Buddhist Festivals: Qingming Festival—A Day to Repay Kindness

I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to Dharma friends around the world! Welcome to another episode of English Dharma Services.

Kathryn: Hi Venerable Ven. Zhi Tong! Wow! The temple is beautifully decorated? Is it for the Qing Ming Festival?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Hi, Kathryn, good to see you again. Yes, we are decorated for the Qing Ming Dharma Service.

II. Qingming Festival and Buddhism

Kathryn: I’m happy that I can pay respect to my ancestors in the temple. But I always wondered, isn’t Qing Ming a Chinese tradition? Why do Buddhists also celebrate it?

Ven. Zhi Tong: You’re right, Qing Ming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Festival, is one of the most important Chinese festivals and has been celebrated for the last 2500 years. Paying respect to ancestors and great people is not particular to Chinese culture. In fact, Buddhism also has the tradition of venerating the relics of eminent masters.

Kathryn: Oh! Is it the same as venerating the Buddha’s relics?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Yes, you are right! Paying respect to eminent Buddhist masters actually begins with the Buddha. Before the Buddha entered parinirvana, he said to his disciples that after cremation, they can build stupas to house his relics at crossroads, so that people can pay respect and remember the Buddha. 

Kathryn: Oh, I see, this is quite similar to why we go tomb sweeping, to remember our ancestors and be grateful for what they have done for us. 

Ven. Zhi Tong: Quite right. The beginning of Qing Ming Festival has a similar story. During the Spring and Autumn Period, Duke Wen of Jin fled his own country after knowing his stepmother plotted to kill him. One day, Duke Wen of Jin and his entourage was lost in the mountains and had nothing to eat. One of the duke’s followers, Jie Zhitui (介之推) cut off a piece of flesh from his leg and cooked it for the duke. When the duke was finally restored to his rightful throne, he rewarded all the people that had supported and helped him through the years, but forgot all about Jie Zhitui. Jie Zhitui was not someone who sought after personal fame and glory. Instead, he packed his bags and chose a life of a hermit with his mother up in the mountains.

When the Duke of Jin recalled that he had missed Jie Zhitui, he asked people to get him but Jie refused to return. To force Jie out of the mountains, the duke had the idea of setting the whole place on fire so that Jie and his mother would appear in order to escape from the fire. As the fire burned, neither Jie nor his mother appeared. Finally, they were found dead by a tree. The Duke of Jin was so overcome with remorse that he ordered that no fire could be burned on the day of Jie’s death, and it is a day which commemorates Jie, this loyal and honest minister. Later, the people treated Jie as a sage and remembered him. This is the beginning of Qing Ming Festival, where a deceased was remembered for his great deeds.

Kathryn: Did the Buddhist practice of stupa veneration and the Chinese practice of honoring ancestors meet in China?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Yes indeed, Buddhism came to China about 2000 years ago, Buddhism continues the tradition of paying respect to the stupas of eminent masters during certain times of the year. [16] When you visit Buddhist monasteries in China, you will see lots of pagodas in certain area of the monasteries—these are the pagodas that houses the relics and ashes of past eminent masters. This also has an influenced on how Chinese people would pay respect to their ancestors’ tombs.

III. Four Types of Kindness: Kindness of Parents

Kathryn: What should we be mindful of when we are paying respect to our ancestors? 

Ven. Zhi Tong: In Buddhism, there is a saying, “To repay the Four Types of Kathrynathrynindness, and to liberate those in the Three Lower Realms.” [19] These are the goals which Buddhists strive for, which is to repay the kindness of our parents, sentient beings, one’s country, and lastly, the Triple Gem.

Kathryn: Why should we repay these four types of kindness in particular?

Our parents brought us into the world. They raised and educated us. If it were not for our parents, we would not be here today. In particular, our mothers carried us in the womb for nine to ten months and fed us by hand for three years. They taught us wholesome values and shaped our character. Furthermore, they sacrificed their life and time to raise us into who we are today. The kindness of a mother is higher than heaven, and the love of a father is deeper than the ocean. That is why the Buddha’s Great Skillful Means of Gratitude Sutra says that parents show the greatest kindness within the three realms. To express our gratitude for the kindness of our parents, we should give to them true faith in Buddhism and offer them liberation so that they may grow in wisdom towards awakening and put an end to the cycle of birth and death. This is the highest supramundane way of honoring one’s parents.

