Hungry Ghost Festival & Yulan Festival | 中元節和盂蘭盆節
The 15th of the seventh month of the lunar calendar is the first full moon after the autumnal equinox, it is a day to celebrate good harvest and to thank the Earth. In Eastern traditions, civilians and the royals will pray to the gods and ancestors with fresh crops to pay respect to the deceased. Ancestral worship is an important aspect in Eastern religions, therefore this custom passed from generation to generation for thousands of years. Ancestral worship has since combined with shamanism, Taoism and Buddhism and became the Hungry Ghost Festival and Yulan Festival of the modern days.
Buddhist monks used to practice together in rainy seasons, which is called Vassa or the rains retreat - a three month annual retreat that usually lasts from the fourth to the seventh lunar month. Pavarana is the last day of the Vassa, which ends on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, also called the day of Ullambana - Buddhists will make offerings of the triple gem (buddha, dharma and sangha) to transfer merits to the pretas to help them reborn and release from sufferings, especially to our parents and ancestors.
The Chungyuan (Ghost) Festival is also part of the Taoist tradition, it is the date when the god of Earth gives absolution for the sins of the dead. On this day the gates of the underworld are opened and the souls of the dead wander among living - a day that represents Light is ending and Darkness takes over and enter the dark half of the year. Taoist practitioners will give offerings of food and fruits and make prayers and chantings of sutras to help the deceased to crossover to the other side.
With folk traditions, Taoist and Buddhist practices, there will be similar kinds of rituals and offerings on the 15th of the seventh lunar month every year to honour the dearly departed. In modern days, there are festive celebrations such as theatrical performances other than the long held folk tradition of offering food and drinks to wandering spirits on Ullabana to keep the living safe and peaceful, in Chinese societies there are even religious operas performed. The festive activities and traditions also have their social function of uniting ethnic groups and communities.
In Canton area, including Hong Kong, we call this day the Yulan Festival, and it’s usually held on the 14th of the seventh lunar month. Some see it as the fearful Ghost Festival which lasts the whole month, every district will have it’s Ullambana celebrations - people will honour their ancestors and the deceased by burning paper money and making food and drinks offerings on the street. However, there are also many taboos such as don’t walk by the wall, don’t move house or marry in the month, and don’t leave your clothes drying outside until midnight. Other taboos like do not hang around at night do not have any legit reason from a traditional perspective, as most ritual performances and celebrations take part in the evening, there are somehow contradictions with the folk traditions and taboos.
These kind of commemorative traditions passed down from generations has always taught us to be thankful and respect all spirits and energies around us and within the universe, the difference between the living and the dead are not much and the line is thin - we are in contact with them on a daily basis. No matter our religion or beliefs, we should always pay respect and be kind to each other.
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