Buddhism teaches the concept of anattā or anātman. In short:

There is no "soul" or "essence", only "processes" within the framework of the five skandhas. This gives the illusion of the individual self/soul.

NOTE: This is just an approximation. I'm sure it can be put more elegantly, but you get the picture.

With this understanding, what is the basis for ancestor worship/veneration? Who/What is being honoured or worshiped? Basically, how do practicing Buddhists reconcile the two world-views?

Is it about remembering shared experiences? Or a way of remembering family traditions and history? Any insights are appreciated!

  • Could you name an example or two, of a Buddhist culture (or tradition, practice, holiday) which practices "ancestor worship"?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 8:04
  • @ChrisW sure, some examples are the Japanese practice of segaki (施餓鬼) or the festival of Obon (お盆).
    – metacubed
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 8:29
  • @ChrisW There are also similar concepts in Chinese Buddhism, such as the Buddhist festival of yú lán jié (盂蘭節).
    – metacubed
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 8:34
  • 1
    @Chris. An interesting link on ancestor worship in Buddhism: rk-world.org/dharmaworld/dw_2007jsplace.aspx
    – user2424
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 9:01
  • Although a little different than ancestor worship, Cheon-do-jae services also seem to fit into this paradox of noting both belief in "selflessness" but also belief in a permanent entity of a soul of the departed which participants wish to guide to the Pure Land in this ceremony. koreanbuddhism.net/bbs/…
    – Robin111
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


Perhaps ancestor worship began as a cultural overlay, but it is possible to use this as an important Buddhist tool.

The Buddhist teacher, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh often points out that he meditates on the cloud in his tea cup whenever he drinks tea. That is, the water in the tea was a cloud at some point, thus all things inter-are. Cognising the interbeing nature of reality is important to develop compassion and respect for all beings, plants, minerals and elements.

Training the mind to see connections that aren't visible to the senses is important to realize the interbeing nature of reality.

Like a cloud makes tea, ancestors make us. Ancestor veneration in this sense develops in us compassion for beings we can't see or normally perceive and reduces our selfish existence.

In the ultimate reality there is anatta, but in conventional reality we do have ancestors. One must not abandon norms of conventional reality merely because one has understood ultimate reality. It is not nice to live in ultimate reality alone, just as it is not nice to live in conventional (materialistic) reality alone.

We must transcend the conventional and the ultimate, not be attached to either end.

Growing very strongly attached to emptiness produces a wisdom that is devoid of compassion. Compassion is most certainly a conventional truth. When the Buddha passed away, many Arahats objected to the first Buddhist council for they believed it was impossible to set down the teachings on emptiness in conventional language. Those who were in the presence of the Buddha could feel the boundless affection and compassion with which the words regarding emptiness were delivered. How can a Sutta even hope to convey that compassionate presence of the Buddha, they bemoaned?

Thus the teachings on emptiness were guarded like a secret, and monks and dharma teachers only revealed the truth of emptiness to a select few when they believed the student was ready. I believe teaching emptiness to someone who isn't ready is a valid ground for expulsion from the order.

See also,

  • Wikipedia's Two truths doctrine article gives "relative" as a synonym for "conventional". I didn't know that "relative" is also used to describe a (third) middle way between "conventional" and "absolute" ("absolute" being also known as "ultimate").
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 7:29
  • Thanks for pointing out, I'll edit it to remove the word relative.
    – Buddho
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 7:58
  • 1
    It's not a good (is apparently quite a bad) Wikipedia article. See also the answers to What is the difference between relative and absolute truth in Buddhist philosophy?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 8:02

The necessary of such is to develop and maintain certain aspects of right view.

"He has right view and is not warped in the way he sees things: 'There is what is given, what is offered, what is sacrificed. There are fruits & results of good & bad actions. There is this world & the next world. There is mother & father. There are spontaneously reborn beings; there are brahmans & contemplatives who, faring rightly & practicing rightly, proclaim this world & the next after having directly known & realized it for themselves.' This is how one is made pure in three ways by mental action." AN 10.176

  1. Gratitude, a way of thinking, that there is no such as inherent right of what ever one gains and a way of thinking that accepts cause and effect.
  2. That things have a cause have an origin, do not come by themselves
  3. Putting one self in the right position and with it giving up overestimation of oneself and pride
  4. Being aware that life/existence does not end with death and did not start with birth and so duties and effects are following

So it's all about basic practice of right view and this on a worldly level so that there is proper fulfillment of duties and one, by accepting things like they are and giving everything the right place, would be able to take a more refine step into the matter of understanding Dhamma.

The Buddha noted Ancestor duties as one of the necessary duties. Usually practiced as sharing merits (dedication of ones own good deeds for them and invitation to take part on it) and scarifies as ritual acts, like gifts in a shrine or organizing a ceremony... How it is done, differ much, but the essence of practice is the same.

People who respect their ancestors and are aware of the fact, that there are very less living beings who have not been their father, mother, sister, brother, child... do such ancestor veneration in keeping precepts and abstaining from harm, for example. So such rituals like slayer a pig to scarify if for them or other cults are not part of Buddhas teachings.

The most common way of benefiting the ancestors is the support of the Sangha, with the thought "May my ancestors be able to meet the good teachings in future lifes"

Its a big matter of obligation, duty and gratitude.

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