Editor’s note: Ghost month is often seen as a month full of superstition that may ring hollow for the younger generation. We reproduced this article because we enjoyed this anthropological take on Ghost month and what future opportunities it can offer. Through a Buddhist lens, we have offered different ghost month perspectives of burning joss paper, ghosts, and death. So we thought a different point of view would be a nice addition!
This article has been reproduced with kind permission from RiceMedia. The original article can be found here.
About a week and a half ago, I wrote a post on social media about why it is time for us to reclaim the narrative of the Chinese Seventh Month in Singapore, and revitalize it for our future. Growing up as a millennial, the discourse around the Chinese Seventh Month I was used to hearing was generally negative (and I am saying this as an ethnic Chinese person in majority-Chinese Singapore). Colloquially branded as the Hungry Ghost Festival, I had come to know of the Seventh Month as a season when older, less-educated Singaporeans engage in meaningless rituals to appease unseen beings, hoping that wealth, health, and luck will befall them.
In other words, the Seventh Month was seen as an entire month where personal superstition was played out in ritual practices. Other younger Singaporeans lament the fact that they were forced by their elders to participate in the festivities which did not mean anything to them. Further, when they questioned the festival’s significance, they were not given answers. Instead, many were told not to question so much and to do what they were told so that ill-luck would not befall their families.
In addition to this, younger people are aware of the potential environmental and health impacts from rituals such as the burning of joss paper. Inconveniences are also caused by the placing of candles and joss sticks on the ground in public spaces and the scattering of joss paper. What seems to annoy Singaporeans the most, however, is the failure of worshippers to clear up after prayer. This has led to a yearly barrage of complaints in online spaces. Netizens have called for a harsher restriction of these Seventh Month practices. Others have gleefully noted that with less younger Singaporeans being interested in the festival, it should just be left to disappear quietly into the night as its practitioners get older.
While I understand why many of my millennial counterparts feel that way, I believe that there can be a better way around all these issues without severe restrictions or letting the festival die out. I believe that this lies in the need for us as younger Singaporeans to reclaim and revitalize the festival for the future.
Firstly, I do not deny that the Chinese Seventh Month is religious. However, it is important for us to see that underlying its religiosity, it is inherently cultural and communal. Take for example the ‘hungry ghosts’ which are commonly seen as the main target audience of the festival. Buddhists and Taoists might disagree on who these ghosts are and which part of the afterlife they came from. However, without going into the nuances of what they believe in, practitioners generally agree that these ghosts in one way or another represent all our departed ancestors.
The worshipping of these wandering spirits then, represents a veneration of all our ancestors—all those who lived and came before us. The underlying essence of the Seventh Month is bigger and deeper than religion. It is actually about the commemoration of our shared past; the expression of our gratitude for all those who came before, and the establishment of a communal identity. These are secular values which we all hold as important and meaningful as individuals living in community. Moreover, one must also understand ritual from a more anthropological lens. Rituals are performed not just for the dead or divine, but are a vehicle for the living to express their feelings and thoughts through action.
One can see the celebration of community at the heart of the festival when more attention is paid to it. Rituals and Getai concerts are conducted in public places. Makeshift altars are built under HDB blocks, at car parks, and beside hawker centres. The festival is meant for everyone to participate in. If you notice carefully, Seventh Month altars have free joss sticks available for anyone to come by to use. Some altars have little boxes for donations that ensure food offerings and joss sticks are replenished. These point to the underlying notion that the festival is ultimately about building a sense of kinship and cooperation through communal filial piety and societal remembrance.
The festival, thus, is an avenue for the community to express gratitude to all those who preceded us for their part in establishing community. It recognizes that every individual who came before us had a part to play in making us who we are today. It is also for those forgotten souls who fell through the cracks of society and history.
An example of these forgotten souls can be seen in altars set up particularly for those who passed away very young. Offerings of candy, toys, and children’s clothes are placed on these altars as a sign of remembering those who could not live a full life. These souls remain embodiments of hope, love, and joy to their parents who bore but lost them at a young age. Most of all, the Seventh Month is about the love for our unknown neighbour, which is why the notion of “wandering spirits” surrounds the whole festival.
