The Story of Ullambana Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival or Buddha’s Joyful Day
During the time of Buddha, one of his disciples, the Great Maudgalyāyana, through his spiritual power, discovered that his deceased mother was tormented with hunger and starvation in hell. She had been reborn into a lower realm – the Hungry Ghost Realm. Deeply saddened, he tried feeding her to ease her hunger. However, before she could eat, the food turned into burnt flames and charcoal.
Deeply disturbed, Maudgalyāyana asked Buddha how he could rescue his mother. The Buddha told him, “Her past sins are too deep and huge for you alone to save. Your existing merits are not sufficient to release her from her sufferings.” Maudgalyāyana replied, “But as a son, I can’t bear to see my mother suffer.”
Buddha responded, “There is a way, and that is to make food offerings to the buddhas, bodhisattvas and cultivating practitioners. If you can move them with your sincerity, their compassionate blessings and merits will help redeem her of her karmic debts.”
Maudgalyāyana made an offering of the finest vegetables and drinks and offered them to the sangha (the Buddhist community of monks and nuns) on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar (see note below,) and owing to the merits earned, his mother achieved liberation from suffering and was reborn in a higher realm.
Maudgalyāyana also succeeded in relieving a number of other souls. Upon successful completion of his work, Maudgalyāyana was elated and danced with joy.
Since then, on this date, Buddhists celebrate the Ullambana Festival, which literally means “to rescue those hanging upside down” or “deliverance from suffering”, to relieve parents and ancestors from suffering. The first day of the festival is considered the one when the gates of hell open and the ghosts are permitted to visit the earth for fifteen days. From the first to the fifteenth day (which is known as Buddha’s Joyful Day), offerings are made to departed relatives to satiate their hunger and provide liberation to the anguished souls in hell.
During the festival, you can say prayers and make offerings to the buddhas and the bodhisattvas to express gratitude towards your ancestors so that they will be relieved of their suffering and receive auspiciousness. When your ancestors receive auspiciousness, only then can you receive auspiciousness and lead a fulfilling life. You can also dedicate your merits to your parents, both living and deceased, for their kindness.
When you offer a light to Buddha with a sincere heart for loved ones who are deceased, you seek Buddha’s blessings to bring them light, warmth and energy and lead them to a path of freedom from suffering. When you offer a light to Buddha with a sincere heart for your ancestors, you seek Buddha’s guidance to bring them to the Eastern Pure Land and free them from suffering. When you offer light to Buddha with a sincere heart for your karmic debtors, you seek Buddha’s light to illuminate their lives and resolve any resentment and hatred between you and them. When offered with sincerity, each of these lights offers blessings to illuminate those wandering souls in the dark.
Offering lights to Buddha also illuminates yourself, ridding you of worries and darkness, bringing you a bright, peaceful and auspicious life.