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Clip Nine: Sutra Chanting and Other Rituals



Following the “circling the vault money” (ûi khò͘-chî 圍庫錢) ritual, a ritual master and his assistant perform more rituals with important implements associated with the deceased’s souls. The ritual assistant recites the Hu̍t-soat O-bí-tô-keng 佛說阿彌陀經 (The amitābha sutra spoken by the buddha) to the beat of a wood block.
          [For a description of the sometimes conflicting views regarding what happens to the souls after death, which can involve efforts to immediately send the deceased to Amitābha’s pure land but with the expectation that the deceased will nevertheless end up in the courts of the ten kings of purgatory, see Cohen, Myron L. 1988. “Souls and Salvation: Conflicting Themes in Chinese Popular Religion.” Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China. For more on the ten kings of purgatory, see Teiser, Stephen F. 2003. The Scripture on the Ten Kings.]

Clip Ten: Burning the Soul Residence
Time: Night, 25 March 2006
Location: Beside the Jingmei River 景美溪

The paper “soul residence” has been moved to the side of a nearby river. First, powered by an electric generator, lights inside the model house are turned on. Then the house along with mock paper money is burned. Incineration is believed to transfer these objects to the deceased for use in the netherworld.


1.2.3 Comments on the Ritual Masters

Today in Taiwan we can find at least four broad categories of people who consider themselves Buddhists 佛教徒, or whom we might label “Buddhists” due to their statements that they are “people who worship the Buddhas” (pái hu̍t ê 拜佛的). From these categories we can make a typology of the following four forms of Buddhism:

(1) Monastic Buddhism. People associated with monastic Buddhism, including monks, nuns, and lay devotees. For various historical and social reasons, some of these people make strong efforts to distinguish themselves from other people who claim to be Buddhist. Some people following monastic-centered Buddhism sometimes claim they follow “orthodox Buddhism” 正信的佛教.
(2) Zhaijiao Buddhism. People associated with lineages of nonmonastic (but sometimes celibate) religious practitioners who claim they, rather than monastics, have inherited the Buddha’s true Dharma. Outsiders, such as governments and scholars, have classified these groups under the rubric zhaijiao 齋教, but originally this was a term of self-reference for only one of several lineages that are today called zhaijiao. The term zhaijiao is difficult to translate concisely, but means something like “vegetarian teachings.”
(3) Funeral Specialist Buddhism. People organized into distinct, nonmonastic specialist lineages that perform funeral rituals for pay. During such rituals, these specialists sometimes dress in monastic robes, chant Buddhist sutras and incantations, and make use of numerous images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. They clearly distinguish themselves from other funeral specialists, such as sai-kong, who are sometimes called “Daoist” 道教的. (The term sai-kong can be translated with the characters 師公 or 司公. Depending on one’s philosophy on pairing Taiwanese spoken terms with written Han characters, neither or both translation is correct.)
(4) Generic Buddhism. People who consider, often without much analysis, numerous traditional religious practices including propitiation of spirits and supplication of deities to be “Buddhism.” In my observations, the identification of Buddhism (佛教, Taiwanese hu̍t-kàu) with such practices occurs more frequently in Taiwanese-speaking, as opposed to Mandarin-speaking, linguistic communities. Incidentally, in Taiwanese the word for Buddha image (hu̍t-siōng 佛像) often refers to images of many popular deities (as well as to Buddhas and bodhisattvas), and the word commonly used for Buddha is not 佛陀 (hu̍t-tô ) but rather 佛祖 (hu̍t-chó͘ ), “Buddha ancestor,” which is also used to refer to Guanyin 觀音.

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The two ritual masters we filmed, a father and son, obviously fall under “funeral specialist Buddhism.” The son told me that the Japanese government had correctly registered his father as a (Buddhist) cleric 僧, but that the postwar government insisted on registering them as Daoist priests 道士, which was listed as their occupations on their national identification cards 身分證. (But as of the recent past, Taiwanese identification cards no longer list one’s occupation.) However, I did not see these ritual masters use any explicitly Daoist icons (such as of the Three Pure Ones 三清) or scriptures (such as various keyi 科儀 ritual texts).
         The ritual masters told me they are facing increasing competition to provide funeral rituals from monastic Buddhist institutions, and the organization Ciji 慈濟 in particular was mentioned as having increased its share of that market. Business is not as good as it used to be for these ritual masters, I was told. On the other hand, demand for their services does not appear to be too slack, judging from the diamond-studded ring, gold watch, and two black Mercedes-Benz sedans the ritual masters brought with them. My sense is that monastic Buddhism is continuing to out-compete rival clamants to represent Buddhism. First, over the past several decades, monastics have taken over Zhaijiao Buddhist centers (called chai-tn̂g 齋堂), and many former Zhaijiao Buddhists have ordained as monastics. Second, monastic Buddhist organizations as well as commercial, corporate mortuary-service providers (such as Jinbaoshan 金寶山) have increased their share of the lucrative mortuary services market at the expense of ritual masters. Third, monastic Buddhist organizations have made efforts to publically clarify what they consider authentic Buddhism. Partly as a result of such efforts, some Taiwanese who in the past might have qualified as “generic Buddhists” (as defined above) now identify their religion as Daoism 道教, or even as “folk religion” 民間信仰 for the small minority that read academic and semi-academic writings on the topic.
         Scholars who identify Buddhism exclusively with monastic-centered Buddhism influence government policies, educational curricula, and media reportage, and in effect legitimate monastic Buddhism’s claims to orthodoxy. Yet if we count the number of Buddhists based purely on people’s own religious self-identification, I would hypothesize that the dynamic growth of monastic Buddhism has ironically resulted in a decline in the number of “Buddhists” in Taiwan.

For More
For readings in English relevant to the above essay, the following are good places to start:
(1) On how Buddhists, Daoists, and others perform similar rituals but interpret them differently, see Weller, Robert P. 1987. Unities and Diversities in Chinese Religion.
(2) On Zhaijiao Buddhism, see Jones, Charles Brewer. 1999. Buddhism in Taiwan, pp. 14–30.
(3) On the mix of beliefs that Taiwanese sometimes call Buddhism, corresponding to the “generic Buddhism” category above, see Harrell, Clyde Stevan. 1974. “Belief and Unbelief in a Taiwan Village.” PhD Dissertation, Stanford University.
(4) For a critique of the funerary rituals of ritual masters and others from the perspective of monastic Buddhism, see Sheng Yen. 2007. Orthodox Chinese Buddhism. Trans. Douglas Gildow and Otto Chang, entry 3.11, “Does Buddhism Advocate Burning Mock Paper Money and Mock Precious Metals?”

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