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.


The Buddhist principle is to be everybody’s friend, not to have any enemy.

— Akong Rinpoche


        一 解脫即是自由








  二 解脫的層次








  三 解脫的重點










  四 解脫者之心境














  五 解脫者之生活







  六 解脫與究竟解脫



From one point of view, personal liberation without freeing others is selfish and unfair, because all sentient beings also have the natural right and desire to be free of suffering. Therefore, it is important for practitioners to engage in the practice of the stages of the path of the highest scope, starting with the generation of bodhichitta, the altruistic aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Once one has cultivated bodhichitta, all the meritorious actions that are supported by and complemented with this altruism — even the slightest form of positive action — become causes for the achievement of omniscience.

— His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Whether the self exists or not, or whether this universe has an end or not are big questions, but they do not help us much to live our lives. This question of the self’s existence should be explained in terms of whether it has a positive or negative effect on our lives. No self should not be a philosophical question that absorbs us, but rather a perspective or value in our lives.

For example, the Buddha sometimes debated about vast philosophical questions with scholars of logic from other religious traditions. One time he was asked, “Does the Universe have an end?” and he replied with another question. Suppose, he said, you went into a dark forest where hunters roamed with poisoned arrows. Mistaking you for an animal, they shot a poisoned arrow deep inside you. Would you spend your time thinking, what direction did this come from? East? West? Would you think about what the arrow is made of? Of course not. You would try to save yourself and do something practical like removing the arrow.

The big question about no self is like this—a philosophical question that would be discussed for hundreds of years—and these long exchanges would just give us headaches.

~Karmapa: How to Make Wise Choices


Clarity versus Emotions
by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

Everyone knows how important it is to establish a good heart. A good heart is the only thing that is truly worthy, not only of helping others but also of sustaining oneself in a state of happiness, joy and contentment. Yet it often seems there is a conflict inwardly. Though people know the value of a good heart, there is often a tremendous sense of resistance from conflicting thoughts and emotions when one is in the position to develop a good full heart.

On one hand we want to be good — we know what “good” is, and how “good” can benefit ourselves and others. But on the other hand there is a sense of not wanting to be that good, and this inner conflict seems to become our whole life’s struggle.

If it were as clear-cut and simple as just doing what we know is best, I think few people would be suffering as they do. So, in the Dharma there is really no choice other than being very clear about what you know is best and acting upon that. When you cannot do that, then be very honest with yourself. Save your effort for another time when you can try your best to make some progress.

What then is a “good heart?” Most people think it has to do with feelings. We think of a person with a good heart as someone who has feelings of compassion or feelings of kindness. Yes, of course feelings (Tib. tsorwa) of kindness or compassion, or sympathetic joy are positive aspects of one’s good mind or good heart. But, when I actually think of someone who has a good mind or good heart, it is their clarity that strikes me the most strongly — clarity and their faith in that clarity.

Feelings come and go. You can’t just wait around for feelings of kindness to arise. You can’t wait around for compassionate feelings before you act compassionately. Feelings can come and go, and becoming focused on the feelings themselves is to focus only upon half of what we are.

When our feelings are accessible, we can feel very soothed. But when our feelings are not accessible to us we feel troubled, or rather confused about where we stand. This can be very difficult. I think it is one of our biggest problems both in our general relationships with others and particularly in our relation to a spiritual path.

When we feel inspired, or feel a sense of deep devotion and connectedness, we think, “Okay, now this is really good!” But there are other times when those deep feelings are not available, and we think, “What am I doing?!” We generate a lot of self-doubt. This unsteadiness seems to be what causes people to go forward and backward — a step forward and then a step back — without consistently moving ahead or progressing along a spiritual path.

I am not saying that feelings are unimportant. Feelings are very much a production of many causes and conditions, and if those causes and conditions are not present, then those feelings also cannot be there. For example, when you are really tired at the end of the day your mind will be affected, as well as your feelings. So if you want positive feelings to be strongly present to enliven your practice, then perhaps you’ll need to practice when you are not tired.

When you rush through the practice as if you have to catch the next train, beneficial feelings won’t be there either. When we are rushing, we are treating whatever we are doing as insignificant. Your mind is focused on something else or on the next thing. So that is what creates the feeling in whatever you are doing now. If you are rushing through, focused on something else, or even if you are not doing anything but relaxing, this creates a whole different feeling to what you are actually doing. It doesn’t contribute to the feeling you want — with what you are doing now. So, then people feel, “Oh, this is not really working” or, “I’m not so connected.” But this is really due to one’s own mind rushing through the practice, focused on something else, thinking about something else. Through this behavior, feelings are created one way or the other, either positive or negative.

So if all our efforts depend on feelings, we have to know how to create the feelings we want, and then do the practice with this clarity, along with the feelings. Without knowing how to create the feelings, we almost always create the wrong feelings, as I said, from rushing through or being tired or some other cause.

But where you can actually depend on yourself and depend on others more, is in the clarity — which is the depth of wisdom in one’s own mind or in another’s mind. This clarity and wisdom will not be reversible. One must have a sense of confidence in this both for oneself and for others, rather than relying on inconsistent feelings. One day you could feel very touched by somebody, and yet the next day you might be appalled by them.

So my emphasis is, yes, of course strive to have positive feelings to accompany a positive mind. But having a positive mind means having clarity, and clarity here means the Dharma— the points made by the Dharma, and the emphasis the Dharma puts on those points. What are these points in the first place? What are the effects of these points and the results?

For instance, there is the point of “self-centeredness” — that it is something to reduce as much as possible. When someone carries this point very clearly in their mind, I think such a person has a good heart.

Having a wish for others’ happiness and the cause of others’ happiness is another very important point. If somebody keeps that very clearly in mind, with the understanding that it serves others as well as oneself, that person has a good mind and good heart. The same is true of wishing others to be free from suffering and the cause of suffering — as long as somebody gets that very clearly, understanding how it serves on behalf of others and on behalf of oneself.

So if someone does have that kind of mind, and faith in that kind of mind, then that person has a good heart, despite whether positive feelings are always there in abundance or not. They won’t fall backward if they recognize the wisdom of that. Once you know what the truth is, you won’t fall backward into denying that truth. So in this way, feelings become secondary to clarity and wisdom: the wisdom within the clarity, and the faith one has in that.

Is faith itself a “feeling?” A lot of people think faith is a feeling, but to me faith is not just a feeling. Faith has much to do with certainty, with conviction, and the guideposts that keep one from straying off the course of right actions. I think that is what faith is.

When somebody says “I trust,” if it’s just a simple feeling, that feeling could be momentary. It’s there one day, and the next day it might not be there. But does that mean you don’t trust the other person, since that feeling is not there? And if one has to count on that feeling all the time, how can you then be always waiting for the right feelings to come, in order to act upon the right course? If there are no feelings, what are you going to do — not follow the right course of actions, and act upon what you know is right to do?

So I think feelings are supplementary to a positive mind, not the essential part of it. Clarity with wisdom and faith are the essential points of one’s mind. Nonetheless, feelings are supplementary, so the feelings do bring things to greater fulfillment as well.

Possessing a good heart and good mind is to have a lot of clarity and wisdom of the Dharma, with strong conviction in that. To see how that influences one’s life, without confusion and and self-doubt, is at the core of the good mind and the good heart.

True happiness comes from the sense of having inner peace and satisfaction with what we have, which in turn we have to cultivate altruism, love, compassion, and get rid of anger, selfishness, and violence.

— His Holiness Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche