It is very common to see Chinese burning paper in the form of hell notes and objects like cars and mansions to offer to the dead. It is a believe that these offerings can be used by the departed in the underworld which works similar to the real world. It is even more common to see these sort of offerings during the lunar 7th month period which is believe to be the hungry ghost month, where wandering spirits are allowed to roam the world as the gates of the underworld is opened. Many people claim that they received visions or dreams from the departed to burn them more offerings or that they are very happy to “receive” so much offerings and can live happily in the afterlife.
To me, these are nothing more than cultural and social internalization. These visions or dreams only come to those who have been internalized to believe in such rituals and another Chinese person who grew up in America without such knowledge would probably have experiences closer to those of Western cultures. This is the same reasons why people see visions of Goddess of Mercy or the Buddha in the form that they are familiar with. Also is this were true and if I went to an incineration plant and right before they burn up all the rubbish, I offered it to someone, does it mean all the rubbish will not appear the door steps on the other side?
Where do I think the burning of hell notes originate from? One thing we know is that ancient Chinese bury their treasures with them to bring along to the underworld for they see it to be a reflection of the human world, like the Egyptians us. This, of course, resulted in a lot of tomb robberies. Also, what do common folks who also want a piece of the pie in the underworld? They surely don’t have the luxury of burying those possessions together with the departed. So I believe, somewhere along this line, someone must have come up with the idea that using papers shaped as gold or silver ingot and offering to the departed is as good as the real thing. This obviously would have caught on like fire, because:
- It gave the common folks the means to pay their last respect with riches
- It allowed the rich to inherit treasures instead of burying them and gotten them stolen
Now we have luxury sports car, hell notes denoted in millions, multi-story mansions with servants and even ipads. Inflation must be sky high in the underworld with so many rich folks with millions to spend!
What should the Buddhist perspective be around this? To me, I feel that Buddhism is neutral to this, as this is a tradition and really allow people to pay their respects to the department, including wandering spirits. Of course, the burning of paper does not lend too much to good environmental practise and we could encourage everyone towards a more substantial means of showing your respects and filial piety, this is to donate your time to charity work, to fight for the discriminated, to help the animals and offer those merits that you have accumulated to the departed. Such work is worth a million times more than any offerings we can burn.