Ghost Festival

Ghost Festival

The Ghost Festival is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday, which is celebrated by Chinese in many countries. In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh lunar month.

In Chinese tradition, 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 the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. During the Qingming Festival the living descendants pay homage to their ancestors and on Ghost Day, the deceased visit the living.

On the thirteenth day the three realms of Heaven, Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mache form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Ghost Festival because the former includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the latter only includes older generations. Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.

The Ghost Festival shares some similarities with the predominantly Mexican observance of El Día de los Muertos. Due to theme of ghosts and spirits, the festival is sometimes also known as the Chinese Halloween, though many have debated the difference between the two.

Buddhist Ghost Festival: Ullambana

Both Chinese Buddhists and Taoists claim that the Ghost Festival originated with their religion but its roots are probably in Chinese folk religion and antedates both religions (see Stephen 1988 book, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China). In the Tang Dynasty, the Buddhist festival Ullambana and the Ghost Festival were mixed and celebrated together.

Ullambana origin

The Buddha's joyful day

To Buddhists, the seventh lunar month is a month of joy. This is because the fifteenth day of the seventh month is often known as the Buddha's joyful day and the day of rejoice for monks. The origins of the Buddha's joyful day can be found in various scriptures. When the Buddha was alive, his disciples meditated in the forests of India during the rainy season of summer. Three months later, on the fifteen day of the seventh month, they would emerge from the forests to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. In the Ullambana Sutra, the Buddha instructs his disciple Maudgalyāyana on how to obtain liberation for his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm, by making food offerings to the sangha on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. Because the number of monks who attained enlightenment during that period was high, the Buddha was very pleased.

Mahāmaudgalyāyana saves his mother from hell

The Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story that originally came from India, but later took on culturally Chinese overtones. In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Mahāmaudgalyāyana, originally a brahmin youth who later ordained, and later becoming one of the Buddha's chief disciples. Mahāmaudgalyāyana was also known for having clairvoyant powers, an uncommon trait amongst monks.

After he attained arhatship, he began to think deeply of his parents, and wondered what happened to them. He used his clairvoyance to see where they were reborn and found his father in the heavenly realms i.e the realm of the gods. However, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, known as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His mother took on the form of a hungry ghost (preta) – so called because it could not eat due to its highly thin & fragile throat in which no food could pass through, yet it was always hungry because it had a fat belly. His mother had been greedy with the money he left her. He had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks that ever came her way, but instead she withheld her kindness and her money. It was for this reason she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.

Mahāmaudgalyāyana eased his mother's suffering by receiving the instructions of feeding pretas from the Buddha. The Buddha instructed Mahāmaudgalyāyana to place pieces of food on a clean plate, reciting a mantra seven times, snap his fingers then tip the food on clean ground. By doing so, the preta's hunger was relieved and through these merits, his mother was reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family.

Mahāmaudgalyāyana also sought the Buddha's advice to help his mother gain a human birth. The Buddha established a day after the traditional summer retreat (the 15th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, usually mid-to-late August) on which Mahāmaudgalyāyana was to offer food and robes to 500 bhikkhus. Through the merits created, Mahāmaudgalyāyana's mother finally gained a human birth.

Due to Confucian influence, the offering became directed towards ancestors rather than the Sangha and ancestor worship has replaced the simple ritual of relieving the hunger of pretas. However, most Buddhist temples still continue the ancient practice of donating to the Sangha as well as to perform rituals for the hungry ghosts.

A difference between the two festivals

Chinese Buddhists often say that there is a difference between Ullambana and the traditional Chinese Zhongyuan Jie, usually saying people have mixed superstitions (such as burning joss paper items) and delusional thoughts, rather than think that Ullambana is actually a time of happiness. This time of happiness is sometimes used as a reason for the festival to be called as the Chinese Halloween.

Japan: Chūgen

Chūgen (中元), also Ochūgen (お中元), is an annual event in Japan on July 15th when people give gifts to one's superiors and acquaintances. One of the three days that form the of Daoism, it is sometimes considered a Zassetsu in the Japanese calendar. Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.

O-bon

O-bon, or simply Bon, is the Japanese version of the Ghost Festival. It 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 their ancestors' graves.

Traditionally including a dance festival, it has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. It is held from 13th of July to the 16th ("Welcoming Obon" and "Farewell Obon" respectively) in the eastern part of Japan (Kantō), and in August in the western part (Kansai).

Vietnam: "Tết Trung Nguyên"

This festival is the chance for pardoning guilty ghosts which are homeless and not be taken care of. People worship ghosts and liberate animals, such as birds or fish.

Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday is also the Vu Lan festival,the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana. The festival is also considered Mother's Day. People with living mothers would be thankful, while people with dead mothers would pray for their souls.

See also

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