“The Hungry Ghost Ceremony”: A Mid-Summer Night’s Operetta?

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Segaki hoyo, or “the ceremony for feeding the hungry ghosts,” is one of the ceremonies conducted at Buddhist temples in Japan. Many temples conduct the ceremony during the Obon period in August when the Japanese pay respect to their deceased ancestors by visiting their graves. While a typical ceremony conducted at Buddhist temples such as a funeral ceremony or a memorial service tends to be a sober occasion for adults and a boring experience for children, the ceremony for feeding hungry ghosts, or “the hungry ghost ceremony” for short, is an exhilarating experience for adults and children alike, especially the one conducted at Zen temples of Obaku lineage. This is so because Obaku Zen temples are known for the use of many percussion instruments in their ceremonies. The hungry ghost ceremony is no exception to this. As a matter of fact, a typical hungry ghost ceremony at an Obaku Zen temple is like an operetta in three acts with fascinating story lines performed by a group of monks chanting to the accompaniment of a rich variety of percussion instruments.

Act I of “The Hungry Ghost Ceremony” takes us back more than 2,500 years to India in the days of the Buddha. The story told by the chanting by one of the monks—a lead singer in the operetta, if you will—is about Ananda. As the faithful attendant to the Buddha in the last 25 years of his master’s life, Ananda was a constant companion of the Venerable One, traveling with him and listening to his discourses. However, Ananda did not gain enlightenment while the Buddha was still alive, though he did his best as a devoted disciple, doing all the meditation practices recommended by his master. On this particular occasion, as the story unfolds, Ananda was doing sitting meditation in a wood, when he was visited by a fierce-looking demon. It was a hungry ghost who, with fire coming out of his mouth and smoke coming out of his hair, shouted at Ananda: “Ananda, you will never attain enlightenment no matter how hard you practice. You will fall into the realm of us hungry ghosts just like your mother did within three days.” Terrified with these words, Ananda turned to the Buddha for an advice as to what he could do to save himself from falling into the realm of hungry ghosts. The Buddha’s advice to Ananda was to pacify the angry mind of hungry ghosts by feeding them with food while chanting. The leading monk chants this story facing the altar, where the Buddha statue is placed, prostrating many times while chanting.

The scene of the story in Act II is no longer ancient India but contemporary Japan—the temple where the ceremony is being held, as a matter of fact. Here the leading monk, now sitting on a high chair and facing the audience in attendance, begins a new series of chanting. The first chanting is one intended to cast out demons from the temple, with the monk employing a variety of mudras, some of which are employed in esoteric Buddhism. With demons cast out, the next chanting is to invite Maitreya into the temple to receive blessings from him. The chanting, which is quite melodious, is accompanied by the loud playing of percussion instruments, including the drum, the wooden fish, the large bell, and a tiny bell held by the leading monk. The idea behind this Obaku-style combination of chanting and percussion instruments is to make sure that Maitreya will listen to the earnest wish of those in attendance for his visit. Whether it succeeds in attracting Maitreya’s attention or not, there is no question that the loud playing of percussion instruments surely wakes up those in attendance, some of whom doze off while the monotonous chanting is going on.

The scene of the story in Act III is still the temple as it was in Act II, except that those in attendance are now given their chance to participate in the ceremony. The chanting is offered to pay respect to the deceased ancestors, relatives, and friends of those in attendance as the ceremony is taking place during the Obon period when their spirits return to be reunited with the people who have come to the ceremony. The chanting is also intended to pacify the spirits of those ancestors, relatives, and friends who are roaming in the realm of hungry ghosts, sent there because of their unwholesome deeds, by feeding them with rice and other kinds of food assembled for the occasion. The idea behind feeding hungry ghosts is to satisfy the hunger of these hungry ghosts with food and release them back, not to the realm of hungry ghosts but to the higher realm of humans, preferably to the realm of ashuras or devas. Recognizing that there are hungry ghosts among those in attendance as well, food is also distributed to them. To the delight of those children who have sat through a long and boring ceremony to them, candies and cookies are thrown at them by a group of monks performing the ceremony. These children are actually enacting the role of hungry ghosts who become happy humans after receiving the food distributed. As the children go home satisfied with the goodies they received, so do the spirits of hungry ghosts to their new home in a higher realm. Act III ends with the chanting and the mudra that signify that the gate of the realm of hungry ghosts is now shut, as there are no hungry ghosts left to be fed.

With the combination of chanting and percussion instruments, the hungry ghost ceremony conducted at Obaku Zen temples is quite a spectacle, to say the least. However, it is one thing to stage a colorful ceremony to call the attention of those who are in attendance but quite another whether the real message behind the ceremony, which is to remind them of the importance of observing the Buddhist Dharma, is conveyed to them. Whether or not they have fallen into the realm of hungry ghosts because of their own unwholesome deeds, there is no question that there are quite a large number of people in the world who are trapped in the state of miserable existence. To extend the message of loving-kindness and compassion to these people with the generous sharing of food and other resources would be the kind of hungry ghost ceremony that is needed in the world today. Indeed, the ceremony needs to be performed as a form of practice—reciting the Five Contemplations, for example—every day in every household, not as a mid-summer night’s operetta performed once a year at Buddhist temples.