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Hungry Ghost Festival – Taoism, Buddism, Chinese folk religion

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Tue, 05/09/2017 - 00:15 - 23:45

5th September

Hungry Ghost Festival – Taoism, Buddism, Chinese folk religion

Also called Ghost Month

Observed by - Buddhists, Taoists, Chinese folk religion believers  

Primarily in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia with related traditions and festivals observed in Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand.


The opening of the gates of Hell, permitting all ghosts to receive food and drink


Ancestor worship, offering food (to monks as well as deceased), burning joss paper, chanting of scripturesDate  

August 25

Related to 

Obon (in Japan)  

Baekjung (in Korea)  

Tết Trung Nguyên (in Vietnam)  

Pchum Ben (in Cambodia)  

Boun Khao Padap Din (in Laos)  

Mataka danes (in Sri Lanka)  

Sat Thai (in Thailand)

The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Festival or Yulan Festival (traditional Chinese: 盂蘭節) is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in Asian countries.  According to the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month (14th in southern China).  In Chinese culture, 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.  

Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.  On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and 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 veneration of the dead, 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-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors.  Elaborate meals (often vegetarian 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 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 water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities. 

Buddhists from China claim that the Ghost Festival originated with the canonical scriptures of Buddhism, but many of the visible aspects of the ceremonies originate from Chinese folk religion, and other local folk traditions (see Stephen Teiser’s 1988 book, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China).  This process of syncretism is not limited to China: the ghost festival has parallels in Theravada Buddhism, such as the Cambodian Pchum Ben festival, reflecting the same assumptions about an annual opening of the gates of hell, and with the same (ultimately canonical) role of King Yama.  In Tang-dynasty China, the Buddhist festival Ullambana (see below) and the Ghost Festival were mixed and celebrated together.  Ullambana origin [edit]

See also: Mulian Rescues His Mother  

The Buddha’s joyful day [edit]

To Mahayana 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 rejoicing 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 fifteenth 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.  Maudgalyāyana and his mother [edit] Food is offered to the ancestors during the annual Ghost Festival  

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, as the motifs “all appear in a tale that had already been translated into Chinese by the end of the fourth century”. [1]  In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Maudgalyāyana, 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.  “The tale is contained in... a canonical collection of short sutras translated into Chinese by Gautama Samghadeva between 397 and 398.  ” ]

[1] 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 Avīci, or 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 and 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.  

Maudgalyāyana eased his mother’s suffering by receiving the instructions of feeding pretas from the Buddha.  The Buddha instructed Maudgalyāyana to place pieces of food on a clean plate, reciting a mantra seven times to bless the food, snap his fingers to call out to the deceased and finally tip the food onto clean ground.  By doing so, the preta’s hunger would be relieved.  Through these merits, his mother was able to be reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family.  Maudgalyāyana then sought the Buddha’s advice to help his mother gain a human birth.  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 five hundred bhikkhus.  

Through the merits created, Maudgalyāyana’s mother finally gained a human birth.  Religious festivities [edit] A young girl performing during Ghost Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  The red seats in front are reserved for ghosts.  Chinese lotus lanterns floating in a river.  The Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar.  It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community. [2]  During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment.  These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off.  They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow.  Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper.  Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife, considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world, People burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts. [3]  Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune.  

A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and place them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck.  Lotus-shaped lanterns are lit and set afloat in rivers and out onto seas to symbolicly guide the lost souls of forgotten ancestors to the afterlife.  In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend.  The first row of seats are always empty as this is where the ghosts sit.  The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts.  Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even burlesque shows.  Traditionally Chinese opera was the main source of entertainment but the newer shows, concerts, dramas, wars and so forth are referred to as Getai. [4]  These acts are better known as “Merry-making”. [5]  

For rituals, Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets).  Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts.  Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts. [5]During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors households.  Incense stands for prosperity in Chinese culture, so families believe that there is more prosperity in burning more incense. [5]  During the festival, some shops are closed as they want to leave the streets open for the ghosts.  In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it. [5]  Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float water lanterns and set them outside their houses.  These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat.  The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back. [5]

Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia [edit]

Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia.  Those live concerts are popularly known as Getai ‘Koh-tai’ by Hokkien-speaking people.  They are performed by groups of singers, dancers and entertainers on a temporary stage that is set up within a residential district.  The festival is funded by the residents of each individual district.  During one of these ‘Getai’, it is known to be bad luck to sit on the front row of red seats, as they are there only for the Ghosts themselves.  If anyone were to sit on them, they would become sick or similarly ailed.  In Indonesia, the festival popularly known as Cioko, or Sembahyang Rebutan in Indonesian, (Scrambling prayer).  

