Joss paper offerings, incense, and candles are burned at night during the Ghost Festival(Image: Photo by Charmaine Wong)
The Ghost Festival (鬼節 Guijie) is observed during the 7th Chinese lunar month. To be accurate, the entire 7th month is known as Ghost Month (鬼月 Guiyue), with activities and rituals culminating on the 15th day of the 7th month – the day of the full moon – considered the actual day of the Ghost Festival (some regions of China reckon the 13th or 14th to be the main day). Alternate names for the festival are the Seventh Month Festival (七月節 Qiyue Jie), and the Mid Seventh Month (七月半 Qiyue Ban) because it falls exactly on the middle of the 7th lunar month. The ideas in the observance of the Ghost Festival are actually an amalgamation of concepts and beliefs from Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and popular folk religion.
Popular Folk Religion (Popular Culture)
In popular folk religion, it is believed that once per year, the realms of heaven, earth, and the underworld are opened for one month beginning on the first day of the 7th lunar month. As part of this process, the
(鬼門關 Guimen Guan) in the underworld is also opened and the spirits of the dead are free to wander for a month in the world of the living. On the last day of the month, the spirits must all return and the gate is closed again. Ghost Gate Pass
Due to the fact that the Ghost Festival is a mixture of ideas and beliefs from different sources, it cannot be said with absolute certainty what the “underworld” exactly refers to. According to different sources and in varying contexts, the underworld can refer to the ghost realm, hell realms, purgatorial realms, or simply the netherworld (a land of shades where the dead exist in a world that is parallel to the world of the living). Technically speaking, these different spheres of existence can be distinguished from one another and are not the same. But whatever the case may be, it is believed that the spirits are from some lower realm and the ambivalent nature of their origin does not seem to bother those who observe the Ghost Festival.
Ghost money to be burnt for the dead(Image: Scanned by Harry Leong)
Paper mantras to be burnt for the dead to help them accumulate spiritual merit
(Image: Scanned by Harry Leong)
Paper replicas of material goods to be delivered to the spirit world by consignment to the flames(Image: Geekv5.com)
Those who observe Ghost Month also take the opportunity to make ritual offerings and sponsor deliverance ceremonies for their deceased ancestors in case they are also in need of spiritual sustenance and karmic merit. However, unlike the Qingming and Chongyang festvals where the focus is on practicing ancestor veneration, filial piety, and the spiritual salvation of ancestors, the focus of Ghost Month is more about spiritual charity, appeasement, and salvation for ghosts and wandering spirits that are not our relatives.
Outdoor tables filled with offerings for spirits during Ghost Month(Image: Source unknown)
A feast offering placed on the side of a road to appease wayward spirits(Image: Source unknown)
Paper joss offerings burnt for the benefit of wayward spirits(Image: Source unknown)
Paper joss offerings burnt for the benefit of wayward spirits on a
(Image: Apple Daily 蘋果日報)
Releasing water lanterns at night to guide lost spirits
Lanterns shaped like lotus flowers are floated on waterways to symbolize giving direction to lost spirits(Image: Matahu.gov.cn)
A traditional opera performance in
and members of the local community during the Ghost Festival(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Precautions for Ghost Month
Caution should always be exercised during Ghost Month
(Image: Source unknown)
Caution should always be observed during Ghost Month. Because it is believed that the spirit population in the mortal realm is much greater at this time than at other times of the year, the chances for the occurrence of accidents and misfortune are also much greater. Therefore, people generally try to minimize activities that can expose them to danger and unintended encounters with spirits. There are many taboos and things to be mindful of during Ghost Month. There are several different lists of these taboos, but the list that follows below is my own attempt at an exhaustive one. Please keep in mind that some of these admonitions may sound silly, and skeptics will most certainly scoff at them, but it is always wise to keep an open mind. I have included only the ones that I personally believe to make sense from a theoretical perspective, but I make no pronouncements in regards to their veracity.
Rules for avoiding spirit encounters and personal dangers specific to Ghost Month:
1. Do not utter the word “ghost” (鬼 gui). Respect for the spirits must always be observed so that they are not offended. One should not use the word “ghost” to refer to them because it is disrespectful. Instead, the terms “good brethren” (好兄弟 hao xiongdi) or “good friends” (好朋友 hao pengyou) are used.
