The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar isn’t just about appeasing hungry spirits, it’s also a day to remember the departed, writes Sulyn Chong
“HEY! Quick! The show’s about to start!” my neighbour yelled from the gate. I ran as fast as my little 10-year-old feet could carry me. It’s the annual ghost festival that falls on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. It was in the 1990s, and I recall that every year, when the festival came a-rolling, all the neighbours would gather in front of my house to watch Chinese horror movies from a silk screen erected across the road while sharing homemade snacks.
After scaring ourselves to death, the adults would head over to the stage area for a noisy auction that would be conducted in the Hokkien dialect, while the kids would continue sharing ghost stories. To our untrained ears, the auctioneer sounded like he was speaking gibberish, interrupted only at intervals by the sound of a wooden stick being pounded on the podium.
This lively street ceremony, which the Hokkiens call poh toh, takes place annually on the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar. A special tent would be erected to house a dining hall, and there would be paper mache idols and a stage that showcased shelves of bronze and gold-coloured idol statues ready to be auctioned off.
There would be food offerings for the unseen and an outdoor movie theatre set up for the entertainment of both the living and non-living. Large joss sticks would be burnt from the first day of the seventh month until the 30th. Two parallel rows of red candles and incense act as guiding lights for the dead to their special VVIP seats. I remember my grandmother prohibiting me from going to the back of the stage where the VVIPs supposedly sat.
This occasion was one that as kids, we hugely anticipated as it meant being able to stay up late for a month and join in the revelry with neighbourhood friends every night. As the years passed, those responsible for conducting the ceremony passed away and there wasn’t another generation who could take over. However, little did I know this street ceremony was just one of two major celebrations for the Chinese that falls on the seventh month.
NOT JUST FOR GHOSTS
According to religious beliefs, the usual street ceremonies (poh toh) that takes place in tandem at towns and streets all over Malaysia are of Taoist origins. For Buddhist believers, a different ceremony is held at various temples across the nation. It’s known as the Ullambana. One such temple which holds this ceremony is the San Kwang temple in Batu Pahat, Johor.
With a name that literally means “generous bright temple”, it’s no surprise to see a 1.5m bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy in the middle of the room flanked by her two acolytes. With its high ceiling as well as wide open windows and doors, this temple is a far cry from the usual stuffy and smoke-clogged red building that’s synonymous to Chinese places of worship.
“Hi, welcome to San Kwang Tang and peace be with you,” a jolly nun greets me at the door.
Shi Miao Min is this temple’s resident nun. Only females guard the sanctity of this religious dwelling. The only other person who runs the temple is Leong Yongly, a lower-ranking religious principle known as a Shi Ku. Both women preside over each and every ceremony conducted in the temple, which includes funerals, special blessing and prayers.
The temple is usually quiet with only the presence of a handful of adopted children running the daily chores together with Shi Miao Min, Leong and the temple’s founder Leong Siew Hoong, who’s 88 this year. Today, however, there are movements in pockets of the temple, with devotees praying and children bustling to bring out the vegetarian spread, which they place in front of a bright yellow altar presided over by the Buddhist earth god, Di Zang Wang Pu in the centre.
A hundred or more yellow paper strips with the names of the ancestors written on it line a white board behind the god.
Shi Miao Min explains the significance: “This is an auspicious month that denotes karmic rewards and a show of filial piety. It’s a time for children to pray for peace for their deceased ancestors. It’s like thanksgiving day to the people who gave us life and a day where we can pray for their salvation from the realms of hell.”
Essentially, it’s not supposed to be a scary month made up only of ghost stories and taboos. It’s a month to pay respects to your ancestors and help them find peace and wash away their sins so that they can ascend to heaven and be reborn to a better life.
The legend is believed to have derived from the story of Mu Lian, also known as Moggallana in Sanskrit Buddhist journals. Mu Lian was one of Buddha Shakyamuni’s disciples with supernatural powers. One day, as he was spiritually visiting the realm of the dead, he saw his late mother in the company of other spirits in hell, suffering from hunger. Being the filial son, he quickly brought a bowl of rice for her. But before the rice could reach her mouth, it turned into coal. Devastated for not being able to take care of his mother in the afterlife, Mu Lian sought advice from Buddha.
Buddha Shakyamuni regretfully told Mu Lian that his mother was being punished for her sins during her life on earth.
For her salvation from hell, monks had to perform a ritual, chant and make special offerings.
Mu Lian was asked to prepare generous food offerings for the monks. That he did and his mother was subsequently liberated from her sufferings. To this day, every 15th day of the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar has become synonymous with charity, good deeds, karmic rewards and thanksgiving to ancestors.
“Buddhists believe that every child is linked spiritually to their parents. So, when deceased parents suffer in hunger in the other realm, their children on earth will also not be at peace. To alleviate this, we perform special prayers, meditate and fast on vegetarian meals so that the ancestors’ souls may rest in peace,” adds Shi Miao Min.
The two-hour long prayer recital comprises 13 chapters from the Buddhist holy text. These prayers are believed to be heard by Di Zang Wang Pu Sa, whose sole purpose is to guide spirits from hell and bring them to salvation.
The god is usually depicted sitting on a lotus flower, holding a ringed-staff in his right hand and the precious flaming pearl in his left. The pearl is his guiding light in the dark underworld. To know who to save from the underworld, Di Zang Wang Pu Sa is said to refer to the dedicated yellow paper strips behind him. Every name put up on the special board cost RM100 and for today, there are more than 100 names on the board.
Says Leong: “People didn’t use to bother much with these traditions and beliefs. Many just come to the temple to pray for 4D numbers and wealth. However, in the past few years, I’ve seen more of the younger generations being aware of this significance. Could it be the newer generation have become more filial?” Soon, the sounds from a gong is replaced by the clanging of cymbals. Shi Miao Min bows and makes her way to the front of the altar. Donning her brown cloak, she takes her seat and closes her eyes. A still calm descends around me and soon, her steady voice, deep in meditation and prayers, fill the air.
Newly-arrived devotees walk on tiptoe around the halls saying quiet prayers and placing incense in bronze pots. The rest of us meanwhile, stand rooted in our respective corner, paying silent respect to all those ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’ who are probably all around us.