People are gathering around temples and bringing an offering for a spirit which is die in unlucky way, after that they distributes it to the poor.  The way peoples scrambling the offerings is the origin of the festival name.  

Taiwan [edit]

Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month, when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held. [6]  The month is known as Ghost Month. [7]  The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell.  On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit.  On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held.  On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns.  Incense and food are offered to the spirits to avoid them visiting homes and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering. [8]  During the month, people avoid surgery, buying cars, swimming, moving house, wedding, whistle and going out or taking pictures after dark.  It is also important that addresses are not revealed to the ghosts.  

Japan [edit]

For an explanation of the beautifying honorific o- used in this section, see Honorific speech in Japanese § Honorific prefixes.  

Chūgen [edit]

Chūgen (中元?), also Ochūgen (お中元?), is an annual event in Japan on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, when people give gifts to their superiors and acquaintances.  Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.  One of the three days that form the sangen (三元?) of Daoism, it is sometimes considered a zassetsu, a type of seasonal day in the Japanese calendar.  Bon [edit] Japanese volunteers perform tōrō nagashi: placing candle-lit lanterns for the dead into flowing water during Obon, in this case into the Sasebo River.  Main article: Bon Festival  

See also: Segaki  

Obon (sometimes transliterated 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 the resting places of their ancestors.  Traditionally including a dance festival called Bon Odori, Obon has existed in Japan for more than 500 years.  

In modern Japan, it is held on July 15 in the eastern part (Kantō), on August 15 in the western part (Kansai), and in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it is celebrated as in China on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.  Vietnam [edit]This festival is known as Tết Trung Nguyên and is viewed as a time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are released from hell.  The “homeless” should be “fed” and appeased with offerings of food.  

Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish.  

The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn - the month of lonely spirits, and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky.  Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan,the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.  In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother’s Day.  People with living mothers would bear a red rose and would give thanks while those without can choose to bear a white rose; and attend services to pray for the deceased.  

Related traditions in other parts of Asia [edit]

In Asian Theravadin Buddhist countries, related traditions, ceremonies and festivals also occur.  Like its Ullambana Sutra-origins in Mahayana Buddhist countries, the Theravada scripture, the Petavatthu gave rise to the idea of offering food to the hungry ghosts in the Theravada tradition as a form of merit-making.  In stories published in the Petavatthu Maudgalyayana, who also plays the central role in the rise of the concept in the Mahayana tradition, along with Sariputta also play a role in the rise of the concept in the Theravada tradition. [9] [10] [11]  

Similarly to the rise of the concept in Mahayana Buddhism, a version of Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother, where Maudgalyayana is replaced by Sariputta is recorded in the Petavatthu and is in part the basis behind the practice of the concept in Theravadin societies. [12]  The concept of offering food to the hungry ghosts is also found in early Buddhist literature, in the Tirokudda Kanda. [13]Cambodia [edit]Main article: Pchum Ben  

In Cambodia, a fifteen-day-long annual festival known as Pchum Ben occurs generally in September or October.  Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives up to seven generations.  The gates of hell are believed to open during this period and many people make offerings to these hungry ghosts. [14]

Laos [edit]

In Laos, a festival known as, Boun khao padap din usually occurs in September each year and goes on for two weeks.  During this period, it is believed that hungry ghosts are freed from hell and enter the world of the living.  A second festival known as Boun khao salak occurs directly after the conclusion of Boun khay padab din.  During this period, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts. [15]

Sri Lanka [edit]

See also: Segaki  

In Sri Lanka, food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts on the seventh day, as a ceremony, after death as part of traditional Sri Lankan funeral rites and is known as mataka dānēs. [16]  This offering comes a day after personalized food offerings are given in the garden to the spirit of the deceased relative, which occurs on the sixth day. [17] [18]  The deceased who do not reach the proper afterworld, the Hungry Ghost realm, are feared by the living as they are believed to cause various sicknesses and disasters to the living.  Buddhist monks are called upon to perform pirit to ward off the floating spirits.  The rite is also practiced in Thailand and Myanmar and is also practiced during the Ghost Festival that is observed in other Asian countries. [19]

Thailand [edit]

Main article: Sat Thai  

In Thailand, a fifteen-day-long annual festival known as Sat Thai is celebrated between September and October in Thailand especially in southern Thailand, particularly in the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. [20]  Like related festivals and traditions in other parts of Asia, the deceased are believed to come back to earth for fifteen days and people make offerings to them.  The festival is known as Sat Thai to differentiate it from the Chinese Ghost Festival which is known as Sat Chin in the Thai language. [21]  


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