Chinese ghost festival –
A ritual that embodies Buddhist and Chinese values
The Ghost festival, the second most important festival of the year, is an event in which features of Buddhism are most relevant in Chinese culture. The ritual, by essence, belongs to the living and the dead – it creates a harmony between the two, as well as that between the individual, society and nature in its performance. Its Chinese term, Yu lan pen hui, is composed of the foreign word “yu lan” that refers to the pitiable fate of those hung upside down in the prisons of hell and the Chinese term “pen” which indicates the bowl in which offerings are placed. As the story of Mulien recorded in the Hungry ghost sutra represents, the festival synthesizes elements of Indian Buddhism into the indigenous concepts of China. Stephen F Teiser essentially captures this quality when he descirbes it as “China was made more Buddhist and Buddhism was made more Chinese.” Because the Yu lan pen jing is a key text in the development of the Buddhist rites in the ghost festival that is held in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, it will be examined to observe the blending of the two values. The Ghost Festival Sutra (also known as Yu lan pen jing), which was written in the sixth century, is peppered with traces of Buddhism attempting to integrate into Chinese life. Its first few lines become all the more significant when considering that they were not present in the oldest narrative forged approximately eighty years earlier that serves as the basis of the ghost festival, The Sutra on Repaying the Kindness by Making Offerings (also referred to as Bao en feng pen jing). As Alan Cole, Professor of Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College cites in his book Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism the Ghost Festival Sutra, Buddha pronounces these words as Mu Lian explains his failure in feeding his mother: “Even [you cannot achieve this feeding] though your filial submission resounds [everywhere], shaking heaven and earth. Neither the gods of heaven nor the gods of earth nor the evil demons of the heterodox [sects], nor the Daoist masters, nor the four heavenly kings can achieve this either” (Cole 88). Primarily, this passage directly highlights Mu Lian’ s filial affection – as Cole points out, he is endowed with the honor of being praised by the Buddha as someone whose filial submission “[shakes] heaven and earth,” which indicates that Mu Lian is considered to be the paradigm of filial piety (89). This addendum could be construed as an adaptation to the Chinese ideal, in which filiality is of the essence. More importantly however, the second half strongly suggests that the Buddhist institution has the sole rights to perform such form of ghost festival. The writers deem the non-Buddhist religious specialists – including all other gods and Daoist practitioners - to be incapable of achieving the feeding of the dead (Cole 89). This reflects the increasing competition between the Buddhists and Daoists over crafting such offerings. The mix of Chinese and Buddhist ideas is also manifest in Buddha’s explanation of the reason for “the food enter[ing] [Mu Lien’s mother’s] mouth … chang[ing] into flaming coals, so in the end she could not eat” as cited by Stephen F Teiser (Teiser 50). The Buddha states that his “mother’s sins are grave” (50). This directly refers to the Indian notions of Karma, signifying that his mother’s actions in previous lifetimes have led her to her current state. The second half of the Yu lan pen jing further denotes the filial theme, but emphasizes that it can only be fulfilled using Buddhist ritual means, by making offerings to the Buddhists. As Cole puts it, filial devotion is evidently “equated with being a good Buddhist” – this can be observed for instance, in the Mu Lian’s question to the Buddha shown in the following quote from Stephen F. Teiser’ s translation of the Sutra in his book The Ghost...
Bibliography: Cole, Alan. "Mothers and Sons in the Ghost Festival." Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998. 80-102. Print.
Lakos, William. Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Practice and Ritual Oriented Approach to Understanding Chinese Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2010. Print.
Lopez, Donald S. "Saving the Burning-Mouth Hungry Ghost." Religions of China in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1996. 278-83. Print.
Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988. Print.
Teiser, Stephen F. "Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion: The Yu-lan-p 'en Festival as Mortuary Ritual." History of Religions 26.1 (1986): 47-67. Print.
Weller, Robert P. "Pragmatic Ghosts." Unities and Diversities in Chinese Religion. Seattle: University of Washington, 1987. N. pag. Print.
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