On the fifteenth night of the seventh lunar month (on the fourteenth night in southern China) the Ghost Festival, also known as Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated. The seventh month itself is described as Ghost Month while the fifteenth day is referred as Ghost Day.
It is on this day respects to ancestors is given as the gates of hell itself are opened, permitting ghosts to come to the world of the living to receive food and drink. Food is offered, usually the vegetarian variety, alongside the burning of incense and joss paper.
Legend has it that a Buddhist priest called Mu Lian was concerned for his mother who wasn’t a good person when alive. Remembering the teachings of the Buddha about when the wisdom eye is opened, that one can see anything. Taking on this teaching and using his power Mu Lian looked everywhere he could for his mother, where she was finally found within hell itself.
Mu Lian was saddened, his mother was trying to get all the food she could just as other ghosts were also attempting to do. Offerings of food were sent, but the food turned into burning coal that burnt the mouth when attempted to be eaten. Mu Lian went to his teacher who advised to make plenty of offerings on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, it worked and his mother was fed well. From then on people made offerings of food to the ghosts of their ancestors on the fifteenth day of the seventh month.
To Mahayana Buddhists the seventh lunar month is a month of joy due to its origins. The fifteenth day of the seventh month is also known as ‘Buddha’s joyful day’, where it is said that when the Buddha was alive his disciples meditated within the forests of India during the summer. Three months later on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the disciples would come out of the forest from their meditation and report to the Buddha on their progress.
While on Tomb Sweeping Day ancestors are honoured at their graves, on the Ghost Festival ancestors are honoured within families homes. Offerings are alike for these two holidays, ancestors are offered incense, joss paper, food and drink, but on the Ghost Festival it tends to be more elaborate seeing as it is within one’s home where it is offered rather at a grave.
At night incense is burnt at the front of doors of each house, the more incense the better as incense also represents prosperity. People also make lanterns and use them to help the ghosts get around, shops are also closed to leave streets open just to the ghosts and in the middle of each street an alter is set up with incense and fruit. Monks also sing songs behind the alters for the ghosts.
In the more rural areas, small roadside fires are made for the purpose of burning joss paper.
People will also perform dances and sing in front of live people who take up much of the seats except for the front few rows who leave the seats empty for the ghosts.
During the seventh month it is said that it is a bad month to go swimming, as it is said an evil ghost might cause you to drown. Children are also advised to return home early in addition to not to wander alone at night as ghosts might possess children.
In Feng Shui it is said that the seventh month is a dangerous month seeing as there are many ghosts wandering the streets, making it taboo to move houses and to get married. The next month just happens to be an auspicious month.
During the seventh lunar month it is also said to be a not so good time to attend funerals and visit the sick, but it is a good time to do charity work.