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Blog » Sweet Dews Of Dharma Talks » 2014 » The Origin of Ullamba

The Origin of Ullamba2014-10-01


Spoken by Dharma Master Heng Tsai on Auqust, 2014
English Translation by Lotus Lee

When the Buddha was in the world, the three months between the fifteenth of the fourth and the seventh months of the lunar calendar were the rainy season in India. For this reason, the Buddha made the requirement for all monastics to attend the summer retreat in monasteries at this time of the year. During these months, monastics gather together to concentrate on cultivation. Also, since there are many small insects on the ground during this season, when monastics walk, they might step on insects; therefore, they do not venture outside to go on alms round. Laypeople will support and make offerings to the monastics during these three months. In the monastery, they recite sutras, bow to the Buddhas, meditate, and focus on their cultivation.

The last days of the summer retreat, the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, are called the pravārana days of the Sangha, where monastics can point out each others’ mistakes so that everyone can repent and reform. Usually, if we point out the faults of others, they might get angry, but on these three days, when the members of the Sangha point out and discuss each others’ faults, they are not allowed to have afflictions or become angry at each other.

Due to intensive cultivation for three months summer retreat, many of the Buddha’s disciples were able to become enlightened. One of these disciples was the Venerable Maudgalyayana, who, upon obtaining spiritual powers, used them to find his mother. He saw that his mother had fallen into the path of the hungry ghosts, and was in a dark place. She had suffered the pain of hunger to the extreme. Maudgalyayana wanted to save his mother, and gave her a bowl of food to eat, but her throat was as thin as a needle. When the food reached her mouth, it immediately turned into red-hot coals, and she was unable to eat it. Maudgalyayana was in a panic and, returned to the World Honored One to ask for help.

The Buddha said that when Maudgalyayana’s mother was alive, the negative karma she had created was too severe, since she had eaten a lot of fish, shrimp, and seafood. She especially enjoyed eating fish eggs, where lots of lives are taken with every mouthful. Because of her greediness, when the Venerable Maudgalyayana gave her food to eat, she held the food with her right hand, and used her left hand to cover the food with her clothes, because she was afraid that other hungry ghosts would steal her food. In addition, she was very stingy; convincing her to give even a penny to others was a difficult feat. As a result, Maudgalyayana’s power alone would not be enough to save her. Therefore, we should watch our thoughts. We should not be greedy or stingy, and when we see other people have difficulties, we ought to help them as much as we can. The Earth Store Sutra says: “Give a single share and receive a ten thousand in return.”

The Buddha instructed the Venerable Maudgalyayana to cross over his mother on the fifteenth of the seventh month, the day all Buddhas are filled with joy, as many Sangha members would have become enlightened. If he invited Sangha members from the ten directions to recite sutras and bow to the Buddhas, it would be possible to cross over his mother. On this day, the Venerable Maudgalyayana made offerings to the Three Jewels of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha with a most sincere resolve. The Buddha told the Venerable Maudgalyayana to place four kinds of offerings—medicine, food, clothing, and bedding—into a basin to make offerings to the Three Jewels and to the members of the Sangha on behalf of his mother, and to make dedications of merit to her. Because of this, his mother was saved.

The word Ullambana is Sanskrit and means “saving those hanging upside down.” Think about it: how painful it must be for a person who is hanging upside down, with their head on the bottom and their feet on top. Consequently, Buddhists use the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month to cross over their ancestors, parents in seven past lives, karmic creditors, and beings in the hells and among the hungry ghosts to enable them to become liberated, and to leave suffering and attain bliss. “You reap what you sow”: in whatever we do, we should use our wisdom and always reflect on ourselves, so that we will not reap this kind of retribution.

This is how Ullambana came to be in Buddhism. In Daoism, this is the day ghosts come out for the “universally crossing over” ritual. As Buddhists, we do not practice these kinds of ceremonies. In truth, ghosts are among us every day. Sometimes, we are also struggling in the hells, so to speak. We should be careful in whatever we do. On this day, if we are able to give to others, make offerings, and make dedications of merit to beings in the hells, they will quickly reap its benefits. Actually, when we have the chance, we should recite sutras and bow to the Buddhas and dedicate the merit to them.