Hungry Ghost Festival: Also known as Vu Lan, Ullambana, Chugen or Obon

Lit stages, several levels, at nighttime in Taiwan

Cities light up for the (Hungry) Ghost Festival; pictured, a building in Taiwan. Photo by Wm Jas, courtesy of Flickr

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10: A fresh season, autumn harvest and hope for rebirth among ancestors—all of these themes culminate in the (Hungry) Ghost Festival. (Alternatively, the Ghost Festival is Vu Lan in Vietnam; Ullambana in Buddhism; Chugen, or Obon in Japan; and in Taiwan it is known, simply, as Ghost Month. Wikipedia has details.)

Scholars cannot identify a single, clear origin of the festival. Some point to Buddhist and Taoist texts; others point to stories in Chinese folklore—many of which are strikingly similar. In some regions, the traditions of these are mixed and the festivals celebrated together. Activities are most auspicious on the 15th day of the lunar month, but in many places, the Ghost Festival lasts an entire month.

Why the 15th day of the seventh lunar month? Following the three-month rains retreat, which had just recently ended, traditional stories say that monks greeted the Buddha. Most often, these stories indicate, this took place on, or around, the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. The monks had newfound understanding, learned from the deep meditation of the past few months. Buddha was extremely pleased with the number of monks that attained enlightenment during this time.

Among Buddhists, and in several other Asian cultures, the seventh lunar month is unique: The gates into the afterlife are opened, and ghosts are free to roam the earth. Buddhist monks and devotees pray for deceased parents of seven generations past. Honor is shown to parents as altars are prepared, extra food is set on the table and symbolic joss paper is shaped into auspicious objects and burned as offering. Participants hope to assist spirits in their journey to the next world. (Read more here.) Also on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month—translated into the Gregorian calendar, that is today, this year—services are held to pray for those who died suddenly or unexpectedly, in the understanding that their souls could not have adequately passed into the afterlife as a result.

ULLAMBANA: A BUDDHIST TALE

Buddhist tradition tells of an accomplished disciple of Buddha who began searching for the spirit of his deceased mother. Seeing that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, he desired to help her. The Buddha instructed the monk to make elaborate offerings to the Buddha and Sangha on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, and that by the virtue of the Sangha, his mother’s soul would be spared. The monk followed the Buddha’s instructions, and saw his mother saved. (Read the Ullambana Sutra here.)

The festival comes to a close with a beautiful lantern ceremony, when people float their lanterns on nearby bodies of water, hoping to direct the ghosts back to the realm of the dead.