Hungry Ghosts




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Hungry ghost is a Western translation of Chinese, a concept in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way.

The Chinese concept is related to the preta in Buddhism more generally.

These beings are "ghosts" only in the sense of not being fully alive; not fully capable of living and appreciating what the moment has to offer.

The English term has often been used metaphorically to describe the insatiable craving of an addict.

Preta, (Sanskrit), Peta or Yidak in Tibetan ) is the name for a type of (arguably supernatural) being described in Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Jain texts that undergoes more than human suffering, particularly an extreme degree of hunger and thirst. They are often translated into English as "hungry ghosts", from the Chinese, which in turn is derived from later Indian sources generally followed in Mahayana Buddhism. In early sources such as the Petavatthu, they are much more varied. The descriptions below apply mainly in this narrower context.

Pretas are believed to have been false, corrupted, compulsive, deceitful, jealous or greedy people in a previous life. As a result of their karma, they are afflicted with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as human corpses or feces, though in more recent stories, it can be anything, however bizarre.

The Sanskrit term preta means "departed, deceased, a dead person", from pra-ita, literally "gone forth, departed". In Classical Sanskrit, the term refers to the spirit of any dead person, but especially before the obsequial rites are performed, but also more narrowly to a ghost or evil being. The Sanskrit term was taken up in Buddhism to describe one of six possible states of rebirth. The Chinese term egui, literally "starving ghost", is thus not a literal translation of the Sanskrit term.

Pretas are invisible to the human eye, but some believe they can be discerned by humans in certain mental states. They are described as human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks. This appearance is a metaphor for their mental situation: they have enormous appetites, signified by their gigantic bellies, but a very limited ability to satisfy those appetites, symbolized by their slender necks.

Pretas are often depicted in Japanese art (particularly that from the Heian period) as emaciated human beings with bulging stomachs and inhumanly small mouths and throats. They are frequently shown licking up spilled water in temples or accompanied by demons representing their personal agony. Otherwise they may be shown as balls of smoke or fire.

Pretas dwell in the waste and desert places of the earth, and vary in situation according to their past karma. Some of them can eat a little, but find it very difficult to find food or drink. Others can find food and drink, but find it very difficult to swallow. Others find that the food they eat seems to burst into flames as they swallow it. Others see something edible or drinkable and desire it but it withers or dries up before their eyes. As a result, they are always hungry.

In addition to hunger, pretas suffer from immoderate heat and cold; they find that even the moon scorches them in the summer, while the sun freezes them in the winter.

The sufferings of the pretas often resemble those of the dwellers in hell, and the two types of being are easily confused. The simplest distinction is that beings in hell are confined to their subterranean world, while pretas are free to move about.

Pretas are generally seen as little more than nuisances to mortals unless their longing is directed toward something vital, such as blood. However, in some traditions, pretas try to prevent others from satisfying their own desires by means of magic, illusions, or disguises. They can also turn invisible or change their faces to frighten mortals.

Generally, however, pretas are seen as beings to be pitied. Thus, in some Buddhist monasteries, monks leave offerings of food, money, or flowers to them before meals.

In Japan, preta is translated as gaki (Japanese: "hungry ghost"), a borrowing from Chinese e gui (Chinese: "hungry ghost").

Since 657, some Japanese Buddhists have observed a special day in mid-August to remember the gaki. Through such offerings and remembrances (segaki), it is believed that the hungry ghosts may be released from their torment. In the modern Japanese language, the word gaki is often used to mean spoiled child, or brat. In a game of tag, the person who is "it" may be known as the gaki.

In Hinduism Pretas are very real beings. They are a form, a body consisting only of air and Akaash (Sky or Black matter or space), two of the five elements which constitutes a body on Earth or any other planet i.e. Air, Water, Dark Matter (Space), Fire and Earth. There are other forms as per the ‘Karma’ or ‘actions’ of previous lives where a soul takes birth in bodies resembling human forms or forms of the main intelligent entity in a planet, but with a unique difference that is absence of one to three elements. In Hinduism an Atma or Soul is bound to take rebirth after death in a body composed of five or more elements. A soul in transient mode is pure and its existence is comparable to that of a Deva (divine being) but in the last form of physical birth. The elements except Akaash or Sky or Black matter as defined is the common constituent throughout the Universe and the balance four are common to the properties of the planets or stars or places of birth. This is the reason that Pretas cannot eat or drink as the rest of the three elements (Earth, Fire, and Water) are missing hence no digestion or physical intake is possible for them.

