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Friday, August 28, 2009

Feeding the Hungry Ghosts

Welcome to what is known in the Chinese culture as “Ghost Month”. As we settle into the heat of August (finally!), I thought I would share something that I wrote when I was in Taiwan in 2005. It’s called “Feeding the Hungry Ghosts”:
The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as ‘Ghost Month’. Rather than saying that ghosts do not exist or attempting to exorcise and banish them forever, the Chinese have traditionally ‘invited’ the spirits of the underworld to enter temporarily into the land of the living, for a month of gifts and feasts in their honour.
This celebration has a dual purpose. It gives the living a chance to honour their dead ancestors, and it acts as a sort of ‘insurance’ against paranormal acts of revenge. The hope is that if the ghosts are fêted with enough gifts and dinners, they will leave the humans alone for another year. (And we thought Halloween was cool.)
The first day of Ghost Month, which fell on August 5th this year, is known as the day when the Gates of Hades are opened, so that the spirits of the underworld are free to wander among the living. Families will have larger-than-usual meals all month long, and many leave empty chairs at the table for the dearly departed. It is difficult to tell how seriously the Chinese take this celebration. It is more like a superstition than an actual belief. In keeping with their adherence to numerology, lucky colors and other omens of good luck, the Chinese believe it is better to be safe than sorry.
On the fifteenth day of Ghost Month, Buddhists celebrate Putu, to preserve their karma for the afterlife. By honouring the dead on this day, which is loosely translated as ‘the day of deliverance’, they believe they are securing themselves a good standing in their next incarnation. They will ‘come back’ as something or someone better than they were in this life.
Followers of Taoism call this day Chung Yuan, or the Festival of the Hungry Ghost. The living refer to the spirits as ‘good buddies’, out of a mixture of reverence and fear. Taoists fashion paper houses and cars, clothes and special items that they will burn on this day, for their loved ones to use in the afterlife. Over 200,000 tonnes of fake ‘ghost money’ is burned in ornately carved barrels outside front doors every year in Taiwan, as a means of appeasing the ghosts and warding off bad luck. The Taipei City government challenged tradition this year when they introduced an incentive to cut down on the air pollution caused by the symbolic burning of ghost money. Specially designed bags were distributed to households, so that residents could send their fake money (labelled with the names of their intended ghosts) to the city incinerators. There is no word yet on how many people actually broke with tradition and chose to become environmentally friendly.
Along with symbolic gifts and feasts for their own honoured dead, many Chung Yuan participants will leave sacrificial offerings for the lonely ghosts who have no living relatives to care for them, to avoid being haunted and harassed by them in the future.
In Buddhist temple courtyards, huge tables are customarily laden with pigs, sheep, chicken, geese, fresh fruit and cakes. Beautiful lanterns hang on tall bamboo poles, lighting the way for the guests of honour from the spirit world. A statue of the King of Hell, Di Zang, sits in front of a sacrificial altar or chair. This display is often done at the gates of a village if no temple is available. The Buddhist priest sings solemn musical rites, and monks chant incantations known as ‘ghost music’, in a language known only to the spirit world. Finally, rice is thrown into the air in distribution to the lost souls.
At night, private households will keep incense burning outside. The more incense, the better the prosperity in the coming year. This festival makes Taiwan quite a fragrant place. The Chinese believe that the land and humans are ‘yang’, which is positive. Water and ghosts are ‘yin’, which is negative. Special floating lanterns are placed on the water to guide the ghosts back to the spirit world. School children spend hours creating these elaborate lanterns, in beautiful shapes like lotus flowers.
Businesses place elaborate displays at street level, outside their entrances, to ensure the ghosts won’t mess with their prosperity in the upcoming year. An altar is set up for the King of Hell (looks just like Buddha to me but what do I know?) and employees are given time to pray and burn incense in front of the altar, while singing along with special-guest monks. This is a sign of true prosperity, by the way, if your business has its own singing monks. Tables laden with everything from sports drink to dried squid snacks line the sidewalk. As explained to me by a Taiwanese colleague, the sacrificial offerings are distributed to employees at the end of the day.
The Chinese traditionally believe in reincarnation and so Ghost Month can be a dangerous time, as lost souls seek substitutes to take their place in Hell. There are several rules to follow during this time, such as:
1. Never Whistle. Whistling attracts ghosts, who may torment your household or try to steal your soul.
2. Don’t get married, start a new business or move house. This is just asking for trouble.
3. Do NOT speak ill of the dead. (Even if it’s true.) This will bring tears and heartache to your household.
4. Stay away from riverbanks and don't even THINK of going swimming. Water ghosts are always looking for someone to take their place.
5. Don’t bury anyone, because adding to the number of the dead is not a good idea.
On the thirtieth day of Ghost Month, (September 3rd this year), the Taoist priest chants liturgies and holds up a ‘seven star sword’ that lets ghosts know it is time to return to the underworld. When the gates are ‘shut’, the priest cups his ears to avoid being deafened by the wailing of the spirits who are lamenting their return to Hades. Until next year.


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