Buddhist Funeral

Please note that the latter part of this clip depicts the cremation of a Buddhist monk inside a coffin, though no body parts are visible.

Marjane Del Caro


The clip begins with footage of animals raised by the Buddhist monks at the Yongquan monastery in Gushan, Fujian. Caldwell inserts an intertitle that claims “Buddhism cares for animals religiously for merit, but lacks interest in man.” While overly judgmental, Caldwell’s commentary reflects the Buddhist practice of raising and feeding animals. Charity towards animals is considered morally important, especially for monks, since there is a thin gradient between human and animal in Buddhist thought. The next scenes are of a Buddhist funeral procession for a monk. First, the monk is loaded into an upright coffin similar to a sedan chair. The reason for this is likely due to the monk’s desire to be burned in a cross-legged lotus position, an important pose for meditation in Buddhism. The loading of the coffin is followed by the funeral procession to the place of burning. Processions play an important role in religious expression throughout China, for both monks and lay people. Before the coffin is burned, a food offering is burned. Burning serves an important role in all Chinese religion, as burning is the primary way to transfer messages, gifts, and even persons to other realms. Incense and firecrackers are also burned. Finally, the coffin is burned as monks chant and process around the altar. When the cremation is finished, the bones and ashes are packed into urns for burial. This film clip is an example of a Buddhist funeral, primarily undertaken by monks at the Yongquan monastery in Fujian province. Despite the participants being monastic Buddhists, many of the principles shown here– such as the motif of fire as a medium of change– are crucial to all religions in China.

Extended Explanation

The film reel seen above was shot in Gushan, Fujian, China in the mid 1930s. The monastery pictured is Yongquan monastery. Fujian is a unique province in China due to the region’s connection to foreign trade and missionary work throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Missionaries, such as Caldwell, flocked to Fujian from around the Christian world in order to attempt to convert persons in the small section of China they were allowed access to, and as such the religious landscape of Fujian is much more diverse than other places in China. The religious diversity in Fujian is not solely the product of Western missionaries; it has also long been a center of religious activity in Eastern China and home to many monastic groups. The Yongquan monastery is known as being at the frontier of religious resurgence in post-imperial China.[1] An important component of this resurgence, according to Dr. Daniela Campo, was the resurgence of monastic discipline.[2] Campo argues that the enforcement of monastery propriety was important to the survival of Buddhism in Fujian as it “bound together religious and political elites around a shared monastic ideal of purity” in response to both diffuse religion and missionary influence.[3]  Naturally, the often antagonistic dynamic between Buddhist monasticism and Christian missionaries probably lead to Caldwell’s hostility towards Buddhism, some of which is shown in this reel.

One thing Caldwell found strange was the monasteries’ practice of keeping animals without taking their meat or products. Buddhists see animals as not distinctly separate from humans. Humans can become animals and vice versa through the cycle of samsara (lunhui in Chinese.)[4] A core belief of Mahayana Buddhism, the branch often practiced in China, is that all things have Buddha Nature.[5] This means that they are of the same stuff as the Buddha, and thus are all deserving of mercy. All things are also fundamentally empty of essence; any one thing can become any other thing.[6] These principles, Buddha Nature and Emptiness, are evident in both the treatment of animals and in the burning of the body to release the soul. Whereas many Western interpretations of Buddhism emphasize mental and intellectual departure from profane thoughts, Chinese Buddhism is often centered around “bodily practice [of] liberation… a somatic path to Buddhahood.”[7] Dr. Liz Wilson asserts that for many Buddhists, “death is a moment of edification, an opportunity for [the monk] to realize the truth of the teaching of impermanence.”[8] This relates to Caldwell’s clip in two ways: firstly, the upright coffin allows for the monk to maintain the lotus position even in death, allowing him to continue meditating on the fleeting nature of his life and take advantage of the perspective granted by imminent destruction of the physical form; secondly, the burning of the body emphasizes that the impermanent and transitory nature of the physical form. By cremating the body, the body is turned to dust. The same principle is seen in the burning of incense and other offerings prior to the cremation itself. These burnings are a common feature of lay festivals, and the burning of gifts to the dead is a ubiquitous form of religious and cultural expression throughout the Sinitic world.[9][10] In this way, the funeral ritual utilizes fire as a means to transform one thing into another.

The other prominent aspect of Chinese religious expression shown in the film is the procession. Processions are often a part of festivals and gatherings in China, and especially in Fujian province. Procession is a religious act which both Chinese monks and laypeople participate in, whether at local festivals or at institutional rituals held by monastic orders.[11][12] Procession is a feature of rituals carried out by Buddhist and Daoist monks, though only the former are featured here.[13] While the funeral is for a monk, there are a number of commoners present throughout the reel, and they can be seen attending the funeral. As processions are a feature of most rituals in Chinese diffuse religion as well as monastic activity, a procession carrying the coffin would be a way for both lay people and the monks to participate in the funeral.

Caldwell saw his mission in China as being humanitarian; he was in China to save lives and to save souls. He came with the belief that it was the duty of pious persons to help the lay people with charity. This dynamic is not present in the Chinese monastic system; monasteries rarely do work for the good of the lay people, and it is considered a good act for lay people to donate to the monks.[14] A common critique of Buddhist monasticism throughout its history in China is that it is a sink for donations and effort producing little good for the working people.[15] The taking-without-giving relationship of Buddhist monasticism was a point of contention for both missionaries and domestic critics of Chinese culture. An example of perceived monastic wastefulness can be seen in Caldwell’s comments on the raising of animals by monks without distributing their products to people who need them.

[1] Campo, Daniela. “Imposing the Rules: Reform and Rebellion at Gushan Yongquan Monastery in the 1930s.” Studies in Chinese Religions 3, no. 2 (March 2017): 142–74.

[2] Campo, Studies in Chinese Religions, 142-74

[3] Campo, Studies in Chinese Religions, 142-74

[4] Verchery, Lina. 2019. “Both Like and Unlike: Rebirth, Olfaction, and the Transspecies Imagination in Modern Chinese Buddhism.” Religions 10 (6): 1–16.

[5] Bryson, Megan. September 26, 2019.

[6] Bryson, Megan. September 26, 2019.

[7] Bryson, Megan. September 26, 2019.

[8] Benn, James A. 1998. “Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an Apocryphal Practice in Chinese Buddhism.” History of Religions 37 (4): 295–322.

[9] Wai Lum Tan, Chinese Religious Life.

[10] Bored in Heaven, 2010.

[11] Wai Lum Tan, Chinese Religious Life.

[12] Bored in Heaven, 2010.

[13] Bored in Heaven, 2010.

[14] Bryson, Megan. September 26, 2019.

[15] Bryson, Megan. September 26, 2019.

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