High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser originally written for Radio Free Asia on 8th January 2009 and posted on her blog on 14th January 2009.
“Let Us Make Lamp Offerings and Light Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Deceased”
At the beginning of the New Year, the various festivals with best wishes have arrived one after another. These festivals include those of the East, the West, Tibet and China etc. If it is really a peaceful and flourishing age, a true reunion of the entire family, and if it is indeed a period in which the old can grow old, people in the prime of their life can put their talents to use and the young can grow up and mature peacefully, then we will naturally have our own unique customs to celebrate these festivals which have lasted for centuries.
However, this year’s celebration will be different. This year’s differences are due to the fact that so many people have been plunged into the abyss of misery. In the land of Tibet, in the villages, pastures and towns of Amdo, central Tibet and Kham, many white-haired grandparents and parents had to endure the suffering of attending the funeral of young blacked-hair people. What is even more tragic is that some of these white-haired ones have not been able to attend the funeral services since the black-haired ones have disappeared without their corpses being able to be found. The family members do not know the day they died, thus, it is not even possible to hold the religious ceremony to release the soul of the deceased from purgatory suffering. The monasteries have already been closed, and monks expelled. There are countless vultures circling around over the desolate sky burial grounds.
Then, let us light butter lamps to make offerings in memory of the deceased, whose exact number we still do not know, in the corners where the video surveillance can not reach. Furthermore, those of us who live in alien lands and do not have butter lamps to offer, let us light candles for those deceased whose exact number we still do not know. Like March 16 last year, several hundred Tibetan students from the Northwestern University for Nationalities in Lanzhou spread out banners with the slogan “share weal and woe with Tibetans” on the ground, and staged a sit-in under candlelight throughout the night. On March 17, over a hundred Tibetan students from the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing also lit candles and staged a sit-in on the campus, thus, the fire of protests extended to the capital of the “empire”.
In our culture and tradition, we attach great importance to the commemoration of the deceased. Many rites are the ones to offer sacrifices, and all the sacrifices have to make offerings to deities for the souls of resentful relatives and creditors. The forty-nine days, from the first week to the seventh week, are the forty-nine phases the soul of the deceased has to pass through the intermediate stage between death and rebirth, so the family not only need to invite the monks to perform Buddhist rites to release the soul of the deceased from purgatory suffering, but also have to give alms on a large scale to the poor. The coming year is similarly important, in fact the entire coming year should be the year to make sacrifices! At such a moment, we should pay tribute to the monks who are qualified to be called lamas. It is because only the practice of the monks can help the souls of the deceased to head for the truth, the light and a good rebirth. This is not superstition, on the contrary, it is the cherished memory of the deceased, which is the deepest and most beautiful feeling of mankind. Even Lenin said that “forgetting the past means betrayal”. For those of us who believe in religion, forgetting about the deceased means betrayal and signifies that we walk around without any feelings. If one does not commemorate one’s deceased relatives, then one is worse than a beast. If members of an ethnic group do not commemorate their deceased compatriots, then they are also worse than beasts.
Cherishing the memory of the deceased is not a virtue unique to any ethnic group. Similarly, the Han Chinese also deeply cherish the memory of their compatriots who have died. I read an article written by a Chinese who suffered in the “Incident of June 4” in 1989. After having been silent for as long as twenty years, he made a series of short films entitled “1989: The Calling of Memory”. He wrote, “…the gun shots smashed all our dreams, how is it possible what’s smashed are just dreams of individuals? Our entire ethnic group has a common pain, but because of fear, we even dare not think about the pain, or dare not touch the pain. In this way, this pain has been buried in the heart of each one of us for year after year… When all our world desires have been satisfied, we ourselves are feeling more and more lost. We have material wealth, but we have lost our soul.”
To respect life is to respect oneself, and to cherish the memory of the deceased is to rescue and redeem oneself. The brutality and valiance of a materialist lies in the fact that he believes in guns and money. However, they also acknowledge the law of birth, death, illness and death as well as the law of rise and fall. Even Mao Zedong, who claimed that he himself was an outstanding person compared with others in history, was not able to avoid death. What is absurd is that after Mao’s death, a memorial hall was built for his corpse. Is this different from the countless terracotta warriors buried underground by the First Emperor of Qin? Certainly, if materialists also have the right to cherish the memory of the deceased, Tibetans who have religious belief should also have the right to cherish the memory of the deceased!
Therefore, 2009 is the year for us to cherish the memory of the deceased. And we have our own way to do so: make lamp offerings and light candles to commemorate the souls of the deceased, and recite the mantra of Avalokiteshvara: Om mani padme hum!
8th January 2009, Beijing
This post is also available in: English