Origin story of Hungry Ghost Festival is actually one of redemption & filial piety

One version of the story.

Mandy How | August 01, 2019, 03:26 PM

The Hungry Ghost Festival brings out many questions (and the heebie-jeebies) in some of us:

Gates of hell open

For taoists, the festival is known as Zhong Yuan Jie (中元节), while for Buddhists it's known as Yu Lan Pen Jie (盂兰盆节).

The seventh month of the lunar calendar is seen as a time where the gates of hell open, allowing the dead to visit the living.

It is also a time of ancestor veneration (hence the offerings/rituals), where they could absolve the spirits of their suffering in the afterlife.

Offerings are similarly used to appease other spirits that might be wandering around.

Vision of suffering mother

The origins of the festival, however, reportedly come from the Yulanpen Sutra (also known as the Ullambana Sutra).

In one version of the story, Moggallāna — one of Buddha's closest disciples who had attained enlightenment — had a vision of his mother suffering as a hungry ghost.

With his powers, Moggallāna provided a bowl of rice to his mother. However, when the food reached her hands, it burst into flames (or turned to charcoal in an alternate version of the story).

Saddened, the disciple went to ask Buddha for advice.

At this, Buddha tells Moggallāna that his mother is suffering retribution for being unkind and greedy in her past life.

Redemption through offerings

To redeem her, he should offer a tray of food to a community of monks and nuns who are returning from their summer retreat on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.

This would prompt them to offer prayers that would benefit seven generations of his ancestors.

In Moggallān's case, his mother was raised from the status of a hungry ghost to be reborn as a dog in a rich family.

He later raised her to human status by giving food and new robes to 500 monks.

As the prayers were thought to be more effective when it was a collective effort, it eventually gave rise to the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Top image by missbossy/Flickr