2. Do not conduct rites, give ritual offerings, or burn joss paper for the spirits inside of your own home. Unless these rites are performed by a temple, they are always done outdoors because the offerings are mainly intended for wayward spirits. To hold these rites at home would be equivalent to inviting the spirits into your own home.
3. Do not mention your name if you decide to conduct ritual offerings for spirits during Ghost Month. Unlike when one offers supplications to higher deities, it is not necessary to cite your name to disclose your identity. The point is to not let random and wayward spirits know too much about yourself.
4. Do not accidentally step on or disturb the ritual offerings left out for the spirits. Avoid stepping on the ashes of burnt paper offerings. Even humans become annoyed and/or angry if someone interrupts their meal or interferes with their picking up of goods.
5. Do not pick up any coins that you may find on the roads during Ghost Month. Sometimes, coins are scattered on the ground as part of certain spirit appeasement rituals. It’s probably not a good idea to bring these types of coins home.
6. Do not partake of any of the food offerings that were offered to spirits. It is believed that spirits actually feed on the smell of food and that they inhale its essence. In the process, the food becomes contaminated with their yin (negative) energies. It is said that foods offered to the spirits go bad very quickly (or faster than normal). If humans eat the offered foods afterwards, they can get sick (usually stomach trouble and diarrhea).
7. Do not make negative remarks or complaints about the smell of incense or burning joss papers. This may cause the spirits to be unhappy, and they may have something to say about it to you.
8. Do not go out at night if you can help it. It is believed that spirit activity is stronger at night, after sundown, because yin (negative) energy is more predominant during the evening hours.
9. Do not call out other people’s names at night. This is to prevent spirits from knowing the names of others and playing tricks on them.
10. Do not wear clothing or carry personal items that have your name on them. This is to prevent spirits from knowing your name and playing tricks on you.
11. Do not turn around and respond if you hear an unfamiliar voice call you from behind, especially if the voice calls out your full name. It is believed that some spirits like to play tricks. This is especially true at night time.
12. Do not go swimming during Ghost Month. Swimming at night is especially dangerous. It is believed that water spirits (水鬼 shui gui) will look for victims to drown. Water spirits are themselves former victims of drowning, and it is believed that they are trapped in the water where they had drowned until they are able to “find/snatch a replacement/substitute” (找替身 zhao tishen; 抓交替 zhua jiaoti). A “replacement” or “substitute” refers to another victim to replace the one that had already died. This situation often becomes a vicious and endless cycle, with each unfortunate victim looking for the next potential victim so that the present victim/spirit can become free.
13. Do not engage in unnecessary travel. Driving, flying, and travel in general are avoided for fear of spirits causing accidents to occur.
14. Do not move into a new home during Ghost Month. It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so. If one really has to move house, do it early during daylight hours and never at night. This is to prevent random spirits from following you into your new home.
15. Do not perform home renovations during Ghost Month. It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so.
16. Do not start a new business venture or close a business deal during Ghost Month. It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so.
17. Do not buy real estate during Ghost Month. It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so.
18. Do not have medical procedures performed during Ghost Month (unless they are really emergencies). It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so.
19. Do not get married during Ghost Month. It is believed that the heightened level of spirit activity during this time makes it inauspicious to do so. Also, spirits who may witness your wedding might experience feelings of envy or jealousy (if they had died without getting married) and might make trouble for you.
20. Do not engage in romantic or intimate activities with your spouse or significant other during Ghost Month. Spirits who may be watching you might experience feelings of envy or jealousy (if they had died without also having a romantic relationship) and might make trouble for you. Or, your conduct with your significant other may also stir up feelings of interest and/or lust in any spirits that may be watching, and they might cause problems for you.
21. Do not hang out your clothes to dry at night. Retrieve them before sundown. It is feared that spirits may attach themselves to the clothes.
22. Do not comb your hair in front of a mirror at night. Spirits who see you engaging in acts of vanity may feel envy or jealousy, or they may take a liking to you, and cause trouble for you.
