In Ontario we have a rather short summer season, three months tops. In August, being the final month of summer, many will try to stack up as much fun and memorable events, evenings being no exception, before returning to the winter grind. They are completely oblivious or unaware of the serious significance and the dangers this month holds. That’s right; it is the “Hungry Ghost” period, known to most everyone with Oriental heritage.
Cultures from Europe to China all have traditional days of the dead or ghost days, many thousands of years old that were part of the tribal folk religions before the advent of Christianity in Europe and Buddhism in Asia. (Typically however, belief in “Hungry Ghosts” is now also part of Chinese Buddhism and Taoism.)
Historical records reveal that in Great Britain, Halloween had originated from the traditional holiday of Celts who believed that the last day of October was “the day of the dead” or “the ghost day” when ghosts crossed over the boundary between the living and the dead. The Chinese belief is similar. In many ways, this festival is reminiscent of Halloween or the Night of the Dead in Western countries.
The “Hungry Ghost” period (that falls in July or August in our Western calendar) and the resulting festival are celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month. (Halloween comes just a tad later, depending on the growing season, and the harvest times.) Similarly, the Chinese believe that on the days of the Hungry Ghost Month, and especially on the night of the full moon, there is more of a bridge between the dead and the living and that the gates of hell are opened wide releasing all the hungry ghosts into the living realm.
This is where it gets particularly interesting, for it is believed that the soul contains elements of both yin and yang. The yin is the kui, or demon part, and the yang is the shen, or spirit part. When death occurs, the kui should return to earth, and the shen to the grave or family shrine. The shen, or ancestral spirit is believed to watch over its descendants, and if properly worshiped, bring the living descendants a good fortune. If a ghost is neglected however, it will become a kui. Now the hungry ghosts can arise from the deceased that had had a violent end. Some of the unhappy circumstance or evil deeds that had lead them to being reborn or to becoming a hungry ghost are killing, theft, sexual misconduct, gluttony and greed.
There are some stipulations or precautions for dealing or honoring the dead and same time warding off the possible wrath, attacks or pranks of these discontented, deprived entities that have now been temporarily allowed to roam free in the living world.
Typically, the Hungry Ghost bent on mischief and harm can be appeased through tribute, such as the burning of “hell money (a valid currency in the underworld)”, or other forms of joss paper such as paper houses, cars and televisions. Meanwhile, it is best to keep in mind many of the superstitions and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. For instance, at night during this time it would be best to remain indoors or visit only well lit areas to avoid danger of being possessed by evil spirits. After all they are capable of assuming many forms, including snakes, moths, birds, foxes, wolves, and tigers. Some can even use the guise of a beautiful man or woman to seduce and possess.
Typically, there has been many such stories in existence; one such refers to a ghost who takes the form of a pretty girl and seduces a young man until a priest intervenes and sends the spirit back to hell. It is believed that possession can cause illness and/or mental disorders. Swimming is to be avoided as spirits may also cause drowning.
Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts to avoid spiritual attacks and misfortune. Red painted paper lanterns are placed everywhere including business and residential areas and, because many believe it is important to appease the ghosts; this culminates in a very lively phase with many temple, street and market ceremonies being performed.
During the festival shops are usually closed 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. Behind the altar, monks will sing songs that it is believed only the ghosts can understand. This rite is called shi ge’r, meaning “singing ghost songs”. After an offering has been burnt for the spirits, stepping on or near the burnt area must be avoided, as it is considered an “opening” to the spirit world and touching it may cause the person to be possessed. Do we really need to say this: one must also avoid sampling any of the food placed on the offering table, as doing this can result in “mysterious” illness.
The main ceremonies at the temples, organized by resident monks, typically begin at dusk. Usually a big feast is held for the ghosts on the 15th day of the 7th month, where people bring samples of food and place them on the offering table to both please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Supposedly the ghosts won’t do something terrible to the living or curse them after eating their sacrifices and while holding their money.
Any person attending a show at indoor entertainment venues will notice the first row of chairs is left empty. These seats are reserved for the spirits, and it is considered bad form to sit in them. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts.
Additionally, during an evening incense is burnt in front of the doors of many homes for incense stands for prosperity and the more incense is burnt; the greater will be one’s prosperity. Subsequently, at the end of fifteen days the Taoist monks chant to facilitate the ghosts’ departure and to send them back to whence they came from. The ghosts are thought to hate the sound of chant, and so scream and wail all the way back to the realm of the dead.
In the evening, people float lanterns on water and set them outside their houses in order to ensure that all the hungry ghosts find their way back to underworld. The ghosts are believed to follow the floating river lanterns away. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a piece of board. When the lanterns all go out, it is a sign that the Hungry ghosts have by then found their way back to the nether region.
It is interesting to note that some people presume that the gates of heaven are also opened during this month, and they worship their ancestors from heaven too.
And finally, during The Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival here’s a summary of “not to do” list:
-Do not venture outside during the darkened hours.
– If this is unavoidable, then walk by a wall or something else that is visible at your side view.
– Avoid standing or loitering under a tree in the middle of the night.
– Bad manners aside, restrain from spitting in the street or at a tree.
-Do not stare at the candlelight or lit fire.
– Avoid stepping on or kicking the offerings or the joss sticks left alongside of the road.
– Cover up your forehead at night; always pin or put up your hair as high as possible. Wearing any kind of a hat is a good idea.
– Do not play or loiter at the playground in the middle of the night, particularly the swings.
– Resist staring at an “apparition” if you happen to see one; swiftly look or walk away with calm composure.
– Do not be disrespectful or utter funny jokes or comments on any display altar or offering items along the street
– Resist the urge to look underneath the altar table during a prayer session
– Do not shift your gaze from left to right or right to left repeatedly when you sense something akin to an apparition; instead, look straight ahead and advance toward your destination calmly.
– Should you detect an unexplained, pleasant or sweet smell ahead or around you, restrain from sniffing it.
– It’s best to avoid using any Dark or Black color manicure at this particular time.
– Do not sit on the first few Front Rows of any performed entertainment.
– Do not wait around at any Bus Stop after Mid-Night especially when it has already passed the bus service operating hours
– You mustn’t whistle alone at night; if you detect someone singing when you know you are alone, do not accompany him or her.
– Do not open your umbrella at night, especially red color umbrellas
– It’s not advisable to wear red color costume with high heels and walk alone at night
– Resist any urge to pick up any unique items found on the street or road
– No swimming in the pool or lake in the middle of the night; something maybe waiting to pull your legs under
– Mustn’t hang your clothes out in the middle of the night
– Do not give answer or respond when someone calls you, especially from behind
– Do not turn around or turn your head when someone unexpected pats on your shoulders in the middle of the deserted street
– Avoid combing your hair in front of the mirror in the middle of the night
– Do not be rowdy; best not to shout or scream in the middle of the night. Remain as quiet as possible, particularly if you should feel a sudden, unexplained coldness or temperature drop.
– Mustn’t’ be emotional and cry in the middle of the night
– Resist being a curious person or hero if you hear some “strange” sound or noise, especially a soft crying tone.
– Do not leave any fresh or bleeding wounds out in an open air; always cover the injury/ lesion with proper bandage materials.
– And finally, never respond to a dare or take up the challenge to enter cemetery area or abandoned houses.