The full moon of the seventh lunar month is known as the Ghost Moon by Buddhists and Taoists in China and other Asian countries. This year, it falls on Saturday, August 29. It is the time when the doors between the afterworld and this world are open and the souls of the departed return to earth to spend time with their loved ones.
People make paper representations of food, clothing, cars, and televisions, and burn them to provide the souls with the items they might need in the afterlife. Families gather for a feast and set aside a plate and an empty chair for each family member who has died.
Shops are closed in the evening but an altar with incense, offerings, and food might be set up in the middle of the street. Lanterns and lotus boats (candles set upon the broad leaves of the lilies) are set adrift on rivers to show the ghosts how to get back home.
A Buddhist story from India that arrived in China in the fourth century tells the story of the Buddhist monk Maudgalyāyana. He was clairvoyant and used his talent to find out what happened to his parents after their deaths. He found that his father was in the heavenly realm (with the gods) but his mother was trapped in a lower realm, known as the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, because she had been greedy during her life.
Hungry ghosts were pictured as beings with thin necks, such that they could barely swallow food, and swollen bellies because they were always hungry. The Buddha told Maudgalyāyana how to help his mother escape from this realm by setting out food for her, blessing the food seven times, and then tipping it to the ground as an offering.
During the Ghost Festival, special rituals are performed at temples to honor the Hungry Ghosts, those souls who do not have families, and special altars are set up in public places to feed them.
The corresponding festival in Japan is Obon (which is celebrated on July 15 or August 15, depending on the region). And the corresponding festival in Catholicism is All Souls’ Day (November 2), when praying for the souls of the departed helps release them from purgatory, a belief that later influenced the colorful celebration of Day of the Dead in Mexico.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
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