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

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.


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.

Obon: Japanese communities dance, feast and welcome ancestors’ spirits

SUNDAY, JULY 13: Halloween in July? Americans may find many similar elements in the Japanese festival of Obon. Summer brings the month-long festival of the dead across Japan and in Japanese communities worldwide, for the beloved season known as Obon.

Obon—also known as Bon—has been observed in Japan for more than 500 years, derived from a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the spirits of one’s ancestors. The Buddhist-Confucian holiday has now become popular for family reunions, visiting and cleaning ancestors’ graves, and inviting ancestors into the home. Most regions vary in their unique Bon-Odori dance, however: the traditional dance of Obon, born from the story of a Buddhist monk, often incorporates movements meant to imitate a region’s customs, traditions and people. (Get a participant’s perspective on Obon dancing in this article, from Huffington Post. Or, view a schedule of Bon dances and practices at

The festival of Obon lasts just three days—but the starting date for this festival varies widely around the world. Often, this is referred to as The Obon Season to accommodate all of the regional diversity. When Japan began using the Gregorian calendar instead of the lunar calendar, the localities of Japan interpreted the date of Obon differently. Today, eastern Japan—including Tokyo—celebrates Obon in mid-July; other regions of Japan observe Hachigatsu Bon, or Bon in August; still others mark Kyu Bon, or Old Bon, which falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and so varies each year.

No matter the locality, light, cotton kimonos—usually in white or pastel palettes—can be spotted at almost every Obon festival. Carnivals, rides and games are popular, as is Japanese food—most commonly, sushi, rice, teriyaki chicken and sweets. (This article, from LA Weekly, reviews Obon festivals from a foodie POV.)

The festival ends with Toro Nagashi, the floating of lanterns. Paper lanterns are floated down rivers and other bodies of water, signaling the ancestors’ spirits to return to the world of the dead. Fireworks ensue. (Make your own lantern with instructions from this photographic tutorial.)

AND THE BUDDHIST MONK                          

The origins of Obon are with Ullambana (Sanskrit for “hanging upside down”). When a disciple of Buddha used his supernatural powers to look upon his deceased mother, he saw that she had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering greatly. (Wikipedia has details.) The monk approached Buddha, asking how he could free his mother, and was instructed to make offerings to Buddhist monks. The disciple obeyed, saw his mother’s release, and danced for joy. This joyful dance was the first Bon Odori. (Learn more from the Shingon Buddhist International Institute.)

Obon 2014: The peak travel season for Obon 2014 is expected to take place between August 9 and August 17.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Obon: Buddhists, Japanese culture embrace ancestors and Bon dances

MONDAY, JULY 15-SUNDAY, AUGUST 18: It’s Obon season! From China to Japan to Hawai’i and in Buddhist communities worldwide, temples are adorned with hundreds of paper lanterns; devotees honor the spirits of deceased ancestors; the Bon-Odori dance invites participants of every age; flavorful chicken teriyaki, steaming bowls of udon and juicy watermelon slices are the common fare.

The festival of Obon lasts just three days, but when the lunar calendar was changed to the Gregorian at the beginning of the Meiji area, localities reacted differently—and now, different regions mark Obon at widely varying times between mid-July and mid-August. (Wikipedia has details.)

Obon is a shortened version of the term Ullambana, which, in Buddhism, indicates great suffering. By praying for ancestors’ spirits, it’s believed that their suffering can be lessened; the Bon-Odori dance is a joyful recognition of the alleviation of suffering.


Japanese culture has embraced Obon for more than 500 years, but the story of Bon Odori begins much earlier, with a disciple of Buddha. According to legend, this disciple possessed supernatural powers that he used to look upon his deceased mother. The disciple saw that his mother had fallen into the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, and was suffering there. Deeply bothered, the disciple approached Buddha and asked how he might free his mother’s soul from the realm. Buddha instructed the monk to make offerings to Buddhist monks who had just completed their summer retreat, and when the monk did this, he saw his mother’s release. In joy, he also began to see his mother’s past unselfishness and the numerous sacrifices she had made for him. Now overjoyed, the monk danced the first “Bon Odori” dance. (The Shingon Buddhist International Institute has more.) Centuries later, adherents continue to recognize the sacrifices and goodness of their ancestors during the festival of Obon.


Legend has it that the monk of Bon Odori called upon Buddha in the seventh lunar month, and as such, Obon has always been a summer festival. (Interested in a short documentary of a Japanese observation of Obon? Check out this one on YouTube.)

Lightweight, cotton kimonos are commonly worn by dancers and festival attendees, with carnivals in some areas and a mix of summer and traditional foods. Bon dances are as different as the regions that perform them, with some using accessories like fans or towels and others imitating the area’s history. (This press story interviews a 77-year-old woman who has been dancing traditionally since age 4.) Modern Bon dance music can be written to the beat of well-known songs or kids’ tunes, and often, steps are intentionally simple so that everyone can participate.

Lanterns are hung on the front of houses throughout Obon to guide ancestors’ spirits home, and on the last day of Obon, the paper lanterns are illuminated with a candle and floated down a river or body of water to symbolize the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the deceased. (Make your own lanterns and teach kids about Obon with help from Circle Time Kids and In Culture Parent.) A grand fireworks display ends the ceremonies.


Though Obon is not a national holiday, many Japanese citizens take vacations during this time and return home for family reunions. (Get the scoop for 2013 in Japan at Japan-Guide.) Calendar interpretations vary widely, placing Obon in mid-July in Tokyo, in mid-August in China, and varying in other regions of Japan, such as Okinawa.

Outside of Japan, dates also vary in Brazil, which houses the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. Hawai’i follows suit, where Japanese-American events are prominent. (In San Jose, Japantown provides food and entertainment in mid-July; the Kauai Museum in Hawai’i is currently running a “Buddhist Temples of Hawaii” exhibit; in Ontario, a press story covers the deep-rooted history of its Buddhist temple.) Street festivals stocked with Japanese culture, art and cuisine are also popular during Obon season.