AN4.61 "Worthy Deeds": oblations to ancestors and deities are "worthy"?

The Buddha lists 4 worthy deeds (in the Wisdom publications [AN4.61], page 451), and number 3 reads:

Again, with wealth acquired by energetic striving, amassed by the strength of his arms, earned by the sweat of his brow, righteous wealth righteously gained, the noble disciple [layperson] makes the five oblations: to relatives, guests, ancestors, kings, and deities. This is the third case of wealth that has gone to good use, that has been properly utilized and used for a worthy cause.

I’m quite surprised that the Buddha would condone worshipping, nay, encourage spending wealth on making devotional offerings to ancestors and deities!

What do others think? Should we as Buddhists be worshipping our ancestors (like many ethnic Chinese still do), and make offerings to deities, like say Sakka? Or Vishnu (as Venhu in SN 2.12)? Or Kataragama? Or Sirima? Should just the laypeople be doing this, and not the monks (as the sutta is addressed to Anathapindika)?

I also recall hearing a story where Ajahn Chah, back in his day, would personally forcibly break down and destroy traditional, small, roadside ancestor-worshipping shrines (on several occasions, apparently) that the Thai villagers (who were supposed to be Buddhist) couldn’t seem to help continuing to worship and make offerings to, despite his teachings against such practice.

Here’s the sutta in full:

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I think it is a matter of personal faith.

the Lord Buddha taught on a few levels of depth, the deeper the closer to the truth

my opinion is that if some teaching for laity contradicts some spiritual teaching, i believe it was taught out of conformity with the social norm of the time with the aim to direct lay people to the least evil in the worldly life

what he does here i think is in fact encourage the maintenance of the social order and status quo in the society he lived in

in my view Buddha’s teachings for laity were politically aware

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Thank you for your post, Bhante. The practice of ancestor “oblation” does indeed seem to be reminiscent of some type of Brahmanical ritual. However, it’s quite fascinating to remove the context away from the influence of another religion and into what the Buddha actually taught. I have a sneaking suspicion that ‘worship’ has a far different meaning than it did in 5th century India.

The Buddha could then mean (I’m not sure what oblation has been translated from in Pali) giving as a form of deep respect and gratitude. For instance, when I give money or food to the Sangha I do so, as a layperson, out of respect, not out of worship.

But I do think there is great potential for this meaning to become skewed – and thus it could be argued that many Asian people, when they give to the Sangha, do so out of a kind of reciprocal worship. That is not to say they disrespect the Sangha, but rather that there’s an expectation of ‘goodness’ from giving to the monks/nuns.

So, from a modern day perspective the Buddha’s words seem strange, but I think they are ultimately, as always, context dependent.

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what he does here i think is in fact encourage the maintenance of the social order and status quo in the society he lived in

That’s really insightful. Much appreciated, LXNDR.

Yes, indeed, it all hinges on that word. I agree that there’s a wide range of behaviour and emotion that is getting covered here, ranging from a mental intention of respect, all the way up to moist-eyed, trance-like, drawn-out, opulent devotionalism.

It really does come down to each individual, and how they choose to express their faith and confidence, which I feel needs to be a personal choice, in order for it to be sincere, meaningful and heartfelt.

Much appreciated for your comments, Brenna.

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