Ellen Lloyd - AncientPages.com - In many Asian countries, people celebrate the Hungry Ghost festival in August. It’s an ancient tradition and a time when people make offerings of food, money and entertainment to wandering spirits, but what is the true meaning behind this very old festival?
Hungry Ghost festival celebrated in China. Image Source
Just like we in the Western world celebrate Halloween and All Souls Day, people in Asia honor their deceased loved ones through the Hungry Ghost festival. The traditions and customs vary from country to country, but it’s a time for worshiping ancestors.
August Is The Ghost Month
According to ancient Chinese folklore, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day. The seventh month is the Ghost Month. During this time, ghosts and spirits of deceased ancestors, leave the realms of Heaven and Hell enter the realm of the living.
The ghost month is a sacred period and the spirits must be treated with proper respect. For example, when a family is going to have dinner or supper, empty seats must be reserved for the deceased family members. One must treat the ghosts and spirits of our loved ones as if they are still living.
Food is offered to the ancestors during the annual Hungry Ghost festival prayers. Credit: Public Domain
There are also many things that are prohibited during the ghost month. One should not wear clothes with one’s name, not path other people on the shoulder. Whistling is also unwise and children and senior citizens should not go out at night.
In ancient China people believed that gods and ghosts. “Legend has it that anyone who dies normally could reincarnate while those who are guilty or die accidentally would become ghosts wandering in the mortal world. Some evil spirits even seize the opportunity to disturb the living souls, causing their death in disasters and accidents. As a result, people who die unexpectedly during this period are regarded "have been taken away by ghosts".” 1
How And When Did The Hungry Ghost Festival Begin?
The origin of the Hungry Ghost festival has been debated.
“Some researchers have traced the origin of the Festival to India and its historical connection with the filial piety of Confucianism, as well as the traditions of Buddhism and Daoism. Historically, the Hungry Ghost Festival originated from Buddhism in India.” 2
In China the festival is called Yulanpen. A popular Chinese Buddhist tale originating in the third century C.E. retells how Mulian, a virtuous monk, seeks the help of the Buddha to rescue his mother from hell by performing a chanting ritual.
“The festival has been held since 538 AD with Buddhist rituals established by Emperor Liangwudi in commemoration of ancestors. In other words, filial piety in Confucianism has been upheld through the ritual practices of the aristocracy at the Hungry Ghosts Festival.
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Emperor in subsequent dynasties also followed these practices. Since the Tang and Song dynasties (618 – 1279 AD), the story of how Mulian saved his mother has been further popularized through performances in local operas. From the Song dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) onwards Daoist rituals have also been incorporated into the Hungry Ghosts Festival.
The festival subsequently gained popularity among the commoners who were Daoist worshippers. The meaning of the festival has been expanded from venerating ancestors to commemorating those who lost their innocent lives to misfortune.
Meanwhile, people invented practices where small boats with lit candles were released into the river, and the ships would supposedly float to the “River of Hell” – a place where all spirits of the dead rest. Apparently, these candles would illuminate the darkness of the river, therefore leading the spirits with this light, expiating the sins of the dead, and realizing their souls from purgatory.” 2
People in Japan share similar beliefs which is why during the Hina Nagashi (doll floating) ceremony, an ancient Shinto ritual you can see thousands of beautiful dolls of all shapes and sizes, dressed in scarlet and yellow kimono, sitting in boats and drifting out into the ocean.
According to ancient Japanese beliefs, misfortunes can be transferred to a doll. If the doll is then set afloat down a river or ocean, it takes all troubles and bad spirits with it.
Buddhists believe in reincarnation, but before a person is reborn it can take a very long time. According to Chinese beliefs there is no way to avoid going to Diyu, the Chinese version of hell.
Everyone who dies must end up in Diyu, but the length of the visit depends on the severity of the sins one committed. Once punishment has been served, reincarnation takes place and one is free to begin a new life in a new physical body or form. It is God Yama who decides when the being’s soul passes from one stage to another.
Many people in China believe that one can help spirits escaping hell earlier by holding sacrifice ceremonies. By doing so, one can avoid being harassed by these spirits that are lost. There are various ceremonies, but it’s common to offer prayers, food, drink, burn hell bank notes and joss paper, also known as ghost or spirit money.
Ghosts, Spirits And Karma In Buddhist Beliefs
Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. Bad and good karma depends on us and we are architects of our own fate. Buddhists believe that our good and bad deeds that directly create our future experiences.
Reincarnation can be a very long process and before a person can be re-born, he or she must be judged by God Yama according to the deeds committed in the last life.
The definition of ghosts and spirits is interesting and vary slightly between the local cosmologies of the Buddhists countries in Asia.
Hungry Ghost festival celebrated in Hong Kong. Image source
“In the case of the Lao Buddhism, ghosts do not inhabit a realm purely “beyond” and inaccessible through a sort of metaphysical wall, but they are entities that ca be ritually addressed.” 3
Some scholars argue that “the ghost is not simply dead or a missing person, but a social figure, and consequently, one’s own karma is not always the last word and interactions with the living can establish new relationship with ghosts.
The latter are most clearly reflected in Buddhist rituals that aim at caring for ghosts and supporting their reintegration back into the cycle of rebirth.3
The Hungry Ghost festival has a much deeper meaning than showing respect for the deceased. It’s also celebrated to help ghosts to be released and enter the world of the living as part of the reincarnation process.
Written by Ellen Lloyd – AncientPages.com
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Expand for references
- Your Chinese Astrology
- Chan, Selina Ching. "Heritagizing the Chaozhou Hungry Ghosts Festival in Hong Kong." In Chinese Heritage in the Making: Experiences, Negotiations and Contestations, edited by Maags Christina and Svensson Marina, 145-68. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi:10.2307/j.ctt2204rz8.9.
- Ladwig, Patrice. "Visitors from Hell: Transformative Hospitality to Ghosts in a Lao Buddhist Festival." The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute18 (2012): S90-102.