Buddhism Your Questions Answered (171 FAQ)

Q&A 83. Burning joss papers and spirit money

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Q: Master Lu, it is difficult to ask our family members to stop burning joss papers and spirit money. Not everyone within a family believes in Buddhism. Because of the influence of traditional Chinese customs, trying to prevent the non-believers from burning joss papers may affect the harmony in family relationships. They may say that it is their freedom to burn joss papers and that we should mind our own business. What should we do?


  • Generally, deceased family members who have ascended to heaven with the help of recitations tend to fall to the lower realms under the following three conditions:
    • Burning of joss papers, spirit money, or any joss materials belonging to the underworld, including paper cars, paper houses, and clothing;
    • Family and friends frequently miss the deceased person, or even cry when thinking about the deceased;
    • Family and friends often talk about the deceased at night, such as discussing events that happened while this person was still alive.
  • The Little House is a combination of four sutras and mantras. It is similar to an internationally recognised currency, and can be used in the spirit world.  In the underworld, it is considered to be the largest denomination of currency. When the deceased receive Little Houses, they can use them as money, or use the power from them to ascend to a higher spiritual realm. If the deceased are already in heaven, then they can use the power from the Little Houses to ascend to an even higher level within the realm.
    Joss papers and spirit money are for beings in the underworld, and cannot be received by beings in heaven. Even if you burn a lot of them, they are considered to be low-value coins in the underworld, and do not mean much to the deceased.
  • If the deceased family members ascended to the Asura realm or heaven using the power from the Little Houses that we have recited and burnt for them, their foundation is not stable as they did not reach these higher realms through their own efforts. When they see spirit money being burnt for them, they tend to be greedy and come down to get the money. This is why they fall.
    Once they fall to the lower realms, it will be difficult for them to return to the higher realms. They need power to ascend. However, spirit money has no power. It can only be used in the underworld, and it is not worth much. If we want to help our deceased family members to return to the higher realms, the only way is to keep reciting Little Houses.
  • Some people are concerned that the Little Houses they recite for the deceased will be wasted because their family members are burning spirit money for the deceased at the same time. Though they burn spirit money with good intentions, good intentions do not always lead to satisfactory results. For example, if a child does not behave, plays too much and is unproductive, their parents would try to help this child. But while the parents are trying to help the child, a group of lazy and unproductive friends may try to influence the child at the same time. That will not stop the parents from helping their child. The same principle applies here.
  • Family members usually burn joss papers and spirit money on special occasions such as the Tomb Sweeping Festival (Ching Ming), the anniversary date of the deceased’s passing, etc. However, we still need to save our deceased family members and help them to be liberated from the sea of suffering. Therefore, it is extremely important to persist and continue with the recitation of Little Houses. If we recite a sufficient number of Little Houses for our deceased family members, and they ascend to heaven as a result, then they generally will not fall to the lower realms.
  • Once the deceased family members are in heaven, if they fall to the lower realms due to their desire to collect spirit money, it will be difficult for them to go back to heaven again even if we continue to perform recitations. As an analogy, if someone is demoted, then it is difficult for this person to be promoted to their original position.
  • We can explain the above to our family and friends, and try to convince them not to burn spirit money. If we cannot convince them or we encounter non-believers, we should be cautious and avoid saying anything inappropriate. Otherwise, it may lead to karma of speech. The best solution is to prepare a sufficient number of Little Houses and burn them while the spirit money is also being burnt.
    If the deceased person is currently in heaven, you can say the following prayer: “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva protect and bless <full name of the deceased person>, help him/her to proceed to a higher realm using the power from Little Houses, and not be greedy and become attached to the low-value currencies from the human realm.” If the deceased person is currently in the underworld, they would also be very happy to receive Little Houses.
  • Only when we show care and respect towards our elders, and recite Little Houses for our deceased family members, will our children or grandchildren show care and respect towards us in our later years. This is the cycle of positive karma.
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