It is sometimes assumed that when a Buddhist renounces the world to become a monk or a nun all communication and concern with his or her family ceases. However, there is ample evidence from India that monks and nuns maintained contact with their families and were concerned with the welfare of their departed parents, dedicating merit for their happy rebirth. In China, the practice of leaving the family, shaving the head and taking a vow of celibacy were often regarded as unfilial acts, both to one’s parents and to one’s ancestors, because practitioners failed to continue the family line with their progeny. Buddhist apologists in China were therefore compelled to demonstrate the benefit that a monk could provide to his family. The most famous illustration of the special powers of the sangha to protect the family is found in the Ullambana Sutra (a work of either Indian or Chinese origin). Here, Maudgalyayana (referred to by his Chinese name Mulian here), the disciple of the Buddha renowned for his supernormal powers, travelled through the realms of rebirth in search of his deceased mother. He was alarmed to find her as a hungry ghost, and brought her a bowl of rice. However, it was his mother’s fate that whatever food she tried to place in her mouth turned into flaming coals.
The Buddha explained that it was impossible to offer her food directly. He instructed Mulian to prepare a great feast of food, water, incense, lamps and bedding on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and offer it to the monks of the ten directions. At that time, all of the great bodhisattvas and arhats would appear in the form of ordinary monks. If the food was offered to them as they assembled at the end of their rains’ retreat, then his parents, seven generations of parents, and various relatives would escape rebirth as an animal, ghost, or hell being. If the parents were living at the time of the offering, they would live happily for one hundred years. The Buddha proclaimed that this offering would be efficacious not simply for Mulian, but for anyone, of high station or low, monk or layperson, who performed it. The Buddha advised that it be performed annually.
The reciprocal nature of the relationship between the laity and the clergy is evident here. The Buddha explains to Mulian that his magical powers, although they surpass those of all other monks, are insufficient to the task of freeing his mother from her infernal fate. If one of the Buddha’s chief monastic disciples cannot free his own mother from suffering, there is no possibility that a layperson could do so. Instead, the laity must make offerings to the monastic community on behalf of their dead relatives. Only then can the departed be spared the tortures of the lower realms.
It is a standard element of Buddhist doctrine, in fact, that laypersons are incapable of making offerings directly to their deceased relatives. Instead, they must make offerings to the sangha, who will, in turn, transfer the merit of their gift to the deceased. This mediation by monks has been one of the primary functions of the sangha, and the gifts given as raw materials by the laity have been a primary source of their sustenance. It is noteworthy that the Buddha explains that these gifts are to be given by the laity to monks at the end of the annual ‘rains’ retreat’, a traditional time for the lay community to offer gifts to the sangha. The Ullambana Sutra makes clear that the traditional Chinese practice of making offerings to the ancestors is not efficacious. Instead, Buddhist monks are essential agents in the rituals, and hence the life, of the family. And Chinese commentators argued that the ‘seven generations of parents’ referred not to a biological lineage of ancestors (as it would typically be understood in China), but to one’s parents in seven previous lifetimes. In this sense, the practice taught to Mulian redefines and extends the notion of the family, while granting to the sangha the role of its sole protector. This practice continues today in what is commonly referred to as the annual summer ‘ghost festival’ in East Asia.
Thus have I heard: Once the Lord Buddha was residing in the Jeta Grove of Anathapindada in the city of Sravasti. Mahamaudgalyayana [Mulian] had just succeeded in obtaining the six supernatural powers. Wishing to save his father and mother and to repay the debt of having taken his mother’s milk, he surveyed the world-realm with the [supernatural] eyesight and found his deceased mother reborn among the hungry ghosts. Neither food nor water were to be seen anywhere, and she was nothing but walking skin and bone. Grieved at this sight, Mulian filled his bowl with rice and set off to give it to his mother. When his mother saw the bowl, she seized it with her left hand and scooped up the rice with her right. But no sooner did the food reach her mouth than it turned into flaming coals, making it impossible for her to eat. Mulian wailed in anguish, and with tears streaming [down his cheeks], he rushed back to the Buddha and told him all that he had experienced.
The Buddha said to him, ‘The roots of your mother’s sins are deeply knotted, indeed. It is not something that you, alone, have the power to do anything about. Even though word of your filial devotion may shake heaven and earth, the gods of heaven, the gods of the earth, depraved demons, the masters of heterodox teachings and the four divine kings and their spirits would also be unable to help her. It will require [nothing less than] the awesome spiritual power of the monastic sangha of the ten directions for her to get free.
