Ghosts are out this time of year, and they’re ravenous. You’d best offer them some food, as the Chinese have done for centuries, and be careful to not stay out after dark.
For the ancient Chinese, most of whom were farmers, the summer months were a bittersweet time. Harvests were just beginning, but this also meant that the plants were no longer growing; they’d soon die and decompose. For the agriculturally-minded ancient man, death seemed to mingle with life. These are the ancient roots of August’s Ghost Festival.
On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, these farmers would celebrate late into the night. But they’d be sure to leave some of their first harvest as a kind of sacrifice—recognizing that though there was bounty for the time being, death was always close at hand.
In fact, many believed that on this day the dead actually walked among them.
As new philosophies, religions and spiritual practices spread through China, this agricultural festival took on new meanings.
The Buddhists took this opportunity to teach that those ghosts who appeared during this festival had a correlation to spirits from the Buddhist cosmos. They were pretas (Sanskrit for “hungry ghosts”), poor souls who during their lifetimes had been greedy and cruel, and were now paying the price. In the afterlife they returned as tortured ghosts who could never sate their ravenous appetites.
The Buddhists believed that it was necessary to help these pretas, not by offering them food, but instead offering them another, Buddhist type of sustenance: prayers.
The Buddhist preta were sad, starved looking monsters. They had swollen bellies, representing their huge appetites, and long, skinny necks, to illustrate their inability to sate themselves. Buddhists urged that people pray for their poor souls.
And so the Ghost Festival became an opportunity for Buddhists to tell a story of their own, about a super-powered monk, a powerful disciple of the Buddha’s who goes looking for his undead mother, trapped in diyu (地狱), Chinese Hell, as a hungry ghost. This is the story of Mulian (目连).
Mulian (Maudgalyayana in Sanskrit), one of Buddha’s most gifted shravaka disciples, is meditating one day when he has a horrible vision. He sees that his mother, after dying, has become a hungry ghost. In Hell, she tries to eat rice, but every time she puts a kernel of rice to her mouth, it turns to coal. He is distraught and decides he must save her.
Mulian is no ordinary monk. He is equipped with spiritual superpowers: he is known to walk through walls, teleport himself vast distances and also move at the speed of light. One time, he was even seen walking on water.
Equipped with these powers, Mulian descends into Diyu to find his mother. He battles his way through the 18 Courts of Hell, in each level encountering spiritual and physical challenges. Giant hell monsters bombard him. Starved, desperate ghosts claw at his robes. But there is nothing that the super powered monk can’t handle.
Mulian arrives at the last court in Diyu and finds King Yama, the overseer of all. In his final showdown, he demands, “Where is my mother? She must be freed!”
We have to pause here before this story ends. You are, undoubtedly, on the edge of your seat, but hold on. We have to keep in mind some different beliefs that were floating around China, because this will have an effect on how Mulian’s adventure ends. There were other philosophies that were prevalent at this time; there were other, older beliefs and values.
Many Confucians were wary of Buddhism, this new religion spreading fromIndia. Confucianism advocated a rational, logical understanding of the world. Buddhism was far too esoteric.
Does it sounds kinda intimidating, hungry ghosts and all? Well learn how to survive the Ghost Festival!
In many popular versions of this story, Mulian appeals to the Shakyamuni Buddha, Gautama himself. You must pray, the Buddha replies. You must get together with other monks, 10 of them, and you must recite prayers for your mother’s soul. This, and only this, will free her from Hell.
But the Confucians valued human action over prayer.
Confucius stressed the importance of human relationships, specifically the loyalty of a child to its parents—filial piety (孝 xiào). 孝 is an important virtue in Confucianism; it must be shown towards both the living and the dead. So here was a part of Mulian’s story that could appeal to Confucians and Buddhists alike: Mulian was a supernatural mystic, sure, but he was also a devoted son. After all, he went all the way to Hell to find his mom.
“You have trespassed in my domain!” King Yama screams at Mulian. Though usually fearless, when faced with the king of Diyu, Mulian backs away, terrified. “This is a serious crime,” Yama continues, “and deserves a serious penalty!” Mulian covers his face and prepares for the worst.
But the king of Diyu pauses, his face softens. “As I think about it, I see that you’ve only come here because you’re so devoted to your mother.” He shrugs. “That, after all, is probably the best virtue a son can have.”
Yama presents Mulian with a plateful of lotus leaves. “Take these. Go see your mother. She’s free now.”
Mulian, the teleporting monk, who could walk through walls and fly faster than the speed of light, in the end didn’t have to use any of these skills against King Yama. He just had to be a good son.