The Hungry Ghosts festival is about honouring ancestors and maintaining familial ties.
MANILA: It’s over, you can come out now.
I’m referring to this paranoia over the hungry ghosts who supposedly roam the world looking for victims every seventh lunar month, peaking on the 15th day of that month. That 15th day was last Sunday.
(A quick explanation for people who might not be familiar with the differences: The more widely used calendar in the world is the Gregorian, which is based on the sun. One year is what it takes for our planet to revolve around the sun. The lunar calendar is based on observations of the moon. The first day of each lunar month is a new moon and the 15th day is the full moon.)
I’ve written about the hungry ghosts in previous years, more as an anthropologist, to show how even the most rational people can be captives of their culture. During this seventh lunar month businessmen will not open a new office, put in new capital or buy stocks. Travel is reduced because the hungry ghosts are believed to be lurking on the roads and true believers will point out that Princess Di died in a car accident in a seventh lunar month.
This fear of hungry ghosts is often attributed to the Chinese, even to Chinese Buddhism, which is why a Buddhist group, Fo Guang Shan, contacted me and requested that I clarify matters. Fo Guang Shan is one of several humanist Buddhist groups trying to promote a more rational view of religion.
Fo Guang Shan sent me an article about the seventh lunar month being the month of filial piety for Buddhists, a time to remember and pay homage to parents and ancestors. I checked my Chinese calendar on my iPhone (yes, there are apps for that!) and indeed the 15th day of the seventh lunar month is tagged “Zhong Yuan Festival”, a day to remember ancestors. No mention of hungry ghosts.
Special days for the dead are found in all cultures; it’s a way of maintaining family and community ties, and the Chinese way of commemorating the dead includes prayers at temples, burning of paper money and offerings of food and beverages. I’ve seen offerings that include alcohol and cigarettes. (A friend told me once as we were looking at her grandfather’s grave and the offerings put there: “Poor old man died of lung cancer and they’re offering him more cigarettes.”)
The Chinese are very conscious about these observances. I remember in visits to the Chinese cemetery in Manila, my older relatives would shake their heads when we’d pass graves that had been neglected or, worse, abandoned. Such graves would lead to gossip about the living relatives, who are seen as being unfilial, ungrateful to their ancestors.
Cultures evolve, mutate. Just look at our own commemoration of the dead. While the rest of the Christian world remembers the dead on Nov 2, All Souls Day, we trek to the cemeteries on Nov 1, All Saints Day.
In the case of the Chinese commemorations, what might have happened was an extension of the remembrance of deceased relatives to include many more of the dead and, in particular, the hungry ghosts.
In Buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts are humans who have been reborn as spirits. If in a previous life they were excessive in their desires, especially involving eating, they would come back to a life where they would find themselves constantly looking for and bingeing on food, and yet never finding satisfaction because in their new body forms, they have narrow throats.
Religious mythologies were intended to teach moral lessons, in this case, controlling your appetite and desires.
But the image of a hungry ghost must have whetted another human desire: the thrill of the macabre.
The hungry ghost is an appealing image, resurrected across time, into the 21st century, but now becoming truly powerful.
The irony is that while businessmen become conservative with investments, this hungry-ghosts thing has become an opportunity for entrepreneurs to cash in on peddling advice and amulets to ward off the hungry ghosts. Of course they also warn misfortune befalls those that don’t buy their stuff.
This hungry-ghosts paranoia isn’t found throughout China. It seems to be more widespread in the southern part of that country, in Fujian and Canton and, by extension, among the descendants of migrants from those provinces. Hong Kong, predominantly Cantonese, may seem thoroughly modern except when it comes to hungry ghosts.
Locally, the fear of the hungry ghosts has been growing through the years, even infecting non-Chinese Filipinos. My doctor-friends, for example, say that during this month there is an increase in the number of patients who ask to postpone an elective surgery.
It’s time we exorcised the hungry ghosts. Let’s go back to the original intentions of remembering the dead, which shouldn’t be just a day or a month, but throughout the year, whenever appropriate.
Fear is in the mind. If you believe in hungry ghosts, you will notice every little accident and misfortune that happens during that month, and forget all the good things that do happen.