The 7th Lunar Month and the Hungry Ghosts Festival
At the beginning of the 7th lunar month I lost my ATM card and my office manager said, “that’s normal’. She quickly added: ‘you’ll be lucky if that’s all that happens to you.’ She herself had just had her helmet stolen and was resigned to it. ‘I need to be much more careful this month – the hungry ghosts, the forlorn ones with no family, the sinners are all around,’ she added as she pulled a visitor’s bike inside the gate for safe-keeping and checked the lock on the side door.
Yes, in many parts of East Asia Lunar July signals bad luck from the curses of wandering lost souls. Following Taoist tradition with some Buddhist thought thrown in, it is believed that the gate of hell opens in the 7th lunar month and ghosts from the Lower Realm roam freely among us. The ancestors with family find their way back to their living descendants but those without familial support create havoc. Most Vietnamese postpone major decisions during Lunar July and lie low. Some piously turn vegetarian for the month.
On Lunar July 15 (as usual all the big action happens in and around the full moon) the Hungry Ghosts Festival is observed. Two feasts – one for your own ancestors and one for the lost souls are held. The food for lost souls is vegan for purity’s sake and simple to digest (as this is their only meal for the year and they’re not up to much).
It’s common practice however, for a lot of the offerings to one’s ancestors (and the hungry ghosts) to be well under way on the evening of the 14th. You can expect to see fires all over town then with oodles of ‘hell money’ going up in flames leaving hanging clouds of smoke all through the evening.
For Buddhists it is literally a day of forgiveness practiced by the living for the most sinful and forlorn of the deceased. But a mixture of Buddhist compassion and the Confucian drive to protect one’s own future and fortune always seem to be at play on such occasions.
Probably coincidentally, the Hungry Ghosts Festival shares Lunar July 15 with Vietnamese Mothers’ Day where children of deceased mothers wear white flowers while those whose mothers are still alive wear red ones.
With ancestors on the minds of many Vietnamese, Lunar July is a time for copious offerings in the pagodas as well as the ‘hell money’ and other gifts burning away in street gutters and mini incinerators mentioned already. And on Lunar July 15, the Hungry Ghosts Festival brings together Taoist ghosts, Buddhist compassion, Confucian ancestor worship and personal welfare in a heady cocktail.
Oh, and by the way, Lunar July is a ghost/demon month for anyone who’s around, not just the Vietnamese. Even those of you who are just passing through need to stay alert!