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Ullambana is a transliteration of the Sanskrit word meaning "deliverance from suffering," and specifically refers to the salvation of anguished souls in Hell. This concept originates from the story of "Mulien Saving His Mother from Hades."
In this Buddhist legend, the protagonist Mulien learns that his mother's ghost is being tortured in Hades by starvation and hanging and thus embarks on a grueling journey to the underworld bringing food to ease her hunger. When he finally succeeds in finding his mother, Mulien offers the food to her but it erupts into flames before she is able to swallow. Despairing, he begs Sakymuni to show him a way to bring salvation to his mother, and is answered by the Buddha, who tells him, "The past sins of your mother are too great for you alone to save her. You must thus find ten monks and pray together on the 15th day of the seventh moon." Heeding Sakymuni's instructions, Mulien begins a ritual Buddhist fast and chants the sutras until finally he succeeds in releasing his mother from hell. This legend has been passed down through the ages and is today is celebrated on Chung Yuan by Buddhists around the world, holding ceremonies of charity so that the outcast and famished ghosts may cross over to salvation. Thus, the 15th day of the seventh moon has become an occasion for teaching the virtues of filial piety.
Ullambana is the festival of deliverance, and advocates and reinforces the concept of filial piety. The word ullambana translates into "deliverance from suffering", and specifically refers to the salvation that is granted to tormented souls in hell.
According to Buddhist legend, the observance of this festival is based on the story of Maudgalyayana (Moginlin or Mogganalla, as per Oriental legends) and his mother.
Maudgalyayana discovers through his meditative powers that his mother has been reborn in the realms of pain and suffering. When he learns that her spirit is being subjected to hunger and misery, he decides to go to the netherworld to relieve her of her suffering.
Once he goes there, Maudgalyayana finds his mother starving and in a pitiful state. He offers her food, but when she tries to eat it, the food turns to smouldering pieces of charcoal.
Maudgalyayana is distressed and seeks advice and help from his master, the Buddha. Buddha tells him that his mother's offences are deep-rooted and that he alone will not be able to ease her sufferings. He advises Maudgalyayana to make offerings of five fruits, incense, oil, lamps, candles, beds and bedding to the assembled members of the Order and pray along with them for the liberation of his mother's soul.
The Buddha also tells Maudgalyayana that by making such an offering, not only his mother but his forefathers and kith and kin will also escape suffering and attain eternal bliss and salvation.
The day on which Maudgalyayana performed the act of compassionate filial conduct and brought salvation to his forefathers is celebrated as Ullambana. It is observed on the 15th day of the seventh Buddhist lunar month, and occurs in August in the Augustan calendar.
On this day, Buddhists offer prayers both to their departed forefathers and to their living parents and elders.
It is generally believed that one who performs a good deed accumulates spiritual merit. It is considered an even more pious act when the merit earned is shared with departed souls, which will help them to be reborn in good realms and alleviate their suffering.
Ullambana is celebrated by Buddhists the world over. Though there are slight variations in certain customs and beliefs, the fundamental rituals remain essentially the same. Besides offering prayers to the souls of deceased ancestors and welfare of their parents, people carry offerings such as food, medicine and clothes for monks and nuns in monasteries.
In China and Taiwan, Ullambana has absorbed the traditional Ghost Festival, which has the similar goal of praying for the welfare of departed souls. The two festivals are together celebrated as Chung Yuan Putu, translated as "Mid-origin Passage to Universal Salvation". On this day, an offering of meat, together with a prodigious table of wine is made to one's ancestors and ghosts from the netherworld.
In Singapore, the festival is known as Ching Ming Jie.
The date of Ullambana depends on the calendar that is followed, and varies slightly in different parts of the world. This year, Ullambana will be celebrated sometime between August 18-20.
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