Happy Hungry Hungry Hippos, I mean, Ghost Day

This morning, my mom told me that it’s Vu Lan day, the day where Vietnamese pay respect to their parents and ancestors. It’s also the day where “we feed the souls of the dead condemned in hell”.

“It’s the festival your friend Hieu told you about that’s happening at his temple, she said.” “Do you want to go? I asked.” She took a short second to think, and said, “No, the temple is inside you, pointing to herself and placing her palm on her sternum.”

This is the kind of thing that, when I was younger, I would have immediately dismissed as “old people wives’ tales”. People who are dead are dead. There’s no heaven, no hell. Just good ol’ natural process of decomposition with some friendly bacteria. “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

What’s up with all this “tortured soul” returning to earth business, then? How silly is it to put food out to offer for these supposed wandering souls? Even if I suspend my rational mind and entertained the thought that they exist, they still can’t technically eat it. What is the point?

I want to know the point. I want to know where all this came from, and more importantly, what it’s for. How does this help me, an undead wandering soul? And so, relieved that I got out of going to temple, I jumped on Wikipedia to read more.

It turns out that the festival is called The Ghost Festival, or the Hungry Ghost Festival. You guys can read the Wikipedia entry for the full gory details, but this festival essentially boils down to this:

On the fourteenth day the realms of Heaven and Hell and the realm of the living are open and both Taoists and Buddhists would perform rituals to transmute and absolve the sufferings of the deceased. Intrinsic to the Ghost Month is ancestor worship, where traditionally the filial piety of descendants extends to their ancestors even after their deaths.

Are we Buddhists? I asked my parents. “70%”, said my dad. I smiled, because of this semi-random number my dad came up with, and because “being Buddhist” is not a binary thing in his mind. It’s a liberating thing for me, because what it means is I don’t have to be Buddhist to celebrate, or not to celebrate this festival.

“Is it to celebrate mothers or fathers?” I continued my inquiry. “Well, mothers and fathers are both Mothers.”, said my mom. Whaa? This is the kind of koan that I get from talking to my parents sometimes. I don’t know what that really means, but I wonder if the reference to “mother” goes beyond gender, instead referring to the archetype of mother, like Mother Earth.

I still don’t know what to make of the intertwined rituals and myths and traditions behind all this. But I’m willing to accept the gesture of Remembrance for those that have gone before me, and all those suffering, living or dead. If you feel the same, wherever you are and whomever you may be, have a good Vu Lan day, or Ghost Festival day, and if you don’t care for any of this, may you enjoy the full moon.


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Moonrise over Richmond Beach, Washington.

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” — Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)

‘O let not Time deceive you

Last night, I hung out with my friend Shannon who used to live in Seattle but decided to run off and marry an Italian boy and now calls Milan home (I know, I hate her too.)

Shannon is one of my kindred souls. People used to joke that she was the Irish version of me, or that I was an Asian of her. We are both loud, giggly, always on the go, and blonde (well, she’s the real deal, and I’m a fake (although my boyfriend once told me, “Are you sure your roots aren’t really blond?”)).

We used to climb mountains, rock walls, and trees together. We used to stay up way too late with cocktails and wine, going all over Fremont and ending up at my place, looking over the Ballard bridge and the Olympic mountains, talking about boys and life, and more boys.

When Shannon moved away, I knew it was the end of an era, but it honestly really didn’t hit me until last night. We found ourselves in Fremont again, standing in front of the High Dive. The streets are still here, the bars are still here, but we’re no longer the young twentysomething girls we used to be. Oh, we’re still us, for sure, but we’re both at a different place in life. And I mean that literally, with her living half way around the world.

When we said goodbye, a tinge of some kind of emotion came over me. I don’t know what it was, really. Not totally sadness. It’s hard to describe, but it was this feeling of knowing that we will only see each other a handful amount of times in our lifetime from here on out. This is totally different from before, when we said goodbye, we’d know that we’ll see each other again soon enough, especially when we lived 20 blocks away on Greenwood Avenue. We thought our time together was limitless.

Shannon's idea of breakfast before heading up for a day of hard climbing

Tonight, I overheard a conversation between my parents and a friend of theirs visiting from out of town. They were talking about the last time they saw each other, and when the next reunion will be. For them, I can only imagine that they, too, know their time together is short, even shorter than Shannon’s and mine.

I used to go running a lot around Volunteer Park and Lakeview Cemetery, where Bruce Lee and Brandon Lee are buried. More and more, I appreciate the Paul Bowles quote written on Brandon’s tombstone:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that.

How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.” — Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky.

As I left my yoga studio and looked up at the sky tonight, the full moon was trying to break through the thick Pacific Northwest clouds. Besides than the urge to howl and thump my chest, I smiled at it. It sounds really cheesy, especially in a blog. Oh well, you had to be there. Happy Autumn Equinox.

Shannon having a rare quiet moment on my balcony, probably watching the sun setting over the Olympics