By now you should probably be aware of the 2008 Summer Olympics to be held in Beijing, China, this coming August. However, there is at least another event going on in (and beneath) China during August.
Every year, during the seventh month of the Chinese Calendar, it is believed that the Gates of Hell will be opened and all Hell beings (well, not nearly all, only those well-behaved ones) will be set to roam freely on Earth for a month. In this month, many spirits roamed the world in search of their past memories to fulfil their unforgotten attachments. As such, these are called the “hungry ghosts” and the festival is also called the Hungry Ghost Festival.
The Hungry Ghosts festival occurs on the 15th night of the 7th Lunar month which falls on the 15th of August this year. This festival is different from the more well-known Qing Ming Festival, or the tomb-sweeping day which is now an official holiday in China and is predominantly an ancestor worshipping day. The Ghost Festival on the other hand is for the ancestors to return the visit and is a festival of elaborate rituals of joss sticks and paper money, food offerings, and opera shows for the deceased.
The festival is also influenced by Buddhist teachings introduced into China. In the Buddhist’s Ullambana Sutra, Mahamaudgalyayana, one of the chief disciples of the Buddha, well-known for his psychic powers, searched for his deceased mother during one of his meditation session. He found his mother being reborn in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts due to her previous greed. Seeking Buddha’s advice, he eased his mother’s suffering and eventual rebirth into a human form by performing various rituals of merits creation and offerings. This is the famous “Mahamaudgalyayana Saving His Mother” storyline which is often performed in Chinese opera. In the Chinese context, more emphasis is placed on offerings to the ancestors than to the Sangha, or monks, as in the original Ullambana practice in Buddhism.
There are similar festivals around the world as well. These include the El Día de los Muertos Festival in Mexico, the Chugen and O-Bon Festivals in Japan as well as the Vu Lan Festival in Vietnam. This shows that people today are still in awed and respectful towards the mysterious underworld. For the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival in particular, it is a yearly reinforcement and reminder of one’s filial responsibility towards the mother and other ancestors in general.
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