The Ullambana Festival is a special occasion many people are familiar with, but where did it come from? What should we do during the festival? Let Meditation Master JinBodhi enlighten you!


Let’s talk about Ullambana Festival. There are many views about this festival which vary by region. Some young people believe it is a Chinese ghost festival like Halloween. It is not quite what they think.

In folktales, this festival is Yama‘s only holiday each year. Yama is said to be the ruler of hell. There is a reason that Yama has a day off in a year. Most of our elder relatives go to the underworld after death. The underworld is ruled by Yama. It is also known as hell.

Let’s come back to why Yama’s day off is on Ullambana Festival. He comes to our mortal world to make his offerings to the Buddha. Today is the day when practitioners of the dharma achieved enlightenment. It is the completion day after a year of practice. It is also called “Buddha’s Joyful Day.” Yama seizes this good time to make offerings and celebrate. He makes offerings to meditation practitioners and monks.

In the culture of Theravada Buddhism, this is a day of offering. Instead of performing ceremonies to help souls find peace, offerings are made. From commoners to nobles, everyone makes offerings to practitioners, congratulating them on their attainment of enlightenment. As a result, beings in hell are also allowed to be out on Yama’s day off. On this auspicious day, the retreat ends for practitioners. They have realized the ultimate truth and are compassionate to all beings.

Thus, all sentient beings collectively receive the great benefit on this day. The benefits descend on us, our families and every creature on Earth. What kinds of creatures? Animals that have blood, such as dogs, cats and all livestock, will benefit. These animals receive blessings and gain health and longevity. They do fall sick and die from illnesses too.

So Yama has his day off and goes to the secular world and Heaven. He celebrates this good day. Beings in hell are released and they receive all-compassion. The enlightened or bodhisattvas will bring them to Heaven. I use a common word, “Heaven,” but it is simply a place free from all sufferings. The higher the level in Heaven, the longer a being’s lifespan is.

What does “Yulanpen,” also known as “Ullambana,” mean? An Indian king and his queen of ancient times decided to make an offering to all Buddhist dharma practitioners. He supported all their basic living needs and expenses. The king supported many practitioners. What use was this “pen” or bowl? Thousands of bowls were used to contain these offerings. There were duvets for sleeping, cushions for meditation, food and money. This is a historical event.

There is another story about the bowls. “Yulan” means to hang upside down. Animals are hung upside down by their legs when they are to be butchered. All sentient beings could meet with such fate. This “pen” or bowl is to receive and protect all sentient beings. The All-Compassionate Buddha liberates all suffering souls in hell. It is a day of liberation, rather than a ghost festival.

I suggest we go vegetarian and refrain from harmful speech on this day. Also, let’s pay gratitude to our ancestors, especially to deceased parents. Let’s be filial to our parents while they are still with us. Never forget your deceased parents’ love for you if they have passed on. Be respectful, make offerings, keep to a vegetarian diet at Ullambana Festival. No hurtful words; have gratitude for your ancestors. Always bear in mind your parents’ love.