Saturday, July 16, 2011


Yesterday I celebrated Ullambana (Jpn Urabon-e Memorial Ceremony) at Shinnyo-en Buddhist Temple in Sydney. I was privileged to emcee the service.

Ullambana (also known as ‘the Ghost Festival’) is a popular festival celebrated by Buddhists in many different countries including India, China, Japan and Thailand.

On this day (the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, that is, July 15) it is said that the ‘Gates of the Hell’ are opened and the dead souls pay visit to their loved ones. During this festival offerings are made to the spirits of the dead and to the so-called ‘hungry ghosts’.

Ullambana (‘deliverance from suffering’) is a festival of liberation. It also advocates and reinforces the concept of filial piety.

According to the Buddhist legend, the observance of this festival is based on the story of Moggallana (Jpn Mokuren), one of Shakyamuni Buddha’s ten great disciples, and his mother. Moggallana is said to have learned that his deceased father had been reborn into the celestial realm, but his mother had fallen into the path of hungry ghosts and was being hung upside down, suffering greatly.

The Buddha, to whom Moggallana appealed for help, advised Moggallana that he could not help his mother with his ‘feelings’ for her alone. He had to transfer merit to her by a special offering – a feast of 100 different flavours. Moggallana did exactly as he was told, and his mother was said to be reborn into the celestial realm.

Now, I interpret this beautiful story ‘spiritually’. I can now understand what this festival is all about since I read some lines from Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote:

All of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us. Liberation is not an individual matter. As long as the ancestors in us are still suffering, we cannot be happy, and we will transmit that suffering to our children and their children.

Hanh goes on to say, ‘Now is the time to liberate our ancestors, and future generations, and free ourselves.’

Our ancestors, and all future generations, are part of our DNA ... and our psyche. Yes, as our ancestors ‘hide’ in our DNA, so do their life stories and experiences ... positive and negative ... hence the idea of family karma.

Perhaps your late grandfather suffered greatly from depression and alcoholism. We now know that there is a genetic predisposition to these, and many other, illnesses. Perhaps your grandfather is still ‘suffering’ in, and as, you, spiritually speaking ... or otherwise! Your life journey may well carry the life journey of your grandfather as well as the life journeys of other ancestors. This will affect your current life in various ways. Get the picture? Well, it makes sense to me ... and I see nothing supernatural or hocus-pocus in any of this.

All healing begins with self-healing. We need to take every opportunity we can to ‘deliver’ ourselves from suffering, not just for the sake of ourselves, and perhaps those who have gone before us, but also and most especially for the sake of our children and grandchildren. We need to ‘heal the family tree’ ... in us. Not all suffering we bring on ourselves. I think that sometimes we suffer on behalf and because of others who have gone before. It’s an interesting thought.

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