In Thailand Pret are hungry ghosts of the Buddhist tradition that have become part of the Thai folklore. The position and treatment of animals in Buddhism is important for the light it sheds on Buddhists' perception of their own relation to the natural world, on Buddhist humanitarian concerns in general, and on the relationship between Buddhist theory and Buddhist practice.

Animals have always been regarded in Buddhist thought as sentient beings, different in their intellectual ability than humans but no less capable of feeling suffering. Furthermore, animals possess Buddha nature (according to the Mahayana school) and therefore potential for future enlightenment. Moreover, the doctrine of rebirth held that any human could be reborn as an animal, and any animal could be reborn as a human. An animal might be a reborn dead relative, and anybody who looked far enough back through his or her infinite series of lives would eventually perceive every animal to be a distant relative. The Buddha expounded that sentient beings currently living in the animal realm have been our mothers, brothers, sisters, fathers, children, friends in past rebirths. One could not, therefore, make a hard distinction between moral rules applicable to animals and those applicable to humans; ultimately humans and animals were part of a single family. They are all interconnected.

In cosmological terms, the animals were believed to inhabit a distinct "world", separated from humans not by space but by state of mind. This world was called Tiryagyoni in Sanskrit, Tiracchanayoni in Pali. Rebirth as an animal was considered to be one of the unhappy rebirths, usually involving more than human suffering. Buddhist commentarial texts depict many sufferings associated with the animal world: even where no human beings are present, they are attacked and eaten by other animals or live in fear of it, they endure extreme changes of environment throughout the year, and they have no security of habitation. Those that live among humans are often slaughtered for their bodies, or taken and forced to work with many beatings until they are slaughtered at the end of their lives. On top of this, they suffer from ignorance, not knowing or understanding with any clarity what is happening to them and unable to do much about it, acting primarily on instinct.

The Chinese scholar Tiantai taught the principle of the Mutual Possession of the Ten Worlds. This meant that all living beings have buddha-nature 'in their present form'. In the 'Devadatta chapter of the Lotus Sutra the Dragon King's Daughter attains Buddhahood in her present form, thus opening the way for both women and animals to attain Buddhahood.

The Jataka stories which tell of past lives of the Buddha in folktale fashion, frequently involve animals as peripheral or main characters, and it is not uncommon for the Bodhisattva (the past-life Buddha) to appear as an animal as well. The stories sometimes involve animals alone, and sometimes involve conflicts between humans and animals; in the latter cases, the animals often exhibit characteristics of kindness and generosity that are absent in the humans.

Also recorded in the Jatakas is how, in a past life as King Shibi, Shakyamuni sacrificed himself to save a dove from a hawk. Recorded in the Golden Light Sutra, is how Shakyamuni in a past life, as Prince Sattva, came across a starving tigress and her cubs, he fed himself to them so that they would survive.

The first of the five precepts bans the taking of life. As most narrowly interpreted, it applies primarily to the killing of human beings; however, the broader interpretation is that it applies to all sentient beings, which includes those in the animal realm in its broadest sense, i.e., not just mammals, but all animal taxa including insects, and invertebrates. From the beginnings of Buddhism, there were regulations intended to prevent the harming of sentient beings in the animal realm for various reasons.

