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.

Closing the Chinese New Year with a Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival at one of Taiwan’s largest public monuments.SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 24: “The Lantern Festival ends the 15-day period of the Spring Festival. Traditionally, children went to the temples on this night carrying paper lanterns. Nowadays, cities in China and abroad hold elaborate festivals with glowing parade-float lanterns shaped like dragons and other large animals. People enjoy outdoor concerts and fireworks. There are thousands of smaller lanterns, too, either carried by people, or as in Taiwan, sent floating up into the sky. Many lanterns have riddles on them, with the solutions being wishes for good luck, family reunion, abundant harvests, prosperity and love.”

This vivid description is part of Deng Ming-Dao’s new The Lunar Tao: Meditations in Harmony with the Seasons, which ReadTheSpirit reviews today in another column. As Deng points out in his book, “Lighting a fire was one of the first things that primitive people learned to do.” In the Lantern Festival, the kindling of lights at night remind everyone of humanity’s shared roots. A lantern “welcomes the spirits, is brave in the darkness, welcomes people home. That light is the beginning of the human. It also represents spirituality: enlightenment.”


Deng is right to point readers toward Taiwan for this festival that closes the New Year holiday period. (See our earlier story about the Chinese New Year of the Water Snake.) Across Asia, millions of Chinese are preparing to head back to work, often in distant industrial cities far from their ancestral home towns. At such a bittersweet moment of the year, Taiwan’s night sky explodes in bright lights.

The Taipei Times reports on one spectacular lantern, this year, that will be 10-meters high and 70-meters wide, formed into a curved screen called the Ring of Celestial Bliss onto which images will be projected. “This will be the largest and most eco-friendly lantern in the world,” the newspaper reports. “The steel and bamboo used to build it can be recovered or recycled, and the recycled plastic used to make the inner projector screen will be transformed into 600 to 700 environmentally friendly bags at the end of the event. The Ring also uses 155 LED strips, which can save up to 80 percent of the energy used by more common halogen lights.”

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.


Chinese worldwide celebrate New Year of the Dragon

China and Chinatowns worldwide ring in the Chinese Year of the Dragon. Photo in public domainMONDAY, JANUARY 23: What marks a 100-year anniversary, makes Warren Buffet croon a tune and summons exhilarating images of dragons?
The Chinese New Year!

Today, China and Chinese communities around the world welcome the New Year with extravagant events, fireworks galore and a whole list of time-honored traditions. (Check out photos of this year’s early festivities, courtesy of The Telegraph.) One hundred years ago, China officially adopted the Western calendar, but that doesn’t mean its people don’t still welcome the Lunar New Year with as much pomp as ever. Billionaire investor and philanthropist Warren Buffet played the ukulele and sang a song on China’s state-run television network yesterday, wishing all of China a happy Chinese Lunar New Year (Read the story at CBC); Anthony Cheng, a Chinese astrologer, predicted the thrilling yet unpredictable Dragon Year to bring a scandalous corruption case in China and the resignations of several high-ranking officials in China and Hong Kong. (Get the scoop on this year’s news from The Telegraph.)

The 15 days of Chinese New Year festivities launch today, but preparations began weeks ago. On the eighth day of the lunar month prior to Chinese New Year, a traditional porridge is served at breakfast, with the first bowl offered to ancestors and household deities (family members are served afterward). As the days to New Year are counted down, households get cleaned until sparkling, as many believe a clean house on New Year drives away evil spirits. Red decorations fill the home and line doorways, and in Buddhist or Taoist homes, altars and statues are washed; deities are offered sweet foods. (Wikipedia has details.) Finally, the much-anticipated Reunion Dinner takes place on Chinese New Year’s Eve, when the table is filled with dishes symbolizing good luck. Those who don’t attend a New Year’s party or count down with CCTV New Year’s Gala (think Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, in the United States) will often visit a temple and ring in the New Year there. At midnight, fireworks light up the sky and the Chinese New Year—the longest and most significant holiday in all of China—has officially begun.

Looking to celebrate with kids? Get craft ideas from Kaboose; recipes are at Food Network. The Huffington Post offers recipes traditionally thought to bring good luck.

