The Ghost festival, the second most important festival of the year, is an event in which features of Buddhism are most relevant in Chinese culture. The ritual, by essence, belongs to the living and the dead – it creates a harmony between the two, as well as that between the individual, society and nature in its performance. Its Chinese term, Yu lan pen hui, is composed of the foreign word “yu lan” that refers to the pitiable fate of those hung upside down in the prisons of hell and the Chinese term “pen” which indicates the bowl in which offerings are placed.
As the story of Mulien recorded in the Hungry ghost sutra represents, the festival synthesizes elements of Indian Buddhism into the indigenous concepts of China. Stephen F Teiser essentially captures this quality when he descirbes it as “China was made more Buddhist and Buddhism was made more Chinese. ” Because the Yu lan pen jing is a key text in the development of the Buddhist rites in the ghost festival that is held in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, it will be examined to observe the blending of the two values.
The Ghost Festival Sutra (also known as Yu lan pen jing), which was written in the sixth century, is peppered with traces of Buddhism attempting to integrate into Chinese life. Its first few lines become all the more significant when considering that they were not present in the oldest narrative forged approximately eighty years earlier that serves as the basis of the ghost festival, The Sutra on Repaying the Kindness by Making Offerings (also referred to as Bao en feng pen jing).
As Alan Cole, Professor of Religious Studies at Lewis and Clark College cites in his book Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism the Ghost Festival Sutra, Buddha pronounces these words as Mu Lian explains his failure in feeding his mother: “Even [you cannot achieve this feeding] though your filial submission resounds [everywhere], shaking heaven and earth. Neither the gods of heaven nor the gods of earth nor the evil demons of the heterodox [sects], nor the Daoist masters, nor the four heavenly kings can achieve this either” (Cole 88).
Primarily, this passage directly highlights Mu Lian’ s filial affection – as Cole points out, he is endowed with the honor of being praised by the Buddha as someone whose filial submission “[shakes] heaven and earth,” which indicates that Mu Lian is considered to be the paradigm of filial piety (89). This addendum could be construed as an adaptation to the Chinese ideal, in which filiality is of the essence. More importantly however, the second half strongly suggests that the Buddhist institution has the sole rights to perform such form of ghost festival.
The writers deem the non-Buddhist religious specialists – including all other gods and Daoist practitioners – to be incapable of achieving the feeding of the dead (Cole 89). This reflects the increasing competition between the Buddhists and Daoists over crafting such offerings. The mix of Chinese and Buddhist ideas is also manifest in Buddha’s explanation of the reason for “the food enter[ing] [Mu Lien’s mother’s] mouth … chang[ing] into flaming coals, so in the end she could not eat” as cited by Stephen F Teiser (Teiser 50). The Buddha states that his “mother’s sins are grave” (50).
This directly refers to the Indian notions of Karma, signifying that his mother’s actions in previous lifetimes have led her to her current state. The second half of the Yu lan pen jing further denotes the filial theme, but emphasizes that it can only be fulfilled using Buddhist ritual means, by making offerings to the Buddhists. As Cole puts it, filial devotion is evidently “equated with being a good Buddhist” – this can be observed for instance, in the Mu Lian’s question to the Buddha shown in the following quote from Stephen F.
Teiser’ s translation of the Sutra in his book The Ghost Festival in Medieval China: “But all of the future disciples of the Buddha who practice filial devotion, may they or may they not also prevent yu-lan bowls as required to save their parents as well as seven generations of ancestors” (Teiser 52). This again concords with the Chinese essentiality of filial affection, which “surpasses all other ethics in tis historical continuity” as Ho describes in William Lakos’ book Chinese Ancestor Worship (Lakos 52).
Moreover, as translated by Teiser, the final passage states the desired relationship between the ritual and the Chinese society in affirming that “kings of states, princes, sons of kings, great ministers, counselors, dignitaries of the three ranks, any government officials or the majority of common people who practice filial compassion” are required to perform the ritual. This again underlines the explicit connection that the Sutra draws between performing the ritual and being filial.
As Cole coins it “if you are to be filial, you perform this 7/15 Buddhist offering regardless of who you are in Chinese society” (Cole 93). In this respect, the text places the date 7/15 as the center of discussion on Buddhist filiality, characterized by the duty to save one’s parent and the necessity to make offerings to the Sangha. The festival reveals the syncretic character of Buddhism with Chinese social and cultural systems. Buddhist myths and rituals exist simultaneously with the Chinese indigenous forms of ritual and conceptions of society.
The ghost festival also offers a solution to the problem of the ascetic way of life of Buddhism that imposes on Chinese culture that resounds family values. While opponents have long condemned the Sangha for fostering otherworldliness, the celebration integrates those who have chosen the ascetic path to participate in the well-being of their ancestors. As noted in the canonical source of Yu lan pen sutra as translated by Teiser, the Buddha orders “the assembled monks of the ten directions should chant prayers on behalf of the family of the donor for seven generations of ancestors” (Teiser 52).
