What started me in this direction of thought was a class on world religions. An elderly Catholic priest taught this class, and while he certainly knew a great deal about Catholicism, it quickly became clear that he was not as knowledgeable about other religions. Because of my bicultural background, his lack of understanding was especially jarring whenever he spoke of Asian faiths and beliefs.
My ears perked up when we discussed the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. Most of the class was non-Asian and found this concept perplexing. One classmate raised the question: What was the rationale or reason to compel the Chinese to worship their ancestors? The priest shrugged, professed ignorance, and then speculated that the Chinese were fearful of the spirits of their ancestors. Maybe the ritual was meant to placate them, so that these spirits would not punish their descendants with some sort of curse.
This was so far off the mark that I became instantly incensed. I jumped to my feet and spoke up to contradict the teacher. In retrospect, I think I probably caused quite a scene. At that moment in time, almost two decades ago, the reckless impetus of youth possessed me, and I didn't even consider a more diplomatic approach.
From this incident I learned that many, many people in America did not have the first clue on what ancestor worship meant to the Chinese. They regarded this essential cornerstone of Chinese spirituality as a quaint, exotic ritual, with all the trappings of primitive superstitions.
Later I also learned that the elderly Catholic priest's opinion was a rather prevalent one among the Christian clergy. A fundamentalist Christian position held that all prayers not directed at God/Jesus went to Satan. Accordingly, many missionaries in Taiwan and other Asian countries drilled into their converts the idea that ancestor worship was equivalent to devil worship. It's incredible how this ancient tradition, in reality a thing of noble beauty, could be so misunderstood, misrepresented and twisted.
So what would happen when, for instance, some Taiwanese Christians visit their relatives who still practice ancestor worship? Many would refuse to go near the shrine, hold the incense sticks, or even touch the food being offered. They believe everything associated with the ritual is tainted by the touch of Satan. This level of ignorance, in individuals who have every reason to know better, is the height of contemptible tragedy.
Some time ago, I came across another item that reinforced the negative stereotype of ancestor worship even further, but this time from a secular angle. Prior to his untimely passing, celebrated author and scientist Carl Sagan penned his last book, The Demon-Haunted World. In that book, Sagan spoke against the spread of irrational beliefs in the world. To illustrate the decline of scientific thinking in China, he pointed to the resurgence of "ancient Chinese practices" such as I Ching fortune telling and ancestor worship (page 17).
There it was again: the casual equating of ancestor worship with primitive, out-dated superstitious beliefs. Apparently it is not just the average people or fundamentalist Christians in America who do not understand this aspect of Chinese culture, but noted intellectuals as well.
Let's set the record straight once and for all: ancestor worship springs not from fear or superstitions, but from gratitude and respect - possibly the highest echelon of all human emotions.
"Drink water, think of source" is the phrase that the Chinese associate most often with the concept of ancestor worship. The idea is to never take anything for granted. As you quench your thirst, don't forget the spring or well where the water comes from. Without that source you would not be drinking deeply.
In just the same way, one should never, ever take one's own existence for granted. Without your ancestors you would not be here. If they hadn't lived, loved, struggled, fought, and survived, you would not exist. Just as you cherish your own life, it makes perfect sense that you should also cherish your forebears, for they are the ones who paved the way for you.
This is the real essence of ancestor worship: a state of grace known as gratefulness. It's a feeling that you are uniquely blessed, as the last link in an unimaginably long chain of human beings stretching all the way back to the genesis of humanity. You feel very much a part of this ancient tradition and the feeling gives you power and strength.
In that regard, ancestor worship is not necessarily superstitious. One does not have to believe in the existence of ghosts or spiritual beings to feel a sense of gratitude and appreciation. Likewise, expressing that gratitude and appreciation through a ritual isn't always an endorsement of the supernatural.
The emphasis on gratefulness extends into other aspects of Chinese thinking as well. For instance, it elevates filial piety to its rightful place as a high virtue. This kind of emphasis does not exist in the "advanced" West, where too many of the elderly die lonely and are not commemorated by their descendants after their passing. The Chinese practice is a sharp contrast to this lamentable state.
In that regard, ancestor worship is anything but primitive. The ability to feel gratitude marks an individual as a worthy human being; the institution of ritualized thanksgiving marks a people as a truly civilized society.
One reason why many Westerners have such a tough time with this concept is the unfortunate use of the word "worship." The connotation of this word is entirely religious, with all the implications of deities and supplicants. Without any other information, the typical Westerner naturally assumes that the Chinese regard their ancestors as gods on a similar level as Buddha or Jesus.
This is a false assumption that the Chinese would find ludicrous or laughable if ever they figure out what their American friends are really thinking. Certainly the Chinese believe their ancestors exist as spiritual entities, but to go from there to godhood is a mighty big stretch, indeed.
A better word than "worship" would be "communion." When the Chinese hold incense sticks in their hands and face the ancestral shrine or gravestone, they are in silent prayer to the dead. The content of such prayers have to do with greetings, the paying of respects, invitation to share a meal (thus the offerings of food), and request to watch over the safety of family members.
Note that the Chinese prayers to ancestors do not include begging for things like forgiveness for sins or transgressions, victory over Evil, vanquishing of one's enemies, or a guaranteed entrance into heaven. That makes sense because departed family members are at best guardian angels, not gods.
When you look at it this way, is the Chinese practice of ancestor worship/communion really so bizarre after all? In the West, do we not also pray to departed family members?
We most certainly do, and all without assuming that dear old Aunt Meg has, since her death, become the Almighty Saint Meg of the Seventh Host. The Catholic priest from my high school days would never assume that we pray to the dear departed out of some fear of the supernatural. Christian pastors and preachers would never assert that such prayers are tentamount to devil worship. Carl Sagan, despite his atheist convictions, would never think of it as some superstitious and irrational mumbo-jumbo.
What the Chinese do, in essence, amounts to the exact same thing. And yet Americans seem to insist on seeing Chinese customs as both more and less than they actually are. Perhaps this is because there is a certain need in the Occidental psyche to see the Orient as mysterious and inscrutable.
If so, the insight we have gained today may come as a disappointment. In the final analysis, and despite superficial trappings and different styles, we all share a common, universal need to be in touch with the spiritual world. Beneath the multicultural veneer, our essential human nature is similar.
The insight gives me a new perspective as well. It tells me that my sophomoric high school views were wrong. The East and the West are more alike than different. Perhaps true understanding between the two isn't an impossible dream after all!