As the observance of New Year wears on, it’s common to turn to vegetarian foods in efforts to give the stomach a break from all of the rich festival foods. Photo in public domainMany days of celebration: Each day of the New Year observance brings a new way to celebrate: On the first day, many welcome the deities and honor elders during visits, while Buddhists abstain from meat; on the second day, married daughters visit their birth parents and dogs are given special treatment on this, the “birthday of all dogs.” The third day is considered inauspicious to make visits, so many stay at home. Day four brings spring dinners—as the Chinese New Year is now popularly known also as the Spring Festival—and, in most places, people will soon be returning to work. The final day is known as the Shang Yuan Festival, or Lantern Festival, when a rice soup is eaten, candles in the home guide lost spirits and many citizens walk through the streets with lanterns.

Chinese: Burn an iPad and pay respects for Qingming

A devotee burns paper money during the Qingming Festival; the Chinese believe the deceased will utilize paper versions of objects burned during QingmingTUESDAY, APRIL 5: Ancient spiritual traditions are honored with modern technology in China today, as citizens across the country observe the Qingming Festival. One English version of the name—Tomb-Sweeping Day—may seem ominous. But, there’s an uplifting purpose: For more than 2,500 years, Qingming has been a day for remembering ancestors, partly by tending to their gravesites. Families often burn paper representations of objects the deceased may need in death; and they may perform funeral services for those who have recently died. (Wikipedia has details.)

Although Hong Kong and Macau have been marking Qingming uninterrupted for millennia, most Chinese were barred from practicing the tradition by the Communist Party from 1949 until 2008. Now, the holiday is popular once again and families across China will be celebrating by burning paper versions of everything from iPhones and iPads to cars, aftershave and credit cards. (Check out a news article from XinhuaNet for more information.) The Chinese Consumers’ Association reports that more than 1,000 tons of paper products are burnt as offerings for the afterlife during each Qingming.

Culture has changed drastically since the Chinese began marking Qingming. Today’s mobility means that many people live far from ancestral villages. Adaptations include inscribing names of ancestors on paper taken to a closer cemetery for Qingming honors. (Get an American perspective from the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.)

Some Chinese wonder if being buried near one’s hometown soon will be an option only for the wealthy: Shanghai burial plots are now more expensive than most local real estate, due to lack of space. (CNN International has more.) The Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs is combatting the problem by promoting cremations and the scattering of ashes, funding funerals for the underprivileged and creating standards that go into effect today. (XinhuaNet has a news article.) Some young Chinese men and women have started paying their respects online, through virtual tomb sweeping websites.

(Originally published at

Asian: Appease Spirits During The Hungry Ghost Festival

Burning is a common ritual of the Hungry Ghost FestivalTUESDAY, AUGUST 24: Don’t get too scared – but several Asian countries will be marking the Hungry Ghost Festival today, and Taoists and Buddhists will be rigorously performing rituals to keep deceased spirits happy. It’s believed that the realms of Heaven and Hell are open to the realm of the living during this month, and today, devotees believe that deceased ancestors pay a visit to their living relatives. (During the rest of the month, it’s believed that ghosts wander freely. Wikipedia has details.)

To appease the spirits and bring them entertainment today, believers will often perform ancestor worship, offer food, burn any assortment of items and even set places for the spirits at the dinner table. In some East Asian countries, live performances are organized so that the first row of seats is left open for the ghosts (The Christian Science Monitor posted a captivating photo of a Ghost Festival rite); because ghosts are believed to bring so much bad luck to the living, believers do nearly anything possible to please them during their stay. The Hungry Ghost Festival is similar to Japan’s Obon, although festivities are usually more elaborate and other Asian countries, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, hold large-scale concerts and other events for the lengthy festival. (The Hong Kong Tourism Board further explains the country’s traditions.)

Asians are very superstitious during the Hungry Ghost Festival, and many follow particular “rules” that are believed to keep the living safe. Some devotees avoid swimming during this month, since it’s believed evil ghosts can easily drown victims; children are encouraged to stay inside at night, since they are considered easily possessed; and moving is uncommon, since this month is considered inauspicious for such an act. Believers also take care to avoid camping trips and risky driving, since these, too, are believed to be situations that put the living at much – eery – risk.

(By ReadTheSpirit columnist Stephanie Fenton)

(NOTE: To see more short articles about upcoming holidays, festivals and anniversaries, click the “RTS Magazines” tab at the top of this page and select “Religious Holidays.”)