Category: Holidays » Buddhist holidays
Ulambana: "Ancestor Day" is celebrated from the first to the fifteenth days of the seventh lunar month. This is the day when the monastics complete their Rains Retreat. It was considered that many monastics would have made progress during their retreat and therefore become a greater field of merit. Lay devotees make offerings on behalf of their ancestors and dedicate the merit towards those suffering in the preta realm to relieve their suffering.
To Mahayana Buddhists, the seventh lunar month is a month of joy. This is because the fifteenth day of the seventh month is often known as the Buddha's joyful day and the day of rejoicing for monks. The origins of the Buddha's joyful day can be found in various scriptures. When the Buddha was alive, his disciples meditated in the forests of India during the rainy season of summer. Three months later, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, they would emerge from the forests to celebrate the completion of their meditation and report their progress to the Buddha. In the Ullambana Sutra, the Buddha instructs his disciple Maudgalyāyana 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 fifteenth day of the seventh month. Because the number of monks who attained enlightenment during that period was high, the Buddha was very pleased.
The Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story that originally came from India, but later took on culturally Chinese overtones, as the motifs "all appear in a tale that had already been translated into Chinese by the end of the fourth century". In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Maudgalyāyana, originally a Brahmin youth who later ordained, and later becoming one of the Buddha's chief disciples. Mahāmaudgalyāyana was also known for having clairvoyant powers, an uncommon trait amongst monks. "The tale is contained in... a canonical collection of short sutras translated into Chinese by Gautama Samghadeva between 397 and 398."
After he attained arhatship, he began to think 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 i.e. the realm of the gods. However, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, known as Avīci, or the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His mother took on the form of a hungry ghost (preta) – so called because it could not eat due to its highly thin and fragile throat in which no food could pass through, yet it was always hungry because it had a fat belly. His mother had been greedy with the money he left her. He had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks that ever came her way, but instead she withheld her kindness and her money. It was for this reason she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.
Maudgalyāyana eased his mother's suffering by receiving the instructions of feeding pretas from the Buddha. The Buddha instructed Maudgalyāyana to place pieces of food on a clean plate, reciting 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 able to be reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family.
Maudgalyāyana then sought the Buddha's advice to help his mother gain a human birth. The Buddha established a day after the traditional summer retreat (the 14th day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar, usually mid-to-late August) on which Maudgalyāyana was to offer food and robes to five hundred bhikkhus. Through the merits created, Maudgalyāyana's mother finally gained a human birth.
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