By Sue Babcock
It’s that time of the year, when hungry ghosts once again make their appearance in Taiwan. Each year, they leave the land of the dead and wander the earth beginning on the first day of the seventh lunar calendar month for thirty days. This year’s Ghost Month and the Hungry Ghost Festival will begin on Thursday, August 15th.
WHO ARE THESE HUNGRY GHOSTS?
In Taoist tradition, it is thought that the special category of hungry ghosts are the souls of individuals who have experienced an unpleasant or violent death, or who committed evil deeds during their lifetime. Such deeds include murder, stealing or sexual misconduct, which Buddhists believe stem from the emotional underpinnings of greed, ignorance, anger and desire. Therefore, hungry ghosts may be the spirits of people that always wanted more than they had when they were alive and never appreciated what others did for them. So, their life in the afterlife will be the same, filled with discontent.
Many relatives lost patience with such people while they were alive, often disowning them. So, when the souls of these disinherited individuals are annually released from the underworld for a month, they come back as unhappy, dissatisfied, hungry ghosts looking for fulfillment in the land of the living.
WHAT DO YOU FEED A HUNGRY GHOST?
Hungry ghosts are said to have enormous stomachs, thin, reed-like necks and tiny mouths. No amount of food is ever enough for them: no matter how much they try to eat, they are always hungry. This is why shopkeepers, business owners and neighborhoods set up special tables outside their establishments during Ghost Month and the Hungry Ghost Festival. They want to ensure that these wandering hungry ghosts will have many delicious foods to choose from, and not be tempted to bother the living.
Popular outside table settings for hungry ghosts range from long banquet tables, overflowing with elaborate edible delicacies, to a single fold-up table covered with simple foods. Among the offerings are some of Taiwan’s most delicious fruit (such as pineapples, guava, mangoes, bananas), a roasted duck or chicken, popular snacks, vegetarian dishes of tofu, steamed vegetables, rice, or snacks, and small packets of juice, along with a six-pack or two of Taiwan beer.
SPECIAL GHOST MONTH CUSTOMS
Each outdoor table has a special incense pot, in which are placed ignited sticks of burning incense after prayers are offered for the souls of the wandering ghosts. Stacks of golden-colored paper money embossed with vermillion Chinese characters are burned in a special container. As the ashes from the paper money rise, it is thought that they will be transformed into money for the afterlife bank accounts of departed souls, including those for hungry ghosts.
In ancient China, ghosts or good brothers (the polite way to refer to all ghosts) were taken seriously. Because of this belief, many ghost-prevention practices and taboos sprung up, and have continued to the present day. Going swimming during ghost month is a strong taboo. This is because of the enormous need that water ghosts have for taking the souls of the living. There are zillions of Ghost Month stories about people that ignored this taboo, only to be found washed up somewhere or floating face down in a swimming pool.
Another taboo is that a person should not stay out too late at night, because of the number of wandering ghosts and the possibility that one might follow you home. Don’t whistle or hang wind chimes near your home at this time of year. The musical sounds are a sweet-sounding invitation for a ghost to find you. Hospitals and operations are to be avoided. Hospitals are popular gathering places during Ghost Month for ghosts waiting to take a soul.
BIDDING HUNGRY GHOSTS FAREWELL
As Ghost Month and the Hungry Ghost Festival draw to a close, people flock to harbors, rivers and lakes to bid the ghosts a safe journey back to the underworld. Since ghosts are attracted to water, they will know that it is time to leave the land of the living. In several places around the island, such as Keelung, small lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers are lit, put onto paper boats and then gently placed into the water. As bystanders watch the lanterns drift away, they are carefully watched. When a lantern’s candle is extinguished, it is a sign that the ghost following it has reached the other side safely. The living have secured peace from the attentions of the hungry ghosts for another year.
Suzan Babcock is a long-time resident of Taiwan. During her stay here, she has managed four successful careers in education, cross-cultural relations and counseling, although being a mother has been her favorite.