I admit that I used to be cynical about the Seventh Month. It was only after doing some research and talking to my dad who observes the Seventh Month that I came to understand what a truly meaningful festival it is. I realized how reclaiming its inherent narrative would actually assist in creating a more compassionate and understanding community for the future. Reclaiming the narrative of the Seventh Month to me, however, needs to go hand-in-hand with revitalizing the festival for a cynical generation and making it relevant for the 21st century. I was inspired to think about how these could occur after living for some time in Los Angeles.
When I was living in LA, I had the opportunity to experience the Day of the Dead festival—a remembrance festival similar to the Seventh Month celebrated by the Mexican community in California. Like the Seventh Month, the Day of the Dead festival at one point of time had been seen as too religious and superstitious. Apart from older Mexican-Americans, it did not have much attention in the wider community. However, in the 1980s, Mexican artists led the charge in revitalizing the festival in California, making it relevant not only for those of Mexican heritage but for the wider community as well. They did so by combining Mexican religious traditions associated with the festival with modern American pop culture. Art, dance and music forms were intermixed, making the festival go mainstream, appealing to not only the younger generations, but people of ethnicities too.
Today, face painting, processions, concerts, food markets, and altar displays celebrating Mexican culture have become the norm and are held across the state. The revitalization of the Day of the Dead helped the Mexican community in California to embrace the beauty of their roots, enabling them to be proud advocates of their culture. Altars set up in Mexican family-run businesses quickly became the norm again and younger generation Mexican-Americans are making it a point to visit the cemeteries during the festival. In addition, you would see people of all ethnicities taking part in the festivities while learning about and enjoying Mexican culture in America. Activists also use the festival to highlight local social issues on immigration, poverty and racism.
I had the privilege to attend the annual Day of the Dead celebration at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in LA, and encounter this revitalization first hand. There was a carnival-like atmosphere to the festivities and the celebration reflected the unique Americana vibe to the commemoration of this ethnic festival. Mexican elements were combined with contemporary American ones in art exhibitions and music concerts held on site. The event also saw an altar building competition where apart from traditional altars being built, people of different ethnicities and nationalities were invited to create altars unique to their own culture but in a style appropriate to the festival. I saw people of all ages and colours attending the celebration with many opting to paint their faces and pick up sugar skulls as souvenirs. I could only describe the event as a celebration of Mexican-American culture and the pluralism of California.
I wondered how we could reclaim and re-enchant the Seventh Month in order to ensure that these deep and meaningful values continue to be commemorated and celebrated. After all, like LA, Singapore is a multicultural city with a vibrant and youthful population excited to move further into the 21st century while embracing their heritage. Discovering the deeper meaning behind the Seventh Month and seeing how a similar festival was revitalized halfway around the world made me realize how important knowing and celebrating our roots can be in establishing a more cohesive society. This is especially so for generations so invested in creating individual identity while remaining rooted in community.
My journey of discovery not only connected me to a heritage greater than myself, but got me to think how the values of my culture can be a positive driving force in creating a pluralistic Singaporean society today. The essence of the Seventh Month in building community through remembering our ancestors extends far beyond the Chinese community. This has to include our friends of other ethnicities as well. They are an integral part of our community and their ancestors, too, had a huge part to play in making us who we are today. To reclaim and revitalize the Seventh Month then, is for us to think how we would be able to make the festival relevant for all of us as an entire country while celebrating its Chinese roots.
I anticipate with awe and hope for a more hybrid and multicultural Singaporean Seventh Month. This would also mean that the religious aspect of the festival would be better understood by everyone simply because people would be more familiar with the festival. However, the revitalising of the festival for the wider society would also mean that certain religious practices would need to evolve and adapt. This might mean more discreet burning of incense papers, and the intentional clearing up of candles and joss sticks on the roadside after prayer. The Seventh Month’s focus on community at its core has to reflect the necessity for all of us to take ownership of our living community, be respectful to those of different traditions, and to preserve the environment for all to enjoy.
Could Getai concerts be made bilingual, and mainstreamed and modernized for a younger audience? Could there be altar building competitions and community processions organized throughout the month where anyone could participate? Could there be fairs, exhibitions, food and night markets celebrating local Chinese culture and raising awareness of social issues? Could there be a cleaner and greener way for rituals to take place?
What the Seventh Month looks like for Singaporeans in the future is anyone’s guess, but I am certain that reclaiming it will have more positive outcomes for the future.
