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Traditionally there are ten schools of Buddhism in China and eight of them belong to Mahayana Buddhism. Four of them are practical in the sense that they possess special practices which are actually practiced by many followers. These are the Pureland School, the Tantra School, the Chan School and the Sila School. The Pureland School with its emphasis on the chanting practice has been most popular. Nowadays the meditation practices of Tibetan Tantra and those of the Southern Tradition are embraced by a growing number of Chinese Buddhists.

Upon closer examination, many Chinese Buddhists, in the sense that they are considered by others as well as by themselves to be followers of the Buddhist religion, practice a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. This is evident not only from the deities they worship on the altar, and the religious or health practices they adopt, but also from their outlook and way of life. This is in fact a prominent feature of Chinese Buddhist Culture over the ages.

In the United States of America, Chinese Buddhists came from and are rooted in the traditions of Mainland China, Taiwan, and South-Eastern Asian countries. The prominent features of the present scene may be classified into Pureland practice, Tantric practice and Meditation practice.

The Chinese Buddhist view of dying, death and life after death

Basically the Chinese Buddhist view of dying, death and life after death follows the Buddhist teachings. It may be simply described as follows:

Due to ignorance and attachment sentient beings constantly engage in self-centered activities. Consequently, by the force of such activities, called karma, they are helplessly engulfed in transmigration within the six realms of suffering. These six realms are: heavens, asuras, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells. Through understanding the Buddhist teaching and realizing their significance by devoted practice, one may achieve transcendence from this cycle of transmigration. The transcendental states are classified as Sravakas, Pratyeka-buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. One may achieve transcendental states in this or some future life.

Human life is concurrent and inseparable from two factors: consciousness and warmth. Dying is a gradual process thereby the consciousness completely separates from the body. Death occurs when the body completely loses its awareness and temperature. People who have achieved transcendental states in life are no longer subject to transmigration. However, they may choose to take rebirth in order to further their training on the Buddhist path or to help sentient beings advance on the path. People who have not achieved such transcendence may still obtain rebirth in a Buddha’s Pureland through the blessing of Buddha. Upon death, very good persons go to Buddha’s Pureland or heavens at once and very bad persons fall into hells immediately. For most people the consciousness will be in a limbo state for an indefinite period of no more than forty-nine days. In this state the consciousness experiences a floating sequence of scenes without the power to choose. Every seven days during this period the consciousness will experience a dying process. This period ends when the consciousness is drawn by its karma and takes rebirth in one of the six realms.

According to this view, death may be considered as a gate through which the consciousness departs from one life and begins the journey to a new life. Hence, the title of this article uses the term the Gate of Death. Occasionally people revive after having lost all vital signs and been officially pronounced dead. Hence, death is not always a one-way passage but sometimes a revolving door. The part of the body where warmth lingers till the rest of the body has become cold is also called the Gate of Death in the sense that the consciousness finally leaves the body through this spot, and its relative position on the body is believed to indicate which realm the consciousness is migrating to. In general, the higher spots indicate better realms and the lower ones indicate worse realms.

The popular Chinese belief describes one’s death as follows: When the time of death comes, ox-headed and horse-headed delegates of Yen Lo, the chief justice of the ten judges in Hell, will lead one’s soul across the Nai He (desperate) Bridge, which extends over the boundary of life and death, to hell. There one will be judged according to one’s karma and sentenced to rebirth in one of the six realms. Before one’s rebirth one will be given a Meng Po soup to drink and thereby one’s memory of one’s past life is obliterated. This popular belief is not formally embraced by Chinese Buddhists. Nevertheless, the rituals and festivals related to the deceased and ghosts are often based also on this popular belief.

Life is impermanent with suffering lurking, and the suffering of transmigrating in the cycle of life and death is beyond comprehension. Buddha achieved liberation from this vicious cycle and then pointed out the path toward such liberation for all sentient beings. Buddha teaches that our self-centered way of life can be unlearned, and that the root of suffering, a sense of self, can be eradicated by the wisdom insight of the conditional nature of all phenomena. Buddha teaches practices that will eventually restore one’s original purity. Some of these practices aim at gaining rebirth in a Buddha’s Pureland at the time of death, while others aim at achieving Enlightenment within this lifetime or in some future life. Buddhist liberation is not only transcendence beyond transmigration in the six realms of suffering, but also a perfect union of fully developed wisdom and compassion.

To a Buddhist, life is an opportunity to work for transcendence beyond transmigration, for awakening to our original purity, for full development of our innate potentials, and for compassionate service to all sentient beings. People who let their time and energies be tied down by self-centered needs and desires will not only lose such a wonderful opportunity but also be doomed to continue their suffering in transmigration.

To a Buddhist, death is a reminder of impermanence, of the preciousness of life, of the need to be diligent in Buddhist practice; it is also a teacher of complete renunciation, of no attachment, of appreciation and gratitude, and of purity beyond worldly concerns and considerations. Death is the ultimate test of one’s lifelong training in Buddhist practices. Many ancient Chinese practitioners demonstrated their accomplishments through their marvelous ways of crossing the Gate of Death.

Activities Related to Death and Ancestors in General

Daily offering of water, incense and candles to Buddha, holy beings and ancestors is a common practice in Chinese Buddhist families. On all important occasions and festivals, making offerings to Buddha, holy beings and ancestors is always a crucial part of the festive activities.

There are rituals of alms giving to the hungry ghosts who have a huge belly, a needle-like neck, and a fiery mouth, and are thus rendered into constant starvation. These rituals are called Fang Yan Kou meaning alms giving to fiery mouths. This is also often practiced in conjunction with rituals of elevation for the deceased. Some Buddhists practice alms giving to the hungry ghosts every night, and the rituals followed varies from very elaborate to very simple. Once a Buddhist begins this practice, he is expected to continue it on a daily basis without fail. This is a very good practice for training in compassionate service. Every evening I gather the rice which has been offered to Buddha during the day, and pour it into a particular plate which is placed at a certain place in the house, for the ghosts. The next morning I scatter the rice on the lawn in my backyard for the birds.

Early in the lunar March there is one day called Qing Ming Festival when virtually every family visits the tombs of their ancestors. They would clean up the place, make offerings and do prostrations. This is a good custom to remind people of their roots, and for people to express their remembrance of and gratitude to the forefathers.

According to popular belief, the gate between the world of the living and that of the ghosts opens on the first of the lunar July, and it remains open for the whole lunar month. Hence, during that month it is easy for the ghosts to visit us. On the fifteenth of the lunar July, every household prepares elaborate offerings to all ghosts so as to appease them. Buddha taught that on this day one may make wondrous food offering to Buddha and Sangha, and the merits accrued may save one’s parents, of this or one of the last six lives, from suffering in transmigration. Therefore, this is also the day of making offerings to Buddha and Sangha in remembrance of one’s parents.

There are mediums who can help the living communicate with the deceased. In order to ease the pain of grieving, some people would seek help from such mediums. I have heard of plausible cases of mediums. However, successful communication through mediums does not mean transcendence over suffering, while attachment for such communication is certainly a cause for suffering. Hence, this kind of communication cannot be of much help. According to the Buddhist teaching, one should let go of such attachments and concentrate one’s energies on performing Buddhist practices and acts of merits, and then dedicate the merits to all sentient beings, including our dear ones. This is a much better way to help ease the grief of separation.


Dr. Yutang Lin, presentation in Understanding Death in Chinese Buddhist Culture. June 17, 1995 Tan Wah Temple, Honolulu, Hawaii.