Ullambana is a Buddhist event celebrated every year on the 15th day of the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar. This year, it takes place on August 18. Ullambana is also known as the “Ghost Festival,” during which people of the Buddhist faith celebrate their dead loved ones, as it is believed that their spirits return to the land of the living for a day. The day is celebrated in different styles and traditions according to the norms of the local areas, but the principal belief behind the festival remains the same and so you may get to see a variety of ways to celebrate Ullambana.
History of Ullambana
Ullambana, surprisingly, has multiple stories about its origin. Based on the region where it is celebrated, people have passed on varying stories about the day. The word ‘Ullambana’ itself is probably derived from the Indian Language of Sanskrit and was translated into Chinese to form ‘Ullambana.’ In India, you would probably hear people say “Yulanpen Sutra,” which is in more than one way similar to the Chinese Ullambana.
The story behind the day is interesting. The story is of a boy, Sariputta, who rescues his mother who is trapped in a life-cycle continuum. Legend has it that Petavatthu, Sariputta’s mother, is trapped in the fifth life cycle as a ghost, unable to come back as a human. To help his mother, Sariputta builds huts and fills them with food for the needy to eat from as a gesture of his sacrifice. The gods accept his sacrifice and his mother is freed.
Although this is a Hindu version of the story, there are similar versions in Chinese and Japanese literature with slight variations in names and places where the story originates from — but more or less the story itself is pretty much the same. The traditional way of celebrating Ullambana carries the same spirit of helping the poor by offering them food and decorating the streets and homes with lights and lanterns to guide the lost spirits home.
Some people think of this day as an oriental version of the Mexican Day of the Dead and though it may seem that they are alike, “they are not.” The Buddhist faith has a powerful concept of the life cycle continuum and the seven circles of reincarnation. Mexicans are Christians and their faith is entirely different.
If one wishes to experience what this day is about and how to best celebrate it, they should plan a visit to either China or Japan, where this day is still celebrated in some of their cities.
Buddhists celebrate this day in remembrance of the sacrifice made by Maudgalyayana (a.k.a. Sariputta).
In China, people celebrate the Ghost Festival for the first time in their own way to celebrate Ullambana.
Ullambana becomes an official event under the Tang Dynasty.
The event is transformed into a full-day festival that is celebrated in different parts of the world in Buddhist communities.
How long does the festival of Ullambana last?
In many areas, it is just a one-day event, but in a select few areas, it lasts for 14 days.
What should we not do in Ullambana?
For believers: remember not to stand close to a wall, do not take the last bus or ride back home, do not take pictures at night, and do not whistle. Remember, not all spirits are good.
Which is the best place to experience Ullambana?
Every place has its own ways to celebrate this festival and so no place can be declared the best place, but if you want to experience a more traditional and bigger event, Chinese cities would be the better option.
Celebrate it with your parents
The most important thing about this festival is to show reverence to your parents. Sariputta sacrificed to help his mother, so you can be (technically should be) kind towards your parents and spend time with them.
Decorate your home
Use whatever means you have to decorate your home and light up the street to guide the spirits towards your house. It is believed that on this day, the spirits are allowed to come back to the living realm and collect the offerings from the living.
Give away food to the needy
Spirits do not eat food, but they get the reward of the offering made by their living loved ones when they feed the poor. So be sure to give away lots of food to the needy and the poor so that the spirits can claim their prayers.
5 Facts About Ullambana Everyone Should Know
The gates of Hell
Buddhists widely believed that the gates of Hell are opened this day to allow the dead to collect the offerings from the living.
Bringers of luck and fortune
The house or stall from which the needy collect the maximum quantity of food is believed to be the luckiest and most fortunate in the days to come.
A Ghost Festival with real ghosts
Many people have narrated that they have actually seen ghosts on this specific day.
One figure, many names
Although the story behind the festival is more or less the same, the names attributed to its originator outnumber the countries where the festival is celebrated.
More than just a Buddhist festival
In China, Ullambana is not just a religious festival, it is also a celebration of the Taoist culture and festivities.
Why We Love Ullambana
A day to love our parents
Although we should love and be kind towards our parents every day, this day is a special day to love our parents in memory of the son who sacrificed whatever he had to save his mother. The love of the son for his mother is a reminder of how strong the family bond should be and so at least on this day, our priority should be our parents.
Honor the beloved dead
As they say, the gates of hell are opened for the dead to return and collect the offerings. It is a clear indication that the dead desperately need our good deeds. The blessings of what we offer to the needy are what help the dead in the afterlife and so the maximum we offer, the maximum our beloved dead ones receive.
We love festivals
Who does not love festivals? Festivals exist for a reason that is to rejoice, either with family or friends or with both. Do we even need a reason to love a festival? Just rejoice with the ghosts!