Thursday, February 7, 2013

The psychological significance of Taoist funeral ritual in HK

Funeral services in Hong Kong nowadays are mostly done in Taoist ritual, followed by Christian and Buddhist rituals. Hong Kong people are not highly religious, they are usually satisfied with a standard ritual offered by the many funeral parlors. A standard Taoist ritual, done in the funeral parlor, is usually carried out by special Taoists called Mr. Nan Mo (喃嘸先生) of ZhengYi sect (正一道), they called themselves community-resident Taoist (火居道士) to differentiate themselves from Taoists who seek enlightenment practice in the Mounts or in secluded temples. These Taoists are usually organized into small organizations and will provide various Taoist rituals for the community, such as for wedding ceremonies, local Taoist festival rituals, individual exorcism, fortune telling etc, in addition to funeral rituals.

The major Taoist temples of Hong Kong are run by Dragon Gate Taoists (全真道龍門派道士) who are more scholarly in nature, and provide residency for devoted Taoists, at a price, seeking a secluded environment for Taoist pursuits. They also do major Taoist rituals in their temples. Sometimes they also do funeral rituals in their temple for selected customers. Recently due to the booming funeral industry, some Dragon Gate Taoists began to associate themselves with funeral parlors and do rituals there for the general public. Oftentimes these Dragon Gate Taoists also called themselves Mr. Nan Mo as an identification of their funeral ritual services rather than their Taoist affiliation.

The major part of the Taoist funeral ritual is called "Breaking the Nether world" (破地獄). The gist of the ritual is that the presiding Taoist master will call on the support of Buddhist and Taoist high spirits and immortals (their identities will depend on the lineage of the presiding master). With the lead of the presiding master, and the support of this spiritual procession, the spirit of the dead will "march" to the nether world (地獄/地府) where it will have to go anyway to see whether or not it has to settle any scores. Once there, the master with the support of the higher spirit will seek the repentance of the spirit of the dead; and will it to let go of worldly fixations and to attain spiritual enlightenment, and thereby will not have to suffer punishment in the Nether world. A physical breaking of nine pieces of tiles signifies final enlightenment and breaking of all ties by the spirit of the dead, so that it will be clean to start a new life (without suffering in the Nether world, and will not come back to bother the living).

Another significant ritual is called "Carry the flag and buy water" (擔幡買水) in which the eldest surviving son will carry a white flag (signifying the spirit of dead) to pass the bridge of gold and silver 金銀橋 dividing the living and the dead. Water is part of ritual to clean the body of the dead - the act of which is rich in significations, including water signifies a new start, both for the living and the spirit of the dead. In the past the master was to lead the eldest son to a stream, throw down a coin and bring the water back for actual cleaning. Nowadays, a bucket of tap water and a one dollar coin can make do, and without actually cleaning the corpse. The meaning behind is more important here, as with all rituals of healing.

Psychological healing for the living is always one of the main objectives of any funeral ritual, Taoist or otherwise. A last respect has to be paid, scores have to be tallied and set even, a good path for the spirit of the death has to be paved, repentance to be made and forgiveness given, last but not least, the living must have a fresh start without lingering too much on the grief of lost of their beloved ones.

Irrespective of the particular form of rituals that we choose (religious or otherwise), it is important that we have to understand logic behind, put down our suspension of disbelief, and benefit from the healing process.

Taoist funeral ritual: Breaking the nether world

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