The Buddhist Perspective of Burning Paper Offerings

1 06 2006

This article was given by my specialist about the view of Buddhist of burning papar offerings. It's a bit shock that Buddhists do practice this belief (As I know that Buddhism does not has this practice – burning paper offering). However, it is only a small amounts of Buddhists are doing this.

The Buddhist Perspective on Burning Paper Offerings

Do Buddhists burn paper offerings?

Some nominal Buddhists and non-Buddhists practise this – as many mix up traditional Chinese cultural practices with Buddhist ones.

But I see many people burning paper offerings in Buddhist temples. Why?

As many think it is an essential practice, some Buddhist temples have no choice but to allocate a space for it, though we simutaneously educate the public that it is not an essential Buddhist practice.

What about burning of incense? Why is it done?

Offering of incense, both in stick, coil and powder form, is part of Buddhist practice – though we usually do not burn big sticks. The Buddha taught that the sweet fragrance of incense is carried to wherever the wind blows, but the goodness of true virtue spreads in all directions. Thus, the offering of incense and its sweet smell is to remind us to practise the avoiding of evil, doing of good and purification of the mind.

Why do people burn paper offerings such as money, houses and cars?

Many Chinese traditionally believe that the deceased will have these objects materialise when burnt, for their use in their afterlife in hell. Some say this practice sprung from the ancient Chinese's attachment to life such that they believe there must be life in equivalent in another world after death. The idea of using burning is to "dematerialise" objects so that they too can "materialise" in the other world.

What if this is true and I do not burn any offerings for deceased relatives?

Let us analyse whether this practice makes sense. Presuming that the deceased do indeed receive burnt items… If we burn a lot of hell money, does it not cause terrible inflation in hell? If we burn a paper plane, what about the paper airport that the plane needs? What about fuel and engine that it needs? Can fuel be burnt? Will it not explode? Aren't pilots needed too? There would be endless things to be burned if we carry on analysing.

Do we all go to hell after death?

This is another popular misconcept. Hell is often seen by the Chinese as a permanent residence or an interchange terminal between this life and the next. This is not true as hell is just one of the six realms of existence, and where we are reborn to is determined by our deeds done and undone. For more details on rebirth and the realms of existence, please see

Is it true that life in hell is a mirror-world of our life?

According to the Buddha, hell is a realm of intense suffering, caused by the persistent mindstate of hatred and fear – that's what makes hell hellish. It is thus not possible that the beings there live in ways we normally do, with houses and transportation and all. Likewise, the idea that the gates of hell open for the hell-beings to have a holiday in our world during the seventh lunar month is a misconcept – as hell is a realm too full of continuous suffering for "holidays". Buddhists emphasize practise remembrance of the deceased and filial piety during this period in a festival called "Ullambana". It also reminds us that filial piety is best practised to those we love when they are alive.

Why do some dream of deceased relatives asking them to burn things for them?

There are three possible reasons for this. First, those alive might have these dreams due to their own attachment to needing to burn for the deceased, and their guilt of not doing so. Second, the deceased might be attached to the idea that something should be burnt for them – so much so that his consciousness (in a state between births) manifests a dream to their family members to communicate their wish. However, either way, it is still not logical that the deceased can receive burnt items. In the case that these dreams are experienced, it is perhaps alright to burn some items to appease the minds of the deceased and alive. In cases where the deceased seems to have gotten the burnt items (as appears so in further dreams), it mighr be the minds of the alive playing tricks again. There are special cases though, where the merit of the deceased manifest coincidentally at the same time – manifesting improvement in his life in a better realm.

What is the Buddhist alternative to aiding the deceased?

We should, within 49 days (the usual range of time during which the deceased's consciousness will be reborn), do as much good as possible, in the name of the deceased and dedicate the merit (goodness of virtue) accumulated to him. Doing good ranges from monetary donations to charities, being vegetarian, printing books with Buddhist teachings, which further encourage others to do more good…

What happens if the deceased is not reborn after 49 days?

This happens when the deceased has strong attachment due to greed or hatred to someone or some matters and is unwilling to let go. The deceased will become a wandering spirit, which will still have opportunities for rebirth – when he is encouraged to (sometimes by monks), or decides to move on. To help these beings, we can carry on doing good in their name, and try our best to mentally beseech him to let go and take a good birth, eg. in Amitabha Buddha's Pureland.

What about urns and ancestral tablets? Must we keep them?

The urn is like a small movable grave, while the tablet is like a gravestone. Both are usually kept in temples or homes. The urns and tablets of the deceased are traditionally kept out of respect and for the sake of remembrance. There are many other means of achieving the same effect – such as using a photograph. In short, urns and tablets are not compulsory.

There are cases of deceased who are so attached to the idea of having a kept urn of their ashes and/or a tablet with their names on it, that they think they are supposed to live near or in their urns and/or tablets after death. This idea is best corrected when the person is alive. Because of this idea, some deceased might end up hanging around their urns, tablets or even graves, as wandering spirits.

If keeping urns and tablets is not a must, then why do some temples have these storage services?

Similar to the initial question above on why some Buddhist temples cater places for burning paper offerings, temples have storage services due to popular demand. Many Chinese would rather have the urns and tablets of their deceased relatives housed in a "holy place" – in a temple. However, it cannot be denied too, that offering these storage spaces serves as a source of income which helps sustains the running of temples and their works in spreading the Buddha's teachings. Likewise, while running such services for those who want them, we should simutaneously educate the public that it is not an essential Buddhist practice.

A common Buddhist practice is to scatter the deceased's ashes over the sea – returning of the body's elements to nature. The ashes can also be planted with a tree. This is usually done in accordance to the person's wishes when alive. It is part of the practice of non-atttachment to the body after death. Money can also be saved for doing more good to benefit both the deceased and alive.

[Accessed 1 June 2006]




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