23. Do not look into mirrors, bodies of water, or reflective surfaces at night to avoid accidentally seeing the images and/or manifestations of spirits.
24. Do not swat or kill insects, especially at night. It is believed that spirits like to possess the bodies of insects if they are looking for a temporary corporeal body to inhabit. It is easy for spirits to enter the bodies of insects because they are lower life forms and are relatively short-lived.
25. Do not hold celebrations or parties at night during Ghost Month (unless it is organized specifically for the appeasement of spirits). Some sources even say that it is not advisable to hold celebrations after 3:00pm because the shen period (申時) (3:00pm to 5:00pm) is considered the time when day (yang) starts to gradually change into night (yin). As the yang (positive) energy wanes and the yin (negative) energy grows, the spirits start to become more active. Spirits are really no different from humans. They also love a good party (the early 3:00pm cutoff time is probably just a very conservative and extra-cautious rule-of-thumb).
Rules that are general precautions for avoiding spirit encounter (and thus are also applicable to Ghost Month):
26. Do not loiter in dark places at night. This one is common sense because it is not advisable to loiter in dark places at any time of the year, regardless if there are spirits or not.
27. Do not walk alongside or close to walls. Do not lean or stand against walls. Do not stand or loiter in or near corners. It is believed that spirits tend to move alongside walls and they like to congregate in corners where two walls meet. To avoid accidentally bumping into them, always walk in the middle of a path away from walls. This is especially true at night time.
28. If you happen to smell a floral or perfume scent of unknown origin while walking at night, do not bother to investigate its source, because spirits can manifest strange smells and scents to draw the attention of potential victims.
29. Do not loiter under, or climb trees at night, especially ones that are large and old. It is believed that spirits like to stay near and/or live in trees. Trees that are advanced in years are also believed to house resident spirit entities.
30. Do not shine a flashlight/torch onto the top of trees at night. The reason is the same as for the previous rule. It is believed that shining lights onto trees might bother the spirit(s) in the tree.
31. Do not wear dark color clothing at night. It is believed that dark color clothing might mask the yang (positive) energy of a human being’s aura field that normally can keep spirits away. The best color to wear to keep spirits away is yellow. Yellow is symbolic of strong golden yang energy, like the sun. Some experts also believe that red is a good color to wear, because red is symbolic of strong fire energy which is also very yang. However, there is disagreement about red, because there are others who believe that red attracts spirits instead of repelling them. There are also differing opinions about other colors as well.
32. Do not cover your forehead, especially at night. Do not wear a hat, or style your hair so that your forehead is blocked. In Chinese metaphysics, it is believed that a person has three areas in his aura field that radiates strong yang (positive) energy. This belief is reflected in the old saying A person has three fires (人有三把火 ren you san ba huo). The “three fires” refer to the yang energy concentrations on both shoulders and the forehead which normally can keep spirits away. If these fires are blocked or disturbed, the aura field is weakened and spirits might be able to come near you.
33. Do not pat or touch another person’s shoulders, or allow others to do the same to your shoulders. The reason is the same as for the previous rule. This is especially true at night time.
34. Do not drink alcohol in excess. It is believed that drinking too much alcohol can lower a person’s yang (positive) energy. Alcohol also muddles the mind, which in turn weakens one’s natural defenses against disturbance from spirits.
35. Do not walk in the forest, especially at night. Spirits can play tricks on humans and cause them to become lost through a phenomenon call ghost covering eyes (鬼掩眼 gui yan yan). They can “cover” your eyes and lead you to hallucinate and believe that you are walking straight while in fact you are walking in circles, or, that you are walking on paths that do not actually exist.
36. Do not urinate outside in public places, especially near trees, bushes, or walls (these are the normal places where people go to urinate when outdoors). If you really must do it, you should say aloud “Please excuse me” so that any spirits nearby will hear you and hopefully move away. There are countless stories of people inadvertently urinating on spirits, offending them, and then falling ill.