‘I will now teach you a method that will relieve her plight, and that will cause all [beings] who are beset with difficulty to be delivered from their sufferings and have their sinful obstacles eliminated.’
The Buddha told Mulian, ‘When the monastic assembly of the ten directions releases itself [from the summer rains’ retreat] on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, you should prepare on behalf of past parents of seven generations and any living parents who are currently experiencing crisis all manner of cooked delicacies, fresh fruits, vessels for bathing and ablution, aromatic oils, lamps and candles, couches and bedding – all being of the finest and most flavourful quality in the world. Place them with the [ullambana] bowls and offer them to the greatly virtuous monks of the universal sangha. On that day, the entire assembly of saints – whether absorbed in meditation deep in the mountains, or having obtained the four fruits of the path, whether they be engaged in walking meditation beneath the trees, or srnvakas or pratyekabuddhas engaged in teaching and converting by means of the six supernatural powers, or whether they be greatly accomplished bodhisattvas of the ten stages who, as an expedient device, take on the appearance of bhiksus – all gather together in the grand assembly, and with one and the same mind, they receive the bowls and [array of] foods. Being perfectly observant in the pure precepts, the religious powers of this assembly of saints are like a vast ocean. Whoever should give offerings to these monks who have allowed for disclosure [of their sins] and have been newly released [from retreat], their present mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers for seven generations back, along with the six degrees of kin, will [thereby] escape the torment of the three [lower] destinies. Then and there they will be released [from their plight], with food and clothing [supplied] spontaneously to them [as needed]. If the donor’s parents are still alive, they will enjoy [a full] hundred years of good fortune and happiness. If it is a deceased parent within seven generations, he or she will be reborn in the heavens. Taking birth by spontaneous transformation, they will enter the sublime and beflowered radiance of the heavens, where they will enjoy countless pleasures.’
At that time, the Buddha ordered that the universal sangha should always begin by making benedictory prayers on behalf of the seven generations of parents from the households of the donors. Then, after having concentrated their minds in meditation, they may finally accept the meal. When the bowls are brought to the sangha, one should first place them in front of the stupa. Only after the monastic assembly has finished making benedictory prayers may they help themselves to the food.
At that time, the bhiksu Mulian and this grand gathering of the bodhisattva sangha all rejoiced. The sound of Mulian’s endless tears and grief finally faded away. For at that moment, Mulian saw that his mother, on that very day, had gained release from an aeon of torment as a hungry ghost.
Thereupon, Mulian again addressed the Buddha, saying, ‘ [This has all come to pass] because your disciple’s mother and father have been enfolded in the merit-power of the three jewels and the awesome spiritual power of the monastic sangha. If, in future times, there are disciples of the Buddha who wish to discharge their filial devotion, they also should offer these ullambana bowls. But will it be possible for them to deliver their current parents and parents back as far as seven generations?’
The Buddha replied, ‘Excellent! I am delighted that you ask! I was just about to preach on the very question that you now raise. Good son, if there are bhiksus, bhiksunis, kings, princes, grand ministers, counsellors, members of the three levels of duke or the hundred offices, or [even] commoners from among the populace at large who wish to carry out their filial obligations and love [for their parents], they should in all cases fill ullambana bowls with the myriad delicacies and, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month – the day when the buddhas rejoice and the day when the sangha [confesses and] releases itself [from the summer rains’ retreat] – should donate them to the newly released sangha of the ten directions on behalf of the parents who bore them in this current life and parents of seven generations past. [They should] pray that their present parents will thereby enjoy a lifespan of one hundred years, free of all illness and calamity, and that seven generations of past parents may escape suffering as a hungry ghost and enjoy the peerless delights and good fortune that come with being born among humans and gods.’
The Buddha told the good sons and good daughters that, should such a disciple of the Buddha [wish to] cultivate filial devotion [to his parents], he should constantly bear in mind the thought of his current parents and his parents of seven generations back. Every year on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, he should lovingly recall to mind, with devotion and filial affection, the parents who bore him [in this lifetime], down to those parents of seven generations past. He should fashion ullambana bowls on their behalf, and donate them to the Buddha and the monastic sangha, in order to repay the debt of his parents’ constant nurturing and love. Any and every disciple of the Buddha should uphold this teaching. Having heard what the Buddha preached, Mulian and the four classes of followers joyfully received and put it into practice.
Translation by Daniel Stevenson of the Yulanpen jing, T 685, vol. 16, p. 779a-c.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.