I recall a short conversation I had with a Taoist friend who noted that the exact origins of the Seventh Month are debated but its practices do evolve slightly with every generation. The festival’s essence and its values on community and remembrance however, remain fixed throughout the centuries. Thus, with these core values in mind, I hope for the reclamation and revitalization of the Seventh Month to be an organic one, and for younger generations to spearhead.
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Joss paper smell? Check. Welcome to Ghost month. Check out two stories for this month of remembrance, gratitude, and compassion!
1. Don’t be afraid of ghosts, they are really nice. A monk shares his ghosts stories
2. If burning joss paper is not inherently a ‘Buddhist’ practice, what do Buddhist ‘burn’?
Don’t be afraid of ghosts, they are really nice. A monk shares his ghosts stories
What’s going on here & why we like it
Ajahn Brahm, a famous Buddhist monk, shares ghost stories that are humane and interesting. We always crack up at his stories that come with a twist!
Last night, I woke up and saw her ghost. ‘George get the will!’
Often we tend to fear the uncertain and unknown. These ghost stories help breed familiarity with the supernatural and understanding that there is nothing to fear!
Watch the video below!
If burning joss paper is not inherently a ‘Buddhist’ practice, what do Buddhist ‘burn’?
What’s going on here & why we like it
Venerable You Wei, Abbot of Di Zang Lin, shares with Mothership on burning joss paper during Ghost month. We like it because it brings out the essence of offerings and also answers the age-old worry of stepping accidentally on offerings during ghost month.
“People like to think that when they offer more things, they get more merits or they get more returns. But now we know, the more we burn, the more bad things we get. We get fumes and destroy more parts of the earth”
Take a chance this month to seek the essence of ghost month by offering more time to those in need and understanding the differences between Chinese cultural practices and Buddhist practices. Finding virtues in these practices as we grow! Want more resources on understanding joss burning? Check out this link!
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
TLDR: The encounters with an unseen being leads to a reflection on human nature and how we relate to other beings in Buddhist cosmology.
One Fateful Night
At barely 6.30pm, the women’s compound of Wat Boonyawad was almost pitch dark within the forest. I hastened my footsteps after finishing walking meditation near the main gate – tempo accelerando. There was no one else. In that solitude, I wished someone was with me — just not the unseen sort, whatever it wanted with me.
My torch was barely strong enough to see beyond one metre from my feet. Leaves crunched beneath me, like in The Slender Man.
Near my kuti (small practitioner’s hut) after I had washed my feet, leaves rustled and a breezy presence weaved through the surrounding forest. Yet, my skin pricked with heat. Panicking, I ran up the steps to the door.
Meeting the Ghost of my Mind
I fumbled for the key, with the torch gripped in between my teeth. Jaws tightened. The fear of being caught up by a menacing force crescendoed as each attempt to slot the key into the lock pad failed. Mosquitoes hummed impatiently beside my ears. Quick. Quick.
Finally, the lock turned and I slammed the door tightly behind me. All that hooting and howling from the forest grew claustrophobic; their sources unbeknownst to me. The forest has its ways to play tricks on the mind. This meditation retreat was my first ever to stay alone in a forest hut within a Thai monastery. So much unknown to fear for.
The relief of getting into the kuti (meditation hut) did not last, I hurried to the little altar to light up the candles, the heart-throbbing at my throat.
Buddha, help me. Bow. Dhamma, help me. Bow. Ajahns, help me. Bow. The candles flickered in the twilight.
I inched my way to unwind the huge windows for ventilation; my eyes averting the ominous world outside. What if a ghastly face stared back at me? At that thought, my hair stood on its ends as a chill ran down the spine. Spinning out of the sensation, I plunged to the floor into a half-lotus position for sitting meditation.
Buddho buddho buddho.
When hyperventilation evolved into a smoother and more refined breath, I saw clearly all that fear about ghosts was merely the sensitive mind misdirecting its alertness. I believed in ghosts’ presence within Buddhist cosmology.
At that time, I also assumed their nature to seek me out in avenging my past karmic misdeeds and sucking my energy dry with evil trances.
That such a hateful encounter was bound to happen kept my heart from sinking into the peace. It wasn’t the forest that was playing tricks. My defiled mind was the culprit puppeteer, pulling strings on a ghost puppet.