37. Do not open umbrellas inside your home. Also do not pick up other people’s lost umbrellas and bring them home. This rule may sound silly, but it is believed that umbrellas are a favorite hiding place for spirits. Umbrellas are also used by ghost catchers to temporarily hold a spirit. Therefore, open your umbrella outside your home, not inside.
38. Do not place your bedroom slippers so that the front end (toe area) of both slippers faces your bed when you take them off to go to bed at night. It is believed that this can invite a spirit to climb onto your bed. Instead, arrange your slippers so that one faces forward and one faces backward, in other words, they should face in opposite directions.
Rules that involve rituals, activities, and actions that can beckon spirits (so it goes without saying that these should never be performed especially during Ghost Month):
39. Do not play with the Ouija board, or “dish spirit” (碟仙 die xian) (the Asian equivalent of the Ouija board) including any of its variants that are used for communicating with the spirit world. At best, nothing happens. But at worst, it becomes a recipe for trouble. In almost all cases involving successful contact, it is a random spirit that is communicating with the participants. Also remember that spirits can lie when responding to questions.
40. Do not whistle or ring bells at night. It is believed that these noises can attract the attention of spirits (these sounds naturally attract the attention of humans and animals too, and spirits are really no different in mentality from humans).
41. Do not hang wind chimes outside the home. The reason is the same as for the previous rule. Some sources also say that it is not a good idea to hang wind chimes inside the home as well, but opinions differ on this.
42. Do not engage in the ritual of paring an apple with a knife in front of a burning candle and mirror at night. It is said that if you fail to pare the apple's skin in one long continuous peel, a spirit or demon will appear to you.
43. Do not stick and leave chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl of rice. It is said that this resembles two incense sticks offered in an incense urn and is an invitation for spirits to partake of a meal offering.
44. Do not play by striking a bowl with chopsticks. It is said that the sound acts as an invitation for spirits to partake of a meal offering. This is similar to sounding the metal dinner triangle to call everyone in for chow time.
[The above list was compiled & edited by Harry Leong at Jadeturtlerecords.blogspot.com]
Note that much of the aforementioned advice has been passed down through tradition and that they can also be applicable at other times as well in places where spirit activity is suspected. Of course, some of the advice can certainly be taken with a grain of salt, and it is not necessary to become too paranoid. Also, these rules are not an absolute guarantee against spirit encounter, but they can help to lower the chances of running into problems. The best protection during Ghost Month is ultimately using common sense and wisdom, and maintaining an upright and virtuous frame of mind.
The Mahayana Buddhist Tradition
In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, there are two events that happen to coincide with the Ghost Festival and some of its ideas have been absorbed into the Ghost Festival of popular culture. They are The Day of the Buddha’s Joy (佛歡喜日 Fo Huanxi Re) and the Ullambana Festival (盂蘭盆節 Yulanpen Jie, or 盂蘭節 Yulan Jie).
The Day of the Buddha’s Joy
During the Buddha’s time in ancient
, the monastic community of monks observed an annual retreat lasting for three months during the summer monsoon season. This retreat was called Vassa meaning rain and is known as the Rains Retreat. In India , the retreat was translated as Settling Down During the Rains (雨安居 Yu Anju) and Settling Down and Bearing Results During the Summer (結夏安居 Jiexia Anju). Because it was not convenient for the itinerant monks of ancient China to travel during the rainy period, they all settled down in one place and entered a period dedicated to intensive meditation practice. On the last day of the rains retreat (which is said to have coincided with the 15th day of the 7th Chinese lunar month), the monks ended their intense practice and observed Pravarana (僧自恣日 Seng Zizi Re), a ceremony to mark the end of the rains retreat and to confess any breaches of discipline or acts of interpersonal conflict. On this day, after such a lengthy period of dedicated practice, many monks made great progress and attained advanced levels of meditative achievement. The Buddha felt very happy for his disciples, and the day was later called The Day of the Buddha’s Joy. India
The Ullambana Festival (Yulanpen Festival)
Many uninformed people equate the Ghost Festival with the Buddhist Ullambana (Yulanpen) Festival, but they are technically two different festivals, albeit they have become merged in popular culture. Ullambana is an Indian Sanskrit word. Ullam is interpreted to mean hanging upside down and is a metaphoric reference to suffering, while bana refers to a tool that is used for alleviating suffering and specifically refers to a bowl or basin that is used for offering food to Buddhist monks. Ullam was phonetically transliterated into Chinese as Yulan (盂蘭), and the meaning of bana was translated as pen (盆) which means basin. So the Ullambana Festival was translated into Chinese as Yulanpen Festival, and later shortened to just Yulan Festival.
