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Volume 5 no 1


Ullambana Dharma - not Festival of Hungry Ghosts
By Venerable Shen-Kai

According to a popular Chinese superstition, ghosts are released from hell in the 7th month of the Chinese calendar for a one-month break in the human world. In order to appease them, animals are slaughtered and offered to these 'hungry ghosts', together with other food. Big feasts and other festivities are held during this month and the most 'auspicious day' is the 15th day of the month. It is so widespread that this yearly affair is dubbed the Month or Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. What is this all about?

Among the chief disciples of the Buddha was one named Maudgalyayana. He had immense supernatural powers: Deva-foot ubiquity which made it possible for him to appear at any place at will, the divine sight of Deva-eye to have unlimited vision of all things, large and small, near and distant; Deva-ear to hear all sounds regardless of the distance. Furthermore, he had the ability to read and understand whatever was in a person's mind. He also had the ability to see clearly the events that occurred in a person's many past lives aeons ago. Thus, Maudgalyayana is considered to be a Maha-Bodhisattva who is foremost in supernatural powers.

One day, his Deva-eye saw that his deceased mother had transmigrated to the realm of the hungry ghost. Her stomach was enlarged and she had tiny limbs. Her throat was as small as the eye of a needle, and as a result, it was impossible for her to eat any food or even to swallow a drop of water. Maudgalyayana could not bear the sight of his mother in such an extreme state of suffering. He immediately filled his alms bowl with food and with the immense power that he possessed, he sent it to his mother. However, she could not have the food because each time it turned into charcoal before she could put it in her mouth. It hurt Maudgalyayana to see what was happening and because of his strong emotion for his mother, it hindered his ability to see the karma that she had committed in her past lives. He went to Buddha for advice. The Buddha closed his eyes and entered into pure contemplation. With great compassion and gentleness, he said: "Maudgalyayana, your mother did not believe in the retributions arising from the law of cause and effect. She committed many evil deeds. She dishonoured the Buddha and insulted the Sangha [1], had no respect for the Three Treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), was greedy, filled with hatred, ignorant and arrogant. She was a wicked person who committed many evils, and she teased others giving them no peace. Therefore, she is suffering such a bitter consequence. Even though you are her son and your filial piety touches the heavens, these are still not able to save a person who had committed such serious evil karma." On hearing this, Maudgalyayana wept in pain.

1. Sangha
The corporate assembly of at least 3 monks; in general the term has come to mean a monk, or monks.
2. Bodhi
From budh; knowledge, understanding; perfect wisdom; the illuminated or enlightened mind.

The Buddha continued to console him, "It is impossible to rely solely on your own effort to save your mother from the realm of the hungry ghost. The only way is to use the combined merits of the Sangha. The 15th day of the 7th month of each year is designated "Buddha's Joy Day". This is the last day of the Sangha's summer retreat, and because of the purity with which the Sangha observed the precepts and practised cultivation, many attain the Bodhi [2]. The merits that they accumulate are immense beyond imagination, and the Buddha is most delighted. If you make an offering to these Sangha during this time, you can liberate your deceased parents and relatives from the suffering of the three evil realms (realms of animal, hungry ghost and hell) through their immense merits. If the parents are still living, then they shall be blessed with good health, happiness and a life of abundance. This is the truly marvellous method of giving salvation to the deceased." Maudgalyayana was delighted to hear this, and carried out the Buddha's advice accordingly. Thus, on the 15th of the 7th month after the offering to the Sangha, Maudgalyayana's mother was liberated from the suffering of the realm of the hungry ghost.

To give offering to the Sangha in this way is called the 'Ullambana' method. After Maudgalyayana received the benefits from this Dharma, he was very grateful to the Buddha and praised the merits of the Three Treasures. He advised people to promote the 'Ullambana Dharma'. This day, the 15th of the 7th month, can also be considered an occasion to express our gratitude and filial piety to our parents and ancestors. Unfortunately, the passage of time saw a gradual erosion in its understanding and purpose, so much so that this special occasion is not performed in accordance to the Dharma. Today, this auspicious celebration has become a day of widespread slaughter of animals to be used as offering to the hungry ghosts. The original act of performing offerings to the Sangha has become a day for feasting and making offerings to the hungry ghosts, often referred to as 'to invite the good brothers to a feast'. These practices are not only against the compassion of the Buddha, but also a let down to Maudgalyayana who had advised the world to be filial and to perform good deeds.

When we refrain from killing and protect all lives, we actually accumulate the merit of longevity and good health. It is meaningless to kill other living beings and offer them to the ghost, because they cannot benefit from these at all. Instead, those who kill shall have to repay for their action by suffering endlessly in hell. Unless we put an end to all forms of killing, the world forever shall not have peace. If the tradition of offering to the ghosts and the deceased on this day cannot be changed, the least we could do is to replace the slaughter and offer of meat with vegetarian food, flowers or fruits. It does not matter if we are not able to make offerings to the Sangha on this day, but at least we could invite them to chant the sutra for the purpose of liberating the deceased. In this way, it benefits both the living and the deceased.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre