To Hell and Back Again: Ghost Month in Vietnam

by Sara Swenson

Three elderly women are seated in chairs at the front of an assembly hall. They are about to receive gifts to honor their role as mothers. Behind them is a banner of a woman receiving gifts from her children. On the banner is another thin sketch, representing the recipients' memory of presenting gifts to her mother. The layered imagery evokes tradition and memory as important aspects of filial piety.

Three elderly women are seated in chairs at the front of an assembly hall. They are about to receive gifts to honor their role as mothers. Behind them is a banner of a woman receiving gifts from her children. On the banner is another thin sketch, representing the recipients' memory of presenting gifts to her mother. The layered imagery evokes tradition and memory as important aspects of filial piety.

September 4, 2018
  

The first time I came to Vietnam, I didn’t realize that I had arrived in time for a major holiday called “Vu Lan.” I have been eagerly looking forward to my second Vu Lan as an anniversary of sorts. Many of my current friends and research participants are people I met on this day, three years ago, wandering into pagodas and meeting holiday volunteers.

Vu Lan falls during the seventh month of the lunar calendar which is often generally known as “Ghost month.” During Ghost month, the veil between the spirit world and ours is a little thinner. On one hand, this means we can be closer to family members who have passed away. Strolling around the streets of Ho Chi Minh City last week, I’ve noticed several business owners standing outside their shops dropping colorful paper cutouts into small fires. These cutouts are offerings to deceased loved ones and include everything from paper money, clothes, cars, and cellphones. Once burned, these paper objects can manifest in the spirit world to keep loved ones cared for and comfortable.

On the other hand, the proximity of the spirit world can also manifest in unwanted company. After visiting several doctors for what felt like anemia and exhaustion, one friend described for me how her parents brought her to a pagoda for an exorcism. She hadn’t been sleeping well. One night she awoke, immobilized, to the terrifying sense of someone pressing on her chest. The head monk performed a ritual to invite her ghost to take Refuge in the Buddhist triple gem, so it could move on to a better life. However, my friend was concerned that the service hadn’t been effective. Now, she felt even more tired and prone to inexplicable mood changes. We hypothesized that maybe she had an especially strong, old ghost, who had only been aggravated. I explained the problem to a very thoughtful nun I know, who has mentioned “mental ghosts” to me before. She invited me to bring my friend to her pagoda on the day of “Vu Lan” to talk with a high-ranking nun.

We met at the pagoda. I was arriving late from another service which had featured a number of special singers and a grand presentation of gifts to elderly women from the community. I found my friend sitting outside the assembly hall where a lecture on filial piety was just finishing. The hall was packed with listeners who soon started chanting. During the chanting some attendees stood to present gifts of food and clothing to the nuns, who sat delicately in their golden ceremonial robes.

The different parts of these two ceremonies emphasized important aspects of “Vu Lan” slightly less related to ghosts. First, the holiday falls at the end of the monastic rainy season retreat in Vietnam. During the previous months, monastics had been minimizing travel and concentrating on their studies. Many people believe this makes their merit stronger, so making offerings to monastics at this time also brings extra luck to the donor. Second, Vu Lan has become something of a Vietnamese Mother’s Day due to its associations with the story of Maudgalyayana, Muc Kien Lien Bo tat, or Mulian. (I’ll admit, I’m adopting the Chinese name Mulian so I don’t have to keep typing Maudgalyayana.) Mulian has a vision of his parents’ afterlives and sees that his mom is suffering in hell for her miserliness. He descends to hell, faces all sorts of demons, and saves a whole bunch of other people along the way. The Buddha recognizes his filial devotion and decides to help him out. Eventually, following a stint as a talking dog who sounds a little like my border-collie mix, his mom is restored. At other Vu Lan ceremonies I attended, people performed plays and read poems retelling this story. While Vu Lan is said to be a day for remembering parents and demonstrating filial devotion, moms and grandmas are the ones who most often get called to the stage for presentations of gifts and flowers.

Of course, the filial care performed by burning offerings of paper goods for deceased loved ones and presenting flowers to your grandmother is one in the same. The resonances between these acts also shows how family responsibilities to the living and the dead are never truly distanced by death… but anyway, back to my friend and her ghost.

When the service ended, lunch began. We toured the main hall of the pagoda looking for the nun who had invited us. She was bustling about at top speed with a bright smile, carrying chairs and bowls to keep the lunch running smoothly. Hundreds of people poured into the pagoda for a free meal, especially for a free meal at a pagoda on a powerful holiday, which can can bring extra luck. We ate our soup and were offered ice cream. The ice cream quickly disappeared into the sticky hands of children, who cruised among the tables like a school of circling ice-cream sharks.

Soon the nuns met us again and we found a seat in the relative quiet gap between the altar and a display of artificial trees representing the four seasons. Under the red plastic leaves of an autumn which never comes to Saigon, my friend recapped her illness. When she was finished, the nun inquired about my friend’s meditation practice, travels, and general “inner strength.” At first when my friend described herself as weak, I thought she was referring to her waiflike build. Only as the conversation carried on did I realize she was talking about her “inner” fortitude. The nun recommended a chanting practice, followed by a return to meditation, as ways to build one’s inner strength and resist the influence of ghosts.

I’ve heard before that ghosts in Vietnam can come in two forms: outside ghosts and “mental ghosts.” Mental ghosts are not a euphemism for mental illness, but index ways ghosts can influence our thinking and behavior. If we are tired, frustration, or unsure of ourselves, we can quickly succumb to the influence of ghosts that transfer their anger and distracted energy. Really, this isn’t so different from the way people transfer their feelings among one another: maybe an angry ghost cuts someone off in traffic. That person arrives at work and shouts at an employee. The effect of feelings transfer is similar, if extraworldly.

I must admit, I thought I might see a dramatic exorcism that morning. What I joined instead was a calm, cross-legged conversation about meditation books and breathing methods. My friend is still working on her health, but what struck me in conclusion was that, perhaps, the veil between “Modernistic” and “supernatural” types of Buddhism may be just as thin as the veil between spiritual and material worlds. The physical science of meditation can be just as valuable for ghost management as for stress management, without needing to collapse one into the other. The Buddhist typologies I studied before arriving in Vietnam are often as much of a beautiful fluid hodge-podge of activities and meaning-making as the layered practices I joined on “Vu Lan.”

 

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Sara Swenson