|A paper effigy of the Ghost King in Shatin, Hong Kong
(TC: 盂蘭盆, SC: 盂兰盆 Yúlánpén)
Taoism and Folk Belief:
(TC: 中元節, SC: 中元节)
|Buddhists, Taoists, Chinese folk religion believers
primarily in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia, with related traditions and festivals observed in Cambodia, Laos, and Sri Lanka
|The opening of the gates of Hell, permitting all ghosts to receive food and drink
|15th night of the 7th Chinese month
|Ancestor worship, offering food (to monks as well as deceased), burning joss paper, chanting of scriptures
|Obon (in Japan)
Tết Trung Nguyên (in Vietnam)
Pchum Ben (in Cambodia)
Boun Khao Padap Din (in Laos)
Mataka dānēs (in Sri Lanka)
The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Jie (中元節), Gui Jie (鬼節) or Yulan Festival (traditional Chinese: 盂蘭盆節; simplified Chinese: 盂兰盆节) and Ullambana Festival, is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in certain East Asian countries. According to the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month (14th in parts of southern China).
In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm and visit the living.
Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is veneration of the dead, in which traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper items such as money, gold, and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. There is also an element of fear and the need to appease possibly unhappy and angry ghosts. Food is prepared and offered to any "hungry ghosts" who may not have had safe passage to the afterlife and are suffering. At the end of the festival period, miniature paper boats and lanterns are released on the water to directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities so that they may travel safely to the afterlife.
The timing and origin story of the Ghost Festival ultimately derives from the Mahayana Buddhist scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra. The sutra records the time when Maudgalyayana achieves abhijñā and uses his new found powers to search for his deceased parents. Maudgalyayana discovers that his deceased mother was reborn into the preta or hungry ghost realm. She was in a wasted condition and Maudgalyayana tried to help her by giving her a bowl of rice. Unfortunately as a preta, she was unable to eat the rice as it was transformed into burning coal. Maudgalyayana then asks the Buddha to help him; whereupon Buddha explains how one is able to assist one's current parents and deceased parents in this life and in one's past seven lives by willingly offering food to the sangha or monastic community during Pravarana (the end of the monsoon season or vassa), which usually occurs on the 15th day of the seventh month. The monastic community then transfers the merits to the deceased parents and seven previous generations as well as close relatives.
The Theravadan forms of the festival in South and Southeast Asia (including Cambodia's Pchum Ben) are much older, deriving from the Petavatthu, a scripture in the Pali Canon that probably dates to the third century B.C.E. The Petavatthu account is broadly similar to that later recorded in the Yulanpen Sutra, although it concerns the disciple Sāriputta and his family rather than Moggallāna.
According to the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the fifteenth night of the seventh month. In parts of southern China the festival is held on the fourteenth night since, during the late Yuan to early Ming period, in order to escape the Yuan troops the Hakkas celebrated the Ghost Festival one day earlier. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.
In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Unlike both the Qingming Festival (or Tomb Sweeping Day, in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during the Ghost Festival the deceased are believed to visit the living.
During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow. Both Taoists and Buddhists perform rituals to transmute and absolve the suffering of the deceased.
Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn Joss paper money, also known as ghost money, and other items to please the ghosts. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife. Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck.
Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat on water to symbolicly guide the lost souls of ancestors and other ghosts back to the underworld. When the lanterns go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.
Celebrations in other parts of Asia
Singapore and Malaysia
Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. These live concerts are popularly known as Getai in Mandarin or Koh-tai in Hokkien Chinese. They are performed by groups of singers, dancers, entertainers, and opera troops or puppet shows on a temporary stage that is set up within a residential district. The shows are always put on at night and at high volume as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even burlesque shows. During these Getai the front row is left empty for the special guests—the ghosts.
Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month, known as "Ghost Month," when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held. During this month many special celebrations are held, with sacrifices and offerings laid out to feed and appease the wandering lost souls. The gates of tombs and graveyards are left open to allow the dead access to the world, and lanterns are floated in the sea to guide back the souls of those lost beneath the waves. A ceremonial dance is also performed to welcome deity Chung Kwei to awe the ghosts and keep them in order.
The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell. On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit. On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held. On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns.
In Taiwan, Ghost Month is regarded with a great deal of superstition. It is believed to be unlucky to travel, marry, or hold a funeral during this time. People wait until the ghosts depart again and return to hell.
Obon (sometimes transliterated O-bon), or simply Bon, is the Japanese version of the Ghost Festival. Obon is a shortened form of Ullambana (Japanese: 于蘭盆會 or 盂蘭盆會, urabon'e), a Sanskrit term meaning "hanging upside down," which implies great suffering. The suffering of these spirits is ameliorated through the segaki ("feeding the hungry ghosts") ritual of Japanese Buddhism. This was traditionally performed to stop the suffering of the gaki or muenbotoke (the dead who have no living relatives), ghosts tormented by insatiable hunger.
The Bon festival has since been transformed over time into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean the resting places of their ancestors.
