Why do we need to honour our ancestors? 佛教徒应该拜祖先吗？
Why do we need to honour our ancestors?
Filial piety is a valued virtue in Chinese culture. It is given even more significance in the Mahayana Buddhist teachings where all sentient beings are viewed as our kind mothers whom we have benefitted from in our countless previous lifetimes. We should serve our parents respectfully and hold unceasing gratitude towards them even after they have passed on by dedicating merits for their good rebirth in Amitabha’s pure land and liberation from the lower realms. Besides remembering the kindness of our parents, we should be grateful to our ancestors too. For without our ancestors, we would not be who we are today. Therefore, we honour our ancestors by making offerings and conducting prayers for them.
As aspiring Bodhisattvas, we need to be compassionate towards all sentient beings especially our closest kins. By understanding the inherent suffering of our cyclic existence in samsara, we pray to attain liberation. It is also important that we make the same prayers for our ancestors who may not have heard the dharma in their previous lives and are still stuck in uncontrolled rebirths in samsara. Hence, the tradition of honouring our past ancestors should continue to be practiced. It is definitely a meritorious act to pray for our past ancestors, however, if it is due to any unfortunate circumstance that had occurred in the family and such ceremony is unable to be carried out, we should be compassionate in the given situation and pray for our past ancestors within our means.
There are many commonly asked questions about Ullambana which includes whether our past ancestors are able to receive the offerings we have made and if there is still a need to honour our ancestors after they have taken rebirth in a different life form. As explained in the Sutra of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, the merits accumulated from the prayers for our past ancestors would benefit them and even more for the living descendants by 6 folds.
Therefore, it is definitely beneficial to conduct prayers for our past ancestors. Should they have taken rebirth in the 3 lower realms, the prayers would be felt by them and they would gladly receive the offerings and dharma teachings. Should they have reborn as human beings, the prayers would increase their merits which in turn create causes for good health, support from people around them, and general success at work. Should they have reborn in Amitabha's pure land, the merits will help them to be promoted to a higher level and grade of rebirth.
In short, our past ancestors would benefit in one way or another from prayers regardless if they have taken rebirth in a different life form. Furthermore, the living descendants may benefit indirectly from the increased merits too. Similarly, if our ancestors had accumulated negative karma in the past, the descendants may in turn face obstacles in life and in their spiritual path due to the effect of communal karma. There is thus a greater need to conduct prayers for our past ancestors in this situation.
The Chinese custom of honouring past ancestors is a significant practice among Buddhists. Besides making offerings for our ancestors, there is a greater emphasis on praying for them to accumulate merits. The objectives are to express our gratitude for our ancestors, practice compassion, and ultimately become like the Buddha who leads all sentient beings to the liberation of their sufferings.