The Buddha taught that all sentient beings, including those in the animal realm, possess Buddha nature and therefore can attain enlightenment and that from infinite rebirths, all animals have been our past relatives, sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers and children. Therefore, it is against the first precept to harm, kill or eat sentient beings as it is the same as harming, killing or eating the flesh of our own child or mother. Monks were forbidden from intentionally killing an animal, or drinking water with living creatures (such as larvae) in it. Concern for animals is attested back to the beginnings of Buddhist history. The first Buddhist monarch of India, Aśoka, includes in his Edicts an expression of concern for the number of animals that had been killed for his meals, and expresses an intention to put an end to this killing. He also includes animals with humans as the beneficiaries of his programs for obtaining medicinal plants, planting trees and digging wells. In his fifth Pillar Edict, Aśoka decrees the protection of a large number of animals that were not in common use as livestock; protects from slaughter young animals and mother animals still milking their young; protects forests from being burned, expressly to protect the animals living in them; and bans a number of other practices hurtful to animals. In this Aśoka was carrying out the advice to the Cakravartin king given in the Cakkavattisahanada-sutta (DN.26) that a good king should extend his protection not merely to different classes of people equally, but also to beasts and birds.

A basic precept in Buddhism is that of non-harm. Actions which result in the taking of life, directly or indirectly, contradict this basic Buddhist precept.

Many Buddhists in many countries, including monks, are not vegetarians. However in recent years some people's attitudes are changing. In December 2007, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje (The identification of the 17th Karmapa is disputed, see Karmapa controversy), reflected on the subject:

"Last year on the final day of the Kagyu Monlam, I said a few things on the subject of giving up eating meat. Almost all of you probably already know this. It seems some people did not completely understand what I said. For example, some foreign students seemed to think it meant that once you become a student of the Kagyu, meat is not allowed to pass your lips. They told all the meat-eating Kagyupas, “You can’t be a Kagyupa if you eat meat.” I did not say anything that inflammatory. If a Mahayana practitioner, who considers all sentient beings to be like their father or mother, eats the flesh of another being out of carelessness and without any compassion, that is not good. So we need to think about this and pay attention to it. All of us Mahayana practitioners, who accept that all sentient beings have been our mothers and fathers, need to think about this. For that reason, it would be good to decrease the amount of meat that we eat. That is what I said.

I certainly did not say that you are not allowed to eat meat at all. That would be difficult. Whether it is because of previous karma or their present circumstances, some people cannot do without meat. This is how it is, and there’s nothing to do about it. It’s not a problem."

There has been some contention about interpretations of the sutras. One interpretation is that eating of meat is not explicitly prohibited in the suttas and Vinaya of the Pali canon which encourage monks to accept whatever food they are given. However, monks are forbidden from accepting animal flesh if they know, believe or suspect that the animal in question was killed especially for them, i.e., if the visits of begging monks have become an occasion for the slaughter of animals.

In the Lankavatnra & Angulimala sutra the Buddha explicitly prohibits the eating of meat, fish and any animal products which are the result of harming and killing of any sentient being. The Buddha states the only time it is acceptable for a monastic to accept and eat the flesh of sentient beings is for medicinal purposes only if the animal died in accordance with the Dharma, meaning the animal died of natural causes.

In Mahayana Chinese Buddhism and in those countries to which Chinese Buddhism has spread (such as Korea, Vietnam), Buddhist monks are more strictly vegetarian. One of the scriptural sources for this prohibition is the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra This sutra condemns meat-eating in the strongest terms; among several other reasons, it is stated that it should be avoided because the presence of a meat-eater causes terror in animals, who believe them to be likely to kill them.

Although vegetarianism is not expressly commanded in the Pali canon, it is evidently viewed as an ideal state from which human beings have fallen; the Aggañña Sutta (DN.27) explains how human beings, originally sustained on various kinds of vegetable matter, as the result of increasing wickedness began to live by hunting, which was originally thought of as a demeaning occupation.

In East Asian Buddhism and particularly in Tibet and China, the release of animals, particularly birds or fish, into their natural environment became an important way of demonstrating Buddhist piety. In Tibetan Buddhism it is known as Tsethar; whilst in China it was known as (Fàngshung). This practice is based on a passage in the Mahayana Sutra of Brahma's Net (Ch: Fanwang Jing), which states that "...all the beings in the six paths of existence are my parents. If I should kill and eat them, it is the same as killing my own parents. ... Since to be reborn into one existence after another is the permanent and unalterable law, we should teach people to release sentient beings." In the later Ming dynasty, societies "for releasing life" were created, which built ponds in which to release fish that were redeemed from fishermen for this purpose. They also bought other animals which were sold in the markets and released them.

