Buddhist Festivals: Buddha’s Birthday Celebration


I. Introduction

Auspicious greetings to Dharma friends around the world! Welcome to another episode of English Dharma Services.

Kathryn: Good day, Venerable Zhi Tong! I’m here to register for the Lunar July Dharma service. Where  do I fill out the form?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Hi Kathryn, good to see you again. Here’s a form for you. Will you be attending the Dharma service?

Kathryn: Of course, Lunar July is the most important Dharma service for me. I would like to pray for my ancestors.

Ven. Zhi Tong:  Indeed, Lunar July is also known as the Month of Filial Piety. Through the Dharma Services that you participate in, you can redirect the merits to your ancestors.

Kathryn: Venerable, I’ve always wondered about the origin of this tradition. I’ve heard of the story of how Maudgalyayana saves his mother. Is that how the Lunar July Dharma services began?

Ven. Zhi Tong: Quite right, Kathryn. The Lunar July Dharma Services has its roots in this story, which you can find in the Ullambana Sutra. This is how the story goes.

II. Maudgalyayana Saves His Mother

Maudgalyayana is one of the Buddha’s great disciples, and he is known for his supernatural powers. After attaining supernatural powers, he wishes to repay the kindness of his parents and uses his supernatural vision to see their whereabouts. To his shock and sorrow, his mother had passed away and was reborn in the hungry ghost realm. She is only skin and bones, and does not have anything to eat. Maudgalyayana immediately fills a bowl full of food and brings it to his mother, but when she grabs the bowl and starts stuffing the food into her mouth, the food erupts into flames and turns into ashes. Her karmic situation prevents her from eating. Maudgalyayana immediately goes to the Buddha and asks if there is any way his mother can be liberated from such a deplorable situation.

The Buddha replies that due to the heavy negative karma that his mother has accumulated, there is not one single power that can rescue her. However, if a great offering is made to all the monastics on the last day of the rainy retreat, his mother will be liberated from the realm of hungry ghosts.

Maudgalyayana follows the Buddha’s instructions and prepares food, fruits, incense, oil, lamps, candles, and beddings, and offers them to the monastics on the last day of the rainy retreat. And indeed, Maudgalyayana’s mother is liberated from the realm of hungry ghosts, where she is supposed to continue to suffer for eons. This teaching of the Buddha has been practiced and continued by Buddhist disciples.

III. Sangha Gem Day

Kathryn: So through making offerings to the Sangha, Maudgalyayana’s mother is liberated from the hungry ghost realm?

Yes indeed. During the Buddha’s time, the rainy retreat is a three-month period from Lunar April 15th to July 15th where monastics would stay in the monastery grounds and cultivate intensively. The reason being this period is the rainy season in India. Not only is it risky for people to travel about, but they also want to prevent harming crops or insects. Hence, the monastics stayed at a sheltered place and dedicated their time to cultivation. After three months’ cultivation, many monastics have made enormous progress in their practices and even attained enlightenment. One the final day, which is on Lunar July 15, the sangha community would gather together and report to the Buddha. If any transgressions were committed during the rainy retreat, one would come forward, confess their transgression, and repent for it. This way, one will achieve peace. Furthermore, the Buddha was joyful upon seeing the results of the practitioners’ diligent practice. Hence, this day is also known as the Buddha’s Joyous Day. The merit of offering to the sangha community on this day is immeasurable, and could liberate sentient beings in suffering. This is why Lunar July 15th is also known as Sangha Gem Day.

Kathryn: I see, not only do we accumulate merit by participating in the Dharma services, we can also accumulate merit by offering to the sangha. Oh, now it makes sense to me why the Sangha Offering Day is held during this month!

Ven. Zhi Tong: Chinese culture thinks of Lunar July as the “ghost month,” where ghosts would roam the human realm. This is why there are so many liberation services done in this month. However, Venerable Master Hsing Yun, the founder of Fo Guang Shan, re-establish the Buddhist tradition. He named Lunar July as the Month of Filial Piety, a month where we repay the kindness of our parents and ancestors through Dharma services. Furthermore, he set the Sangha Offering Day on Lunar July 15th. 

This is how Fo Guang Shan branch temples celebrate the Sangha Offering Day. In the morning, a short Dharma service is held, where the Ullambana Sutra or the Sutra of the Difficulty of Repaying the Profound Kindness of Parents is chanted. During noontime, the Sangha Offering ceremony is held, where devotees would offer food and other basic necessities to the monastics. In the afternoon, a large Dharma service that benefits both the living and the deceased is held. Usually, it is the Yogacara Flaming Mouth Service or the Amitabha Triple Contemplation Service. 

During Lunar July, not only do you as a devotee redirect the merits of the Dharma services to your ancestors, we as monastics also redirect this merit to all devotees, their families and ancestors. We also remind ourselves that it is possible for us to cultivate  due to the support from the devotees and benefactors. And we vow to continue with Buddhist endeavors that benefit people of all walks of life

IV. Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem

Kathryn: Thank you for your explanation, Venerable Zhi Tong. Lunar July is not only about praying for our ancestors. In these few months, I have learned about the Buddha Gem Day, which we celebrate the birth of Sakyamuni Buddha. I also learned about the Dharma Gem Day, which is the enlightenment day of the Buddha. It is because of the Buddha that we are able to learn about the Dharma and know how to live our life righteously. What other significance is there to the Sangha Gem Day?

As Venerable Master Hsing Yun writes in the chapter “Taking Refuge in the Triple Gem”, which you can find in the book Buddha-Dharma: Pure and Simple

  • The Buddha is like the light that nurtures all beings. Taking refuge in the Buddha is like building a power station in one’s mind that continuously generates wholesome qualities of loving-kindness, wisdom, and faith.
  • The Dharma is like the water that nourishes all beings. Taking refuge in the Dharma is like building a waterworks in one’s mind that nourishes the body and mind, cleansing away afflictions and defilement.
  • The Sangha is like a field, enabling the planting of merit and virtue. The Sangha is a teacher and a wholesome friend. For example, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Maitreya Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, and eminent masters are all teachers who educate, instruct, and pass down knowledge. The Sangha serves and offers all beings convenience. Taking refuge in the Sangha is like owning many fields over which crops can grow into bountiful harvests, and buildings can be constructed to enhance urban development.

Kathryn: Thank you, venerable. I feel this has changed my understanding of the Lunar July tradition and the significance of the Sangha Gem Day. I used to be afraid to go out on Lunar July, because of the so-called “ghost month,” but now I know that I can transform my fear into gratitude to the Triple Gem. The Buddha is the light that guides us on the right path, the Dharma is the water that nourishes our human character. And the Sangha is like a field in which we could plant merits.

V. Conclusion

Indeed! This is exactly why we take refuge in the Triple Gem. Additionally, in this month, not only do we hope that our ancestors can be liberated from suffering through the redirection of merits, we also hope that every sentient being can take refuge in the Triple Gem and practice the path to buddhahood. In this way, no sentient being will be suffering in the cycle of birth and death, and all can attain enlightenment.

Kathryn: Thank you for your explanation today, Venerable Zhi Tong. I feel that I have a better direction and mindset when I participate in the Dharma services.

Ven. Zhi Tong: Thank you for coming to the temple today, Kathryn. I’ll see you soon. And thank you for listening to this episode of English Dharma Services.

May you find joy and inspiration in the Dharma. Omitofo.