Someone on another forum linked this post from Ask a Korean. We’ve just finished celebrating Chuseok, when many people still perform an ancestral memorial ritual which includes preparing, organizing, and offering traditional food and dishes in a prescribed way to the ancestors, and this picture is making the rounds and causing some controversy.
Is it acceptable for the food prescribed by tradition, which is painstakingly prepared by women, sometimes for days, to be altered due to time constraints, life constraints, contemporary culture, or just based on the ancestors’ preferences?
I’ve said before that my husband’s family does not participate in this ritual, and all things considered, they are not a strict Confucian family. I’m also not Korean. So maybe I should keep my mouth shut on this issue. But I do have two degrees in religious studies – one relating to death rituals, have travelled to countless religious sites throughout Asia, joined a ritual-loving church after realizing I heart ritual, and have had personal experiences with death rituals in my family…so based on those credentials, I’m going to offer my opinion.
One phrase I truly hate is ‘preserving tradition.’ We preserve dead things. When a cucumber is plucked from the ground, we stuff it in a jar, add all sorts of preserving agents, seal up the jar and put it on the shelf until we are ready to consume it. My grandmother was a great canner when she lived on the farm, and I have very vivid memories of shelves and shelves of canned fruits and vegetables in her vast cellar. They are yummy memories, but they are memories of dead fruits and vegetables which need additives because they have been plucked from their life sources.
Tradition lives. Tradition changes. It does. There is no point going into all the various examples now, but those things you truly love – your religious ceremonies, your family Christmas traditions, your traditional forms of clothes, your ‘family values’…all of those things that we label as ‘traditional’ have changed over time. They incorporate many traditions, and times, and personalities, and realities. When we have to preserve tradition, tradition is in trouble. When we live our traditions, and those traditions meet our needs and speak to where we are in our world and our lives, then we are honouring our ancestors, our faith groups, our cultures, and ourselves.
Before getting back to the specific Confucian ritual, I want to share some stories and pictures of my experiences with evolving offerings.
When I was in university, I did some field research at a dharma centre where they had regular rituals, and we were often there for those rituals. Usually, there was some mention of hungry ghosts or preta, probably the saddest beings in the Buddhist worldview. Hungry ghosts are insatiable beings with miniscule mouths, long thin necks, and massive bellies. They epitomize our cravings – the same cravings which prevent us from leaving samsara. One time when it was close to Valentine’s Day, the centre put out cinnamon hearts and gummie bears. These we offered to the hungry ghosts. Of course we did. Of course Canadian hungry ghosts around Valentine’s Day would be desiring our cinnamon hearts. Are hungry ghosts only to be found in Tibet?
But that’s a ‘Western’ example. We Westerners are always trying to mess up tradition right? What are Asians doing?
This picture is from a famous temple in Hong Kong. It is an offering made under a tablet remembering all the ‘unloved and uncared for’ souls in Hong Kong. I’m pretty sure Tiger Beer, being from Singapore and all, was not the usual beverage of the Hong Kong ancestors, but blessings to whomever put out the food and remembered those who have no one to remember them.
This picture is from a temple in Korea…and yes…those are Chupa Chups. Specifically, a bouquet of Chupa Chups!
From Inwangsan, a Shaman hill in central Seoul. These offerings are made for the mountain spirits.
And from a different place on Inwangsan – note the package. Nobody made this specifically for the spirits, but they were bought and offered for those spirits.
From our recent trip to Bali: this is a traditional offering which literally litters the sidewalks, and can be found in front of every tiny roadside shrine. But I don’t want you to notice the packaged candy. I want you to notice the bits of rice and meat being offered. When we made and offered ours after preparing our food at our Balinese cooking school, we offered bits of what we had made and were about to consume. In other words, while this is a ‘traditional’ offering, it is made based on what the family is about eat for the rest of the day. The offering is tightly related to the everyday lives of those making it.
And then the dogs, birds, ants, and creepy crawlers of all kinds come and consume the offerings.