It is increasingly recognized that animal release has the potential for negative environmental impacts, including as a pathway for the introduction of invasive species into non-native environments. This may lead to biodiversity loss over time. Further, some animals are captured for the explicit purpose of being released.

Hungry ghosts also appear in Chinese ancestor worship. Some Chinese believe that the ghosts of their ancestors return to their houses at a certain time of the year, hungry and ready to eat. A festival called the Hungry Ghost Festival (Yúlánpén) is held to honor the hungry ancestor ghosts and food and drink is put out to satisfy their needs.

When Buddhism entered China, it encountered stiff opposition from the Confucian adherents to ancestor worship. Under these pressures, ancestor worship was combined with the Hindu/Buddhist concept of the hungry ghost. Eventually, the Hungry Ghost Festival became an important part of Chinese Buddhist life. According to transcribed oral tradition, some Chinese villagers believe that spirits may be granted permission to return to the world of the living, and to take what they can from there, if these spirits had not been given sufficient offerings by their living relatives.

Tibetan Buddhism

In Tibetan Buddhism Hungry Ghosts (Wyl. yi dwags, Sanskrit: pretas) have their own realm depicted on the Bhavacakra and are represented as teardrop or paisley-shaped with bloated stomachs and necks too thin to pass food such that attempting to eat is also incredibly painful. Some are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain". This is a metaphor for people futilely attempting to fulfill their illusory physical desires.

According to the History of Buddhism, as elements of Chinese Buddhism entered a dialogue with Indian Buddhism in the Tibetan Plateau, this synthesis is evident in the compassion rendered in the form of blessed remains of food, etc., offered to the pretas in rites such as Ganachakra.

Japanese Buddhism

In Japanese Buddhism, two such creatures exist: the gaki and the jikininki. Gaki are the spirits of jealous or greedy people who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as human corpses or feces, though in more recent legends, it may be virtually anything, no matter how bizarre. Jikininki ("man-eating ghosts") are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to seek out and eat human corpses. They do this at night, scavenging for newly dead bodies and food offerings left for the dead. They sometimes also loot the corpses they eat for valuables. Nevertheless, jikininki lament their condition and hate their repugnant cravings for dead human flesh.

Similar traditions in other cultures

The Book of Enoch (a pseudepigraphal book of the Bible) describes the fall of the Grigori and the demons who might be the Grigori themselves, or the offspring of the union of the Grigori and mankind. These creatures are said to wander the world in the form of evil spirit, endlessly yearning for food though they have no mouths to eat, endlessly thirsty though they cannot drink. Endlessly seeking these things from the living, the evil spirits seek to possess weak-willed men and women to dispossess their spirits and to take over their bodies so as to partake of food and drink.

In Japanese Buddhism, jikininki (Japanese: "human-eating ghosts"; pronounced shokujinki in modern Japanese), also called wendigo are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to seek out and eat human corpses. They do this at night, scavenging for newly dead bodies and food offerings left for the dead. They sometimes also loot the corpses they eat for valuables, which they use to bribe local officials to leave them in peace. Nevertheless, jikininki lament their condition and hate their repugnant cravings for dead human flesh.

Often, jikininki are said to look like decomposing cadavers, perhaps with a few inhuman features such as sharp claws or glowing eyes. They are a horrifying sight, and any mortal who views one finds himself or herself frozen in fear. However, several stories give them the ability to magically disguise themselves as normal human beings and even to lead normal "lives" by day.

Jikininki are preta of the 26th class in Japanese Buddhism. They are also sometimes considered a form of rakshasa or gaki ("hungry ghosts"). In the latter case, they may be freed from their deplorable existence through remembrances and offerings or through the prayers of a holy and/or righteous man that has a truly holy spirit and has done nothing to dishonor his or her family.

The legend of the jikininki is told in the old Japanese tale of the Buddhist priest Muso Kokushi. It is said that Muso was traveling alone through the mountains in the Mino prefecture of Japan when he lost his way. It was almost dark when he saw an old anjitsu, the home of solitary priests, at the top of a hill and asked the inhabitant if he could stay the night. The inhabitant was an old priest who harshly refused him lodging, however he told him he could find food and a place to sleep in a hamlet nearby.

