Monday, August 22, 2005

Hungry Ghost Festival

zt The scriptures say:

"When the mind arises all kinds of phenomena arise,
When the mind dissolves all kinds of phenomena dissolves."

It is that time of the year again when Chinese Singaporeans burn all kinds of joss paper, including hell money, clothes, accessories, electronics, tv sets, cars and even houses to their deceased relatives in the nether realm. The seventh lunar month marks a time of offerings and celebrations for both the living and the non-living beings. This festival has it origins in the Mahayana Buddhist legend that on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, the Buddha's disciple Mogallana, at the advice of the Lord, made offerings to the whole Sangha community in order to relieve his mother from her suffering in hell. Because of this great merit Mogallana's mother was indeed released from hell and was reborn as a deva. The Buddha was very pleased with Mogallana's fillial piety and praised him extensively for it, thus starting the tradition of "Ullambana". On this Ullambana day, future Buddhists would also make offerings to the Sangha for the benefit of their dead relatives. The Taoists, however, believe that on the 7th month the gates of the nether realm (including the ghost and hell realms - Taoists do not make a distinction) are opened for the ghosts to come up to the human world for a visit, and the humans, especially relatives, must make offerings to them to provide for their well being in the nether world, until they go back at the end of the month. This is called the annual "Zhong Yuan Pu Du" ceremony. The practice of burning joss paper and other models of material things comes from the Taoist tradition and not the Buddhist practice, because Buddhists normally offer more practical stuff like rice, clothing and other daily necessities to the Sangha, as well as conduct mass sutra chanting ceremonies to benefit all sentient beings in the lower realms.

But can all the paper cash, cars, credit cards, condos (the 5C dream of Singaporeans) etc burned actually reach the dead relatives of those living people? And is the ghost realm no different from the human realm, as they still need all those material things?
According to the Dhamma, the burned offerings can indeed reach the dead, but only if their relatives are still in the ghost realm. If they are reborned in other realms, like for example the animal or hell realms, those offerings would become futile. At least they are only of use to other non-related beings in the ghost realm. That also answers the 2nd question, which means to say that the ghost realm is indeed structured closely to the human realm. Although newbie Buddhists are often taught that the ghost realm means only a place where hungry ghosts with swollen bellies and needle like necks are always looking for something to eat, in reality it is not that simple. Just as the human world has humans with bad karma who suffer from hunger all the time, the ghost realm also has hungry ghosts with bad karma whose hunger can nevered be satisfied. On the other hand, there are ghosts with good karma who become chieftains with great power, assuming responsiblity over a large number of other ghosts in various regions, as described in the Ksitigarbha Sutra. In the same way, humans with good karma also become premiers or presidents and take charge of millions of humans in their own country. The only major difference between the 2 realms is that the suffering expreienced in the ghost realm is more intense as compared to the human realm, due to the definitive strong craving that burns the mind of a ghost. Thus there is no doubt that ghosts still need to use money, but they can only do so if their karma allows them to. From this you can see the limited use of making such paper offerings.
If you truly wish to help your deceased relatives, no other method can be compared to making offerings to the Sangha (or the Triple Gems) and selflessly transfering all merit to them. Because this merit is so great, it can reach your relatives no matter which realm they are reborn in and no matter what bad karma they are suffering from. If they are in the lower realms they would be immediately relieved and if they are already in the higher realms they will be elevated to a even higher level of bliss.
On a deeper level, the spirit of Ullambana teaches the Paramita (Bodhisattva path) of Dana (giving). Giving away material goods to the physical Sangha may produce merit, but this merit cannot be compared to the merit of giving away all your internal 6 sense organs, external 6 sensory objects and 6 sensory awareness in between to the spiritual Sangha, which is one with the absolute truth. This merit transforms your father (craving) and mother (ignorance) from the past, present & future into Panna (wisdom insight) and Upaya (skillful means), ultimately fulfilling the virtue of fillial piety as all delusion is melted into the ocean of Nibbana - all is one & one is all. This is the true purpose of Ullambana.

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