What is the origin of the Chinese Ghost Month? PDF Print E-mail


2009.8.26.  Fo Guang Temple (7)The Chinese Ghost Month (or the Chinese Ghost Festival) refers to the 7th month of Chinese lunar calendar.  In this month, it is believed that the gate of hell is open, therefore hungry ghosts are released, and come to the earth and wander around.  That is why people would offer food, and burn paper money and incense to 'feed' those ghosts, so that human beings will not be harmed by them.  On the day of the 15th (or the 13th or 14th in some regions, especially the southern part of China), people hold a variety of special ceremonies to redeem the ghosts.  So we call that day "the Ghost Festival" (sometimes called the Hungry Ghost Festival as well) and the 7th lunar month as the Ghost Month.


This Festival originates from Buddhist tradition.  According to Buddhism, the 15th of the 7th lunar month is called the Yulanpen (the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word Ullambana) Festival: this is the day Buddhist monks finish their three-month collective cultivation; therefore, monks and followers hold ceremonies to celebrate it, and to offer hungry ghosts food.  Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were integrated, different activities had been added to those Buddhist ceremonies, i.e. Taoist sacrifices to the departed, and Confucian sacrifices to ancestors.  According to Taoists, however, the same day is called Zhongyuan Festival, and the activities on the day are called Zhongyuan Pudu.


Yulanpen used to be a religious ceremony in India. Buddhists would hold it in memory of their forefathers. The Yulanpen dharma was compiled to encourage the Buddhists' piety, so it went with the Chinese custom of commemorating their ancestors and became popular in many Chinese regions.  It represents respectful greetings and an attitude of thanksgiving.


According to Buddhism, the origin of the Chinese Ghost Month came from the story of how the monk Mulian (Mahamaudgalyayana in Sanskrit) has saved his mother from suffering.  When Mulian had got great magic power, he found his deceased mother had been born among hungry ghosts because of her deep offences, and she had neither food nor drink.  Mulian had no idea how to save her, so he asked Buddha for help.  Buddha taught him the Yulanpen dharma, and told him to save his mother on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month with its help.


[Read Mulian’s story in Chinese:  佛说盂兰盆经 (The Buddha Speaks the Ullambana Sutra).]


Special thanks to the Venerable Chueh Yun, London Fo Guang Temple. We visited London Fo Guang Temple on 26 August 2009, and joined the Ullambana Dharma Service. We got to know how Buddhist temple in London practises during the Chinese Ghost Month. We interviewed the Ven. Chueh Yun on 1 September 2009, and she explained to us how they see the Ghost Month, and remind us to appreciate our ancestors.