In Chinese culture, the fifteenth day of the seventh month in the lunar calendar is called Ghost Day and the seventh month in general is regarded as the Ghost Month (鬼月), in which ghosts and spirits, including those of the deceased ancestors, come out from the lower realm. Distinct from both the Qingming Festival (in spring) and Double Ninth Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, during Ghost Festival, the deceased are believed to visit the living.
On the fifteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is veneration of the dead, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths. Activities during the month would include preparing ritualistic food offerings, burning incense, and burning joss paper, a papier-mâché form of material items such as clothes, gold and other fine goods for the visiting spirits of the ancestors. Elaborate meals (often vegetarian meals) would be served with empty seats for each of the deceased in the family treating the deceased as if they are still living. Ancestor worship is what distinguishes Qingming Festival from Ghost Festival because the latter includes paying respects to all deceased, including the same and younger generations, while the former only includes older generations. Other festivities may include, buying and releasing miniature paper boats and lanterns on water, which signifies giving directions to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors and other deities.
Buddhists from China claim that the Ghost Festival originated with the canonical scriptures of Buddhism, but many of the visible aspects of the ceremonies originate from Chinese folk religion, and other local folk traditions (see Stephen Teiser's 1988 book, The Ghost Festival in Medieval China). This process of syncretism is not limited to China: the ghost festival has parallels in Theravada Buddhism, such as the Cambodian Pchum Ben festival, reflecting the same assumptions about an annual opening of the gates of hell, and with the same (ultimately canonical) role of King Yama. In Tang Dynasty China, the Buddhist festival Ullambana and the Ghost Festival were mixed and celebrated together.
The Buddha's joyful day
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 rejoice 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 fifteen 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.
Maudgalyāyana and his mother
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.
The Ghost Festival is held during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of Buddhist monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community. During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute to them after they died, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. They have long needle-thin necks because they have not been fed by their family, or as a punishment so that they are unable to swallow. Family members offer prayers to their deceased relatives, offer food and drink and burn hell bank notes and other forms of joss paper. Joss paper items are believed to have value in the afterlife,considered to be very similar in some aspects to the material world, People burn paper houses, cars, servants and televisions to please the ghosts. Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A large feast is held for the ghosts on the fourteenth day of the seventh month, when people bring samples of food and places them on an offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck.
In some East Asian countries today, live performances are held and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats are always empty as this is where the ghosts sit. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes as the sound is believed to attract and please the ghosts. Some shows include Chinese opera, dramas, and in some areas, even burlesque shows. Traditionally Chinese opera was the main source of entertainment but the newer shows, concerts, dramas, wars and so forth are referred to as Getai. These acts are better known as "Merry-making".
For rituals, Buddhists and Taoists hold ceremonies to relieve ghosts from suffering, many of them holding ceremonies in the afternoon or at night (as it is believed that the ghosts are released from hell when the sun sets). Altars are built for the deceased and priests and monks alike perform rituals for the benefit of ghosts. Monks and priests often throw rice or other small foods into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.
During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors households. Incense stands for prosperity in Chinese culture, so families believe that there is more prosperity in burning more incense. During the festival, some shops are closed as they want to leave the streets open for the ghosts. In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it.
Fourteen days after the festival, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float water lanterns and set them outside their houses. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a paper boat. The lanterns are used to direct the ghosts back to the underworld, and when they go out, it symbolizes that they have found their way back.
Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. Those live concerts are popularly known as Getai 'Koh-tai' by Hokkien-speaking people. They are performed by groups of singers, dancers and entertainers on a temporary stage that is set up within a residential district. The festival is funded by the residents of each individual district. During one of these 'Getai', it is known to be bad luck to sit on the front row of red seats, as they are there only for the Ghosts themselves, if anyone were to sit on them, they would become sick or such like.
Taiwan: Ghost Month
Traditionally, it is believed that ghosts haunt the island of Taiwan for the entire seventh lunar month, when the mid-summer Ghost Festival is held. The month is known as Ghost Month. The first day of the month is marked by opening the gate of a temple, symbolizing the gates of hell. On the twelfth day, lamps on the main altar are lit. On the thirteenth day, a procession of lanterns is held. On the fourteenth day, a parade is held for releasing water lanterns. Incense and food are offered to the spirits to avoid them visiting homes and spirit paper money is also burnt as an offering. During the month, people avoid surgery, buying cars, swimming, and going out after dark. It is also important that addresses are not revealed to the ghosts.
Chūgen (中元?), also Ochūgen (お中元?), is an annual event in Japan on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, when people give gifts to their superiors and acquaintances. Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.
One of the three days that form the sangen (三元?) of Daoism, it is sometimes considered a zassetsu, a type of seasonal day in the Japanese calendar.
Obon (sometimes transliterated O-bon), or simply Bon, is the Japanese version of the Ghost Festival. It has since been transformed over time into a family reunion holiday during which people from the big cities return to their home towns and visit and clean the resting places of their ancestors.
Traditionally including a dance festival called Bon Odori, Obon has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. In modern Japan, it is held on July 15 in the eastern part (Kantō), on August 15 in the western part (Kansai), and in Okinawa and the Amami Islands it is celebrated as in China on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month.
Vietnam: Tết Trung Nguyên
This festival is viewed as the time for the pardoning of condemned souls who are then released from hell. The "homeless" should be "fed" and appeased with offerings of food. Merits for the living are also earned by the release of birds and fish. The lunar month in which the festival takes place is colloquially known as Tháng Cô Hồn - the month of lonely spirits, and believed to be haunted and particularly unlucky.
Influenced by Buddhism, this holiday coincides with Vu Lan，the Vietnamese transliteration for Ullambana.
In modern times, Vu Lan is also seen as Mother's Day. People with living mothers would bear a red rose and would give thanks while those without can choose to bear a white rose; and attend services to pray for the deceased.