Hungry Ghost Festival- of ghosts, burning ghost money and being ‘blocked by ghost’

The 7th month in the Chinese lunar calendar is the hungry ghost festival month.

When going around Malaysia, you would see stages being set up with singing till late at night as well as food being sold. In the past, the stages would only show traditional Chinese opera shows. But times have changed and now modern songs are often included.

The first row of the seats are always unoccupied. Even though there are not enough seats, no one would go and sit at the front row as it is reserved for the ‘unseen guests’.

On the 14th day of the 7th lunar month, there would be people burning ghost money and offering food at streets or in front of their homes once it is turning dark. However, this tradition is slowly dying off as the younger generation no longer practice this anymore.

For Buddhists, I wish to share with you some talks by Master Sheng Yen related to such practices. Master Sheng Yen was a well known Buddhist monk in Taiwan. He had already passed away in 2009 but his legacy lives on. I listened to a lot of his talk in YouTube and find the talks to be very comforting- there are many topics covered in thousands of the videos available.

Since the Hungry Ghost month is about to begin, I wish to include 3 of his talks which is related to spirits and some transcripts.

All the talks contains English subtitles:

1.Does burning ghost money work?

Burning ghost money is not part of Buddhist culture or belief.

The practice of burning items have existed a long time in many cultures in ancient India and Greece.

The Chinese believe that a person will turn into a ghost upon death. They saw that the only difference was one is in the human world and another in the nether world. So they thought that what is used in the human world would also be used in the nether world. They would burn all sort of items like tools or money as they thought it is useful to the death. So the custom begun.

When paper was invented by Cai Lun which did not exist until Han dynasty, paper became symbol of silver and gold. So they stopped burning real money and they replaced it with paper money instead.

Therefore, this is not part of a Buddhist practice but it belonged to the practice in the Chinese culture.

In India and Christianity this practice does not exist. This practice is only done in the Chinese. custom.

A Chinese person is accustomed to this his whole life. So when the person died and become a ghost, they thought about money when alive so after death he also thought about money.

Can you buy things in nether world using money? No, there are no factories or farm in the nether world and no buying and selling.

But burning has a comforting effect to deceased spirit. It shows comfort and concern.

So we cannot say the practice is totally useless.

There is an area …a highway in Taiwan that is said to be haunted. People will go and throw ghost money and it seemed to being peace.

Does it means the ghosts can benefit from it?

No it does not.

Buddhist also believe in chanting and helping the ghost and spirits to let go so that they can be detached, let go of depression, sorrow and bitterness. This is extremely useful and help in their deliverance. If one only throw money, it settle one time only. What happened to the next person who come along and don’t give money? The spirit may not be too happy about this.

He did express concern about the damage to the environment by cutting down trees to make all this items.

Master Sheng Yen said instead of burning money, perform meritorious action. Do good and practice recitation, or do charity and dedicate the merit to them.

2. Is there such thing as being blocked by ghost?

The master of ceremony begin by asking if you have driven past a place, no matter how you go and pass also you could not get out. Drive by certain place and cannot get out. Does it really exist and how to overcome when meet it.

Master started by how any members of the audience had personally encountered this? He believed we would have heard about it but actually very few people would actually experience this.

When he was young, he stayed in a place and each day, someone will buy food and bring over to him.

One day a person said that he walked around Yuanshan and could not find a way to get out.

Finally he reached and say, he had been unlucky. This man said he was blocked by a ghost …he ended up walking around a place could not get out. He saw a road but don’t know how which direction to go. He could not see anything but a path to go. Only saw a road in front of him.

He figured out he could have encountered the situation of ‘being blocked by a ghost’. So he sat down and waited until almost light. He waited until the roosters start to crow. The sky suddenly cleared.

Where was him? He was in the cemetry. Where he sat? He was sitting on top of a grave which was a burial grave full off unmarked grave.

Hence Master Sheng Yen said he personally heard this story from the person who experienced it firsthand but he personally did not experience it.

However, he believed that such incident could happen.

It tends to happen at out of the way spots or place with little or no people. It could be in a graveyard or places of frequent accidents. Sometimes there are ghosts who just want to play pranks and mostly meant no harm. If encounter this situation, just sit down and wait for the daylight. Because you would not be able to get out.

Or you may do some chanting. The purpose is not to chase them away but to help these spirits so it arose compassion and let you go.

He them move into something we can relate in daily life.

In everyday life, he mentioned he was sure that many have also encountered such situation in our lives….when you don’t know which way to go, you don’t know whether to go north south east west or the best to deal with the problems, or you don’t know what the future will bring, if you cannot think of a way out. Almost similar to ‘being blocked by ghost’.

A lot of people feel ill at ease at times. Feel sad but don’t know why. It is not hunger or sickness. But in the heart have bad mood. Don’t know why …just know feel unhappy and uncomfortable.

When see doctor could not find nothing wrong or anyone who could have upset them.

It is like being in a fog.

He said many people experienced this. People will come and ask him for advise ‘my future seems hazy, I don’t know what to do’; ‘I am at a deadend, I don’t know what to do’.

He then asked them: ‘are you able to eat?’. They would answer “Yes”.

He asked again, “Can you do work?”. “Yes”, they would answer.

Then he asked them to go and have some food. If can work, come and help out. He would ask the person to do something….something: listen to songs, watch a movie, do religious practice. …it will transform one’s mood.

I believe he is making a simile to make us understand and ask us to get ourselves out of the fog.

3. Paranormal experience.

Many ghosts stories and legends spoke about hauntings in houses that used to be cemetery or execution places. On real life many people could vividly describe such place or incident.

First he asked: ‘Do such things exist?’

Second: ‘Should we believe it them?’

Third: ‘If we believe in them, then how to overcome it?’

First he pointed out that such phenomenon exist. But some are mere hearsay. Some are seen by few people and some are a lot.

Europe have many of haunted houses. America being a new world, such weird phenomena are less common. In the east, after a war or battle, stories of haunted places are often circulated.

He admitted having experienced such incident or heard about it. Some are true stories.

How did this happen? Should we believe in them?

Some people will face it but majority will not. He mentioned that there is a park in Taiwan where those who go there at night may see a woman walking there. She has long hair and walk on a bridge but when you try to go and catch up with her, she would dissapear. He said if you don’t believe you can go and see for yourself…. but probably you will not see it.

If you don’t see it does not mean it is not true. Why only some people could see? Perhaps they are in for bad luck. People who are in good luck will not see it. Also those who are overly sensitive may perceive such phenomenon easier.

People who are less sensitive or don’t believe in ghosts may not see. However, it does not mean you will never see. If you are going through bouts of bad luck, you may encounter.

From religions perspective, it is believed that those who die a violent, untimely, wrongly death can show up anywhere… be it a house or some places. Resentful ghosts may linger there.

What should we do? What happens when one runs into this situation?

He recommended chanting of some sutras to help them in hearing to be able to let go and will not feel resentful and can move on to another rebirth.

If unable to do it, then invite a group of monastics or lay persons to hold rites to deliver the person.

The rites can deliver the ghosts. The ghosts feel neglected or unnoticed so they bear grudges in being ignored and give people trouble so that people can see or hear them. So if we perform rituals they are comforted a bit. We aren’t neglecting them so can co-exist peacefully.

He said many places in Taiwan hold such rituals. Once there was a person from a district courts who did not believe and did not hold rituals so a lot of eerie things happened. The person also went through streaks of bad luck. He came and sought advice from Master Sheng Yen. Master Sheng Yen asked him to continue hold rituals. The person did and the problems went off.

Other talks of Master Sheng Yen related to the realm of spirits and subject of death:

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