Muso found the hamlet where the headman welcomed him and promptly supplied him food and a place to sleep. A little before midnight Muso was awakened by a young man, who informed him that earlier that day, before he had arrived, his father had died. He had not told Muso earlier as so he would not feel embarrassed or obliged to participate in ceremonies. However the entire village was now leaving their homes for a nearby village, as it was custom to leave the corpse alone for the night or bad things would befall the village inhabitants. As a priest, Muso told the young man he would do his duty and perform the burial service and stay the night with the corpse. He was not afraid of the demons or evil spirits the young man spoke of.

When the young man and the other villagers had left, Muso knelt by the corpse and the offerings and began the service. In the deepest part of a night a shapeless being entered while Muso was in meditation. Muso could not speak or move as he watched the shape devour the corpse and the offerings. The next morning when the villagers had returned, Muso told the young man what had happened. He was not surprised.

He then asked the young man why the priest on the nearby hill did not do the ceremony. The young man told him there was no priest who lived nearby and there hadn’t been for many years. When Muso spoke of the anjitsu the young man also denied its existence. Muso then departed from the village with proper directions to continue his journey.

Although before he left, he sought out the anjitsu and old priest on the top of the hill to see if he had been mistaken. He found the hill and anjitsu easily, and the old priest let him inside this time. The old priest then began to apologize for displaying his true form in front of Muso. He was the shapeless figure who had devoured the corpse in front of him. He explained that he was a jikininki. After living a selfish life as a priest, only caring about the food and clothes his services brought him, he was reborn as a jikininki, doomed to feed upon corpses. He pleaded with Muso to perform a segaki-service so he could escape his horrible existence as a jikininki. All of a sudden the old priest disappeared along with the anjitsu. Muso found himself kneeling in the grass on the top of a hill next to a tombstone of a priest.

The Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, or Yu Lan is a traditional Chinese festival and holiday celebrated by Chinese in many countries. In the Chinese calendar (a lunisolar calendar), the Ghost Festival is on the 15th night of the seventh month (14th in southern China).

In Chinese tradition, 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, 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 Chung Yeung Festival (in autumn) in which living descendants pay homage to their deceased ancestors, on Ghost Day, 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 ancestor worship, 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 and Taoists 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 (see below) and the Ghost Festival were mixed and celebrated together.

The Buddha's joyful day

To Mahayana Buddhists, the eighth lunar month is a month of joy. This is because the fifteenth day of the eighth 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 Maudgalyayana 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.

The arhat [Sanskrit] Maudgalyayana [Chinese: Mu-lien] and his mother

The Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story that originally came from India, but later took on culturally Chinese overtones, as the motifs "all appear in a tale that had already been translated into Chinese by the end of the fourth century". In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Maudgalyayana, originally a Brahmin youth who later ordained, and later becoming one of the Buddha's chief disciples. Mahamaudgalyayana was also known for having clairvoyant powers, an uncommon trait amongst monks. "The tale is contained in...a canonical collection of short sutras translated into Chinese by Gautama Samghadeva between 397 and 398."

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 Avici Hell, 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.

Maudgalyayana eased his mother's suffering by receiving the instructions of feeding pretas from the Buddha. The Buddha instructed Maudgalyayana 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.

Maudgalyayana 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 Maudgalyayana was to offer food and robes to five hundred bhikkhus. Through the merits created, Maudgalyayana's mother finally gained a human birth. [In which Buddhist sutra, did the Buddha set on the 14th day of 7th lunar month Ullambana or Zhong Yuan Jie is in fact on the full moon day (15th day) of the 7th month); the reason the rituals practiced today is on the 14th day is because it's customarily practiced on the midnight of the 15th, very much like the celebration of Jade Emperor's birthday which starts on the eve of the ninth day of the first lunar month. Due to long-hour ceremony of ancestral worship and charitable rituals for the hungry ghost, many started to do it on the 14th day instead. ]

Religious festivities

The Ghost Festival is celebrated 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 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.

