Ancestral Tablet

The Chinese have always attached great importance to the tradition of remembering and having gratitude for one’s heritage, and being attentive to the funerary rites of one’s parents. Reverence for ancestors can be said to be an integral belief of Chinese society. For example, the Qing Ming Festival is a traditional festival to commemorate ancestors, mainly to worship ancestors and perform tomb sweeping rites. In agrarian societies, most people would enshrine ancestral tablets in their main halls, and most of the tablets were etched with the words “the Illustrious Father (Name of deceased) Honoured Lord” or “the Illustrious Mother (Name of deceased) Honoured Lady”.

The ancestral tablet is also called “soul tablet”, “spirit tablet”, “soul seat” and others. In Buddhism, it is called “lotus dais” or “lotus seat”. It is generally used as a temporary seat for the soul of the departed to reside, and convenience for the family members, relatives and friends to pay their respects.

Ancestral worship originates from the concept of the “immortal soul”. According to Taoist beliefs concerning the soul, every person has three ethereal souls and seven corporeal souls. Upon death, the seven corporeal souls are dispersed. Among the three ethereal souls, the “sentient soul” will reside at the cemetery or columbarium, the “rational soul” will reside at the ancestral tablet, and the “rational soul” will circulate in the six paths of reincarnation according to cause and effect. It is believed that the “rational soul” is imperishable. After death, it just “migrates” to another existence and the living can communicate with the departed and pray for blessings. The ancestral spirits must have a place of refuge so that the descendants can have an object of worship. Thus, the ancestral tablet becomes a refuge where the ancestral spirits reside. Because they are mostly made of wood, ancestral tablets are also called “Wooden Lords”.

According to legend, ancestral tablets first began in the Eastern Han dynasty. During that time, lived a farmer named Ding Lan, who was raised by his mother because his father died early. He often spoke ill of his mother because of his bad temper. One day, Ding Lan went to work in the fields as usual, and was surprised to find a lamb kneeling down to suckle the milk of its mother. Afterwards, an old shepherd taught him a lesson on filial piety in relation to the proverb, “a lamb kneels to suckle milk from its mother”. Thus, Ding Lan felt ashamed for how he had treated his mother.

On that day, Ding Lan’s mother was in a hurry to go to the field because was delayed in delivering his meal. When Ding Lan saw his mother approaching, he ran to her with a contrite heart. However, his mother mistook his actions for anger. Out of fear, she fled and accidentally fell into a swift-flowing river. Ding Lan couldn’t find any trace of his mother in the river and only recovered a piece of wood. After grieving and mourning, he took the wood home and carved his mother’s name on it; enshrining it in the main hall. From then on, everyone followed his example and worshipped a wooden tablet as an “ancestral tablet”, passing on the traditional virtue of filial piety and gratitude.

At the ancestral hall or the ancestral altar of the family, the ancestral tablets are arranged in accordance to the seniority of the departed. There are incense burners for future generations to offer incense and worship with offerings that include fruits, tea, cakes and others. Each of these tablets must be consecrated with a brush dipped in vermillion. In traditional Chinese funeral rites, it is an essential part of the ceremony.

The wooden plaque used to carve the ancestral tablet is usually already semi-completed – with pre-carved reliefs on it – awaiting further decorative patterns and information such as the appellation and name of the departed to be carved on it. Occasionally there are separate tablets for each male ancestor and spouse, and sometimes there are tablets that include the ancestors of all dynasties.

In line with the changing times and the promotion of the traditional virtue of filial piety, honouring ancestors and serving families, Nirvana Memorial Park (Semenyih and Shah Alam) and Nirvana Center Kuala Lumpur (Nirvana 2) have all introduced ancestral tablets to meet the needs of modern families. The ancestral tablets are enshrined in elegant and majestic air-conditioned halls, and accompanied by the chanting of Buddhist sutras to reflect eternal remembrance.

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