The hungry ghost festival is celebrated in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, typically August in the Western Gregorian calendar. Beginning on the 15th of the seventh lunar month, "qi yue", it is believed that the gates of the nether world as well as the heavens are opened and wandering spirits are allowed to wander the earth among the living during this time.
This festival is celebrated by Chinese all over the world. According to the Chinese concept of the cosmos, it is believed that upon death, one's spirit is first sent through the ten courts of hell where one's life is held up for examination. One is punished for the sins and immorality one has committed in life as one's spirit passes through the courts of hell. At the end, if one has led an exemplary life, one is spared the tortures and can choose to take a gold or silver bridge. The gold bridge leads to the realm of the Buddha where one escapes the cycles of life and birth. The silver leads to the realm of the Jade Emperor of Heaven and one becomes a deity. Others are led to the wheel of reincarnation to be reincarnated. Before doing so, they will take a draught from "Meng Po" an old woman who offers a drink for the spirits to forget their previous lives before reincarnation.
In accordance with this belief system, the hungry ghost festival is a time when spirits in the nether world are allowed to visit the world of the living. Usually guarded by the guardians of the netherworld: Ox-head and Horse-face, the gates to the netherworld are opened during the seventh month.
It is believed that burning joss sticks and incense, as well as offering food items to these wandering spirits would appease them so that bad luck would not follow the living should the spirits be displeased and follow the living home. Offerings made from papier-mache are also burnt. Elaborate offerings crafted to resemble watches, houses, cars, even planes and servants and burnt along with the common paper hell notes, the currency of the netherworld as gifts for the spirits.
In some countries, typically in Singapore and Malaysia, during the seventh month, make shift song stages are set up where for the month, various performances are made for both the public and the wandering spirits. Traditionally travelling opera troupes would perform at these stages that are usually set up on open fields close to housing estates. There, seats are set up for both the living and the dead. As a tradition, the first row of the seats are left empty as a customary gesture that is understood as a sign that the seats in the front row are reserved for the spirits. Today, this tradition is continued, but instead of opera troupes, singers now perform Chinese pop-songs and dance routines.
Close to these song stages, large elaborate joss sticks would be burnt during performances. The volume of these performances on open fields are turned up high as it is believed that the songs, as well as the smell of the joss sticks would attract the spirits.
Distinct from the Qing Ming festival when families would visit the graves of ancestors, the hungry ghost festival is a celebration for all spirits. No distinction is made during the seventh month for whether offerings are made to family members or other wandering spirits.
Furthermore, contrary to the believe that the living should visit the graves of ancestors as a form of filial piety, during the hungry ghost festival, the situation is reversed in which the dead visits the world of the living.
It is believed that the hungry ghosts who roam the earth during the seventh month became hungry spirits because they are ancestors of families who forgot to pay tribute to them after their death, or that these spirits were not given a proper send-off ritual at the time of their death.
Other than the setting up of song stages and the burning of incense and joss sticks, some shops also close early during the seventh month, as it is believed that the streets should be emptied for the spirits.
Buddhist and Taoist priests also hold rites to relieve the suffering of the wandering spirits by chanting and throwing rice or small food items into the air in all directions as a symbol of distribution to the spirits. Altars are also set up during this time with fresh fruit offerings, incense, as well as other food dishes to be offered to the hungry spirits.
History of the Hungry Ghost Festival
It is generally believed that hungry ghosts have long needle thin necks because they have not been fed by their family members or if they have been punished and as a result are unable to swallow.
The history behind the hungry ghost festival comes from Buddhism as well as a mixture of Chinese folklore and folk belief.
The Buddhist origin of the festival is believed to spring from the story of arhat Maudgalyāyana and his mother from the Ullambana sutra in Buddhist texts. It was said that Maudgalyana, a Brahmin youth who eventually became one of Buddha's chief disciple, thought of his parents when he attained arhatship, a high level of attainment for Buddhist practitioners. He began to think deeply of them and wondered what became of his parents after their deaths. Using his clairvoyance he discovered that his father has been reborn to a heavenly realm, but his mother had been reborn to the nether realm of hungry ghosts because of her greed with money left behind by his father who instructed her to host any Buddhist monk who passed her way kindly. But as she failed to listen to his instructions and kept the money to herself out of greed, she was punished to become a hungry ghost with fragile narrow throat so that she could not eat but had to suffer the pang of hunger.
Distressed by his mother's state as a hungry ghost, Maudgalyāyana asked the Buddha for instructions to ease her suffering, and was instructed to place pieces of food on a clean plate, recite the mantra seven times to bless the food, then snap his finger to call for the deceased, then empty the food onto clean ground. Through his merit, Maudgalyāyana's mother was eventually reborned as a dog in a noble family.
Moved by filial piety, Maudgalyāyana then asked the Buddha for instructions to help his mother attain a human rebirth. The Buddha then established the 14th day of the seventh lunar month, typically the day following the end of a summer retreat where Maudgalyāyana was to offer food and robe to five hundred Bikkhus, male Buddhist monastics who generally lived off alms. Through his good works, Maudgalyāyana's mother was finally able to gain a human birth.
Today's Hungry Ghost Festival
Through Confucius influence and the influence of Chinese folk belief, the hungry ghost festival today has attained a more mythical coloring, and less association is made to making offering to the Sangha, the Buddhist community. Today, the hungry ghost festival is generally seen as a time of offering food and incense offerings as well as entertainment to wandering spirits. It is also a time when the living thinks on the relationship between the living and the dead and remembers the deceased.
Sharing the same Buddhist roots, the Obon festival , or the Bon festival in Japan from July 13th to 16th in Eastern Japan, and in August in Western Japan, is also a time of remembering one's ancestors. Many would return to their hometowns during this time to clean their ancestor's grave, and is also a time of family reunion.