The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival in modern days, is a traditional Buddhist festival held in many Asian countries in lunar July.
What is Ghost Festival?
In Vietnam, it is viewed as the time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are then released from hell. The “homeless” souls should be”fed” and appeased with offerings of food. Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish.
The lunar July in which Ghost Festival takes place is colloquially known as Thang Co Hon (month of lonely spirits) and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky. However, with social development,that belief has been changed with time.
Ha Thi Kim, a 92-year-old resident in capital Hanoi, told that she has practiced the worship in the ghost month for many years.
“When I was about 10 years old, I joined my mother in arranging the offerings for the ghosts, during which my mother explained to me every details relating to the worship. In all, it is one of our traditional rituals done to bring us a peace in mind, so I continue to follow that practice until now even when I am old and will hand it over to my daughter-in-law,” she said.
Traditionally, there are three ceremonies to be done in the ghost month. It starts with a worship for the family’s ancestors and deceased members held at noon time and with offerings of delicious food, fruits, votive clothes and money, and incense joss- sticks.
On the same day in the evening, another ceremony is held with vegetarian food, rice porridge, cakes and candies, and fruits, along with votive paper clothes and money, and incense joss-sticks. This is done for the worship of the homeless souls.
“Days before, my mother and I cut tinny clothes, about 20 sets, from old newspapers and dyed them in different colors, all for worship of the homeless souls. We also made tiny household utensils with cardboards, and burnt them altogether, along with our best wishes to the wandering souls,” the elderly woman said.
The third ceremony and also the most important event is held in the pagoda, normally in the evening of July 14 or 15, where a crowd of participants attend with utmost respect and devotion.
How is Ghost Festival held?
We attended this kind of ceremony in Lien Phai Pagoda in Hanoi recently and witnessed the mixture between traditional rituals and those in a modern life through the organization of the event and the attendants’ behavior. Influenced by Buddhism, it is like the Ullambana, or Vu Lan in the Vietnamese transliteration.
Crossing the pagoda’s entrance gate, visitors would see two trays holding red and white roses. Each visitor would pick up one rose and pinned it on the chest — a red rose if his/her mother is still living,and a white rose if their mother died. With this difference,participants could easily share with one another, either greetings for their alive mothers, or sympathy of condolence for their deceased mothers. The atmosphere in the pagoda was filled with such a special respect and love for the mothers, as well as sympathy and sharing among the community’s members.
“We hold an official ceremony for the Ghost Festival for everybody to attend, free of charge, with the utmost purpose of teaching the Buddhist followers to share with each other, both joy and sorrow, in their life, especially care and love for their mothers,” the pagoda’s chief monk said.
According to the monk, in the past, among many rituals held in the ceremony, a lot of paper votive clothes and money were burnt for the wandering souls, which cost a lot of money for the Buddhist followers.Now, the pagoda’s monk try to reduce this to the minimum by encouraging the followers to donate to the charity fund and practice good deeds every day, including helping the needy families in their community, taking part in social events for the better of their community, and taking care of their own physical health.
“These are practical things that should be promoted in a modern society but still kept in line with Buddha’s teachings,” said the chief monk.
According to Nguyen Tuan Phan, vice director of UNESCO Center for Oriental Studies under the Union of Vietnam UNESCO Associations, Vu Lan is one of the major and official Buddhist ceremonies held in lunar mid-July in Vietnam. Buddhist followers come to pagodas to pray for their living parents with good health and longevity, or their deceased parents resting in peace.
“In the mind of generations of Vietnamese people, the Ghost Festival is an occasion to show their respect and love for their ancestors and parents, hence it attracts lots of attention and affection from both the old and young doers,” said the culture researcher.