July 15 of the lunar calendar is the Zhongyuan (Hungry Ghost) Festival observed by Taoists, and the Ullambana Festival celebrated by Buddhists as well. It is a day to honor the departed spirits of ancestors as well as a festival to pray for safety and show filial piety to parents. Light up the lantern, let your wishes drift with it on the river, and the silence says it all.
The Zhongyuan Festival of Taoism
The Taoist doctrine holds that the three basic elements that generate everything in the universe are heaven, earth and water, namely, "sanyuan (Three Elements)", which are called "guan" (official), meaning, the section produced during the flowing process of time and space. The official of heaven named Lord Ziwei brings blessings. He was born on January 15, which is called Shangyuan Festival (Lantern Festival). The official of earth named Lord Qingxu absolves sins. He was born in July 15, which is called Zhongyuan Festival. The official of water named Lord Dongyin dispels disasters. He was born in October 15, which is called Xiayuan Festival. The Lantern Festival familiar to us all is the Shangyuan Festival, or Shangyuan Lantern Festival. During these three festivals, the three officials would descend upon the earth and execute their duty. They are omnipotent. The official of earth Lord Qingxu would release the deceased from sufferings at the Zhongyuan Festival, and those who have committed sins could also pray for absolution. On the Zhongyuan Festival, "Taoist sacrificial ceremony", commonly called "Taoist rite", would be held in Taoist temples to pray blessings for the commoners.
Ullambana Festival of Buddhism
- July 15 of the lunar calendar is also the Ullambana Festival for the Buddhist believers. The word "Ullambana" is the transliteration of the Sanskrit language. "Ullam" means hanging by the feet, which refers to being in sore straits; while "bana" is the vessel used to hold offerings. The Buddhist doctrine believes that offering the article could rescue the deceased parents or relatives from sore straits. For Buddhism in Han Chinese areas, the Buddhist ritual held annually on July 15 to release souls of departed ancestors from purgatory according to the Buddha Speaks: the Ullambana Sutra is called Ullambana Ceremony, Ullambana Fast, Ullambana Offering, and so on. The Ullambana Festival of Buddhism includes two meanings: one is to persuade people to provide for the Buddhist monks, the other is to inculcate people to do more charitable deeds so as to release departed souls from sins and advocate filial piety
Folk Customs on the Zhongyuan Festival
- Floating water lantern---Among the various folk customs on the Zhongyuan Festival, floating water lantern is the grandest. The water lantern, also called "lotus lantern", is usually made by pasting paper into lotus shape, and then a lamp or candle is put onto the pedestal. On the night of the Zhongyuan Festival, the lanterns will be released to rivers or lakes to drift with the flow.
Burning envelope---It is said in the folklore that the departed ancestors will be released by Yama for half a month, so there is the custom to welcome the ancestors at the beginning of July and send them off on July 15. When sending off the spirits, people will burn a lot of paper "money" of the nether world for "ancestors' spending". In the meantime, they will insert some paper "money" into an envelope, on which the user's name has been written. The envelope will be burnt for sacrifice, which is called "burning envelope".
Sending goat---There was a popular folk custom on the festival that grandfather or uncle on mother's side shall send live goat to his grandson or nephew. Legend has it that the custom has something to do with the myth Chenxiang Saving Mother from the Mountain. The custom has gradually evolved into sending a pair of flour goats.
The Legend of Mulian Saves His Mother
- Ullambana Fast is related to the legend of Mulian Saves His Mother.
It is said that after going through innumerable trials and hardships in the nether world, Mulian finally saw his mother, only to find her tortured by a group of hungry ghosts. Mulian wanted to send his mother rice and dishes with earthen bowl, but the food was snatched by hungry ghosts. Mulian had no choice but to ask Buddha for help. Moved by his filial piety, Buddha presented Mulian the Ullambana Sutra and told him to have Ullambana Fast on July 15 of the lunar calendar. On that day, food of various tastes and the five fruits C peach, plum, apricot, chestnut, date - should be provided to Buddhist monks from all directions. Under the instruction of the Ullambana Sutra, Mulian filled Ullambana with fruits and vegetarian food to offer sacrifice to his mother
on July 15, and his starving mother finally got the food. To show his gratitude to Buddha, Mulian held an almsgiving activity every year to release the hungry ghosts from the disaster of being hanged by feet.
At that time people set the day as a festival to honor the departed ancestors, relatives and friends. Every theater in old Beijing would stage the Beijing opera Mulian Saves His Mother for several consecutive days to celebrate the occasion.
Obon (Ullambana Festival) in Japan
- Obon Festival was introduced into Japan in the Flying Bird Age. It has now become a grand festival second only to the New Years Day. The Obon Festival is also called "spirit sacrifice", "lantern festival", "Buddhist Spirits Meeting" and so on. Originally a day to honor the departed spirits, it has now become a day for family reunion. All Japanese enterprises will have a 7-15-day holiday for Obon so that people can go back home to enjoy family reunion. During the festival, every household will set up a spiritual niche, light up mukae-bi (welcoming flame) and okuri-bi (seeing-off flame), and offer sacrifice to departed ancestors.
- The Daimonji-yaki (bonfire event) in Kyoto can be credited as the climax of the festival. Another form to seeing off the ghosts is to have bon odori (folk dance). On the summer night, all people - men and women, old and young C will dance in yukata accompanied by the beats of taiko drums. The activity has become a well-known tourist sightseeing event in Japan.