The 15th day of the 7th lunar month is known as the Ghost Festival. Its origin dates back to the story of Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother, which was first recorded in the Ullambana Sutra.
Maudgalyayana was one of Buddha’s ten most outstanding disciples, and he also had the greatest psychic powers. After he acquired psychic powers, the first thing he did was to look for his mother, who had passed on.
Through his clairvoyance, he found out that his mother had been reborn into Avici, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. As a hungry ghost, his mother could not eat anything and was reduced to a bag of bones. What sins did his mother commit when she was alive? She wasted a lot of food and was greedy and hot-tempered. She also nursed ill intentions, failed to watch her tongue or her behavior, and was mean to others. She even slandered Buddhist monks.
Maudgalyayana was a dutiful son. He tried to help alleviate his mother’s suffering by using his psychic powers to produce a bowl of food for her. To prevent other ghosts from snatching the food, his mother covered the bowl with her emaciated left hand as she used her right hand to take the food. But every time, before the food could enter her mouth, it turned into flames. When the flames fell onto the ground, they became food again.
Maudgalyayana was devastated. Though he had acquired supernatural powers, he was unable to save his own mother.
He asked Buddha how he could relieve the suffering of his mother. He was told that due to the many transgressions his mother had committed, he would not be able to get her out by himself. It could only be done by gathering the strength of many monks, and the 15th day of the 7th lunar month would be the perfect time to do that, as there is a lot of energy on this day.
On the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, monks would emerge from their summer retreat and confess to their transgressions. Buddha instructed Maudgalyayana to prepare fruits, foods, and clothes and present them to the monks in “yulan” bowls. The monks in return would pray for his seven generations of parents and ancestors. That was how his mother could be reincarnated.
Maudgalyayana followed Buddha’s instructions and made offerings to the monks. He succeeded in freeing his mother from the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.
The spirit Maudgalyayana displayed in rescuing his mother in the Ullambana Sutra bears similarities to the concept of filial piety in Confucianism. The story also became a very popular opera show, “Mulian Rescues His Mother”, during the Song, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (from the 10th century onward).
The moral of the story of Maudgalyayana rescuing his mother is that one must pay for one’s own doings. Even someone with psychic powers like Maudgalyayana cannot help himself or others run away from their karma. A person who has done evil must suffer and mend his ways before there is hope for him to redeem himself. Maudgalyayana’s mother contracted deep karma when she was alive, and even when she was reincarnated as a ghost, she was selfish, covering her bowl of food with her hand to prevent other ghosts from snatching it. There was no repentance. Why did the food offered to her turn into flames? Not one single thought of ours, be it good or evil, can escape the eyes of gods.