Debunking the Top 10 Seventh Month Myths
Debunking the Top 10 Seventh Month Myths (with the Buddhist Perspective)
Myth #1 : The gates of hell are opened during every seventh lunar month.
Truth : Beings leave hell only when their strong negative karma, which rendered them to be reborn in hell, is exhausted, when karma for rebirth surfaces. In this sense, there are beings leaving hell not just in the seventh month, but as and when karmically appropriate.
Myth #2 : During the seventh month, hungry ghosts from hell roam the world freely as wandering spirits.
Truth : Hungry ghosts, while being unfortunate beings too, are distinct from hell-beings, who generally have more intense suffering. While hell-beings do not have holidays in our world, we already co-exist with hungry ghosts and wandering spirits, though most are unseen by humans. Hungry ghosts are reborn beings with strong craving, while wandering spirits are the deceased who have yet to take proper rebirths due to strong attachment. Most ghostly encounters are with them, not hungry ghosts or hell-beings.
Myth #3 : All go to hell after death in the afterlife.
Truth : Many Chinese believe that everyone will be reborn in hell in the afterlife, which is seen as a mirror image of our present world. However, only those who have created very negative karma are reborn in hell. There are five other possible realms of existence - realm of hungry ghosts, animals, humans, demi-gods and gods. Hell is also not an "interchange terminal" between every two consecutive lives.
Myth #4 : Life in hell requires all the requisites of our world, so we must burn these items.
Truth : Since hell is a realm of suffering, "requisites" such as money, houses, cars and handphones would not be relevant. There is no basis that paper items burnt to ashes will materialise into solid items. Also, money is useless without trade, houses useless without land, and cars are useless without engines and fuel, just as handphones are useless without telecommunication companies. If life in hell requires everything in our world via burning, we would need to burn the whole world literally, as everything is interdependent for any one thing to function. But to burn absolutely everything is of course highly illogical. Burning expensive paper items not only wastes paper, money time and effort, it also pollutes the environment and can be damaging for health. Ironically, the excess fire, ashes and smoke might displease unseen beings, just as they displease humans who are irritated.
Myth #5 : If we do not even burn paper items out of goodwill, we are being uncompassionate.
Truth : Instead, we can do good deeds in the name of the deceased, who we believe might have been reborn in an unfortunate realm (or who might still be a wandering spirit), and dedicate merits to them. We can also offer prayers by chanting, in the hope that they may learn the Buddha's teachings from them, thus alleviating their suffering by practising them. Openly sharing and listening to the Buddha's teachings is also meritorious. Food offerings can also be made for hungry ghosts and wandering spirits too. Donating food and necessities to worthy members of the Sangha and charities instead of burning items creates more merits. Actually, this can be done any time, but it is a custom to especially do so on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month in Buddhism - to celebrate Ullambana. Other than benefiting deceased relatives, friends and even past karmic "enemies" can also have their suffering alleviated. We can also celebrate Ullambana by doing good to honour our present parents who are alive.
Myth #6 : Why is there more supernatural phenomena during the seventh month? What if I have dreams of a relative asking for paper items?
Truth : There might be more supernatural activity when we create elaborate and rowdy celebrations to gather and honour unseen beings, especially while we also become tense and expect supernatural incidents to occur. Humans disturb unseen beings accidentally, more so than them disturbing us intentionally. In this way, experiencing the supernatural can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Some of the deceased are attached to the idea that they need paper items burnt for them, which is why they might appear in dreams asking for them. Likewise, surviving relatives might be attached to the same idea, which is why they dream similarly. Explanation to the deceased might be good, to let him or her realise that burning is not needed. If this does not work, it is perhaps better to burn some items - to let him or her realise the futility of the practice.
Myth #7 : Life in hell is eternal suffering.
Truth : Since there is limited evil that one can do in a lifetime, one will not experience unlimited karmic retribution forever. However, due to great suffering, life in hell is often experienced as a very long duration.
Myth #8 : All unseen beings are either mischievous or evil. We need to appease them and ask for protection.
Truth : Most hungry ghosts and wandering spirits (both of whom are so due to great attachment) exist in states too unfortunate to make a point to play tricks on us, or to wish to sabotage us in any way. Just as most humans do not go all the way out to harm each other, most of them do not harm us. Just as only a minority of humans are downright evil, so are unseen beings. Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, not in unenlightened beings. There is no need to appease any unseen being, but we can practise compassion when we encounter them.
Myth #9 : It is bad luck to have celebrations during the seventh month.
Truth : If more of us practise Ullambana in the right way, surely, the seventh month will be a time of great joy, merits and auspiciousness. In fact, Ullambana itself is a spiritual celebration.
Myth #10 : It is definitely unfortunate to encounter an unseen being.
Truth : Encountering an unseen being is due to your karmic affinity with each other. We should do what we can to ensure there is no enmity, by being sincerely compassionate, by understanding and calmly wishing him or her well. If it is a negative karmic affinity, it should be transformed to one of goodwill by urging him or her to let go of attachment to take a good rebirth, especially in Amitabha Buddha's Pure Land, where enlightenment is guaranteed. You can do this by having good intentions, and chanting simple chants like "Namo Amituofo" (Homage to Amitabha Buddha), while wishing the being to do the same single-mindedly. Amitabha Buddha vowed that any being who is continuously mindful of him will be received by him for birth in His Pureland. When unsure, it is best to consult an experienced monk or nun for help.
- Shen Shi'an