Xiang Hua Fou Shi
As I reunited with my wife Norbu, and on our way back to the village. We received bad news in Lhasa that crazy uncle passed away. I knew him since I was six. He had been known to be drunk all the time, wandering around the mountains, day and night, calling a name: Sara.
Crazy uncle, other than calling Sara day and night, he also sometimes faces the mountain, praying, and chanting some Mantra. When I was six, I went up the mountain, to play hide and seek, and I met him in his cave, where I was hiding. He smiled at me, through his muddy face and bush of moustache, is this really sharp and yet warm eyes. And then he stood up, and started chanting: Sara. I immediately felt scared, and got out of that cave. And I saw him a few times in the mountains when I go up and find honey and herbs. I asked the elderly about him, and everyone just shook their head, and tell me not to talk about it. I just never thought about him much, until now, that he is dead. People found the wills he wrote, and he specifically asked for my presence, and the funeral to be done with Chinese tradition. So Norbu and I, picked up our kids in Lhasa, and headed straight back to home.
When we got back, nuns already invited a Chinese couple from Mei Zhou city in Guangdong province to perform the funeral called Xiang Hua Fou Shi (香花佛事，incense and flower Buddhist rites). However, they look like just an ordinary Chinese tourists, they explained that they are the cleric of the ritual, and the male cleric addresses himself as Xiang Hua He Shang (香花和尚, flower and incense monk), and the female cleric as Zhaigu (齋姑, Vegetarian women). They are not monks, but are devoted Buddhist layman and laywomen called Upasaka and Upasika who are vegetarians, and had learned all the ins and outs of the ritual, and had performed this ceremony many times. Contrary to traditional Chinese funerals, no one is allowed to cry. Chinese believe that crying during the funeral is an act of filial, however, Buddhists believe that crying will startle the deceased in the antarābhava state (中陰身, Bardo in Tibetan, which means intermediate state), and may lead them to lower rebirth.
They are preparing the town hall for funeral as we speak. The Chinese couple gathers the musical and ceremonial instruments they need: Drum, table bell, Gong, clapper, wooden fish. And set up the offering table that is covered with red cloth, and has the statue of Amitabha Buddha in the centre, Avalokiteśvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva on the side. In front, is a mini statue of Emperor Jade, which Chinese also calls it the heavenly lord (天公).In front of the Emperor Jade, is a memorial tablet, with the photo of Crazy Uncle, and his name. That since no one knows his name, and it wasn’t stated in the will, the tablet has his name written as John Joe in Chinese — 無名氏. And in front, there are fruits stack up on the plate, a bowl of rice covered with vegetables, incense burner with three incense sticks on top, a bestowing bowl, table bell and wooden fish. The table is filled with flowers from the mountain. Beside the table, there is the drum on a shelf, with a small bell on top.
When the hall is all set up, crazy uncle’s coffin was moved to the curtain behind the offering table. The Chinese couple, whom I call them Ah Jie and Ah Ge, which means big sister and big brother. They are wearing a cross-collar black robe with a big sleeve, which they call it Hai Qing (海青) is a robe worn by Chinese Buddhist laymen, laywomen and Sangha for all ceremonies. A brown layover cloth is also often wear, for Chinese Buddhist Upasaka and Upasika, which is called Man Yi (幔衣). It was derived from Sangha’s Kasaya, the difference is that Kasaya is sewed of many small cloths, while Man Yi is made of one big piece of cloth. Ah Jie and Ah Ge do not wear Man Yi, because by wearing it, one become the embodiment of the Dharma, which is too much for the deceased to accept its offering.
The ceremony is in total three days long. On the first day, as the ceremony begins, Ah Ge starts playing Dong and drum, while Ah Jie started singing. The singing a folk singing of Buddhist sutras, and some Chinese texts. She will first sing a verse to summon the soul to the funeral place, and verse to setting up alter and issuing the official document, which is a document for the deceased to pass to the other side, and showing it to the officer to be reincarnated, which in this case, we wish crazy uncle to be reincarnated in Amitabh’s pure land. And after dinner, they sing three texts which are three relieves from suffering. And the first day is officially over.
On the second day morning, they will sing another verse to initialize the ceremony, and positioning the spirit streamer outside of the town hall to share the merits to the wandering souls. However, they are not allowed in the altar. Afterwards, they give us handouts to sing together, to welcoming the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities, and begin the offering. Some of the neighbours will line up, and put offerings such as fruits, flower onto the offering table. And the ceremony for the deceased officially begins, and the deceased is ready to receive the merits, or the benefit of the rite. I am instructed to burn ten stacks of “hell money” for the ten kings of hell, so that the deceased can pass through smoothly. It symbolizes repaying the deceased’s debt (or bad Karma in this case). And everyone is invited to join the rest of the ceremony for day 2, which are several repentance ceremonies, such as Great Compassion repentance, and chant (not sing) the infinite life Sutra. And all Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and deities will be sent home.
On day three, Ah Ge and Ah Jie were up at four. However, no one is allowed to enter until later in the day. Ah Jie opens up her third eye, and walking around the town hall with incense on her hand, to send off local deities, wandering spirits, and “guide” the deceased to pass through the realms of hell and the judgement of the ten hell kings, so that Amitabha Buddha can take him to the Pureland. And if the deceased has not much bad Karma, he will pass through hell very quickly, and proceed to higher rebirth. Chinese also believe that if one has nothing but good Karma, he can skip hell, and proceed to higher rebirth at the “hell custom” straight away. After Ah Ge and Ah Jie believe that the deceased has passed hell. They started singing the verse for closing the lamp. And we are welcomed back into the town hall, and join the ceremony to seeking great offering, and transfer of merits.
After the funeral, the head of our village gave me the wills of crazy uncle, and told me his story. As it turns out, he was normal in earlier years, and he fell in love with a woman, who died giving birth to a child. No one knows much about him, nor his wife, or the where about of the child. All we know, is his will, which states the desired funeral, and the request for my presence. At the end of the page, it says: Now you see me. I was really spooked, and strangely, fell asleep very early in that night. In my dream, I met Durha again, and he says that he is going to lead me to my birth father. I was raised an orphan, and never knew who is my father or mother, so I was really curious. And Durha bought me back to the beautiful island (please see my last post, if you are not following the storyline), and there was the Chinese monk I met in Lhasa. He stood up, smiled at me and said: “Now you see me”.
1. Myself, on the comments on Chinese belief
2. Tam, Yik Fai. “Xianghua Foshi (incense and Flower Buddhist Rites).” In Buddhist Funeral Cultures of Southeast Asia and China. Cambridge University Press, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511782251.012.
3. Venerable from Fo Guang Shan , and Dharma Drum Mountain on comments of Chinese Buddhism