The First Encounter
No, I would not let that made-up ghost rob me of the peace that can develop from retreating thousands of miles away from home. The fear mis-manufactured from baseless perceptions and thoughts can stay.But I did not wish to indulge its willfulness, despite not understanding it fully.
With that determination to set aside fear, the heart finally found its resting spot in even more refined breaths: a clear quiet space opened up within my mind. The candles at the altar had gone out by then. The nocturne calls of animals were distant. This was one of the rare peaceful moments in the retreat, truly. A deep state of focus, tranquil, alert.
Soon, a face showed itself in my mind’s eyes. No vengeful entrance — gradual, weightless.
Just a head dripping in blood, rotten flesh, long hair; her round bloodshot eyes stared into me. The body trailed off. A very… sorry plight; nothing threatening.
I couldn’t explain how I knew this presence to be true but I did. The fear that I experienced earlier did not arise again. No goosebumps. No chills. I steadied the mind on the being, looking right back. I did not wish her away, neither did she seem to want to go away. Not yet.
Here, memories of reading Mae Chee Kaew’s biography where she communicated to ghosts using her heart surfaced within my mind. I was definitely not Mae Chee Kaew, but maybe I could try communicating to the ghost too.
What do you need from me? What is helpful for you?
Share merits. You have been practising the Dhamma.
I will wish you well. Hope you can receive them.
Eyes shut tight still. My heart turned inwards further and channel whatever wholesome bits it could find towards the being in front:
May you receive all the blessings from the goodness I had cultivated since the start of my life. May you have the merits you need for a fortunate rebirth. May you seek safety and refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. May you be free from all sorts of suffering in the future. May you be well and happy.
These phrases repeated in my mind like a playlist on loop, religiously as if my life–her life–depended on them. The sphere of goodwill (metta) radiated outwards to imbue her presence within it. Not long after a few cycles, the unseen being took her leave –gently, gradually, lightly–much like how she appeared but with more ease. The meditation came to an end too.
Do I know you? I wanted to ask but I didn’t. A sense of familiarity lingered, although I could not quite put a finger to it.
Moonlight shone through the canopy; their piercing beams reflected off the forest floor, lighting up the pitch dark from before. I took three candles outside, keen to place them along the earthen path for walking meditation. Finally, I was brave enough to venture out after nightfall. Before this night, moonlit walking meditation was completely unfathomable.
Affinity Knows no Boundaries
In my subsequent stays at various forest monasteries, trips to Kuala Lumpur, even at home, when I was alone in meditation and there were particular still moments of clarity at night, unseen beings of similar profiles would appear in my meditation. Each time, they asked for merits. Each time, I tried to maintain my compassion to share merits. Afterwards, they would leave quietly.
The restless mind was still afraid of the dark and jumpscares, but the fear was more manageable than the very first encounter.
These encounters were at least half a year apart so I thought that the beings were different individuals.
It was not until my India pilgrimage that I realised a trend.
Final Encounter in Pilgrimage
The hotel we stayed in at Vesali was haunted. According to Thai Forest Venerable Luang Por Piak, tens of thousands of hungry ghosts hung around the hotel. At the worst of my cough, I felt nauseous on the first night, after returning from a day of breakdowns. A Thai female doctor with the tour suggested treating me with acupuncture, which I desperately accepted. Anything to get me out of that bodily hell.
Moments after the acupuncture began, I slipped into unconsciousness while I was trying very much to be mindful of the needles. Soon, I fainted on my bed.
That night, I woke to a persistent furious hammering on the windows. Calling out to my Thai roommate from my crippling fear of angry ghosts, I hid under the covers, still weak from earlier. She went up to check the curtains and found monkeys. Nothing to be afraid of. Go back to sleep. How? I could barely feel safe.
On the second evening in Vesali, a second acupuncture session occurred in another hotel room, in which its inhabitants complained of paranormal activities from the night before. Despite the crowd receiving treatment, I caught a waft of ‘off-energy’. While sitting in meditation at a dimly lit corner, the mind gathered into stillness.
Soon enough, a familiar image of a bloody head and wispy long black hair came into view – the same request ensued.
This time I finally recognised her although she was hovering at the corner. An insight struck: this was the very same unseen being who sought my attention at Wat Boonyawad and thereafter.
She had followed me to India! She had been following me all this while! In sharing merits, I recollected about the wholesomeness from visiting the key Buddhist holy sites thus far and wished her to rejoice in the rare occasions arising from that pilgrimage. That night, I slept soundly.
