In ancient times, in the holy city of Wangshe Cheng, there was a Brahman, a son of a high official, a man named Mulian. He was an original follower and disciple of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and he was renowned for his ability to detect and to communicate with those now in the other realm. Accordingly, he was regarded as the foremost sensitive, medium or spiritualist among all of the Buddha's disciples.
Mulian had for many years "gone out"; that is to say, he had renounced the world, undergone the meditations and exercises required of ascetics, and traveled as a holy man, preaching the doctrine of the Buddha, returning periodically to receive instructions from the Buddha but always on the road far from home.
Now one day the Buddha happened to lecture on the Four Objects of Gratitude, the first precept being filial piety. Mulian attended this lecture and was so moved by the Buddha's words that he desired to return home to see his mother once again.
The day came when he finally arrived back in his hometown but only to discover his mother had already died. How he had planned to dote on her, to see to her every needs--and now she was gone! And how regretful he now was!
Mulian then called upon his abilities as a medium to reach his mother now in the other world, to see her in her new existence.
To his shock, he discovered his mother had sunk to the hell of hungry ghosts and was now undergoing great torment there.
He could see her and was within reach of her. Mulian looked closely at his mother. Besides her stomach's being enlarged extended like a great drum, her neck itself was as thin as a needle.
He cried great tears and held out his rice bowl containing leftover rice to her. Before she could even eat one grain, though, the rice before his eyes turned into a mass of flames. Such is the torment hungry ghosts endure--drifting, with their stomachs extended due to starvation and their threadlike throats connecting their heads to their bodies, they are unable to eat a morsel of anything, for all offered to them turns to fire.
There was nothing Mulian could further do at that moment. He was, however, resolved to save his mother from this horrible existence.
He sought out the Buddha.
"Venerable Lord," he said, addressing the Buddha, "my mother is experiencing unbelievable suffering! Please let her be released through your mercy!"
"Mulian," replied the Buddha, "your mother's sins in her past life were too great. There is nothing no individual, you included, can do. However, there is hope of salvation through the power of the Sangha. Only with that power can your mother be saved.
"So, Mulian," continued the Buddha, "on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, make an offering of one hundred different meals for the community of monks. Doing so, you will not only save your mother but all the other hungry ghosts gathered as well from the torments of hell. Seven past generations of parents, grandparents and ancestors will be blessed by your gesture, and your offerings will earn great merit."
Mulian followed the Buddha's instructions, preparing a hundred dishes of food on the fifteenth day of the seventh month for the community of monks, including those from far and near. The monks, in turn, commenced praying, entered into meditation, and then received the offerings.
Thus was Mulian's mother saved from hell.
This was the origin of what is called Pudu, "the ferrying of souls."
The Chinese Pudu, the Feast of Souls, is known as Yulanpen, or Ullambana. The tradition started in China when Emperor Wu of Liang (464-549 A.D.) entered a temple and inaugurated the Feast based on Indian traditions. He too provided a feast of many foods, each in a bowl, allowing seven generations of souls to leave behind the existence of hungry ghost in hell.
Sadly, today in Taiwan the tradition has lost its original mission in providing donations and relief and venerating ancestors. Instead, it has regressed to that of being a mere raucous and wasteful festival.
from Fojiao gushiji (An anthology of Buddhist stories); Taiwan Fojiao Bianji Weiyuanhui, ed.; Taipei: Fojiao Chubanshe, 1986; pp. 90-92.
The very last paragraph contains the editorial sentiments of the original Chinese text.
Mulian is the sinicized form of Maudgalyayana. Wangshe Cheng is the historical ancient city of Rajagrha, Rajgir, or Rajagaha, located in Bihar, Northeast India. The Four Objects of Gratitude are family (filial piety), all sentient beings, one's homeland, and the Triratna, or the Three Jewels of Buddhism (the Buddha; the Sangha, or Buddhist monastic community; and the Dharma, or the Law). The non-Chinese term Yulanpen is the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit Ullambana, which means "hanging upside" or "[im]pending," perhaps reflective of the continual fate of hungry ghosts.
The story is very important historically. Now with the Buddha's own lecturing on filial piety and his encouragement of Mulian's mission to rescue his mother, Buddhism in China began to take a different course from that of Indian Buddhism. Chinese Buddhism, with the Buddha's apparent blessings, began emphasizing the ancient, pre-Buddhist Chinese concern with filial piety. The supposed abandonment of earthly ties with which Indian Buddhism has been popularly associated was now played down. Most important, perhaps, are the Buddha's words to Mulian regarding the need for a unified response to relieving the sad souls in hell, that one cannot go about providing such relief alone. His words, in effect, inaugurated the codified approach of making large offerings to aid those in hell. In his masterful book on Yulanpen (The Ghost Festival in Medieval China; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), Stephen Teiser points out that a growing number of scholars now discount the above stereotype of Indian Buddhism of being overly unconcerned with existing familial ties. He also writes that one scholar, Iwamoto Yutaka, suggests the origin of Ullambana might lie, not with the above circa sixth-century myth, but with the Greek myth of Dionysus's descent into the underworld to rescue his mother, Semele (23-24). Among most people in medieval China and probably among most Chinese in our time, Ullambana has long coalesced with the likewise ancient Taoist Zhongyuan so that today people tend not to differentiate between Buddhist and Taoist feasts for the dead (Teiser, 41).