It’s not just the ancient Taoists that believe in the power of prayer for the dead, we think pretty much most people with a spiritual outlook recognise that when we pass on, there’s a part of us that always stays. Confucious stated that the difference between high and low forms of life is that an insect won’t notice if it’s own mother dies in front of it, but even a crane will cry out for a fallen family member. Monkies will try to awaken the dead and will mourn for weeks afterwards, losing interest in food and courtship. If animals do this, how much more strongly do humans, the highest of life on Earth, feel the connection to their dead?
It’s therefore right that we mark this important transition with ceremony as well as celebrate and reconnect at times afterwards. The crane may have forgotten after a fortnight, but to truly be human, we don’t forget even after years.
Prayers for the dead can actually be broken out into a few phases:
- Prayers for those at the end of life – everyone dies. It is the karma of all life. However some go through this process better than others. Prayers for those reaching the end of their life are to help them resolve and clear emotional blockages so that they may open with courage, dignity and grace to the changes they face. If someone passes in a good state of mind, it not only helps them towards a better rebirth, it can also make a lasting positive impression on those left behind
- Prayers for the dead – when someone has just passed on, they enter a period of time where their current life has ended but their rebirth has not yet happened. This time is known by the Tibetan name for it, the bardo. The bardo can last for up to 49 days and the consciousness of the deceased will go through a lot of changes during that time. It’s no longer constrained by the physical body that housed it so it can travel anywhere at will in an instant just by thinking of the place. At the same time, it will see many visions and lights, which are the gateways to rebirth. The great yogis have mastered this journey as is evidenced by lineages such as His Holiness The Dalai Lama who is on his 14th unbroken trip through life and death on the same mission to guide people away from suffering. For those who have humbler attainment or perhaps have never practiced to experience our spirit as separate from our body, then the bardo rites can help. They aim to help the deceased generate a stability in the uncertain world they’ve been plunged into and to guide them to rebirth in a place where they can enjoy great happiness and love. The sooner they are started after bereavement the better.
- Prayers for ancestors – by remembering and honouring our ancestors we give thanks for the baton of life they’ve handed on to us, regardless of what failings they may have had in their journey through life. In Taoist thought there are two aspects to the soul. The yang aspect or hun goes for rebirth after the bardo period. The yin aspect of the soul, or po, stays behind like a lingering essence or memory. Sometimes this becomes very feint and barely detectable, like when one visits an ancient castle there is still some echo of the past that lives in it. In other cases this can be quite present and communicative and may protect, guide and support. In a more esoteric sense, we are our ancestors. As much as their DNA lives on in us, when we honour their spirit and thank them for always being brave enough to face up to all the struggles they had to go through so that we could enjoy the life we now have, we also honour and nourish a part of ourselves. Regular ancestor prayer rituals can help bring greater family harmony, good fortune to the initiators and reduce negative influence from bad deaths, such as unexpected and sudden departures, those who died in violent circumstances or where the grave of the dead is exerting negative Yin house Feng Shui. Ancestor prayers typical involve jinzhi, or paper gold rituals. Fire is considered the medium by which things can move from the physical to spiritual dimension, therefore we create a huge abundance of all the things our loved ones might need – money, clothes and so on – and then use a special ritual to make this currency valid in the spirit realm and pass it to them.