Hungry Ghosts

Taai Si Wong presides over the festival reports to the King of Diyu about the conduct of the spirits during their month back on Earth.

The seventh lunar month is when the gates of Diyu 地獄 Diyu translates literally as earth prison) open and the inhabitants of hell may roam freely in the land of the living.

All those who are in Diyu are given a free pass. These include spirits undergoing punishment for their sins and being prepared for reincarnation. However, for an outsider who is not actively involved in the rituals and observations of the seventh lunar month, it seems that the focus tends to be on ‘hungry’ ghosts. In fact, this festival is one of several practised by the Chinese to revere their ancestors. (The others include Qingming festival 清明節 and the Double Ninth festival 重陽節, which I will cover in separate posts.)

What are hungry ghosts?

In Chinese folk religion, Daoism, and certain forms of Buddhism, hungry ghosts are the spirits of those who have suffered violent deaths or passed on in extreme misery. Hungry ghosts may also be those whose families no longer practise ancestral worship or do not have male heirs to carry out the ancestral veneration rituals. These spirits tend to be hostile and animalistic in their actions.

A painting of ghosts from the Yuan Dynasty period.

Another explanation for hungry ghosts is offered by the Hua-yen Sutra, which says that different evil deeds will result in a soul being reborn in a different state. Those who have committed the vilest deeds are born as creatures of hell; moderate forms of evil deeds will lead to rebirth as animals; and those who have committed the lowest degree of evil will be reborn as hungry ghosts.

Deeds that could lead to one ending up reborn as a hungry ghost include killing, stealing and sexual misdemeanours. This makes me wonder what would lead to someone being born as an animal or a denizen of hell. Would Vlad the Impaler and Hitler be reborn as the latter?

Ghost Month

A hell banknote 冥鈔 bearing the image of the Jade Emperor.

On the first day of the seventh lunar month, Malaysian Daoists and Buddhists burn paper money and incense sticks, and make food offerings at small temporary roadside shrines. If you’re neither a Daoist or Buddhist, you may not notice or recognise such activities. What you can’t fail to notice are the street celebrations with tables of food and open-air concerts organised especially for the entertainment of spirits. These usually happen in the market square under huge tents or temporary stalls with zinc roofs. A stage will always be included, with rows of seats for the audience. The first row is kept empty by common understanding: everyone knows that these seats are reserved for spirits.

When I was a child in Segamat, Johor, my family used to visit these street celebrations. I remember tables piled high with food, in particular whole pigs, both roasted and uncooked. The performances then were Chinese opera, which terrified me. I wish I had a time machine that would send me back to those days.

Ghost Festival

The main festival day, known as Zhongyuan 中元節 to the Daoists and Yulanpen 盂蘭盆節 to the Buddhists, falls </span>on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. (Both Buddhism and Daoism stress the importance of the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, but for different reasons, which I will write about in a different post.) On the morning and afternoon of this day, Daoists and Buddhists offer prayers and prepare altar feasts for their ancestors. In the evening, more roadside food offerings are made to the hungry ghosts.

From what I’ve been told, households tend to restrict their hungry ghosts offerings to the first and fifteenth evenings of the month. For the rest of the month, it is left to the organisers of the public celebrations to see to the needs of the wandering spirits.

On the final day of the seventh lunar month, the spirits are sent on their way. Often, Daoist monks will chant to encourage the spirits to make their way back to the underworld before the gates are once more closed and locked until the following year.

Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls
(Petavatthu Verse 1.5, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2010)

Outside the walls they stand,
& at crossroads.
At door posts they stand,
returning to their old homes.
But when a meal with plentiful food
& drink is served,
no one remembers them:
Such is the kamma of living beings.
Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives
give timely donations of proper food
& drink — exquisite, clean — [thinking:]
“May this be for our relatives. May our relatives be happy!”
And those who have gathered there,
the assembled shades of the relatives,
with appreciation give their blessing
for the plentiful food & drink:
“May our relatives live long
because of whom we have gained [this gift].
We have been honored,
and the donors are not without reward!”
For there [in their realm]
there’s no farming, no herding of cattle,
no commerce, no trading with money.
They live on what is given here,
hungry shades whose time here is done.
As water raining on a hill flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here benefit the dead.
“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
they were my relatives, companions, friends”:
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus on things done in the past.
For no weeping, no sorrowing no other lamentation
benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way.
But when this offering is given,
well-placed in the Sangha,
it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.
In this way the proper duty
to relatives has been shown,
great honor has been done to the dead,
and monks have been given strength:
The merit you’ve acquired isn’t small.

An illustration from ‘The Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts’ (late-Heian Period, late-12th Century), which can be viewed at the Kyoto National Museum. You can see more of the scroll at the museum’s website.

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