At the last stop of the pilgrimage – Varanasi, my tour group disclosed that my Thai roommate (gifted with supernatural vision) had seen a ghost sitting on my bed that very night in Vesali. That was definitely goosebumps-inducing. Rounding up the trip at a final chanting session in Deer’s Park, I made a determination to dedicate all the merits from the pilgrimage to the unseen being.
Since then, she has not visited me in meditation. I would like to think that she has gathered sufficient merits to be reborn in a better place.
How Can We Live Better in this Cosmic World?
My unseen encounters left a lasting effect on my practice. They taught me to face my fear of darkness and to respect the presence of unseen beings. Now, I make a point to share merits every morning chanting and when I offer meal dana to monks. Sharing merits help to cultivate generosity in the immaterial world.
I have not mentioned the unseen encounters to my spiritual friends openly, for fear of coming across as boastful. The intention of sharing my encounters here is to help readers reflect that there are deprived states, where unseen beings exist in our cosmic world.
They exist out of their attachments and/or hatred to this material world, which they were not able to relinquish upon their death as humans.
(While I have not met malicious beings, I have heard stories of where ghosts have party hangouts in rooms for extended periods.)
Reflecting on the deprived states of ghosts, can we then work on our attachments, anger and hatred in this human life?
Perhaps, as much as I have encountered the manifestations of an unseen being, the visualization mirrored the hatred contained within my heart. Using the same Dhammic approach of awareness and acceptance, I can introspect on what the heart needs and what is beneficial for it. Then, apply the balm of loving-kindness and compassion.
To the being and myself: wherever you may be, I wish you well and hope you benefit from the Buddha’s dispensation, always.
Casper the friendly ghost is not untrue — ghosts primarily want sharing of merits when they manifest to you.
If you encountered ghosts as malicious, share even more merits. Done from a mind of pure generosity, offering a Sangha Dana can generate merits for unseen beings who could receive them for long-term welfare and fortunate rebirth.
With compassion towards the deprivation ghosts exist in, we may contemplate our strong attachments and begin to let go of the hatred we experience within our hearts.
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more.Discern on what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
During a funeral ceremony in ancient China, paper-made models of houses, sedan chairs, treasure chests, clothes, daily utensils, and even effigies of servants, were burnt as the cortege was leaving home for burial in the cemetery.
The original meaning of such an act is to show everyone present that all former possessions of the deceased cannot be brought along to the next life.
At one’s death, everything one had ever owned has to be left behind. The burning only emphasizes this message, as it is the most graphical, symbolic, and dramatic way of showing total loss!
There is a Chinese saying that ‘no possessions can be brought along to the next existence; the only thing that follows one is his deeds, or ‘kamma’ ‘ ( 万般带不去，唯有业随身 ).
Furthermore, his relatives and friends only follow the deceased up to the grave, but soon turn to go home, leaving the dead alone in his tomb!
Thus, the burning of cheaply-produced paper models and effigies served as an effective educational tool. Witnessing how fire consumes every ‘former possession’ of the deceased, even an illiterate peasant or young child was able to understand this sense of total relinquishment at death.
Today, this practice is completely misunderstood by the majority of Chinese. Instead of the original meaning, paper-made models have been turned into “paper offerings” – with the mistaken thought that whatever one burns, his departed relatives will obtain in the netherworld!
Hence people nowadays burn paper models of the latest i-Pads, smartphones, LED screens, and “paper money” in inflated sums in order to please the dead.
All these will not help the departed ones at all.
In fact, this misunderstanding will only harm the living by maintaining their ignorance and delusions.
Many people assume that whatever is fancied in life is also fancied in the netherworld.
Instead of burning “paper offerings”, one can perform ‘Dedication of Merits’ (Pāli, ‘Pattidāna ’) to help their departed relatives.
Recognise the possible different reasons why burning paper money became a tradition. Understand that there may be more than one reason. For example read Mothership.sg’s take on it here
Though one may have more knowledge on Ghost Month, do not seek to aggressively change other’s behaviour (e.g. burning paper money). Instead, start a conversation to understand why others perform certain rituals. At times, being kind is better than being right. Sharing at the right time matters too!
When walking past burning paper and effigies during this month, reflect on the impermanence of all our possessions