The ritual hence by nature, accepts monasticism and more importantly appoints it as a central aspect of the life in the community – the participation of the monks is pivotal to the salvation of the ancestors. Their ascetic energy is especially effective during the ritual because the full moon of the seventh month designates the day on which Sangha has finished its three-month summer retreat during which they “release themselves” through meditation, meaning the energy has been accumulated during the period (Teiser 4).
In a larger sense, because the festival takes place at the time of the fall harvest, it can be interpreted as not only a symbol of the passage of priests and ancestors to new forms of existence, but also of the “completion of a cycle of plant life” (4). Their role came to entail a state level importance in the seventh century when the practice was established as part of Chinese state religion, rituals being performed for the benefit of imperial ancestors.
The vitality of such function, rather than being confined to local cult, assured the cult to survive into the modern times (5). An irony arises from this ritual – wandering ghosts as well as settled ancestors are recipients of the offering. Ancestors contrast with the concept of ghosts. In his book Unities and diversities in Chinese Religion, Robert P. Weller explains that ghosts are socially marginal beings that lack “both social standing of the gods and the kinship standing of the ancestors” (Weller 60). In contrast, ancestors re deemed to have “permanent wealth and power” in the community at large – they were more than a religious concern, involving both social and political implications and upholding “indispensability in the socio-political realm” (Lakos 32). Their worship serves as a cornerstone for the ancestor-family-kinship system. This idea is well supported with the traditional Confucian view. As sociologist Hugh Baker puts it in Teiser’ s article, “other people’s dead were of little concern, the only dead to be worshipped were one’s dead and ancestors” (Teiser 60).
This view corresponds to those of the defenders of indigenous traditions like Yen Chih-t’ui who assert that the solidarity of ancestors is the solely valid aspect of the celebration – they disapproved of the offerings for the hungry ghosts. Comparably, others consider the ghosts as the only recipients of the offerings, claiming that including the ancestors as the recipients were aimed to adapt the religion to the dominant, yet ultimately non-essential, cultural values (60) – their emphasis is on the Buddhist deliverance from the six paths of rebirth.
This stark contrast is deemed to create a conflict between the Buddhist idea of ephemerality and Chinese social solidarity. Interestingly, the two concepts are able to be reconciled to form a bigger whole. In fact, historical records clearly reveals that both entities were served. As Teiser cites from the yun lian pen sutra, the Buddha orders the Sangha to release themselves “for the sake of seven generations of ancestors, your current parents and those in distress” (61). In his article “Ghosts and Ancestors in Medieval Chinese Religion: The Yu-lan-p’en festival as Mortuary Ritual” from the book History of Religions, Stephen F.
Teiser tackles the controversy by construing the ghost festival as rites of passage. This means that the ritual allows the individual to undergo a transition from one social group to another. He or she hence leaves one “world” and joins another, with liminal period in between (Teiser 52). The celebration imbues in the dead a sense of regeneration and rebirth, through the cycle of seasonal festivals (58). In this respect, both the marginal state of the ghosts and the settled group status of the ancestors are imperative aspects of the entirety of the process.
While both sides are different, they are by ritual structure, on the same side, hence by no means contradictory. Anthropologists tend to describe this as the ideas the yin and yang aspect – the fundamental basis of Chinese philosophy- of death: two seemingly opposing sides that in fact complement each other to a unitary process. Acknowledging the mutual existence of ancestors and ghosts reflects the dual nature of the hungry ghost festival. Several other views prevail in appreciating the duality of the yun lan p’en.
The ritual can also be interpreted as a practice that allows a new form for an old practice – as In de Groot contends, Buddhism has offered Chinese culture with an “exotic edifice” of ritual that concords with the Chinese “extreme concern for the destiny of the dead” (62). Another perspective relies on the Chinese practicality to explain the seemingly contradicting nature of the ritual. As Holmes Welch explains, the Chinese cult exercises both aspects of the practice like a “prudent man dealing with the unknown,” since there is no way of knowing which version of the afterlife is true.
This results in the form of ghost festival, which ensures that the rites of both versions are engaged (62). Essentially however, the practice recognizes the immortality of the group – as demonstrated by the ancestors – in the face of death – the ritual by nature is aimed to place the deceased as a part of the structurally unchanging king group and compels all of the members of the group, both living and dead, to gather for a communal meal (Teiser 64).
One does not have to dominate, suppress or reduce the other. Understanding that these concepts are not mutually exclusive allows for an appreciation of the bigger framework of the festival – one that is full of seemingly contradictory ideas such as Buddhism and Chinese cult, ancestors and ghosts, life and death. Hence the coexistence of the ideas in the ritual are not an irony but rather a paradox in that juxtaposing the two concepts sheds light to the value of the Hungry Ghost festival.