Liqiu (立秋) arrived on the afternoon of 7 August 2021 along with a heavy downpour. The Gates of Hell opened at 11pm, marking the start of the Ghost Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Festival), with people worshipping ghosts and spirits with offerings.
While the month-long Ghost Festival is a folk religion, its impacts are huge. There are many taboos and prohibitions, as well as different ways of cleansing and praying for blessings. Each region, and even each industry, has their own way of doing it.
With the Gates of Hell wide open, souls of the dead are wandering around. If we adhere to folk beliefs, how are we to get along with the deceased who have come back during this month? Would it be like strangers crossing paths? Would it be a brief encounter? Or in the way that Song dynasty poet Su Shi had mourned his wife ten years after she had passed away: “Perhaps you wouldn’t recognise me even if we met, for I have grown old and my hair has turned white”?
Be it the living or the dead, to not recognise each other on a fateful meeting, or to have no way of discovering the karma of our past and future, is perhaps the reason for the deep sorrow that Su had felt.
Many people also refer to ghosts and spirits as “good brothers” (好兄弟). Indeed, more than four million lives have been lost over the course of the pandemic. Can I really recognise the deceased and call them “good brothers”?
The living will become the dead and the dead were once alive. What separates them is time. Many believe this wall of time is crumbled and gone during this month.
An important ritual during the Ghost Festival is Pudu (普渡, a rite for saving all sentient beings), which is held across East Asia.
The Taoist call this rite “Zhongyuan Pudu”, while the Buddhist call it the “Yulanpen Festival” (盂兰盆节). This ritual may have originated from Maudgalyayana (the Chinese call him Mulian), one of Buddha’s closest disciples. Since the Northern and Southern dynasties, the Chinese have adapted the story of how Mulian had saved his mother from hell into a folk opera and passed it down from generation to generation.
Legend has it that Mulian’s mother suffered tremendously in hell for her transgressions. Mulian was a filial son and tried sending her food by placing it on the ancestral altar but it would always burst into flames just as it was about to reach her mouth. Mulian then sought help from Buddha and descended into hell to save his mother.
This story also spread in Taiwan and I could still vividly remember the frightening scenes I saw at the funerals when I was young, where filial sons would act out various types of torture in hell, such as rolling on nails, climbing a mountain of swords, and plunging into a sea of flames.
So, the Yulanpen Festival exists to allow the living to use their utmost beliefs to help the dead escape from their sufferings, and liberate all sentient beings across the six realms of rebirth and existence. Souls are wandering on land, in the waters, and in the air. So there is a tradition of floating water lanterns in the river in Taiwan and Japan.
I once floated a water lantern beneath the Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto’s Arashiyama District together with the locals. A lit candle was placed on a small piece of wood and lowered onto the water surface.
I clasped my hands in prayer, chanted the names of the dead, and prayed that all sentient beings would be freed from their sufferings. Carried by the currents, the tiny glow of the candlelight drifted away in the dark.
It felt as if misfortunes and disasters were also drifting away. Sentient beings of the six realms who are strangers to me, as well as people whom I have met and known, can all be liberated and freed from worries.
There are aspirations in the longstanding folk beliefs of the people. Reason and science find these hard to explain as they are way too arrogant to want to understand, and dismiss these beliefs as mere superstitions. They perhaps have no yuan (缘) or affinity with sentient beings — they meet but do not recognise each other.
May the lamp at the feet of the Buddha at the International Bodhisattva Sangha in Taichung light the path to liberation for the dead.
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