Monday, September 7, 2009

Hungry Ghost Month

This is the traditional month of the Hungry Ghosts. It is celebrated not only in chinese societies aroudn the world but also in Japanese, Vietnamese and other cultures. Wikipedia mentioned that some people refer it to as the "Chinese Halloween". There are several youtube videos that show you what this celebration is all about. You can also read about "Ghost festival" in Wikipedia although the information there about Ullambana story is not the version I had read. Perhaps the Ullambana story is different under Theravada and Mahayana tradition? I need to check on this. But anyway, it had been my family's tradition (as is many other who observes this festival) to burn the folded paper money as well as printed fake "hell notes" to those hungry ghosts who are supposedly "released" from hell for a one month reprive. This part of it is seriously , I believe, only of cultural origin. There is no truth in hell beings getting a short "holiday".

I have been following my family tradition in observing this practice. On the 1st, 15th and 30th day (last day) of the month, my family will burn the paper money (and other paper stuffs as representing the real things) , light some candles and joss-sticks as offerings outside our gates. I still go to the make-shift prayer "tents" and pay my respects to the deities there, especially to the Lord of Hades who is supposedly the controller of the hell-beings released so that they donot create trouble for humans. Some Buddhists might be taken aback and surprised why I still do continue with this practice. I know many Buddhists have given up on this traditional chinese practice for reasons of it being unbuddhistic. My explanation is simple: why can't I turn it into a Buddhist practice? Is it that difficult? If we understand the Buddhist principles, it's not that difficult. By turning it into a Buddhist practice of great liberation, I am not only not abandoning my Buddhist faith but also not abandoning my culture.

So why do I call it the Great Liberation practice? I treat this one month as a dedicated month to practice compassion to liberate the beings of the lower realms. Of course we can practice it anytime of the year, but this is like a special period chosen to do a concentrated practice to liberate them. For whatever reasons it was chosen in the 7th lunar month, I can only be grateful for those who conceived of this tradition.

How do we practice it the Buddhist way? Well, first visualise all the folded paper money, hell notes, the paper clothes, paper shoes, etc as real and then together with the biscuits, food, incense and all the other offerings, we first offer these to the Buddhas and the rest of the Arya Sanghas in our field of merit. Do this as a Great Offering. Secondly, we say "Om Ah Hum" and burn them. But not normal burning. We treat it as a fire puja. We can also visualise all the demerits and offenses of the lower realm beings coming out from these beings and goes into the fire. Then visualise these beings karma as completely purified. Third, the merits are transferred/dedicated from the offerings to the Buddhas and merit field and also the fire puja to the beings of the lower realms (not just hungry ghosts). Finally, then make an aspiration that they no longer engage in negative actions that will bring them to the lower realms and that they be forever guided in the Buddha Way. For this, visualise the beings as liberated and goes to Amitabha Pure Land.

Even though I am a Buddhist, there is no reason why I should not give my respect to these spirits, deities and Lord of Hades (King Yama). It's not the same way we regard the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. But it's still the same respect, just as we respect our fellow humans.

Externally, people may think I am doing the same practice as others, but secretly, I maintain my Buddhist practice. I can't go around and tell my neighbours and others how I practice, because not everyone is receptive to it. Anyway, it can backfire if the listener is not spiritually ready to be guided by the Buddhist way. Anyway I donot go around proselytising the Buddhist way. However I should not keep it a secret either. Therefore, at the least I publish it here for fellow Buddhists to consider. If it is in accord with Buddhadharma, you can accept it. If not, please disregard this ignorant mind.

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