When people think about the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, they think of hot summers, spoiled food, random bad joo-joo happening, like a one month extension of friday the 13th, or something like from the 2014 Malaysian Film The Transcends:
The folk story of it is that the doors to the afterworld and spirits that have been on their best behavior are allowed to take a one month vacation. During this time devotees would display offerings and burn paper necessities in order to make the spirits feel welcome. There was even a scene on Home Improvement where Wilson was burning fresh herbs on the BBQ grill for the hungry ghosts. The humans, on the other hand, try to avoid doing things like moving, getting married, opening businesses, etc. so that they don’t risk themselves clashing into any negative energy from these vacationing spirits.
What’s the Buddhist version? Well, if you saw my last post on Supporting the Sangha you would have seen the Ullumbana Sutra which talks about how the tradition of offering meals and other means of support to the monastic sangha was more heavily promoted after the incident of Maudgalyāyana trying to feed his mother but the food turned into burning coal because of karmic reasons. That was one version of the story that puts a spotlight on the seventh lunar month–another is when Ananda was
meditating in the forest when in the middle of the night, he saw and heard a hungry ghost tell him that he too will become a hungry ghost in three days unless he can offer dana in the form of food to the numberless hungry ghost beings, bhramin beings, etc. and make offerings to the Triple Gem on their behalf. Of course poor Ananda sort of freaked out and went to the Buddha for advice. The Buddha took this opportunity to teach the practice of bestowing food to preta beings. For those that like to look in the Buddhist canon the reference is T.21#1313.
What does this have to do with Ullumbana again? Well, it is the linking of concepts of bestowing food to lower-leveled beings–Maudgalyayana offered food to his deceased mother whom was suffering in the hell realms and made offerings to the monastic sangha in dedication of his mother and the previous seven generations of parents, Ananda was advised to bestow food to preta beings and make offerings to the triple gem on the preta beings’ behalf. Get it? If not, you can look at the opera version of the story here:
So about the 7th lunar month–the version I’ve found myself leaning towards to is this specific lunar month is a month full of auspiciousness, remembrance, merit, and joy where the merit from one’s positive actions can be multipled at least a million-fold, not necessarily a month of bad luck and bad joo-joo where one should just hide under the sheets and tremble for thirty days. Apparently, Emperor Chu Yuanzhang of the Ming wanted to keep the benefits of this occassion all to himself and spread rumors to the public that the month is a terrible month and to not do anything but hide under the sheets for thirty days. The Daoist community at the time even played along and performed rituals to purge ghosts and purify anything that would attrack wandering ghosts and the like. How much of this is historically true I don’t know, but if it were true, it’s very facepalm worthy.
So what goes on in the Buddhist SGV around this time? Many liberation chanting and repentance rituals are held. The Japanese community had their Obon Dori festivals where everyone danced in honor and joy of their ancestors, the Vietnamese community had the red and white rose ceremonies in rememberance of their mothers, and the Chinese community uses this opportunity to honor and remember their ancestors and loved onces by reciting and reflecting on texts that revolve around repentance, compassion, liberation, and practice.
Most temples concluce their ceremonies with large scaled offerings and a ritual to offer food to the preta beings. Some more elegant than others but serve the exact same purpose.
Most temples hold their ceremonies any where from half a day to a week, but at Quan Yum Temple in Chinatown Los Angeles they held their event for a full 15 days–a tradition that has been maintained for more than thirty years. Lunch would be offered to participants daily throughout the event, chanting and recitation content included the Lotus Sutra, Ksitigarbha Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Samadhi Water Repentance, Emperor Liang Repentance, etc etc. I was there for the event which was why it took me so long to make this post. It was physically straining but the feeling you get at the close of the ceremony is that it’s all worth it, for the benefit of all seen and unseen beings.
Some other temples are holding their ceremonies later, or have spread out their cultivations for this occassion throughout the month and make a large dedication of merit at the end of the month, which happens to be the Birth of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva. I’ve written older posts about these birthdays so I won’t repeat myself again here.
This holiday is of great importance for me for a few reasons–besides the benefits I mentioned just now, it’s the anniversary of when I first took refuge in my first teacher. Twenty plus years in the making now, I have nothing but deep gratitude for all the causes and conditions that made me possible, and because of that, Ullumbana means that much more to me, and I hope you get the chance to experience it for yourself as well.