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.
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)