Ullambana (Yulanpen) is a reference to the belief that making offerings of food to a monastic community of virtuous monks can produce enough karmic merit to help end the suffering of deceased parents and relatives. In the Chinese Buddhist tradition, followers always make offerings to the sangha (monastic community) during the seventh Chinese lunar month as an act of merit making. This practice comes from the Mahayana Buddhist scripture called The Ullambana Sutra Spoken by the Buddha (佛說盂蘭盆經 Foshuo Yulanpen Jing) which tells the story of how Maudgalyayana (目蓮 Mulian) saved his mother who was reborn in the realm of the hungry ghosts.
Maudgalyayana visits the realm of the hungry ghosts(Image: Drawing by Lai Lixun 賴立勳老師手繪 Librarywork.taiwanschoolnet.org)
Maudgalyayana was one of ten chief disciples of the Buddha. He was known as the one foremost in transcendental powers (also known as spiritual penetrations), which meant that aside from the Buddha himself, he was the one who possessed the highest level of supernatural abilities. Among these abilities, he had the power to see into other realms, and he thought of searching for the whereabouts of his deceased parents. With his divine vision, he scanned all the worlds in the vast universe, both corporeal and spiritual, and discovered that his deceased mother had been reborn in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Sanskrit: preta-loka; Chinese: 餓鬼道 e’gui dao), one of the six realms of existence for unenlightened beings in the endless cycle of transmigration. Pretas, or hungry ghosts, are beings that suffer greatly from hunger and thirst and are unable to eat or drink even if offered food. Their bodies are only skin and bones, but they have large distended bellies which cause constant hunger, and throats that are thin as a needle so that they are unable to swallow food. In addition, any food or drink that they attempt to ingest is transformed into burning coal or molten iron anyway. This pitiful state of existence is karmic retribution for having been an immensely greedy person while a human being. While still alive, Maudgalyayana’s father left a sum of money to the mother and instructed her to use it to feed Buddhist monks. The mother, however, was extremely greedy and did not use any of the money in such a charitable manner. She even unjustly slandered the monastic community of monks. After she died, her heavy negative karma caused her to be reborn as a hungry ghost to suffer the torments of hunger and thirst. Of course, when her son Maudgalyayana learned of her circumstances, he was grief stricken. He attempted to send her food with his supernatural powers, but when his mother put the food in her mouth, it turned into flaming coals and burned her severely. Maudgalyayana was heartbroken and realized that not even his own supernatural powers could alter his mother’s terrible karma. He went to the Buddha for advice, and the Buddha told him that only the collective power of the entire community of virtuous monks could rescue his mother. The Buddha instructed him to make food offerings to the entire assembly of monks on Pravarana, the last day of the rains retreat, which falls on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. After Maudgalyayana made the offerings as instructed, the tremendous karmic merit and virtue from that act was dedicated to his mother, and his mother was immediately released from the hungry ghost realm.
