Understanding the Origins of the Ghost Month Festival in Taiwan

August 17, 2020

origins of ghost month in keelung

When the lanterns start going up around Keelung in the summertime, you know we’re gearing up for GHOST MONTH! Ghost month? What is that? Should I be scared? Is it like Halloween?

If you read the article below from Focus Taiwan, or this one from Taiwan News, you might find some cause for alarm. There’s a long list of things you shouldn’t do during Ghost Month, lest you bring bad luck on yourself or your family, or you get tricked by a ghost. According to these articles, some examples include not swimming (water ghosts are looking for a replacement), not leaving your clothes out to dry overnight (the ghosts might put them on and impersonate you), not turning your head when tapped on your shoulder (you will snuff out one of two protective flames residing over your shoulders, leaving yourself vulnerable to the spirits, who are probably the ones tapping on your shoulder!).

I have to admit, reading all of these things started to make me feel a little uneasy. But Ghost Month is about much more than superstitions and warding off malevolent spirits.

What is it About?

Ghost Month is not unlike Halloween (at least, in its original form), in that it occurs around harvest time when barriers between material and spiritual worlds are thought to wear thin. Thousands of years ago, offerings of crops were often burnt to appease spirits, thought to return to earth on October 31st. It also resembles the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (or Día de los Muertos), in which families gather to remember their ancestors and to give them offerings.

Ghost Month, too, is a time for acknowledging the spirit world – for honoring one’s ancestors, and for appeasing other (potentially troublesome) spirits. When it comes to Ghost Month (in Chinese, 鬼月, Guǐ yuè), it is so easy to get lost in a sea of cultural variations and nuances as it is celebrated all over Asia in different forms and at different times. As it approaches I find myself wondering about its origin and history; wondering to what, to when, do all of these celebrations trace back? I did some digging.

Early Buddhist Origins

What I have found is that Ghost Month, despite its diversity of celebrants (and by that I mean folks from every religious end of the spectrum – Buddhists, Taoists, and those practicing Chinese Folk Religion), has its roots in Buddhism. According to Stephen Teiser, Author of The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, the festival was celebrated as early as 300 A.D. in China.

It first appeared in the Theravada Buddhist text the Petavatthu (“Ghost stories”), and was later featured as a sutra in the Mahayana tradition, the Ullambana Sutra. As Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia, similar traditions sprang out of the same story. Through centuries of cultural and religious interaction and evolution the stories and festivals have taken on their own unique regional meaning and flavor. 

In the Ullambana Sutra, the Buddha’s disciple Mahāmaudgalyā-yana gains the powers of the Six Spiritual Penetrations, which according to Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsüan Hua are as follows:

  1. “The Heavenly Eye”, which allows one to perceive events unfolding in any realm of heaven or hell.
  2. “The Heavenly Ear”, with which one can hear the gods.
  3. “The Knowledge of Others’ Thoughts”, which is exactly what it sounds like.
  4. “The Knowledge of Past Lives”, again, what it sounds like,
  5. “The Cessation of Outflows” – the event of enlightenment (Gethin, 75) and 
  6. “Spiritual Accomplishments”, referring to many smaller capabilities.

With these new-found powers, Mahāmaudgalyā-yana decides he is going to find his deceased parents to offer them help in the afterlife. Using his Heavenly Eye, he finds his mother dwelling in the realm of the Hungry Ghosts (In fact, Ghost Festival is also called Hungry Ghosts Festival).

Here the spirits are unable to eat because their mouths are too small and their necks are too narrow. Their bellies are protruded and enlarged, representing their desire. In the Wheel of Life, one reaps what one sews, and so the hungry ghosts suffer endless starvation and thirst as a result of their greed in a past life.  

Below are some Japanese depictions of Hungry Ghosts, from the Hungry Ghost Scrolls (Gaki zōshi 餓鬼草紙) in the Kyoto Museum.

They seem terrifying and demonic, yet their emaciation and helplessness draws more pity than fear. Seeing his mother in this state, Mahāmaudgalyā-yana tries to feed her a bowl of rice, yet as she is about to eat it the rice transforms into (obviously inedible) burning coals. Stricken with grief, Mahāmaudgalyā-yana turns to the Buddha for help. The Buddha tells him that, despite the depth of his filial piety, his power alone is not enough to spare his mother her fate. Only the Sangha of the ten directions (the entire monastic community throughout time and space) can help.