Traditionally including a dance festival called Bon Odori, Obon has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. In modern Japan, it is held on July 15 in the eastern part (Kantō), on August 15 in the western part (Kansai), and in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it is celebrated as in China on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.
In Vietnam the Ghost Festival is known as Tết Trung Nguyên and is viewed as a time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are released from hell. The "homeless" should be "fed" and appeased with offerings of food. Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish. The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn - the month of lonely spirits, and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky.
Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan, the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.
In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother's Day. People with living mothers carry a red rose and give thanks, while those without can choose to bear a white rose and attend services to pray for the deceased.
Related Buddhist traditions in other parts of Asia
In Asian Theravada Buddhist countries, related traditions, ceremonies, and festivals also occur. Like its Ullambana Sutra-origins in Mahayana Buddhist countries, the Theravada scripture, the Petavatthu gave rise to the idea of offering food to the hungry ghosts as a form of merit-making. Similarly to the rise of the concept in Mahayana Buddhism, a version of Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother where Maudgalyayana is replaced by Sariputta is recorded in the Petavatthu. The concept of offering food to the hungry ghosts is also found in early Buddhist literature, in the Tirokudda Kanda.
In Cambodia, a fifteen-day-long annual festival known as Pchum Ben occurs generally in September or October. Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives up to seven generations. The gates of hell are believed to open during this period and many people make offerings to these hungry ghosts.
In Laos, a festival known as Boun khao padap din usually occurs in September each year and goes on for two weeks. During this period, it is believed that hungry ghosts are freed from hell and enter the world of the living. A second festival known as Boun khao salak occurs directly after the conclusion of Boun khay padab din. During this period, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts.
In Sri Lanka, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts on the seventh day, three months and one year after the death day of a deceased person. It is a ceremony conducted after death as part of traditional Sri Lankan Buddhist funeral rites and is known as mataka dānēs or matakadānaya. The offerings that are made acquire merit which are then transformed back into the equivalent goods in the world of the hungry ghosts. The ceremonial offering on the seventh day comes a day after personalized food offerings are given in the garden to the spirit of the deceased relative, which occurs on the sixth day. The deceased who do not reach the proper afterworld, the Hungry Ghost realm, are feared by the living as they are believed to cause various sicknesses and disasters to the living. Buddhist monks are called upon to perform pirit to ward off the floating spirits.
- The Buddha Speaks The Ullambana Sutras Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Rita Langer, Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins (Routledge, 2007, ISBN 0415394961).
- Shujia Zhou, 鬼月鈎沉：中元、盂、蘭餓鬼節 ("Ghost Month: Zhongyuan Hungry Ghost Festival"), (Hong Kong: Zhonghua Book Company, Ltd., 2015),
- Stepher F. Teiser, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China (Princeton University Press, 1996, ISBN 0691026777).
- Culture insider - China's ghost festival China Daily, August 8, 2014. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Chinese Ghost Festival - "the Chinese Halloween" Peoples Daily (English), October 30, 2009. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Hungry Ghost Festival VisitSingapore.com. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Hungry Ghost Festival rove.me. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Taiwan Mid-Summer Ghost Festival ChinatownConnection.com.
- K. Chen, "Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism" Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 28 (1968): 81-97.
- Jacqueline Ilyse Stone and Mariko Namba Walter, Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism (University of Hawaii Press, 2008, ISBN 0824832043).
- Shoyo Sensei’s Dharma Message: Thoughts On Obon: How Did Moggallana and Sariputta Rescue their Mothers from the Hungry Ghost Realm? Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Margaret Gouin, Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices (Routledge, 2010, ISBN 0415566363).
- John Cli Holt, Caring for the Dead Ritually in Cambodia Southeast Asian Studies 1(1) (April 2012):3–75. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Patrice Ladwig, Visitors from hell: transformative hospitality to ghosts in a Lao Buddhist festival Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18(1) (June 2012): S90–S102. Retrieved October 16, 2019.
- John S. Harding, Studying Buddhism in Practice (Routledge, 2012, ISBN 0415464862).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Gouin, Margaret. Tibetan Rituals of Death: Buddhist Funerary Practices. Routledge, 2010. ISBN 0415566363
- Harding, John S. Studying Buddhism in Practice. Routledge, 2012. ISBN 0415464862
- Langer, Rita. Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins. Routledge, 2007. ISBN 0415394961
- Stone, Jacqueline I., and Mariko N. Walter. Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press, 2008. ISBN 0824832043
- Teiser, Stepher F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton University Press, 1996. ISBN 0691026777
- Zhou, Shujia. 鬼月鈎沉：中元、盂、蘭餓鬼節 ("Ghost Month: Zhongyuan Hungry Ghost Festival"). Hong Kong: Zhonghua Book Company, Ltd., 2015.
All links retrieved October 16, 2019.
- Hungry Ghost Festival China Highlights
- Hungry Ghost Festival: Paying tribute to ancestors by burning paper CNN Travel
- Ghost Festival Religion Facts
- Hong Kong’s Hungry Ghost Festival: all you ever wanted to know South China Morning Post
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