Do you know that the 15th night of the seventh lunar month is called Ghost Day (14th in Southern China) and that the Hungry Ghost Festival in China is celebrated on this day? The official Buddhist name is Ullambana, while in Taoism and folk belief it is called Zhōngyuán Jié (Hungry Ghost Festival).
In Chinese tradition, the 15th 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.
Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in Spring) and Chung Yeung Festival (in Autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally, the filial piety of descendants extended to their ancestors even after death. Activities during the month include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense and joss paper, as well as papier-mâché forms of material items such as clothes, gold, and other fine goods, for the visiting spirits of the ancestors.
Elaborate meals (often vegetarian) are 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 the Qingming Festival from the Ghost Festival, because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations.
Other festivities may include buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on the water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.
To Mahayana Buddhists, the seventh lunar month is a month of joy. This is because the 15th day of the seventh month is often known as the Buddha’s joyful day and is a day of rejoicing for monks.
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 (monastic Buddhist community) on the 15th day of the seventh month.
His mother had been greedy with the money he left her. He had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks who came her way, but instead, she withheld her kindness and her money. It was for this reason that she was reborn in the realm of the hungry ghosts.
The Buddha established a day after the traditional summer retreat (the 14th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, usually mid-to-late August) on which Maudgalyāyana was to offer food and robes to 500 bhikkhus (male monastic Buddhists). Through the merits created, Maudgalyāyana’s mother finally gained a human birth.
Due to Confucian influence, the offering became directed toward ancestors rather than the Sangha and ancestor worship has replaced the ritual of relieving the hunger of pretas (hungry ghosts). However, most Buddhist temples still continue the ancient practice of donating to the Sangha, as well as performing rituals for the hungry ghosts.
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