Vu Lan is an annual feast to commemorate the parents (and ancestors in general) - parents of this life and of past lives. It is believed that on this day, the gates of the hell open and thus, souls of the dead can come back to their home and gather with family. Vietnamese considers that it’s an occasion for family gathering as well as expressing love and gratitude to ancestors and parents. During the festival, children try to do good to bring blessings to their parents, either alive or deceased.
The festival peaks on the full moon day of the lunar month, which falls on August 28 this year.
Buddhist followers traditionally believe that when they come together to pray for their departed parents, they can atone for their parents' past mistakes and save them from being punished in the underworld.
Some people call it Vu Lan or Vietnamese Mother's Day, others call it Trung Nguyen as it is the day for lost souls to be in the search of mercy-the festival has it all. Under any disguises, this festival takes place on the 15th day of the seventh month in Lunar Calendar. Being the second largest annual traditional festival of Vietnam right after Tet Holiday, Vu Lan is widely celebrated throughout the country—among businesses, families, and other institutions. In accordance with Buddhism’s belief, the seventh lunar month is known as the spirit month. On this month’s full moon, wandering souls are believed to return to their former homes.
In the morning, a lavish tray with various delicious dishes and candles will be set on the ancestral altar. The householder, as usual, will burn incense and invite ancestors to come back home and celebrate the festival with family. After that, all family’s members will gather and enjoy lunch together. Vegetarian food is most popular.
Pagodas are crowded during the festival day because Buddhists gather for the monk’s to talk about responsibility of children to parents as well as pray for parents whether they are living or dead. Each Buddhist has a flower (usually rose) in front of their chest: red flower if their parents are living and white flower if their parents are dead.
In the evening, a tray filled with food is set in front of the house. The householder will light incense, pray for homeless souls and wish they could rest in peace. At night, Vietnamese hold a ceremony of releasing lighted lanterns on the river. Lanterns will follow the river stream and bring their wishes with it. Vietnamese people believe that by doing that, their wishes for parents will come true and that the lantern will give direction to the lost ghosts and spirits of the ancestors.
“The legend behind this festival is that once when mediating, a Buddha's disciple named Muc Kien Lien saw that his mother was suffering from hell’s tortures. Following Buddha’s advice, on the seventh full moon of the year, Muc Kien Lien gathered monks and devotees and pray with them for his mother’s relieve. Hence, this festival is to express gratitude and appreciation towards ones’ parents (especially mothers) and also help ancestors’ lost souls find their way back to earth.
The practice is a main part of the celebrations of Vu Lan, or Ullambana, a Buddhist festival in the seventh lunar month that is known as the season of filial piety.
The practice of wearing roses only became popular in Vietnam around 50 years ago after Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, whose mother had passed, wrote an essay to praise mothers in Saigon in 1962 with inspiration in his previous visit to Japan where he was given a white carnation by a Japanese student.
Here's one of the most powerful paragraphs in the essay:
"I was as much an orphan as any other unhappy orphan; we could no longer proudly wear red flowers in our buttonholes. Those who wear white flowers suffer, and their thoughts cannot avoid returning to their mothers. They cannot forget that she is no longer there. Those who wear red flowers are so happy, knowing their mothers are still alive. They can try to please her before she is gone and it is too late."
Vietnamese songwriter Pham The My (1930-2009) in 1965-1966 penned a song, which is often played this time of the year, based on Hanh's writing.
The lyrics read: “One red rose for anyone who still has a mother, so you can feel happy.” But wearing a red rose does not always bring joy.”
(Source: Thanh Nien News august 26th 2015)
The roses and the whole Vu Lan festival have religious values, but they are also symbols of the big love of many Vietnamese for their parents and families. That's why even non-religious or followers of other religions can join the celebration.
These days, instead of going to a pagoda, many people stay at home and pay tribute to their parents on social networks. Some would change their profile picture on Facebook to a white rose, or send a beautiful white rose to another friend to show empathy.
I was privileged to be invited to join in the festivities at Loc Tho Chuia.
I taught English in the morning to the children and then stayed instead of going home.
I met a wonderful man Mr Chanh who is 63(looking pretty good for it I must say) who comes with his wife and son to teach "attitude" to the children. Mr Chanh grew up in a similar situation to the children and believes that the only way out is through education. He had all the children doing group work about personality characteristics that were good for the community and how we should encourage working together. The children were very well behaved!!
Mr Chanh was MC for the festivities in the afternoon.
Before lunch the children all line up and work their way around in ever decreasing square all the while chanting. It is fascinating to watch and listen to as they give thanks for the food they are about to eat.
The children had lunch and then I had lunch with the teachers after the children had finished theirs. The ladies in the kitchen do a spectacular job and lots of very tasty vegetarian food was served. There were a few sauces "not" for Eileen but lots of laughter about these. I was also given a glutenous sweet which was delicious. Bless them some of the children wanted to give me theirs but I declined.The one with the black outside is the one I liked. not so fussed on the other one.
We were meant to have a sleep after lunch on the classroom floor. The children were very excited that Dung, Hein and myself were going to be with them. I can say not a lot of sleep happened. We ended up playing silly games and singing head shoulders knees and toes because they were fascinated by my different features and I was on the floor with them. There might have been a degree of tickling involved however I must say I was the one that got tickled the most!
The afternoon finally arrived, and after a little makeup for the girls performing, we all trooped off.
The chanting was beautiful. There were two dances (the young girls have been practicing for weeks) they nailed it and looked amazing.
One of the young children his name is Trung was given a special award from the master for being the best student with the best attitude. He is an amazing young man who is only 9 years old. He is always well mannered but is VERY smart. He has a big future in front of him.
We handed out flowers to put on shirts. Red roses for those of us whose mothers are still alive and white for those who have lost their mothers.
A big charity group had arrived from Saigon with many gifts for the children and they were going to play with them. They even had two people dressed up as Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I'm sure they had a wonderful time playing with all the children. I was a great time. The children were so well behaved sitting together. They are a credit to the Pagoda and the teachers. They all do an amazing job.
I am so privileged to be involved with such great people.