It is an age-old Chinese tradition that prevails through time but does everyone remember the origin and purpose behind the Ghost Festival?
Legend has it that there is a gateway between the realms of the living and the dead. During the 7th lunar month, spirits from the netherworld will be freed to roam on Earth. Thus, the 7th lunar month is commonly known as the Ghost Month. You might be aware that the Ghost Festival falls on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month but do you know it is one of the three major festivals that are associated with the non-livings?
The other two are namely, the Qing Ming Festival and Han Yi Festival (1st day of 10 lunar month). Nonetheless, the Ghost Festival tends to create greater fanfare with its various rituals in Singapore and can be deemed to be more popular as compared to the Qing Ming and Han Yi festivals. When one thinks of the Ghost Festival, images of praying at void decks, buckets of food offerings, and Ge Tai (performances meant for the dead) are easily conjured.
Further to that, different religious groups such as the Taoists and Buddhists actually have different terms for the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Taoist termed it “Zhong Yuan” while the Buddhists celebrate the occasion as “Ullambana”. Do you know the difference between the two and how they relate to the Ghost Festival?
Zhong Yuan Festival
Since ancient times, the 15th day of the 1st, 7th, and 10th lunar months are respectively known as Shang Yuan, Zhong Yuan, and Xia Yuan. Taoists believe that these three dates are governed by deities collectively known as the Three Officials. It is said that the Heavenly Official bestows fortune upon people on Shang Yuan; the Earth Official pardons the misdeeds of both the living and the dead during Zhong Yuan; while the Water Official alleviates suffering on the Xia Yuan. Zhong Yuan tends to be a more common term in Singapore. Nonetheless, the story of “Mulian Rescues His Mother” (below) which is related to Ullambana is just as well-known.
The Story of Mulian Rescues His Mother
Mulian is a disciple of Buddha. His mother was suffering in hell as a hungry ghost after her demise, due to bad deeds that she has committed when she was alive. Using his ability as a medium, Mulian was able to see his mother in the netherworld. However, he was saddened to find his mother starving and suffering in hell. He could not do anything to save her from hell, thus he sought help from Buddha and learned that he needs the assistance of more arhats, in order to save his mother from her plight. Mulian followed the Buddha's instructions, preparing a hundred dishes of food on the 15th day of 7th lunar month for the community of monks. The monks, in turn, commenced praying, entered into meditation, and then received the offerings. Every year during the 7th lunar month, Mulian offer the monks pails of food. Eventually, his mother was saved.
With reference to the above story of “Mulian Rescues His Mother”, the "Ullambana Sutra" inspired the Ullambana festival. "Ullambana" is also a Sanskrit term which means "hanging upside down", implying suffering. Thus, Buddhists deem this to be the day for helping those beings who are suffering so that they can obtain liberation.
Reacquainting with the Ghost Festival
Be it the Ullambana festival that instills the teachings of filial piety and kindness or Zhong Yuan festival that emphasises on forgiveness, the purpose of the Ghost Festival actually promotes the cultivation of good virtues.
As the 7th lunar month approaches, perhaps we should keep in mind the true meaning of the Zhong Yuan and Ullambana rather than to think of it as an eerie Ghost Month.