5th century, B. C. E.
Qing Ti loved her life of luxury, being waited on hand and foot, giving an attending parties galore and buying everything she fancied. Her one disappointment in life was her only son, Mulian, who gave up his wealth to become a disciple of the Buddha. Mulian gave up more than his riches and position. He turned his back on his filial duty to care for her. She was humiliated by his decision and despised Mulian and every fleabag monk who came begging at her door. She died surrounded by servants and extended family that waited to discover what she left them while Mulian and his fellow monks sang chants to help her spirit journey to the Afterlife.
Mulian was no ordinary monk and disciple. He was one of the most accomplished of the Buddha’s disciples in various supernormal powers developed through meditation, including being able to use mind-reading for such things as detecting lies from truth, transporting his body into the various realms of existence and speaking with ghosts and gods. He had gifts that the Buddha knew could help others. In fact, it was his gift that caused him to leave his worldly comforts and joined the monastic life.
Mulian chanted with the other monks to ward off evil spirits and to appeal to the guards of the Afterlife to receive Qing Ti’s pirit. He watched as his mother met the guardians and was directed through various stages in the afterlife. He paid attention as his mother entered the Tenth Hell. The tormented cries were unbearable for her and no matter how hard she tried she could not manage to lift the morsels of rice to her mouth. Her stomach rumbled but the rice fell to the floor.
Mulian empathized with his mother and yet he stood back waiting. When at last she saw him, she hid in shame. Now that she knew what it was like to be hungry; now that she saw the light that radiated around him, she understood why he had to abandon his privileged life to live the life of a monk. She turned away in dismay but he assured her that he did not judge or condemn her in any way and that he was there to help her. His compassion overwhelmed her and for the first time in what seemed like a very long time she did not feel hungry.
The Buddha of the Tenth Hell sensed Mulian’s compassion for his mother and the beginnings of Qing Ti’s repentance. In celebration, he allowed her and all the other spirits to be free to journey to earth to partake in a feast with the understanding that those who could receive without greed would be allowed to go on to the next level but those who continued to hoard and still what was offered were destined to return.
Every seventh lunar moon month the gates of hell are opened, and the hungry ghosts are free to roam the earth. Even today, you can see food offerings at grave sites or on altars outside monasteries or homes in Chinese communities around the world. If you are fortunate to witness the celebrations, you may feel a cold breath on the back of your neck or every hair on your body stand on in. If you are lucky, or not so lucky dash depending on how you look at it dash you might see or talk to a hungry ghost.
Many people consider these beliefs mere superstition I was one of those people, that is, until my conversations with my father’s ghost showed me that he was hungry for more than food or objects.
To celebrate the Festival of the Hungry Ghost, download a free copy of my book from September 1st through 2nd. Click the link below.