Westerners have Mothers’ Day to be proud of, the Vietnamese treasure their seventh full moon of lunar calendar (“Mua Vu Lan“) as a time to express filial piety to their parents, especially their gratefulness and appreciation to their mother.
Annually, Vietnamese children honor their parents and try to help the lost souls of their ancestors find their way back to earth.
“Mua Vu Lan” is closely connected to the Asian tradition of ancestor worship and filial piety. It is also known as the Buddhist holiday, a traditional event in praise of motherly love held solemnly once a year in Vietnam.
What Does the Legend Really Mean?
The legend behind the festival dates back to the earliest of Buddhism. One day when he was meditating, Muc Kien Lien, one of the Buddha’s ten principle disciples, saw his late mother suffering the tortures of hell, condemned because of the evil deeds she had committed during her life.
He saw that his mother was starving, but she had nothing to eat but fire. Muc Kien Lien summoned all his spiritual powers to bring her a bowl of rice – but the food was burnt to ash before she could bring it to her mouth.
When he arrived back in the physical world, he asked for the Buddha’s guidance to help his mother and fulfill his duty as a pious son. The Buddha advised him to collect a gathering of monks and devotees and get them to pray together on this day (which this year falls on August 15 in the Western calendar).
The combined prayers proved to be so powerful that they achieved the release not only of Muc Kien Lien’s mother, but also for countless other souls. Ever since, on the festival of Vu Lan – Wandering Soul’s Day- the gates of hell are believed to be thrown open to give the tormented souls 24 hour holiday.
A Solemn Sharing
“Mua Vu Lan” is believed to be the spirit month in Vietnamese culture as a way of honoring the dead. On this day, souls are believed to return to their former homes.
From this assembly, many Buddhist countries developed the custom of offering food, clothing and other items to hungry spirits in the month when the realms of Heaven, Hell and the living are open.
The object of this ceremony is to feed the hungry ghosts and to pray for their salvation. This ceremony is a way for people to meet their compassionate filial duty. During the ceremony, offerings are made to rescue up to seven generations of ancestors from whatever misery they might be suffering. During the month, every family can choose a day to present a feast and burn joss paper and incense in front of the house to invite the spirits to eat.
The most distinguished feature of the ceremony is the “offering snatching.” After the incense burns down, the neighborhood children are allowed to grab the food. No one will stop them as it is believed the spirits may be angered if they do so. The ceremony is also a great chance for people to express their gratitude to their parents.
One more tradition of this day is for people – Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike – who wish to express their gratefulness and appreciation towards their mothers, to go to a pagoda, often wearing a rose. Thousands of people flock to pagodas wearing red roses if their parents are alive or white roses if their parents have passed away. The rose has been a symbol of love and sharing among parents and their children regardless of social background.
“This festival is a chance for guilty homeless spirits to be pardoned. People worship ghosts and release animals, such as birds or fish,” said My Ngoc, a university student living in Tan Binh District, Saigon City. I am going to the pagoda this year to pray for my mother because we are miles apart. My mother is living in my hometown in the central province of Binh Dinh. I always think of her,” Ngoc said.
“Although nowadays the youth live faster and are becoming more unfamiliar with traditional values, they still deeply love and respect their parents,” visitor Duc Phong said as he strolled around Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, the most famous Buddhist temple in Saigon City. “That’s why many youngsters visit pagodas and present their parents with flowers on this day,” Phong said.
Visitor Minh Thuan said: “The festival is no longer exclusively for Buddhists but an occasion for everyone to express their love to their parents. This cultural trait has not faded over time but become more and more diversified.”
The diversity of “Mua Vu Lan” can be seen throughout the country with many different activities.