Ullambana. Have you heard of it? It is believed to be the time when the gates of hell are opened and dead souls emerge to visit the land of the living. Ullambana is known variously by several names, such as Ching Ming Jie in Singapore, O-Bon in Japan and Vu Lan in Vietnam but most commonly as the Ghost Month or the Hungry Ghost Festival. This year, the Ghost Month is just round the corner—August. Most people consider it to be the the scariest but most important month of the year. That’s because hungry ghosts can cause misfortune and even “seek to possess weak-willed men and women so as to dispossess their souls and take over their bodies, all the better to eat and drink with…The desires of hungry ghosts are never satisfied and they must endlessly seek gratuity from the living.”
In Taoism, the indigenous religion of China, it is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, and hungry ghosts are released to find food or to take revenge on those who have behaved badly. The gates are closed on the last day of that month, and the hungry ghosts return to hell. Some Chinese think that the gates of heaven are also opened during this month, and they worship their ancestors from heaven too. The world of the hungry ghosts is one of the six realms of Buddhism. It is believed that there are thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seek water to drink.
In Hungry Ghosts: their History and Origin, Linda Heaphy provides a fascinating account of hungry ghosts. “Hungry ghosts are the demon-like creatures described in Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain texts as the remnants of the dead who are afflicted with insatiable desire, hunger or thirst as a result of bad deeds or evil intent carried out in their life times. Found in every part of the Far East, from the Philippines to Japan and China, Thailand, Laos, Burma, India and Pakistan, they are universally described as human-like wraiths with mummified skin, narrow withered limbs, grossly bulging stomachs, long thin necks and tiny mouths…
“Their specific hunger varies according to their past karma and the sins they are atoning for. Some can eat but find it impossible to find food or drink. Others may find food and drink, but have pinhole mouths and cannot swallow. For others, food bursts into flames or rots even as they devour it. Japanese hungry ghosts called gaki must eat excrement while those called jikininki are cursed to devour human corpses. According to Hindu tradition, hungry ghosts may endlessly seek particular objects, emotions or people, those things that obsessed them or caused them to commit bad deeds when they were living: riches, gems, children, even fear or the vitality of the living….”
Hungry ghosts are recognsied and feared worldwide. In India, an excerpt from the Garuda Purana, translated by J.L. Shastri, explains the origin of a hungry ghost. “Once an aged woman of the brahmana caste went to the holy place Bhadravrata. The old woman lived with her son aged five years… I…a ksatriya pretender… saw the little boy drinking water from a jar. In that wilderness, only that much water was there. I frightened the boy from drinking water and being thirsty myself began to drink from the jar. The boy died of thirst and the mother who was struck with grief died too, by throwing herself into a dry well. O brahmana, by that sin I became a ghost with mouth as small as the hole of a needle and body as huge as a mountain. Although I get food I cannot eat. Although I burn with hunger my mouth is contracted. Since in my mouth I have a hole equal to that of a needle I am known as Sucimukha.”
The word «Ullambana» is supposed to be derived from the Sanskrit word avalambana or “hanging down” signifying «deliverance from agony», and particularly alludes to salvation for tormented souls. During the Hungry Ghost Month, Buddhists all over the world offer supplications to their ancestors, illustrious people who have died, and to their parents, living guardians and the aged. If possible, every family burns a small fire in front of their house on the first day of the Ghost Month to welcome their ancestors. The rituals involve making offerings include food, burning of incense, paper money and gifts like clothes, shoes, cars, cosmetics, furniture, etc, and providing traditional entertainment such as song and dance. During these «Getai» shows the first row of chairs is kept empty, reserved for the ghosts. Finally, when the month draws to a close, lotus-shaped lanterns are set afloat on rivers to guide the ghosts and help them find their way back to the land of the dead. As during the Pitri Paksh or ancestor fortnight in India which begins on 24 September this year, in the Hungry Ghost Month which begins earlier from 11 August, no one carries out auspicious undertakings such as buying anything new or moving into a new house, etc. On the last day families burn a small fire again in front of their house to send their ancestors back.
In the well known Tirokudda Kanda of the Tirokudda Sutta—Hungry Shades Outside the Walls, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu the predicament of departed souls and the importance of making offerings to them is discussed in detail. «Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads./At door posts they stand, returning to their old homes./…those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives give timely donations of proper food and drink…/ ‘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 and drink:/ ‘May our relatives live long/ because of whom we have gained [this gift]./ We have been honoured, and the donors are not without reward!’/ For there 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… when this offering is given…/ great honour has been done to the dead…”