Ullambana: The Original Hungry Ghost Festival

13 July 2017 - 5:07pm Comments Off

#DoMore this Ullambana and Experience the Real Spirit of the Hungry Ghost Festival

Every seventh lunar month, the streets of many Asian countries come alive as stages are erected for nightly performances of traditional Chinese opera and modern pop. Banquet tables are laid out with an array of food, arranged in long rows in front of a massive altar presided over by an even more massive effigy of the Guardian of the Netherworld — ‘Da Shi Ye’ — made from rattan and paper. He is usually accompanied by a long line of colourful papier mache horses, mountains of “hell” paper offerings and more rows of giant incense sticks.

Da Shi Ye

A 26-feet height Da Shi Ye made from rattan and paper, with abundant offerings on the altar. Bukit Mertajam, Penang. Source:http://ptlimlink.blogspot.my

Zhong Yuan Jie’ or ‘Yu Lan’ is the Hungry Ghost Festival and it is the second most important festival, after Chinese New Year, for Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Combining folk beliefs with a blend of Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist traditions, the Chinese observing this “ghost month” believe it is when ghosts or spirits — the souls of dead ancestors — are released from the lower realms to wander the human realm for 30 days.

This feast for the wandering souls is an extensive period for the living to make offerings to placate the spirits of the deceased, who can sometimes cause mischief or even be malevolent. Thus, the rites performed and offerings made over the weeks of the festival are tributes from the living to the dead for repentance and prayers requesting blessings for prosperity and the dispelling of misfortune. A variety of taboos such as not staying out late after dark for fear of meeting ghosts are also observed during this period.

Paper offerings

In the home, Chinese families practise traditions to welcome back their dearly departed by making places for them at the dining table as well as burning incense and other offerings to provide the deceased with “material needs” to use in the afterlife.

Making offerings to one's ancestors

At the end of the month, the festival concludes with a grand sending off to ensure the safe and happy return of the deceased, with floating candles and the burning of all the paper offerings accumulated over the month.

Floating candles to guide the deceased for their safe return

The Buddhist Origins of the Hungry Ghost Festival

The Hungry Ghost, called “Preta” in Sanskrit, is a being of the lower realm known in Buddhism as the “Realm of the Hungry Ghosts”. First celebrated in China as ‘Yu Lan Pan’ — a time for remembering deceased ancestors — the Hungry Ghost Festival gets its origins from the Ullambana Festival, named after the Buddhist sutra of the same name. The word “Ullambana” can be translated as “deliverance from suffering.”

In the Ullambana Sutra, a disciple of the Buddha named Mahamaudgalyayana — known in China as Mu Lian — discovered that his mother had taken rebirth as a preta. He became distraught when the food he offered her turned to burning coals in her mouth. In sorrow from being unable to do anything for her, he sought help from the Buddha and was given these instructions:

On the 15th day of the 7th month, offerings of fruits and other food, along with the burning of incense and candles are to be made with mantras and prayers at an altar. Only then will the ancestors who have passed into lower realms be released from their suffering.

Sjmn 11

If one thus makes offerings to these Pravarana Sanghans, one’s present father and mother, parents of seven generations past, as well as the six kinds of close relatives will escape from the three paths of suffering, and at that time attain release. Their clothing and food will spontaneously appear. If the parents are still alive, they will have wealth and blessings for a hundred years. Parents of seven generations past will be born in the heavens. Transformationally born, they will independently enter the celestial flower light, and experience limitless bliss. – Shakyamuni Buddha, from ‘The Ullambana Sutra’

This popular Buddhist tale on the importance of filial piety became known in China as ‘Mulian Saves His Mother From Hell.’ Made into a folk opera traditionally performed for the Ghost Festival, it has gained renown as “the greatest of all Chinese religious operas.” In the centuries after it was introduced, the tale was absorbed by Chinese folk religion and eventually became the Hungry Ghost Festival we know today.

Illustration of Mahamaudgalyayana in the Buddhist Realm of Hungry Ghosts. From the Ullambana Sutra.

Honour the Departed with the Blessings of the Buddha at Ullambana

Ullambana is celebrated by Buddhists in many Asian countries. Sharing many similarities with the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, this period for honouring ancestors with offerings is observed by Buddhists from all traditions. In Cambodia, the month-long festival — called ‘Pchum Ben‘ is one of the country’s biggest holidays. Known as ‘Boun Khao Padabdine‘ in Laos, ‘Mataka Danes‘ in Sri Lanka and ‘Sat Thai‘ in Thailand, Theravadan Buddhists celebrate Ullambana with offerings of feasts and prayers for the deceased. It also marks the end of the Buddhist Lent, Vassa.


Making offerings for the deceased during Ullambana brings immense benefits for our dearly departed who have the misfortune to have taken rebirth in the lower realms. It is also extremely meritorious for the living, a selfless act of generosity which increases the development of Bodhicitta and makes peace with karmic debtors.

This year, Kechara’s Ullambana celebrations will be held at Wisdom Hall in Kechara Forest Retreat on 27 August. Everyone is invited to be a part of this special festival to appease and liberate the unfortunate souls trapped in the lower realms.

Two powerful pujas will be performed. In the morning, a Lama Chopa Tsok — Guru Puja with Food Offerings to the Unseen Beings. This is a practice of making offerings and requests to the Buddhas and lineage gurus, who represent the path to liberation.

In the afternoon, a Gyabshi puja — the Grand 400 Offerings Ritual for sending off unseen beings, obtaining powerful protection and clearing the biggest of obstacles. In between, there will be a complimentary vegetarian lunch and merit-making performances.

Because we know everyone’s needs are different, Kechara has put together a range of offering packages for individuals, families and businesses to be protected, and make as much merit as possible. Get yours in person at Kechara House, Kechara Paradise outlets or order online at VajraSecrets.com.

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For more information or sponsorship enquiries, please get in touch with us at +603 7803 3908, +609 222 3880, +6012 987 3908 or email care@kechara.com

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