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Vu Lan festival: A cultural activity with Buddhist philosophy in Vietnam
Tra My 14:01, 2022/08/11
The festival is an opportunity to remember the merits of parents and ancestors.

Every year when the Vu Lan festival nears, Nguyen Thuy Ha, a resident in Cau Giay District, Hanoi, prepares offerings for her deceased progenitors. On this important occasion, it is indispensable to visit the graves of ancestors, go to the temple to worship Buddha, and prepare the offering tray at home.

Origin of Vu Lan

According to Most Venerable Thich Minh Quang, vice chairman of Vietnam Buddhist Sangha's Office, in some Asian countries such as China, Japan, and Vietnam, the Vu Lan festival is often celebrated on the full moon day of the seventh lunar month, to show filial piety to parents, and grandparents and also to help ‘the homeless’ hungry souls.

"On this occasion, people make offerings, doing good deeds, saving lives, and giving alms to pay homage to the deceased in the family," Most Venerable Thich Minh Quang said.

Pham Tien Dung, director of the Hanoi Committee of Religious Affairs, said Vu Lan has its origin in a myth of Maudgalyayana Bodhisattva, whose legendary filial piety was used to remind people of their duties to their deceased relatives. Following Buddha’s advice, Maudgalyayana made merits on his mother's behalf, which helps her to be reborn in a better place.

“Therefore, this is an opportunity to remember the merits of parents and ancestors and is considered by Buddhism an important holiday in the seventh lunar month every year,” Dung said.

 Monks read Vu Lan script to honor filial piety. Photos: Tra My

With the tradition of filial piety and spiritual beliefs of worshiping ancestors of the Vietnamese people, the Vu Lan festival of Buddhism has been blended with the philosophy and custom of worshiping ‘homeless’ souls and hungry ghosts on the full moon day of the seventh lunar month.

The offering often includes six things: incense (agarwood), flowers, lanterns (lights, candles), tea, fruit, and food (sticky rice, cake).

In addition, people go to the market to buy fish, snails, eels, and birds and release them into natural habitats.

Vu Lan is a long-standing cultural trait of Vietnamese people. However, many people think that July is an unlucky "month of ghosts", leading to many superstitious activities. The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha recommends that people should not burn votive papers because this is not in the tradition and teachings of Buddhism, which would lead to waste and environmental pollution.

“Besides making offerings, the most important thing is to keep filial piety towards parents,” Dung said.

Vu Lan in modern time

 Most Venerable Thich Minh Quang, vice chairman of Vietnam Buddhist Sangha's Office.

Nowadays, due to their busy life, people can hold the Vu Lan ritual at home from the tenth day of the seventh lunar month.

The market for the Vu Lan festival is, therefore, more vibrant, richer, and more diverse than in the old time. Hanoi’s markets, including Hang Be (Hoan Kiem District), Hom (Hai Ba Trung District), and Thanh Cong (Ba Dinh District) are more bustling than usual. The demand for vegetables, fresh fruits, and flowers to make offerings is soaring.

Thich Dao Tam, abbot of Than Quang Pagoda, Ngu Xa Ward, Ba Dinh District, said from the point of view of the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, Vu Lan is an opportunity for people to think of the "four great graces" which means the grace of parents, the grace of the country, the grace of teachers and the grace of society.

First of all, he said each person needs to comprehend and practice the vow of filial piety to their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. National grace, means to be grateful to the national heroes who have sacrificed themselves for the country and the happiness of the people, let's be good citizens.  The grace of a teacher stands for the respect for those who teach and impart knowledge and morals to us in life.

“Social grace refers to being grateful to everyone, from all walks of life. For example,  during the recent fight against Covide-19, there were so many frontline doctors and soldiers who worked hard day and night, so they must be remembered. We need to appreciate them deeply,” the monk went on to explain.

“If possible, please donate real money, put it on a neat plate, and then use that money to buy books and pens for your children and grandchildren on the occasion of the upcoming new school year or give it to charity instead of burning votive paper,” monk Thich Dao Tam told The Hanoi Times.

 Most Venerable Thich Dao Tam is an abbot of Than Quang Pagoda in Hanoi.

As the pandemic has not been over yet and some people may not want to go to the pagoda to pray, the Hanoi  Religious Affairs Committee shared a number of websites for the public to participate in online prayer during the Vu Lan festival such as khuongviet.vn, hvpgvn.edu.vn, giacngo.vn.

In addition, Buddhists and people can participate in a one-day filial piety retreat at the website hoangphaponline.com.

With an awareness of the ill effects of burning votive paper, Nguyen Thuy Ha and her family members have agreed to not waste money in this way. Facing the reality of natural disasters and epidemics surrounding people in all parts of the planet, she said that each person and each family needs to be more conscious of protecting society and the environment.

“The fate of man is more fragile and smaller than ever before the wrath of nature. At this point, I think we should live more meaningfully. Instead of buying votive paper to burn, spend money to help those who are suffering because of the pandemic,” she shared.

With the original meaning of Vu Lan as the celebration of filial piety, Ha said the most important thing is paying gratitude to parents.

“We are often busy all year round and sometimes forget our parents. It’s time to come home, visit our progenitors or at least make a phone call to share your love and show gratitude to them,” said Ha.

 Vu Lan festival at Tam Chuc Pagoda in the northern province of Ha Nam. 
 Vu Lan festival is a chance for people to pay gratitude to their parents.
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