The Hungry Ghost Festival

Now that we’re just one week away from Halloween I wanted to change up #Blogstonishing a bit. This last week will focus on exploring Halloween traditions and similar celebrations in other cultures. We’re starting with The Hungry Ghost Festival. The Hungry Ghost Festival starts a few months before Halloween but shares many similarities.

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The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place on the 15th night of the 7th Chinese month, which is usually in mid-to-late August. However, sometimes it is held in early September. Also known as Yu Lan it has its roots in Taoist and Buddhist beliefs. On this day the gates to the spirit world are opened and the deceased are permitted to walk the earth once again. In fact, Anven Wu Yim-ching, a director the Federation of Hong Kong Chiu Chow Community Organizations, says “It can be just like Halloween,” and even included a Ghost Festival costume contest in 2015.

Similar to early Western conceptions and festivals (and what would later come to form Halloween) The Hungry Ghost Festival takes place in a liminal space where the dead have free reign over the living world once again. It is the practice to make offerings in order to appease and pacify these ghosts and ensure the living’s safety.

Hungry Ghost Festivals have their origin in the Ullambana Sutra. According to this sutra one of Buddha's disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana, learned that his mother who had passed away had been reborn as a hungry ghost. Hungry ghosts, according to legend, are beings with huge stomachs but their mouths are too small and their neck too thin to take in enough food and so they live with an insatiable craving. Some believe that you can become a hungry ghost is you live a life of gluttony, obsession or addiction. Mahamaudgalyayana tried to ease his mother’s suffering but when he offered her food it transformed into burning coals. So, he turned to the Buddha to learn how to help his mother.

Buddha told him that on the 15th day of the 7th month the Buddhist community should fill bowls with fruits and other food. In addition to physical food spiritual offerings of incense and candles should also be made. Then, they should place the bowls of food in front of an altar and recite prayers en masse. The ghosts who arise will receive the food and be blessed for a hundred years.

When the ghosts of your ancestors arise on this day it is important to make offerings to them. Should you ignore Ghost Month and especially the Hungry Ghost Festival your ancestors might curse, haunt, or otherwise malign you. Popular gifts include Zhizha (hell money, which dates backs to 1000 BC) which should be burned so it can be transported to the underworld and ghosts can use it as they please.

According to Terence Hang, a sociologist from the Singapore Institute of Technology, “Individuals now purchase and burn whatever is fashionable to consume in a contemporary, globalized society. One can get hold of paper iPads, paper credit cards, paper Rolls Royces, and more.” Paper effigies of everything from popular beers to TVs can be found and offered.

However, real food is still used. If you are going to use real wood you should place fresh food outdoors near your home (maybe on a porch or balcony). During this time of year, according to Louise Hung, “For the entire ghost month, my street in West Kowloon was never without takeaway boxes of food placed on the sidewalk after dark. Some laid out red cloth or flowers for the food to sit on, others placed bottles of water or beer alongside the offerings. It was all about giving people’s ancestors their favorite foods, or pleasing passing spirits so they wouldn’t bother the inhabitants of someone’s home or shop.” She noted that she rarely saw leftovers or trash left out in the morning, save for a few food items that may have gotten run over in the night.

Now that we have learned what to do during Hungry Ghost Month Louise Hung provides on the blog, Order of the Good Death, a list of things to avoid during this month:

1) Don’t begin a new job, get a new home, get married, be born, or do anything new during ghost month. Your new beginning may be doomed. If you have to be a special snowflake and be born during ghost month, only celebrate your birthday during the daylight hours.

2) Ghosts are drawn to red, so don’t wear red or else a ghost may attach itself to you.

3) Don’t pee on a tree. A ghost may be living in that tree.

4) Always close exterior doors, you don’t want to invite in wandering ghosts.

5) Don’t lean on walls – ghosts stick to walls.

6) Never disturb a ghost’s food and offerings. If you do, apologize profusely.

7) The night is not yours during ghost month, it’s for the dead. Unless it’s in honor of them, don’t do things outside after dark.

I have also read on various other sites (sources linked above) that you should not buy a house during this time, enter a romantic relationship, or make big moves (like a marriage proposal or trying to start a family) within an existing romantic relationship.

The above image is licensed in the public domain. It is entitled the Second section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll located at the Kyoto National Museum. The scroll depicts the world of the hungry ghosts, one of the six realms of Buddhism and contains tales of salvation of the hungry ghosts. This particular section explains how those who have been born as hungry ghosts are saved by the offerings of the living. It relates the story of one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seek water to drink. The central scene of this section shows people pouring water on a funerary marker for the ullambana festival for the dead. The whole scroll has been designated as National Treasure of Japan in the category paintings. It was possibly part of a set of scrolls depicting the six realms which were kept at Sanjūsangen-dō.