Why Burn (Fake) Money?

For this summer, I will be spending about two months in Taiwan. I just arrived in Taipei Wednesday morning and my parents took me straight to the hill where my grandparents have their grave site. The entire area is a cemetery, each person owning a certain enclosed spot separated by a small wall. There are no roads, no signs, and no permanent caretaker – the only way I would know where my grandparents are buried is through my parents.

At the grave site, we thank the Tu Di Gong (土地公) or Earth God for protecting the grave site by saying a short prayer, burning incense, and burning ceremonial money. We did the same for my grandparents, but also burned paper clothes and shoes for them, hoping that my grandparents will receive the things they burn. For my parents, all this is part of the Buddhism they know and practice. There is no question that this is what Buddhists are supposed to do for their ancestors.

Venerable Kusala’s recent newsletter talks about Buddhism and the Afterlife in different traditions:

In the Chinese tradition, where ancient notions of the role of the ancestors in human life have shaped Buddhism, people burned incense and paper goods depicting goods or money for the benefit of their deceased loved ones in order to provide a better situation for them in the afterlife. The deceased, in turn, were believed to be able to bring benefits or cause harm to the living — (from http://www.patheos.com/Library/Buddhism/Beliefs/Afterlife-and-Salvation.html).

Yet, for me, it didn’t make sense. According to the Buddhism I studied in college, my grandparents are supposed to have been reborn into another life and moved on rather than saying in some sort of heaven or limbo land. Unless they have become a Buddha and broke the chain of birth and death, my grandparents should have been reborn into other sentient beings.

Like now and many times before. I realize over and over again that I have much to learn about the diversity in Buddhism. But I ask my father how can there be anyone on the receiving end of the burning if they have already returned in the form of another sentient being. Of course, I ask expecting him to assert that there are many things about Buddhism and the spiritual realm that we are familiar with and should not question – basically something mysterious and vague.

Yet, he told me that he feels the significance of doing these rituals is to pass down the tradition and teach the future generations about respecting our ancestors. I liked that answer. To me, he saw the bigger picture and the broader reason for burning incense and paper money, even though in a place like Taiwan, those practices seem pretty rigidly attached to Buddhism.

I plan to visit temples and see what Buddhism is like in Taiwan. Hopefully I’ll be able to consistently post my observations.

6 Replies to “Why Burn (Fake) Money?”

  1. I hope when you’re in Taiwan you will visit Tzu Chi, the Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation. They have a very different approach to Buddhism, focused very much on the realization of Buddhist values through social action.

  2. Here in Korea it’s said that even though someone has been reborn, the virtue and merit resulting from the sincere heart of people attending those ceremonies can help them in their current life.
    Down south, Fo Gwang Shan is pretty amazing. Take a camera, and really good pair of walking shoes!

  3. I think honoring our ancestors is important whether it’s apart of Buddhism or not–as mentioned by your father. Honoring our ancestors is a great practice to remind us where we came from and that we are connected to a long chain of beings that have done much work to enable us to be here today enjoying all that we do. Great post.

  4. One of the most powerful emotions we can experience is gratitude. And like what James said, the act of burning fake money is exactly an expression of gratitude.

  5. I think that Chinese ancestors appreciate the burning of money and fake mobile phones as much as my grandmother appreciates flowers on her grave. Incidentally when we go to visit my wife’s relatives grave. Ojii chan(grandpa) likes a beer and some of the others like a can of juice( we pour them over the gravestone) or a cigarette (We light one and stand it up like an incense stick) It is so nice. I feel that in so far as we are our ancestors then they and we benefit from the ritual. In so far as we are alive we have been living and adapting to problems for thousands of years through our DNA and the Buddhist ideas of no-self and rebirth, which so amy people find a stumbling block seem to be perfectly analogous with the idea of energy changing form one form into another and DNA passing from one generation to the next. There is continuity and change at the same time and you are not only your DNA and you are not not your DNA,etc,, (this is a reference to Nagaraguna’s negations) Anyway I like the rituals around remembering the dead, especially because I feel sad about the lack of them around my father’s death.

  6. A pointless and irritating ritual that contributes greatly to poor air quality in Taiwan. If it actually had any real significance, Taiwanese people would burn real money. I understand that it has symbolic significance, but find a cleaner way to express this significance. I wonder how many premature deaths from lung disease and cancer this practice contributes to in Taiwan each year.

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