The Ghost Festival is a traditional Taoist and Buddhist festival that’s held in several different East Asian countries. Also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, the Yulan Festival, Gui Jie, and Zhongyuan Jie, this holiday is observed on the 15th night of the seventh month on the Chinese calendar.
This is a holiday on which people believe that the gates of hell open up and the dead are allowed to walk among the living in search of food. That kind of makes it like Halloween in the west, but with more of an emphasis placed on the spiritual aspect of this holiday than what westerners place on the holiday of Halloween.
The History Of The Ghost Festival
Although the history of the Ghost Festival is a little bit vague and is seemingly lost to the veil of history, it’s believed that this holiday began in ancient India. It’s believed that it goes back to ancient Mahāyāna texts such as the Ullambana Sutra and The Yulanpen Sutra. In these texts, Maudgalyayana achieves a spiritual “knowing” known as Abhijñā. This granted him some supernatural powers—one of which is the ability to see past lives.
Maudgalyayana then discovers that his deceased mother was reborn as a Preta—a ghost that is eternally hungry and is in a state of suffering. Since she was in a wasted condition, Maudgalyayana tried to give her a bowl of rice. Unfortunately, since she was a Preta, she was unable to actually consume the bowl of rice and it was instantly turned into burning coal.
In one last attempt to save his deceased mother, he turned to Buddha to help him. Buddha then gives him the instructions he needs to help his mother. These instructions allowed children to help their current parents in this life and their deceased parents in the next life by giving food and other items to the public or monastic community during Pravarana.
Of course, some forms of this holiday are even older than the ones described in the Ylanpen Sutra. Theravadan forms of the festival in Southeast and Southern Asia go back even further to the Petavatthu—a scripture that goes back to the 3rd century BC.
Ghost Festival Observations
The Ghost Festival is held on a date in which a confluence of different events is all taking place at the same time during this holiday. It’s observed on the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, at the same time as the full moon, the rebirth of ancestors, and the fall harvest. It also occurs at the same time as the peak of monastic asceticism in the Buddhist religion.
According to tradition, the gates of hell are opened during this time, and ghosts are allowed to freely roam the countryside and among the living. These ghosts are believed to be the ancestors of those who forget to pay tribute to them after their death or were not given the proper burial rites. These ghosts, known as Preta, have long necks that are needle-thin—so thin that they’re unable to swallow food.
During this time, prayers are offered to deceased relatives, as well as food and drink to appease these spirits. It’s also a time when people burn hell money—joss paper that resembles banknotes. It’s believed that this joss paper has value in the afterlife and is used in much of the same way as money. People also burn paper houses, television sets, cars, and even paper servants as a way to please these spirits. On the fourteenth day of the seventh month, a large feast is held for the ghosts of the spirits that roam the earth.
People also hold Buddhists and Taoist ceremonies on this day, burn incense and float water lanterns. In Malaysia and Singapore, live concerts known as Getai or Koh-Tai are performed by singers, entertainers, dancers, and other performing artists. The front row of the concert is left empty for the roaming ghosts. It’s considered unlucky for any living person to sit in them during the concert.
In Taiwan, the entire seventh lunar month of the year is celebrated as Ghost Month. On the very first day, the gate of a temple is opened and this represents the gates of hell opening. On the twelfth day of the month, all of the lamps on the main altar of the temple are lit. The next day, there’s a procession of lanterns and on the day after that, a parade is held and water lanterns are released.
It’s common for people to try to avoid any surgery during this month, to avoid moving, marrying their significant other, or taking pictures after the sun has set. People also avoid buying cars, swimming, or whistling as well. Ghost Festival is celebrated in other countries around the world including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and Indonesia.