Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All hell breaks loose

It is now the 7th month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar; whereby it is also known as the month of ghosts.

Taoists believe that this month is the time when the gates of hell are opened and all the spirits/ghosts are allowed to roam freely on the Earth among the living.

It is also believed to be the birthday of the King/God of Hell on the 15th day of the month and it is in conjunction with this celebration that the spirits were given this 'passport' to wander freely for an entire month.

Another famous legend linked to the origin of this festival was the story about Mu Nian (or Bok Lian in Hokkien); a story told to me by my mother and grandmother (it was passed down by my great great grandmother).
This was not just some grandmother's story as I have done a bit of research and found that it really exists; and there are even different versions of it.

I am sharing the version which I have from my grandmother/mother.

Mu Nian was a filial son and he lives with his mother and uncle. They were vegetarians but his mother broke off from being a vegetarian after his father's death and fell to the temptation of his uncle who brought home feasts of meat and wine.
When his mother died, he dreamt of her constantly and it was said that her cries from Hell could be heard by Mu Nian. She was suffering; she was being punished for her gluttony and she was crying for help. She was fed with food which turned to hot coal and burnt her tongue each day and she was surrounded by fire.
Her soul could not rest in peace and she was in so much pain that she screamed for her beloved son to come to her rescue.

Mu Nian, being the filial son, was upset and could not bear to see his mother in so much suffering that he prayed and begged that he be allowed to see her and he tried to break through hell to see his mother.
He then begged the deities to spare his mother from her suffering and he started to chant prayers to reach to his mother and to appease her soul.
His prayers were so strong that it penetrated through the gates of Hell and could be heard by his mother.
This was how the festival of Ghosts came about when the ruler of Hell decided to allow the spirits to visit their loved ones.
It is also how the notion of prayers and burning incense/paper money to the deceased during this month.

During this month, believers would offer prayers and perform rituals to absolve the sufferings of their loved ones and all the other lost souls.
That is why you can often see people crouching down by the roadside, setting down food like cakes and fruits, and lighting candles and joss sticks, and burning paper money.
It is a common thing you see during this month; and most do it immediately on the first day itself too.

Due to the nature of this month, it is also particularly a month feared by most Chinese folks due to the presence of spirits everywhere and at all times of the day.
There are a lot of rules to follow during this month; and extra caution need to be taken during this month to avoid any mishap.

This festival is celebrated among the Chinese communities across the globe, but the presence is stronger in the regions of Asia whereby there is a mass accummulation of the Chinese here.
The festival is observed in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and of course, China.

There will also be street performances during this month in various places; whereby you will see mock stages being set up along the street everywhere.
These stages will have opera performances, and muppets and there will also be a huge tent at the other end which will house the paper statue made in the image of the King of Hell (some say the Guardian of Ghosts); Di Zang or in Hokkien, my grandma used to refer to him as Tai Su Ya.

If you observe closely, you will find a small statue of Buddha or Kwan Yin perched on top of his head as according to my grandma, he was the transfiguration of the deity herself.

On the 15th day of this month, it is the Ghost Festival; known as Yu Lan or also Zhong Yuan.
On this day, the Chinese believe it is the day where the ghosts are at their most powerful and children are warned not to run around on their own.

Most will be making their offerings and praying to the King of Hell for peace at home and also for the peace of the wandering souls.

Opera performances and Ko-tai (a Malaysian Hokkien term used to describe the singers performing on stage) are there to provide entertainment to the spirits.
It is also a form of showing respect to them and to appease them so that they will not harm the living.

In some places like Hong Kong, they even put paper lanterns or boats on the river/sea which carries their prayers and believed to guide the ghosts.

As quoted from this source (http://www1.china.org.cn/english/olympic/211929.htm),

When the festival sets in, a sacrificial altar and a chair is built for the Buddhist priest either at street entrances or in front of villages. In front of the chair sets the statue of the King of Hell Di Zang. Under it are plates of flour-made rice and peaches. On the sacrificial alter are three spirit tablets and three funeral banners. After noon, pigs, sheep, chicken, geese and cakes, fruits of all kinds donated by households are displayed on the altar. On every sacrifice the Buddhist priest will put a triangular paper banner of three colors with special characters. After the rite gets started in solumn music, the priest will strike the bell to call back the souls, other monks singing chimes of incantations. Then he will throw the rice and peaches into the air in all directions to distribute them to the souls.

It is very important to observe these rituals correctly and to be careful with what you say or do this particular month to avoid anything bad from happening.
It is also best not to stay out too late at night as the elders usually say that it is a form of respect or courtesy to leave the streets to the ghosts to party all night.

There will be significantly lesser weddings during this month and some women even avoid giving birth at this time as well.
House moving/house warming or any outdoor activity is usually not encouraged, as this could invite the spirits or offend them.
New business ventures or changing jobs, attending funerals are also on the lower scale this month.

Some even blame any misfortune or bad luck on the aura of this month.
Sometimes, you may even notice that there seemed to be more funerals/accidents compared to other months. A myth or a fact, you choose, I chose not to doubt.

This is a month which is deemed the month whereby fear resides in most of the living due to the presence of spirits all around; be it the good or the malevolent who may be back for revenge; especially towards those who have wronged them during their lifetime.

It is a time whereby every spirit is released for this one month, so be careful, and just take extra precaution whether you believe it or not.
Beware, it is a month where all hell breaks loose...

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