Veering off from food for a moment, these are the mizuko dressed and sitting at the feet of Jizo, the bodhisattva for children in Japan. Yes, children, but more specifically for aborted, stillborn, or miscarried fetuses. There are several rituals for these potential beings in Japan, and part of the rituals is offering small toys like pinwheels. I’ve seen much more contemporary and trendy toys too, but I didn’t take any pictures of those.
And in Singapore’s Chinatown, you can buy all the paper convertibles, iphone, Rolexes, and apple computers to burn for your dead loved ones. In fact, in New York, a storekeeper got in trouble for the paper luxury brand purses he was selling for funeral rites. The authorities were worried about copyright infringement you see.
And not offering but image related, there’s a beautiful church called Saenamteo in Seoul that everyone should visit if they like to pilgrimage. Not only is the altar space decorated in a stone Koreanized rendering of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, but also, when I was there in 2007, they had a biracial rendering of the Holy Family. Alas, when I went back in 2008, the Holy Family was decidedly white, but maybe it has changed now. Anyway, Jesus doesn’t need to be white, and Jesus doesn’t need to be 1st century Middle Eastern looking either.
Finally, when it came to my own father’s funeral, cremation, and internment, we had a very lovely funeral director. He gave us the urn options, and then turned to us and said, ‘But really…most people choose to forgo the cost of an urn unless they plan to display the ashes in their home. We had one family who chose to bury the ashes in…his coffee thermos.” It seems the man was a coffee addict and would have liked nothing more than to be close to his coffee in death. It was then that it became very clear to us that we would bury dad’s ashes in his tool box. He was a welder at work and a woodworker in his spare time. He did handy work for the church, the farm where we rode, the grandparents. He also had a thing about people not replacing his tools after using them. His coworkers joked at the funeral that after his death they went around and made sure all of his tools were accounted for and in their right place. They didn’t want to be haunted. The neighbourhood knew him as the man who was always outside doing yard work and fixing things. Everyone understood exactly why he went into the ground in his toolbox. And when I carried what remained of him in the box and placed him in the ground, it was an honour, and it was the best way to honour him.
Now you might say, but Msleetobe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Canada are different countries with different cultures. Don’t conflate them. But I’m trying to show the ways in which different cultures and traditions are responding to contemporary life and circumstances. But Msleetobe, Confucianism is a very different – and much more rigid – tradition than Balinese Hinduism, Daoism, mainstream Western Protestantism, or recent Jizo rituals. Yes, it is a unique tradition as all traditions are unique, but it is a tradition, and there are similar patterns between religions, similar impulses, similar meanings, similar yearnings to do similar things. Or, you might argue, maybe the uncared for souls of Hong Kong, or the foreign tourists who died on the beaches of Thailand because of the tsunami, are outside of the regular religious traditions and social systems, but if your dad really loved pizza, would you deny him that when you remember him because it goes against the tradition we currently observe?
Of course there are other issues – did the ancestor in question like pizza? Or is it a quick and easy way to fill the table when you didn’t have enough time, energy, or motivation to make the traditional dishes? Is the pizza placement done out of care or out of carelessness? Only that individual family can know the answer to that question. But in a time when many families are buying the necessary food, are not growing their own fruit because they live in an apartment in the middle of a metropolis, or prepare and perform the ritual with a great deal of han in their hearts because of the sexist aspects of the preparation, family turmoil, or unresolved issues with the family member being honoured, I’m not sure we should be judging. Sure it’s easier to judge the family who chose to buy FOREIGN! food and place it on the table because it is a highly visible sign of evolving tradition, but that doesn’t mean that there are not more subtle and less visible ways tradition is changing, evolving, and in some families, fading away. It will be interesting to see as younger people die who have traveled more, acquired different tastes, married people from other cultures, and grown up in a Korea bursting with food from around the world, how the traditional table continues to evolve and change. But no, in this bloggers’ view, a tradition that speaks to and responds to the needs of the people who are practicing is not a bad tradition. It is in fact, the way of tradition.