Often the world of the weird, creepy and strange can be occupied by some pretty unsettling stuff. Violent deaths, angry spirits, wraiths, alien probes, gold-digging Sasquatch… You get it.
Now and then though, there’s something else about this darker side of the world that seems a little different. Something mystical.
The predominantly Buddhist and Taoist tradition of Ghost Month, and the subsequent Ghost Festival which happens on the 14th night (or 15th in Southern areas), is exactly that. It’s important. As well as beautiful, spiritual, monumental and exciting.
It is, at its heart, a celebration of ancestors, and the past, but with a twist. For Buddhists and Taoists, your ancestors are always watching, observing. Ghost Month is when they come home.
“You better have been good little ones because we’re coming home for dinner.”
The origins to Ghost Month and the Ghost Festival are, if you’re into this sort of thing, quite beautiful.
The story starts with Maudgalyayana, a direct and incredibly important disciple to Buddha. Maudgalyayana discovers abhijñā, which is best described as a state of “knowing.” His love drives him to use his new-found power to search for his deceased parents. After some time he discovers that his mother has been reborn in the Preta, a shadow realm where all the ghosts are said to be eternally hungry.
Troubled by his mothers fate he seeks her out and tries to feed her rice but, being Preta, she could not eat.
Saddened, Maudgalyayana returns to Buddha and asks for his help. Buddha, being the good guy he is and having infinite love for his disciple, meditates on this and comes up with a solution.
The 7th month of the lunar-solar calendar, in this case the Chinese calendar, would be known as Ghost Month. During that time Buddhist followers would prepare feasts and gifts for their beloved friends and family who have fallen into Preta. On the 14th night these Ghosts would be allowed to visit them and judge them on their actions, their gifts and, most importantly, their food.
All pretty neat huh? It’s important to note however that this is NOT the only version of this story, nor is it the definitive one. As with many multi-layered folk tales that have been passed down through generations, over large geographic areas, the origin can get convoluted and fractured depending on how it’s been told and by whom.
Still, the key points are always similar. Dead people who are not doing terribly well for themselves with relatives trying to help them out AND if they don’t do a good job, uncle Bob might get a bit cranky.
There’s a pretty great symmetry to it all.
Older generations would prepare large, elaborate meals during Ghost Month to appease the hungry ghosts and the Ghost Festival was a huge event that would bring many people together to ward off angry ghosts who hadn’t been cared for by their crappy families.
I’m trying really hard to not grab the low-hanging-fruit joke about “hangry ghosts” here. This feature article brought to you by Snickers! Just joking, please don’t sue us :/.
Strange sets of rules were often followed throughout the month in an effort to not offend the visiting ghosts. Things like walking into the doorways sideways and not taking public transportation were fairly common. If you’d like to read more about ways people would survive the ghosts during Ghost Month, we have a pretty great Top 10 List right here!
Sometimes reports would come in of strange accidents and even mysterious deaths during Ghost Month. In many of these situations, the hungry ghosts would be blamed.
Modern Day Ghost Month and the Ghost Festival however is much like Halloween in North America, it’s a tradition that is showing its age and slowing down.
It’s not just the decrease in spirituality to blame but also the sheer time and effort put into this month was, quite frankly, pretty intense. There’s a lot going on for younger people now days, it’s not hard to see why they would find it difficult to keep up with this sort of commitment.
It is, in the end, a beautiful tradition born of the love we have for those we miss and our hope that they are resting peacefully. It’s also about sharing one of the most basic aspects of what brings us together as family and friends. Food.
Our family has lost people, it is very likely yours has also. What would you not give, what would you not do, to make them happy in whatever afterlife may exist? Making a good meal seems like a small price to pay for some ghostly happiness.
Consider, perhaps, placing an extra plate at the dinner table this month. Buddha would like it and maybe you’ll be feeding someone you love.