The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Chinese Ghost Month
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Occurring during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, Chinese Ghost Month is recognized by Chinese around the world. It is believed by the Chinese that spirits of the dead are released from lower-realms of existence during this time in order to return to earth.
Lanterns are hung in Chinese homes to guide the ghosts, especially those of deceased ancestors. Lavish food offerings are made to the ghosts on the first day of the month (new moon) and 15th day of the month (full moon). The 15th day is Ghost Festival, a time of special ceremonies for the dead.
Ghost Month 2009:
Begins: evening of August 20 (new moon)
Ends: evening of September 18 (new moon)
Spirits of deceased ancestors are specially honored at this time. Incense is burned, prayers are made, and gifts of food and “fine wares” are offered (paper Mache’ replicas of things such as clothing and gold) to give them comfort and sustenance in the afterlife.
But Ghost Month is largely a time of fear and great caution - wandering ghosts must be appeased or they will bring bad luck and misfortune. These ghosts are believed to be the spirits of those with no relatives to venerate them after their death or those who had a bad death or did not receive a proper burial.
Unknown wandering ghosts (also called “good brothers”) may be entertained by performers to keep them happy - because angry ghosts attack the living to get attention and get their needs met. Paper “money” is burned in tribute to ghosts. In return for honor and tribute paid, blessings may be asked of them.
Because of fear of ghosts, many activities are curtailed during Ghost Month. Whistling is avoided as it will draw ghosts to one’s home. Events such as traveling, moving to a new home, medical procedures, or weddings are scheduled for other months; special plans and business deals are avoided at this time. Ghosts are believed to inhabit water, so most people refuse to swim or walk near riverbanks during Ghost Month - and paper money is thrown out to the ghosts when crossing over a river in a vehicle.
The whole month is risky and especially the 15th day - many people just stay at home on that day in order to avoid an encounter with a ghost. At the end of Ghost Month (the time of the new moon), paper boats with lanterns are placed outside the home or in rivers in order to guide the ghosts back to the underworld.
Ghost Month is sometimes called Hungry Ghost Month, in reference to the Buddhist concept of the hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts are believed to be those who in their former lives were given to jealousy or greed - and have, therefore, been reborn into one of the lower of The Six Realms of Buddhism. These creatures have voracious appetites, but are able to eat little or nothing.
Both Buddhists and Daoists participate in Ghost Month - and both claim the origination of the Ghost Festival from within their own religion. But it is likely that this tradition came from within Chinese folk religion, following from the Chinese practice of ancestor worship.
Buddhist Monks and Daoist priests perform rituals and make prayers for the benefit of the ghosts and for relief of their Suffering. This is a source of income for them, as families of the deceased pay for the ceremonies to be performed.
Buddhists call the seventh month a month of joy because the 15th day is referred to as “Buddha’s Joyful Day.” It was a joyful day because after meditating in the forests of India for the summer months, Buddha’s disciples would come out to report their progress to The Buddha on that day.
The Ullambana Sutra (a Buddhist scripture) reveals additional significance for this day. It tells of The Buddha’s instruction to a disciple in how to set his mother free from the lower realm into which she had been reborn. Food offerings to the Buddhist monks made on the 15th day of the seventh month would suffice to bring freedom to his mother.
Vietnam: The Vietnamese similarly view this festival as a time when spirits are pardoned and released from hell. Appeasement is made to homeless spirits through the offering of food. This festival occurs at the same time as the Buddhist Vu Lan (from Ullambana). Vu Lan has become a time to honor and thank living mothers; those without living mothers attend services to pray for the dead.
Japan: Japanese Buddhists celebrate a similar festival called O-bon or Bon (from Ullambana), the Day of the Dead. Over the centuries, this celebration has evolved into a time of family reunions when those who live in the cities return to the towns of their ancestors to visit and clean family graves.
Cut off from the mainland since 1949, Taiwan gives the clearest picture of what Chinese spirituality was like before the rise of a Communist government zealous to remove religion and superstition. Ghost Month is a major spiritual event for the Taiwanese. Up to 90% of the population of Taiwan believes in ghosts, and dealing with ghosts is big business there: experts in the afterlife advise distressed clients on appeasing angry ancestors; haunted houses and “ghost-busting” are popular themes on late-night television. Ghost-busting in Taiwan isn’t comedy - it is serious business.
Taiwanese do their best to protect themselves from ghost-encounters, avoiding mountains and swimming at night or wearing a temple talisman with a protective prayer. But some still report harassment by ghosts. One woman tells of the ghost of her mother who visits her in the middle of the night asking for money. A teenager tells of a ghost who slept on him so that he couldn’t move - he now keeps his windows and doors shut year-round to lock out the ghosts.
Fear of ghosts pervades all of Taiwanese life, including business, criminal justice, military, and politics. False hope is given by parapsychologists and religious experts, who describe procedures for freeing deceased parents from the lower-realms or who tell of their Rebirth into a good life.
Trends for the Future:
Taiwan: Globalization, education, and modern technology have caused some erosion in traditional Chinese religion - but Taiwanese belief in the ghost world has seen no such decline. In fact, many Taiwanese youth are becoming disillusioned with modern materialism and are returning to traditional spiritual beliefs.
China: Not only are the Taiwanese holding onto traditional Chinese religion, they are now taking it back to the mainland! Day seven of OMF International’s China prayer guide (see below to order) addresses Buddhism, Daoism, and Folk Religion. It tells of Taiwanese and Hong Kong business people re-importing Chinese Buddhism into China by rebuilding ancestral shrines and funding the construction of new temples.
A Taiwanese believer living in the U.S. reports that Chinese Ghost Month is a big issue in Taiwan. But for his parents in Taiwan, who have become Christians, Ghost Month is no longer an issue - they have no fear of ghosts because of their faith in Christ! Christ alone is the hope for those caught in fear and superstition.
- · Pray that the Good News of salvation and freedom in Christ would be made known to Chinese people living in bondage to deceiving spirits.
- · Pray that foreign workers and Chinese believers would take opportunity this month to reach out to unbelievers who live in fear.
- · Pray that hearts would be opened to the truth of the gospel because of fear of ghosts. What the enemy intends for evil, may God use for good!
- David K. Jordan, Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors: Folk Religion in a Taiwanese Village, Third Edition (San Diego CA: Department of Anthropology, UCSD, 1999). Published as an online book.
- Mark Magnier, " Afraid to Give Up Ghosts ." Los Angeles Times, July 18, 2006.· Personal reports from OMF missionaries to Taiwan and a Taiwanese convert from Chinese religion to Christianity