The Buddha passes down these instructions, that on the 15th day of the 7th month, a vast offering of food and riches should be offered to the Sangha on behalf of one’s parents and the parents of seven generations past (at this time the Sangha, having just finished their annual summer retreat, are seen to be exceptionally pure, infused with greater ascetic wisdom (Teiser, 4)). If this is done, parents in this life will reap benefits, and those suffering in hell will be reborn into heaven or break the chain of samsara and pass into enlightenment.

After meditation and recitation of mantras, the Sangha then receives the offering of food. The karmic credit gained from this ceremony on behalf of Mahāmaudgalyā-yana’s parents and ancestors is transferred to them, setting them free from their suffering, and namely Mahāmaudgalyā-yana’s mother, who is freed from her lifetime as a hungry ghost.

Overjoyed, Mahāmaudgalyā-yana asks the Buddha if this same ceremony can be practiced by disciples in the future to achieve the same results, which The Buddha affirms, saying:

“Those disciples of the Buddha who cultivate filial conduct should in thought after thought, constantly recall their present fathers and mothers when making offerings, as well as the fathers and mothers of seven lives past, and for their sakes perform the offering of the Ullambana basin to the Buddha and the Sangha and thus repay the loving kindness of the parents who raised and nourished them.”

“The Ullambana Sutra.” Translated by Buddhist Text Translation Society, City of 10,000 Buddhas – The Ullambana Sutra, Buddhist Text Translation Society.

The moral of filial piety in the story makes it easily translatable in larger Chinese society, being a highly esteemed cultural value. The story was passed down through an oral storytelling tradition and became further adapted into the popular Chinese Buddhist Tale, Mu-lien [the Chinese transliteration of Mahāmaudgalyā-yana] Saving His Mother From The Dark Regions (Teiser, 44).

Evolution of the Tradition

The biggest change in the story through time and in its transformation into an opera has been the introduction of Chinese hell mythology. The bulk of the story becomes Mu-Lien’s tumultuous journey through the various realms of hell, not dissimilar to Dante’s Inferno. He meets the Yan Wang, the King of Hell, the bodhisattva Ti-Tsang (who is beloved for helping those who are suffering), the General of the Five Paths (who oversees movement through the underworld (Dudbridge, 88)) as well as messengers sent from sacred Mount T’ai (Teiser, 6). According to Teiser,

He shudders at the sight of ox-headed gaolers forcing sinners across the great river running through the underworld, and the prospect of people being forced to embrace hot copper pillars that burn away their chests induces even greater trembling and trepidation. The tale is nearly at an end by the time Mu-lien locates Ch’ing-t’i in Avici Hell, her body nailed down with forty-nine long metal spikes. At this point the Buddha intervenes, smashing down prison walls and releasing the denizens of hell to a higher rebirth.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. University Press, 1996.

Chinese hell mythology is really quite terrifying when you look into it. There are many realms (different sources cite different numbers), each with a distinct form of torture created for a distinct act of wrongdoing. I won’t delve into that here (perhaps another topic for another post!), but if you feel up to it a quick google search of ‘Diyu’ will yield some gory results (the images are not for the faint of heart!).

Yes, Ghost Month is upon us, and with it a succession of rituals, rites and ceremonies. In Taiwan it begins on the first day of the seventh lunar month (falling on the 19th of August; later than usual as 2020 is a Chinese leap year), when the Gates of Hell (conveniently located at a nearby temple in Keelung) are opened. During the month it is expected that family members take care to lavish offerings upon their ancestors.

It is common to see bonfires in the street where people burn paper money, (among other paper things – cars or luxury townhomes or watches). There are often stages set up and traditional plays, puppet shows or operas performed (for the ghosts! But you can watch too. Just don’t sit in the chairs reserved for the ghosts). There are parades and lantern ceremonies and then at the end of the month the gates are once again closed. There’s even a follow-up ceremony to encourage the dawdling spirits back to the underworld.

Happily, I will be charting my adventures as I attend various events (COVID-19 restrictions willing) in Keelung over the coming month. It shall begin tomorrow at the Lao Da Gong Temple with the opening of the Gates of Hell! Check it out and find out why Ghost Month celebrations in Keelung are renowned island-wide!