Food which Maudgalyayana gives to his mother burns her mouth because
hungry ghosts can never successfully eat food due to their karma(Image: Source unknown)
An excerpt from the Ullambana Sutra reads:
The fifteenth day of the seventh month is the Pravarana day for the assembled Sangha of the ten directions. For the sake of fathers and mothers of seven generations past, as well as for fathers and mothers of the present who are in distress, you should prepare an offering of clean basins full of hundreds of flavors and the five fruits, and other offerings of incense, oil, lamps, candles, beds, and bedding, all the best of the world, to the greatly virtuous assembled Sangha of the ten directions…If one thus makes offerings to these Pravarana Sangha, one's present father and mother, parents of seven generations, as well as the six kinds of close relatives, will escape from the three paths of sufferings. And at that time attain release. (Translation by City of Ten Thousand Buddhas/Buddhist Text Translation Society)
The main theme of the Ullambana Sutra is the observance of filial piety, in other words, showing love, concern, and respect for one’s parents and ancestors. Filial piety is such an important virtue in Confucian teachings that Chinese society considers it the prime virtue above all others. In this case, the theme of filial piety in the Buddhist Ullambana Sutra was a perfect fit with the Chinese/Confucian mentality. The story of Maudgalyayana, even though it originated in a canonical Mahayana Buddhist source, became the prototype for other similar non-canonical texts and popular tales in
. These popular tales, which are slightly revised and altered versions of the original story of Maudgalyayana, are called Maudgalyayana (Mulian) Saves his Mother (目蓮救母 Mulian Jiumu) and featured in traditional opera and other forms of story-telling in traditional Chinese culture. The character of Maudgalyayana (Mulian) then became one of the central figures in the culture of the Chinese Ghost Festival. China
It is important to note that for followers of the Buddhist tradition, the seventh lunar month is not a time to fear ghosts and spirits, but a time to practice filial piety by honoring and bringing spiritual salvation to deceased family members. The theme of filial respect from the Buddhist Ullambana Festival was absorbed into the Ghost Festival of popular culture, and activities for ancestor veneration and philanthropy for the elderly have also become important elements in the festival.
The Taoist Tradition
In the Taoist tradition, the Zhongyuan Festival (中元節 Zhongyuan Jie) coincides with the Ghost Festival and its ideas have similarly been absorbed into the Ghost Festival of popular culture. The 15th of the lunar 7th month is connected to a Taoist deity called the Great Emperor Earth Official (地官大帝 Diguan Dadi) because the day is considered to be his birthday.
The Great Emperor Earth Official(Image: Nipic.com)
His full title is The Great Emperor Earth Official of Pristine Emptiness of the Middle Primordial & Secondary Grade Who Pardons Sins (中元二品赦罪地官清虛大帝 Zhongyuan Erpin Shezui Diguan Qingxu Dadi) and that’s why the day is known as the Zhongyuan (Middle Primordial) Festival. This deity is part of a Taoist trinity called the Three Great Emperor Officials (三官大帝 Sanguan Dadi) which includes the Heaven Official (天官 Tianguan) (also mentioned here), Earth Official (地官 Diguan), and Water Official (水官 Shuiguan) (also mentioned here). It is believed that on this day, the Earth Official descends to the earthly realm to inspect and assess the sins of mortals and to pardon them if he sees it is fit to do so. On this day, Taoist followers hold ceremonies in honor of the Great Emperor Earth Official. In addition, because it is believed that ancestors and spirits from other realms visit the world of the living during this time, sacrificial rites and deliverance rituals are also performed to offer them food and drink and to help absolve their sins.
Popular Significance of the Ghost Festival
is one of the most lavish events of its kind in(Image: 2011klgf.url.tw)
For followers of popular religious culture, the ideas of Buddhism and Taoism are freely mixed and the religiously-specific terms Ullambana (Yulan) Festival and Zhongyuan Festival are used more or less interchangeably and as synonyms for the Ghost Festival. Because the technical aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and popular religion are not distinguished in the minds of general believers and non-specialists, the Ghost Festival has developed into an event rich and varied in religious, cultural, and social significances. Apart from the festival’s religious aspects, charitable activities for social welfare have also become a customary practice of the festival. Just as the festival was originally meant for practicing charity for the spirit world, it has also become an extension for practicing charity for the living as well. For example, in
Hong Kong, rice distribution (派米 pai mi) activities are organized concurrently with religious ceremonies to distribute free bags of “blessed rice for safety” (平安米 ping’an mi) to the elderly. In Southeast Asia, profits from the sale of blessed food staples and the auctioning of auspicious prizes and items are all donated to charitable and welfare organizations. The themes of practicing filial respect for departed ancestors, spiritual charity for random and wayward spirits, philanthropy and charity for the living, and communal harmony and peace have all become important aspects of the Ghost Festival.
Text © 2011 Harry Leong