The Ghost Festival is the Buddhist-inspired festival held throughout China and East Asia on the full moon (fifteenth day) of the seventh lunar month. In modern China it is known as the Ghost Festival (guijie) or Rite of Universal Salvation (pudu). Older sources describe it as the Yulanpen Festival; various Sanskrit etymologies have been provided for the term yulanpen, which refers to "the bowl" (pen) in which food offerings are placed for bringing aid to the ancestors suffering the fate of "hanging upside-down" (yulan) in purgatory. In Japan the festival is known as urabon (the Japanese pronunciation of yulanpen) or more colloquially as Obon, the Bon festival, while in Korea it is called manghon il, "Lost Souls' Day."
Most of the components of the festival were known in early Indian Buddhism, but it was only in China that they coalesced into a single mythological and ritual unit. Indian saṅghas observed a rain retreat that ended with a monastic ritual in the middle of the seventh
month. In India monks and laypeople engaged in a cycle of exchange, laypeople providing food, clothing, and other necessities to the professionally religious, who in turn supplied instruction and the chance of improving one's rebirth. Ancestors and filial piety were always important parts of Indian religion, and one of the disciples of the Buddha, MahĀmaudgalyĀyana, was well known throughout Buddhism for his abilities to travel to heaven and hell.
Uniting all these elements, the Ghost Festival was celebrated in China as early as the fifth or sixth century. By that time canonical scriptures, probably composed in China, provided a Buddhist rationale for the practice. According to the Yulanpen jing (Yulanpensūtra), Mahāmaudgalyāyana searches the cosmos for his mother. He finds her reborn in hell for her evil deeds, but is unable to release her from torment. He appeals to the Buddha, who founds the Yulanpen Festival and decrees that all children can bring salvation to their parents by making offerings to monks on the full moon of the seventh lunar month. In practice the festival was part of the cycle of holy days, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, linked to the lunar calendar. With laypeople flocking to monasteries on behalf of their ancestors, the ritual was one of the highlights of the religious year, a kind of Buddhist mirror to the New Year, held six months earlier. The story of Mahāmaudgalyāyana proved that one could be both a monk—one who renounces family and leaves home—and a son who fulfills his obligations to his ancestors. Tang-dynasty (618–907) commentaries on the Yulanpen-sūtra emphasize the importance of filial piety (xiao), the central ideal of the Chinese kinship system. Thus, the festival symbolized the accommodation between monasticism and lay life.
In later centuries the Ghost Festival moved increasingly out of the Buddhist sphere and into other domains of Chinese social life. The legend of Mahāmaudgalyāyana (Mulian in Chinese) was retold in popular entertainments and enacted in a wide range of operas sung in local dialects. Storytellers and artists were especially interested in his tours of the various compartments of hell and in his mother's misdeeds. Focusing on a boy's devotion to his mother, the myth was part of the emerging Buddhist discourse about gender, female pollution, and the special forms of salvation required for women. The Daoist religion developed its own analogue to the festival, celebrated on the same day, in which offerings to the Daoist deity known as "Middle Primordial" (Zhongyuan) brought salvation to the ancestors. The mythology of Mulian became part of the Daoist celebration and worked its way, in both Buddhist and Daoist guises, into funerary rituals performed by local priests all over China.
The Yulanpen jing and its associated rituals were carried to Japan by the seventh century, when the state sponsored the chanting of the text by Buddhist monks. Beyond the reaches of government and monastic control, the festival of Obon later became an expression of Japanese local culture. In modern times many communities sponsor local troupes who perform dances. In both urban and rural Japan most people still return to their family home to observe the holiday, visiting gravesites, honoring spirit tablets, and taking part in festivities.
Cole, Alan. Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
Glassman, Hank. "The Tale of Mokuren: A Translation of Mokuren-no-sōshi." Buddhist Literature 1 (1999): 120.
Johnson, David, ed. Ritual Opera, Operatic Ritual: "Mu-lien Rescues His Mother" in Chinese Popular Literature, Papers from the International Workshop on the Mu-lien Operas. Berkeley, CA: Institute for East Asian Studies, 1989.
Mair, Victor H., trans. "Maudgalyāyana." In Tun-huang Popular Narratives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
Weller, Robert P. Unities and Diversities in Chinese Religion. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.
Stephen F. Teiser