levels within the Asura realm or Deva realm. For example, if someone is demoted, then it is difficult for this person to be promoted to the original status.
  • We can explain the above to our family and friends, and try to convince them not to burn joss materials. If we cannot convince them or we encounter non-believers, we should be careful that negative verbal karmas are not generated. The best solution is to prepare a sufficient amount of Little Houses and burn them while the joss materials are also being burnt. If the deceased person is currently in the Asura realm or Deva realm, you can say the following prayer, “May the Great Merciful and Great Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva protect and help <full name of the deceased person> to proceed to a higher realm using the energy from Little Houses, and not be greedy and become attached to small currencies from the human realm, including joss money.” If the deceased person is currently in the underworld, then they would also be very happy to receive Little Houses.
  • We show filial piety to our elders and transfer merits to our deceased relatives by reciting Little Houses for them. When we grow old, people from the younger generations would also show filial piety to us. Everyone experiences causality, and this would be the positive karmic reward.

[Updated 2012.04.26]