May 21, 2014

The Zhongyuan Festival observed by Taoists and Ullambana Festival celebrated by Buddhists fall on July 15 of the lunar calendar.

Since ancient times, the Chinese have believed that the gates of hell open between the first and 30th day of the seventh lunar month. During this period, hungry ghosts are allowed to wander earth looking for food.

The Zhongyuan Festival is one of three traditional festivals in China that honor the departed spirits of ancestors. It is also a festival to pray for safety and show filial piety to parents. The other two festivals are the Qingming Festival and the Chung Yeung Festival. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and the Chung Yeung Festival (in autumn), in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during the Zhongyuan Festival the deceased are believed to visit the living.

The festival is also called the Hungry Ghost Festival. Some feel that the term “hungry” is inappropriate as it shows disrespect to our ancestors and that it should simply be called the Ghost Festival or better still, the Happy Ghost Festival.

Zhongyuan Festival of Taoism

Taoist doctrine holds that the three basic elements that generate everything in the universe are heaven, earth and water, namely sanyuan or “three elements. The official of heaven, Lord Ziwei, brings blessings. He was born on January 15, which is the start of the Shangyuan Festival (Lantern Festival). The official of earth, Lord Qingxu, absolves sins. He was born on July 15, which is the start of the Zhongyuan Festival. The official of water, Lord Dongyin, dispels disasters. He was born on October 15, which is the start of the Xiayuan Festival. The most popular lantern festival is the Shangyuan Festival, or Shangyuan Lantern Festival. During these three festivals, the three officials descend to earth and execute their duties. They are omnipotent. The official of earth, Lord Qingxu, releases the deceased from suffering during the Zhongyuan Festival. Those who have committed sins can also pray for absolution. During the Zhongyuan Festival, a Taoist sacrificial ceremony, commonly called a Taoist rite, is held in Taoist temples to pray for blessings for commoners.

Ullambana Festival of Buddhism

July 15 of the lunar calendar is known as the Ullambana Festival among Buddhists. The word Ullambana is a transliteration of Sanskrit. Ullam means hanging by the feet, which refers to being in a bad situation; while bana is the vessel used to hold offerings. Buddhist doctrine believes that offering articles can rescue deceased parents or relatives from bad situations. For Buddhism in Han Chinese areas, the Buddhist ritual held annually on July 15 seeks to release souls of departed ancestors from purgatory. The Ullambana Sutra is also called the Ullambana Ceremony, Ullambana Fast and Ullambana Offering.The Ullambana Festival of Buddhism has two purposes. One is to persuade people to provide for Buddhist monks. The other is to inculcate people to do more charitable deeds so as to release departed souls from sin and advocate filial piety.

Folk customs of the Zhongyuan Festival

• Floating water lantern

Among the various folk customs of the Zhongyuan Festival, the floating water lantern is the grandest. The water lantern, also called lotus lantern, is usually made by pasting paper into a lotus shape. Then a lamp or candle is placed inside. On the night of the Zhongyuan Festival, lanterns are released into rivers or lakes.

• Burning envelope

It is said in folklore that departed ancestors will be released by Yama for half a month. As a result, there is a custom to welcome ancestors at the beginning of July and send them off on July 15. When sending off the spirits, people will burn a lot of paper money so ancestors can spend it in the nether world. They will also insert some paper money into an envelope on which the user's name has been written. The envelope will be burnt for sacrifice. This tradition is called burning envelope.

• Sending goat

A popular folk custom during the festival requires that a grandfather or uncle on the mother's side send a live goat to his grandson or nephew. Legend has it that the custom has something to do with the myth of Chenxiang Saving His Mother from the Mountain. The custom has gradually evolved into sending a pair of flour goats.

Taboos of the Zhongyuan Festival

• Never refer to ghosts as ghosts, but as buddies or brothers. This is supposed to appease them. Calling them “kui” is deemed crude, just like calling disabled people handicapped or crippled.

• Be home before dusk. Night time is for ghosts. They roam the neighborhood, looking for offerings of prayers, wine and food left on the roadside. They roam because they do not have a family to go back to for such offerings. Like they say, a hungry man is an angry man. Likewise, it is not a good idea to bump into a hungry ghost.

• Do not step on prayer items and food. Ghosts unseen could be feasting there and a misstep on their victuals could incur their wrath. How would you feel if someone were to step on your food while you were eating? Also, under no circumstances should you touch tributes!

• If you hear your name being called in the middle of the night, never turn back to look or acknowledge the voice. Just pretend that you did not hear it. It could be a ghost trying to take your soul.

• Do not dry your clothes at night. Dry clothes are likely to attract drifting items, so they may also attract ghosts. In addition, hanging clothes can seem like a trap to catch ghosts, so it won't be a surprise if they come after you.

• Do not swim in dangerous waters. It is said that water ghosts will find people to replace them so that they can be reincarnated.

The legend of Mulian Saves His Mother

The Ullambana Fast is related to the legend of Mulian Saves His Mother.

It is said that after going through innumerable trials and hardships in the nether world, Mulian finally saw his mother, only to find her tortured by a group of hungry ghosts. Mulian wanted to send his mother rice and dishes with an earthen bowl, but the food was snatched by hungry ghosts. Mulian had no choice but to ask Buddha for help. Moved by his filial piety, Buddha presented Mulian with the Ullambana Sutra and told him to have an Ullambana Fast on July 15 of the lunar calendar. On that day, food of various kinds as well as five fruits -- peaches, plums, apricots, chestnuts and dates -- should be provided to all Buddhist monks. Under the instruction of the Ullambana Sutra, Mulian filled the Ullambana vessel with fruits and vegetarian food to offer sacrifice to his mother on July 15. His starving mother finally got the food. To show his gratitude to the Buddha, Mulian held an almsgiving activity every year to release the hungry ghosts from the disaster of being hanged by their feet.

The day has become a festival to honor departed ancestors, relatives and friends. Every theater in old Beijing will stage a Beijing opera version of Mulian Saves His Mother for several consecutive days to celebrate the occasion.


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