The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Festival of the Hungry Ghost
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The Chinese celebrate two festivals of the dead: The first takes place in the spring and is called Ching Ming - a day for reflection and rememberance of the recent and still-remembered but ancestrally departed. The second - and darker of the two festivals - is called Da Jui by the Chinese and Urabon or Obon by the Japanese. In its native country of India, the Sanskrit word for this event is Ullambana literally translating to "Hanging upside down" - referring to the fact that this would cause anyone great discomfort. A more semantic translation is "The Festival of Deliverance". It also coincides with the Taoists' Chung Yuan or Ghost Festival. Those who celebrate it believe that on this day, the ruler of the Earthly kingdom forgives all the sins of mankind.
The story begins with Moggallana - a disciple of Sakyamuni - who through his supernatural powers was able to look into Hades where he discovered his mother writhing in eternal agony. She had become a Hungry Ghost and cast into hell - forever craving food but unable to consume it.
Moggallana descended into Hell and upon seeing his mother in pain, he was overcome with pity. His attempts to feed her were vain for no sooner the food touched her mouth, it would erupt into flames and turn to smoldering ashes. Moggallana's sympathy for his mother compelled him to ask Buddha what he needed to do in order to release his mother from her accursed bindings. Buddha said to him that her sins were too much for one man to atone; he must seek out the help of ten priests. Through the collective prayer of the 10 priests, Moggallana was able to liberate his mother. Thus Ullambana is a celebration of the deceased (the hungry ghosts), but also reasserts the value of filial allegiance.
During this seventh month the ghosts of the dead are released from hell and allowed to walk among the living. Most are benign but others are malicious and seek to harm the living. These are the vengeful ghosts of people who have no living relatives to offer food or pray on their behalf; ghosts of people who die tragically in car accidents, by drowning or suicide. Their souls unfulfilled, they seek others to take their place in Hell. People try to be more cautious during this month, especially on the 15th day when it's advisable to stay indoors. Especially dangerous are riverbanks where a malevolent spirit might easily snatch the soul of an unwary passerby. Ghosts are most active by night: Sometimes invisible, sometimes gossamer and wispy apparitions. Often they will also manifest as animals to go about their business undetected - a snake slithering quietly, a moth hovering silently around a flame... birds, foxes, wolves and tigers watching from the shadows. Other times, they will appear as men and women, just as they did in life. But those keen of eye will notice that the feet of a Chinese ghost never touch the ground. They have been known to enter the body of the living and cause disease and mental disorders.
To placate these angry spirits, offerings of fruit, moon-cakes and joss sticks (incense) are made outside the house. Where the water meets land, paper lanterns are lit and set adrift to lead the evil ghosts to think those the hearths houses and away from homes and people. Fake money called "Hell Money" is burnt to 'buy' off the ghost's sympathy. Paper houses, cars, planes and other effigies are burned on behalf of those departed. Large feasts are prepared at temples and operas play while the spirits 'dine' on their offerings. In some places, salvation poles are laid down to guide the spirits of the dead and concentrate them where they will do the least harm. The taller the structure the more likely to catch the attention of the ghosts. Salvation lanterns are also placed outside dwellings and entrances to the village. These are lit at midnight and extinguished the next morning throughout the celebration. Often one will find an inscription inside: "Let Light Illuminate The Underworld".
On the last day of the 7th month, a Taoist priest recites the liturgy while holding a "Seven Star Sword" to let the ghosts know that it's time to return to the underworld. When the gates of hell are closed, the priest cups his ears to avoid the deafening lamenting cries of the ghosts returning to the darkness.