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Q&A 79. Zhong Yuan Festival (Ullambana Festival)

Q: Master Lu, the Ullambana Festival is approaching, what should we be aware of?

A:

  • The Ullambana Festival is also known as the “Hungry Ghost Festival” and it is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. During the 7th lunar month, or similar occasions such as Ching Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day) and Winter Solstice, people tend to experience conflicts and unhappiness at home, and family members are likely to become ill and get involved in arguments. Even the weather during this time tends to be not as good, with many cloudy and rainy days. This is because prior to the 7th lunar month, many spirits are released from the underworld to collect or repay their karmic debts in the human world. On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, as with Ching Ming (Tomb Sweeping Day) and Winter Solstice, it is mandatory for the spirits to return to the underworld.
    On the day of their return, we should respectfully bid farewell to our karmic creditors or deceased family members by reciting Buddhist sutras and mantras for them.
  • During this period, if the spirits have not collected enough karmic debts or we do not respectfully bid farewell to the spirits, they will be unhappy or harbour hatred. After they return to the underworld, they can apply to return to the human world. This is the reason why some people constantly have karmic creditors.
  • You should diligently perform recitations. It is recommended that you recite 2 Little Houses for each deceased family member. You can also recite several Little Houses and address them to the “Karmic Creditor of <your full name>”.
  • On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, even if the weather is not good, you could still burn Little Houses during the daytime.
  • During the night (after dark), avoid reciting the Heart Sutra and the Amitabha Pure Land Rebirth Mantra components of your daily recitation. Provided you have filled in the “Offer to” field on the Little House, it would be alright to recite the Heart Sutra and the Amitabha Pure Land Rebirth Mantra components of the Little House. However, if you experience discomfort while doing so, you should stop reciting.
  • If you do not have enough time to recite Little Houses, you could recite the Heart Sutra 49 times for each foreign spirit.
  • When you recite the Heart Sutra and you know the full name of the foreign spirit (for example, a deceased family member), you can say the following prayer: “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva protect and bless me, <full name>, and help me to give the merits and virtues gained from reciting the Heart Sutra to <full name of the deceased family member>.”
    If you do not know the name of the foreign spirit (i.e. your karmic creditor), you can say the following prayer: “May the Greatly Merciful and Greatly Compassionate Guan Yin Bodhisattva protect and bless me, <full name>, and help me to give the merits and virtues gained from reciting the Heart Sutra to the karmic creditor who is currently requesting recitations from me.”
  • If you feel particularly sorry towards one of your deceased family members and feel greatly indebted to them, in addition to performing recitations, you can also make some donations. This is a way to contribute to your repayment of karmic debts, helping eliminate the calamities you currently face.
  • On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, you should perform more meritorious and virtuous deeds, and refrain from committing wrongdoings. You should remain mindful and respectful throughout this day, and not behave inappropriately.
  • It is best to repay your karmic debts by reciting Buddhist sutras and mantras, instead of burning joss papers or spirit money.
  • In the past, during this special time of year, people in many Southeast Asian countries, as well as Japan, would stay in their homes and dedicate themselves to performing recitations, praying for peace and harmony for the year ahead.
  • The 15th day of the 7th lunar month is also an important period of time to pray to Bodhisattvas and make offerings to ancestors and the deceased. You can offer the “First Incense” at midnight of that day.
    If you have a Buddhist altar, you can offer the First Incense at midnight and perform recitations the whole night, including the Heart Sutra, the Amitabha Pure Land Rebirth Mantra and Little Houses. However, if you do not have an altar, avoid doing so.
    It is also very important to make offerings to your ancestors and deceased family members during the daytime by visiting cemeteries or doing it at home. For more information, please refer to Q&A 53: Ching Ming (Tomb-sweeping) Festival.
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