The Real Significance and Meaning of Ullambana
Venerable Shi Ren Xu
(Ullambana, commonly known as “Seventh Lunar Month” or “Hungry Ghost Festival”, is a celebration of Filial Piety. This year, it falls on 17th August. Show gratitude to our parents and ancestors by remembering and paying respects to them.
On the 15th of the seventh lunar month each year, Buddhists participate in the Ullambana Festival to make offerings to the Sangha of the ten directions. This is done to liberate beings of the three lower realms from suffering, so as to repay the deep kindness of parents.
The Ullambana Sutra is a Mahayana Sutra which consists of a brief discourse given by Lord Buddha Shakyamuni principally to one of his chief disciples, Venerable Maudgalyayana, on the practice of filial piety. The origin Sutra was in Sanskrit, and it means “deliverance from suffering”. The Sutra was later translated into Chinese by Venerable Dharmarakasha.
In this Sutra, the Buddha instructed Venerable Maudgalyayana on how to obtain liberation for his mother, who had been reborn into a lower realm, by making food offerings to the Sangha on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month.
This day is often known as the Buddha’s joyful day and the day of rejoice for monks. This is because when the Buddha was alive, all of his disciples meditated in the forests during the rainy season in summer. Three months later, on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, they would emerge from the forests to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. The Buddha was pleased because many monks became enlightened during the rain retreat.
Venerable Maudgalyayana was known for having clairvoyant powers. After he attained arhatship, he thought deeply of his parents, and wondered what happened to them. He used his clairvoyance to see where they were reborn and found his father in the heavenly realms. However, his mother had been reborn in the form of a hungry ghost ( preta ) – a sentient being who could not eat due to its highly thin and fragile throat in which no food could pass through, yet it was always hungry because of its huge belly.
The cause for his mother to be reborn in this form was due to her greed. She had been overly attached to the money Venerable Maudgalyayana’s father had left her. Her husband had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks who came her way, but instead she withheld her kindness and the money and did not follow her spouse’s instructions. It was for this reason that she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.
As Venerable Maudgalyayana felt deep pity and sadness for his mother, he filled a bowl with food and went to look for his mother. However, as soon as the food was placed in his mother’s palms, it immediately turned into burning coals which could not be eaten. Disappointed and helpless, Venerable Maudgalyayana approached the Buddha for help and advice.
He asked the Buddha how he could ease his mother’s suffering. The Buddha instructed Venerable Maudgalyayana to place some food on a clean plate, recite a mantra seven times to bless the food, snap his fingers to call out to the deceased and finally tip the food onto clean ground. By doing so, the preta’s hunger would be relieved. Through these merits, his mother was subsequently able to be reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family.
Venerable Maudgalyayana then sought the Buddha’s advice to help his mother gain a human rebirth. The Buddha told Venerable Maudgalyayana to offer food and robes to 500 bhikkhus on the 15th day. Through the merits created, Venerable Maudgalyayana’s mother finally obtained a human rebirth. After that, he asked the Buddha whether other people could also help their departed relatives by offering alms to the Sangha. The Buddha replied that the same method could be used. This is known as “dedication of merit”. The practice of dedicating merit has been an important practice in Buddhist countries.
On the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, Buddhist monasteries follow the Ullambana traditional ritual of reciting scriptures and distributing food. Recent Ullambana ceremonies have tended to mix the event with folk beliefs. In addition to making offerings to monks, the event now includes making offerings to the departed and the deliverance of ghosts.
However, the latter practices arise from the folk understanding of deliverance from suffering and the so-called “Ghost Festival ( 中元节 ).” Traditional folk beliefs maintain that the gates of hell are opened during this month, and that sentient beings from the ghost realm are set free. These folk practices are somewhat contradictory to the Buddhist ideas of compassion, protection of life, and the prohibition against killing, so the meaning behind the Ghost Festival is actually different from the Buddhist Ullambana ceremony.
Why is The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance Puja (慈悲三昧水忏) conducted during Ullambana? What is the Puja about?
The purpose of conducting The Compassion Samadhi Water Repentance Puja is to repent one’s unwholesome deeds. These include the karmic actions done in body, speech and mind, comprising the three misdeeds of the body – killing, stealing and sexual misconduct; four misdeeds of the speech – lying, slandering or divisive speech, idle talk and harsh speech; and three misdeeds of the mind – covetousness, malice and wrong views.
Through repentance, we can eliminate the negative strength or influence of these misdeeds in our mind. The Compassion Samadhi Water Repentance Puja can be conducted not just on Ullambana day, but also on any other day of the year.
We participate in the repentance puja and dedicate the merit to all departed ones for them to be reborn in a good realm. For those who were born in the lower realms, how exactly they would benefit might be hard to measure. If during that time, they come to the occasion and rejoice at the puja and feel great joy, they will gain from it.
Could you tell me more about Yogacara Ulka-mukha Puja (瑜伽焰口) ?
The Yogacara Ulka-mukha Puja stems from a story related to Venerable Ananda, another chief disciple of the Buddha. According to the Ulka-mukha Preta Sutra, Venerable Ananda once saw the manifestation of Avalokitesvara or Guan Yin Bodhisattva ( 观音菩萨 ) as Lord of Hungry Ghosts ( 面燃大士 ) while practising meditation in a forest. The Bodhisattva had manifested herself to save all suffering beings in the hungry ghost realm. The Lord of Hungry Ghosts was emaciated in appearance with hideous features. His hair was unkempt; his nails and teeth were long and sharp. His throat was needle-like; its stomach jutted out like a mountain, and flames spurted out of his face.
Venerable Ananda was flabbergasted, and asked about the cause of such frightening rebirth. The Lord told Ananda that he was greedy and miserly while he was alive. Thus upon his death, he descended into the realm of hungry ghosts and transformed into his present form. He further had to endure all kinds of suffering, and year-round starvation.
Moreover, the Lord of Hungry Ghosts informed Ananda that Ananda too would pass away in three days, and would likewise suffer the same destiny. Venerable Ananda was terrified and hurriedly sought the Buddha for help.
Lord Buddha explained The Discourse on the Feeding of Hungry Spirits or Yogacara Ulka-mukha Puja to Ananda and taught him the proper way of bestowing food. If living beings can give food and drink to the infinite number of hungry ghosts and deities, not only will they never descend into the realm of hungry ghosts, they will gain longevity. While being watched over by all spirits and gods, they will have good fortune in every endeavour.
The Yogacara Ulka-mukha Puja ( 放焰口 ) is held in accordance to the Sutra, and lasts for three to four hours. Although the service is performed to eradicate the hollow hunger of the hungry ghosts by bestowing food and drink on them, more importantly, it is performed to deliver these beings from all sufferings through the teachings of Lord Buddha.
By listening to the Dharma, the ghosts will then take refuge in Lord Buddha, receive the precepts, and thus cultivate Right View, which will enable them to refrain from negative deeds and their terrifying consequences. Only then will enlightenment be within their grasp.
The humanistic aspect of this puja is twofold; to cultivate loving compassion amongst the living and to remind them to be faithful and sincere Buddhists and never leave the auspicious boundary of the Buddha and His Teachings.