The Buddha also took care of his parents. When he was only seven days old, his mother, Queen Maya, unfortunately passed away. After attaining Buddhahood, the Buddha once traveled up to Trayastrimsa Heaven to teach Queen Maya the Dharma.

Furthermore, the Buddha also taught the Dharma to his father, King Sudhodana. After attaining awakening, the Buddha traveled back to his hometown, Kapilivastu, and taught the Dharma to his father, stepmother, brother, cousins, and countless number of people. Many of them attained realizations and found lasting peace and joy in the Dharma. When King Sudhodana passed away, the Buddha personally requested to be one of the pallbearers along with his disciples that were originally from the Sakyan family. The Buddha paid final respect to the father who had loved him dearly.

IV. Four Types of Kindness: Kindness of Sentient Beings

Since beginningless time, all sentient beings throughout their numerous lifetimes have been each other’s parents. In addition, sentient beings have shown us kindness through the various comforts and conveniences that they provide. To show our gratitude for the kindness of sentient beings, we can practice the bodhisattva path in order to help sentient beings be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. 

V. Four Types of Kindness: Kindness of One’s Country

Our parents bore and raised our physical body, but it was society as a whole which provided for much of our daily needs. It is because of the protection that has been provided to us by our country that we are able to live securely and be happy in our homes and jobs. If a country is destroyed, then its people will become lost as refugees with no place to call home. That is why we should express gratitude for our country. Therefore, each of us should serve our country faithfully and fulfill our duties in whatever position or post we hold. In this way, we can repay the kindness of our country for safeguarding our lives

VI. Four Types of Kindness: Kindness of the Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. These three are the light of the world, and exhibit unimaginable kindness. The Buddha is described as having ten kinds of kindness:

  1. The kindness of his resolve to bring universal liberation. 
  2. The kindness of his self-sacrifice in previous lives. 
  3. The kindness of consistent altruism. 
  4. The kindness of manifesting in six realms of existence. 
  5. The kindness of pursuing liberation for sentient beings. 
  6. The kindness of his great compassion. 
  7. The kindness of appearing as a human being in accordance with the capacity of his audience and concealing his true form. 
  8. The kindness of teaching provisional teachings before ultimate teachings in accordance with the capacity of his audience. 
  9. The kindness of entering final nirvana to inspire appreciation for the rare presence of a Buddha. 
  10. The kindness of living only eighty years rather than a full life-span of one hundred so that the remaining blessings could be left to Buddhists of later ages and that the teachings would remain so they could be practiced. 

The Dharma is the truth of the world that can guide sentient beings out of the ocean of the cycle of birth and death to the other shore of nirvana. All the Buddhas of the past, present, and future practice according to the Dharma so that they may end all obstacles, attain awakening, and benefit sentient beings forever. The sangha persistently brings benefit to sentient beings, for the monastic community is ever mindful of this task. The Triple Gem allows us to achieve ultimate liberation; this in and of itself is a great, vast act of kindness. Therefore, we should respect the Triple Gem with the utmost sincerity, and truly practice the Dharma.

VII. Conclusion

Kathryn: So there are Four Types of Kindness we should strive to repay: our parents, all sentient beings, our country, and the Triple Gem.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Very good!  Buddhism emphasizes gratitude, particularly filial piety, for not only should we repay the kindness of our parents of this lifetime, but we should widen our focus to our parents of all our lifetimes. Gratitude should begin with one’s own family but should expand to encompass society as a whole and eventually grow to encompass all sentient beings, so that all one’s parents and family members for all time can attain liberation. Buddhism is an expression of filial piety and gratitude in its ultimate form. As the sutras say, “Though those with gratitude are in the cycle of birth and death, their roots of virtue are not destroyed. Those who have no gratitude eliminate the roots of their virtue. That is why all Buddhas praise those with gratitude.”

Kathryn: Thank you for your explanation, Venerable Zhi Tong. Sometimes we forget how rich we are with the love and support from our parents, our family, the society, and our country. I will dedicate the merits of this Qing Ming Dharma Service not only to my ancestors, but also hope that the world will be a better and safer place, and that all sentient beings will be free from suffering.

Ven. Zhi Tong: It’s good to have you in the temple today, Kathryn! And thank you all again for joining this episode of English Dharma talk. We would really like to hear from you about the topics you might like to hear in the future. So please leave a comment to let us know! May you find peace and joy in the Dharma. Omitofo!