When I think of the concept of heaven in the Far East the Disney film ‘Mulan’ comes to mind in which Mulan prays to her ancestors for protection and guidance. Worshipping ancestors in these parts seems prevalent, but is this the case and how do the countries that comprise the Far East define heaven?
Tian is one of the oldest terms for the cosmos in Chinese and in Chinese folklore Heaven plays a prominent role, referring particularly to a god or an impersonal power. Originally, Tian referred to the sky but it has since been applied to the divine power who lives there and is the transcendent source of moral meaning. Tian is the equivalent of Shangdi, ‘the fountain of the universe’, so named during the Shang Dynasty which gave rise to the worship of ancestral gods and cultural heroes. Shangdi and Tian were both quite abstract and impersonal but during the Zhou Dynasty there was a focus on the gods of nature instead.
Traditional Chinese belief is similar to karma in that people live in a moral universe and their actions determine their fate. Should they do good, Heaven will send blessings, evil and Heaven will send calamities. Chinese folk relions are often grouped together under the term Taoism which describes the process of death as the release from the corpse which leads to either transformation, immortality or ascension to heaven. Despite the general debate in this matter, death is seen as the next stage in the journey and should not be feared. However, Taoism puts emphasis on health and longevity of life and inner peace rather than life after death. Perhaps this is why there is no clear image of Heaven. My understanding from my limited research is simply that when one dies they become one with God. However, there are also those that remain behind as spirits.
The Japanese too have always had an acute sense of the spirit world. Japanese mythology decribes how particles of light rose from a shapeless chaotic matter to form Heaven and the clouds and those particles that remained dark and dense formed the earth. However, Japan’s overall concept of heaven is influenced by religion and even its location – across the oceans, above the skies, or beneath the earth. Nevertheless, it is said that over the years, the Japanese people created many different versions if heaven and then lived their lives to the best of their abilities in order to travel to these places after death. Like in Chinese religions, there is an emphasis on ancestors, and not God, watching over us.
Of course, the Far East today is streaming with the influences of Christianity, Buddhism and indigenous beliefs, to name but a few, all of which influence the concept of Heaven. But then this goes to show how personal this can be – maybe it is just that we create our own heaven and do everything we can to ensure that place is waiting for us at the end?