Singapore and Malaysia

Hell bank notes and other paper offerings are commonly burnt for ghosts Concert-like performances are a prominent feature of the Ghost Festival in Singapore and Malaysia. Those live shows are popularly known as '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.

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.

Japan: Chugen

Chugen , also Ochugen , is an annual event in Japan on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, when people give gifts to their superiors and acquaintances. One of the three days that form the sangen of Daoism, it is sometimes considered a Zassetsu in the Japanese calendar. Originally it was an annual event for giving gifts to the ancestral spirits.

O-bon

Main article: O-bon

Illuminated by the Albuquerque Bridge, Japanese volunteers place candle lit lanterns into the Sasebo River during the Obon festival.

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 their ancestors' graves.

Traditionally including a dance festival, it has existed in Japan for more than 500 years. In modern Japan, it is held on July 15 in the eastern part (Kant?), 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: Tet 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 Hon - 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, who can choose to bear a white rose; and attend services to pray for the deceased.

"Hungry ghosts" play a role in Chinese Buddhism and Taoism as well as in Chinese folk religion. The term is not to be confused with the generic term for "ghost" (i.e. the spirit of a deceased ancestor). The understanding is that all people become such a regular ghost when they die, and would then slowly weaken and eventually die a second time. Hungry ghosts, by contrast, are a much more exceptional case, and would only occur in very unfortunate circumstances, such as if a whole family were killed or when a family no longer venerated their ancestors.

With the rise in popularity of Buddhism the idea that souls would live in space until reincarnation became popular. In the Taoist tradition it is believed that hungry ghosts can arise from people whose deaths have been violent or unhappy. Both Buddhism and Taoism share the idea that hungry ghosts can emerge from neglect or desertion of ancestors. According to the Hua-yen Sutra evil deeds will cause a soul to be reborn in one of six different realms. The highest degree of evil deed will cause a soul to be reborn as a denizen of hell, a lower degree of evil will cause a soul to be reborn as an animal, and the lowest degree will cause a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost. According to the tradition, evil deeds that lead to becoming a hungry ghost are killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Desire, greed, anger and ignorance are all factors in causing a soul to be reborn as a hungry ghost because they are motives for people to perform evil deeds.

There are many stories of the origin of hungry ghosts. In the Buddhist tradition there are stories from Chuan-chi po-yuan ching ("Sutra of One Hundred Selected Legends") that is from the early third century. Some examples of these stories are as follows:

One story is of a rich man who traveled selling sugar-cane juice. One day a monk came to his house looking for some juice to cure an illness. The man had to leave, so he instructed his wife to give the monk the drink in his absence. Instead of doing this, she secretly urinated in the monk's bowl, added sugar cane juice to it and gave it to the monk. The monk was not deceived, he poured out the bowl and left. When the wife died she was reborn as a hungry ghost.

Another such tale is of a man who was giving and kind. One day he was about to leave his house when a monk came by begging. The man instructed his wife to give the monk some food. After the man left his house his wife was overcome with greed. She took it upon herself to teach the monk a lesson, so she locked the monk in an empty room all day with no food. She was reborn as a hungry ghost for innumerable life times.

Most times the legends speak of hungry ghosts who in a previous lifetime were greedy women who refused to give away food. Other stories in the Buddhist tradition come from Kuei wen mu-lien ching ("The Sutra on the Ghosts Questioning Mu-lien"). One of the stories tells of a man who was a diviner who constantly misled people due to his own avarice and is now a hungry ghost. There is another story in "The Legend of Mu-lien Entering the City and Seeing Five Hundred Hungry Ghosts". The story is about five hundred men that were sons of elders of the city they lived in. When monks came begging to the city for food, the sons denied them because they thought the monks would keep coming back and eventually take all their food. After the sons died they were reborn as hungry ghosts. The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated during the 7th 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 monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community. According to tradition, during this month, the gates of hell are opened up and the hungry ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to be ancestors of those who have forgotten to pay tribute to them after they died. They have long thin necks because they have not been fed by their families. Tradition states that families should offer prayers to their deceased relatives and burn "hell money". It is believed that "hell money" is a valid currency in the underworld and helps ghosts to live comfortably in the afterlife. People also burn other forms of joss paper such as paper houses, cars 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 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 please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Live shows are also put on and everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats is always empty as this is where the ghosts are supposed to sit to better enjoy the live entertainment. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts. These acts were better known as "Merry-making". The chief Taoist priest of the town wears an ornate crown of five gold and red panels, a practice borrowed from Buddhism. This represented the five most powerful deities (The Jade Emperor, Guan Yu, Tu Di Gong, Mazu and Xi Wangmu). He is believed to become their voice on earth.