P.s. I’m also hoping to learn some local ghost stories that I can share with you. However, as it is taboo to talk about ghosts during ghost month (in fact, as Keoni Everington writes, one should refer to them as “good brother” or “good sister” to avoid offense), I will have to wait to collect those, and share them only once the Gates to Hell have been securely shut and the last of the ghosts returned from whence they came. But it should be a fun project leading up to Halloween! Get ready to be spooked.

And now, my Bibliography:

“Chapter Five: Sangha, the Third Jewel.” Buddhism: a Brief Introduction Based on the Compassionate Teachings of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsüan Hua, by Hsüan Hua, Buddhist Text Translation Society, 1996.

Dudbridge, Glen. “THE GENERAL OF THE FIVE PATHS IN TANG AND PRE-TANG CHINA.” Cahiers D’Extrême-Asie, vol. 9, 1996, pp. 85–98. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/45276186. Accessed 17 Aug. 2020.

Everington, Keoni. “10 Terrifying Taboos to Dodge during Taiwan’s Ghost Month.” Taiwan News, Taiwan News, 5 Aug. 2019, www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3756500.

Everington, Keoni. “Top 10 Taboos to Avoid during Ghost Month in Taiwan.” Focus Taiwan, Focus Taiwan – CNA English News, 13 Aug. 2015, focustaiwan.tw/culture/201508130025.

The Foundations of Buddhism, by Rupert Gethin, Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 75–75.

Hamilton, Mae. “Yan Wang.” Mythopedia, https://mythopedia.com/chinese-mythology/gods/yan-wang/. Accessed 14 August 2020.

“Gaki Zoshi (Stories of Hungry Ghosts).” Kyoto National Museum, Emuseum, www.emuseum.jp/detail/100951/000/000?mode=simple&d_lang=en&s_lang=en&word=hungry+ghost&class=&title=&c_e=®ion=&era=¢ury=&cptype=&owner=&pos=1&num=1.

“Gaki Zōshi 餓鬼草紙 ‘Scroll of Hungry Ghosts.’” Wikimedia Commons, 7 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hungry_Ghosts_Scroll_Kyoto_1.tif. Kyoto National Museum, emuseum.

“‘Gaki Zōshi 餓鬼草紙 ‘Scroll of Hungry Ghosts.’’” Wikimedia Commons, 24 Sept. 2007, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gaki-Zoushi.jpg#file. Kyoto National Museum, emuseum.

“‘Gaki Zōshi 餓鬼草紙 ‘Scroll of Hungry Ghosts.’’” Wikimedia Commons, 8 Oct. 2009, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hungry_Ghosts_Scroll_Kyoto_6.tif. Kyoto National Museum, emuseum.

History.com Editors. “Halloween 2020.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 18 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween.

“Keelung Ghost Festival: Taiwan Events.” Lonely Planet, 30 Mar. 2020, www.lonelyplanet.com/taiwan/northern-taiwan/northeast-coast/events/keelung-ghost-festival/a/poi-fes/1437075/1327776.

“《目连救母》(Mulian Jiumu) Mu-Lien Saves His Mother.” Wikimedia Commons, 25 Nov. 2006, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Moggallana_saves_his_mother.jpg. www.fosss.org

Langer, Rita. Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins. Routledge, 2007.

O’Brien, Barbara. “Hungry Ghosts of Buddhism.” Learn Religions, 8 Jan. 2018. https://www.learnreligions.com/hungry-ghosts-449825

O’Brien, Barbara. “The Wheel of Life in Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, 22 Dec. 2018, www.learnreligions.com/the-wheel-of-life-4123213.

O’Brien, Barbara. “What Does ‘Samsara’ Mean in Buddhism?” Learn Religions, 27 Dec. 2018, www.learnreligions.com/samsara-449968.

Teiser, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. University Press, 1996.

“Ti Tsang P’usa: Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.” Buddhist Deity Description: Ti Tsang Pusa / Ksitigarbha, 2009, www.buddhistelibrary.org/buddhism-online/history/tstang-txt.htm.“The Ullambana Sutra.” Translated by Buddhist Text Translation Society, City of 10,000 Buddhas – The Ullambana Sutra, Buddhist Text Translation Society, www.cttbusa.org/ullambana/ullambana.asp.

What are your thoughts?