A sacrificial altar and a chair are built for a priest either at a street entrance or in front of the village. The Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha sits in front of the chair. Under the chair are plates of rice flour and peaches. Sitting on the altar are three spirit tablets and three funeral banners. After noon, sheep, pigs, chicken, fruits, and cakes are donated by families that are displayed on the altar. A priest will put a triangular paper banner of three colors with special characters on every sacrifice. After the music begins to play, the priest hits the bell to call the hungry ghosts back to the table. He then throws the rice and peaches into the air in all directions to distribute them to the ghosts.

During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors of households. Incense stands for prosperity, the more incense burnt, the greater one's prosperity. During the festival, shops are 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".

Fifteen days after the feast, to make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to hell, people float lanterns on water and set them outside their houses. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a piece of board. Hungry ghosts are believed to have found their way back when the lanterns go out.

Types of spirits

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. If a ghost is neglected, it will become a kui. The shen, or ancestral spirit watches over its descendants, and can bring good fortune if properly worshiped.

Hungry ghosts are different from the ghosts of Chinese traditions, which all people are believed to become after death. According to the Buddha Dharma, there are three main groups of hungry ghosts: those with no wealth, those with a little and those with a lot. Those with wealth are broken into three groups: the torch or flaming mouths, in which food and drink become flames; the needle mouths, whose throats are so tiny that food cannot pass through; and the vile mouths, whose mouths are so decomposed and smelly that they cannot ingest anything. The ghosts with a little wealth are able to eat small amounts. The ghosts with great wealth also have three subgroups: the ghosts of sacrifices, who live off sacrifices offered by humans and are similar to spirits described in China; the ghosts of losses, who live off lost objects from the human world; and the ghosts of great powers, like yakshas and rakshasas, who are the powerful rulers of ghosts. The ghosts of sacrifices and losses sometimes suffer from hunger and thirst, whereas the ghosts of great powers have pleasures close to those of divine beings. Among hungry ghosts, however, most have little or no wealth and are extremely hungry.

Sixteen hungry ghosts are said to live in hell or in a region of hell. Unlike other hell dwellers, they can leave hell and wander. They look through garbage and human waste on the outskirts of human cities. They are said to be invisible during the daylight hours but visible at night. Some hungry ghosts can only eat corpses, or their food is burnt up in their mouths, sometimes they have a big belly and a neck as thin as a needle (this image is the basic one for hungry ghosts in Asian Buddhism).

Superstitions

A performance held during Ghost month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. People are not supposed to sit in the red chairs at the front because they are reserved for hungry ghosts.

There are many superstitions and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. Spirits are thought to be dangerous, and can take 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. One story refers to a ghost which 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.

During the 7th month of the Chinese calendar children are advised (usually by an elder in the family) to be home before dark, and not to wander the streets at night for fear a ghost might possess them. Swimming is thought to be dangerous as well, as spirits are believed to have drowned people. People will generally avoid driving at night, for fear of a "collision", or spiritual offense, which is any event leading to illness or misfortune. While "ghost" is a commonly used term throughout the year, many people use the phrase "backdoor god" or "good brother" instead during the 7th month, so as not to anger the ghosts. Another thing to avoid is sampling any of the food placed on the offering table, as doing this can result in "mysterious illness". Any person attending a show at indoor entertainment venues (Getais) 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. After an offering has been burnt for the spirits, stepping on or near the burnt area should be avoided, as it is considered an "opening" to the spirit world and touching it may cause the person to be possessed.