Legend has it that during the seventh month of the lunar calendar or commonly known as the “Hungry Ghost Month”, the “gates of hell” would open. There are even many taboos surrounding this festival, such as not to go out at night, not to move into a new house, not to get married, not to visit a doctor etc. Particularly on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, many households or companies would prepare offerings and three types of meat for the deceased and ghosts, commonly known as “good brothers”. They believe that this is the way to seek protection and peace. People also burn a tremendous amount of joss papers in an attempt to show their sincerity. Yet, who would be responsible for the environmental problems caused by these acts?
“Did you know that the concentration level of PM2.5 increases by 18% - 60% during the Hungry Ghost Festival?”
“Has anyone thought about the fact that burning joss paper money bought with our money is equivalent to us burning our actual money?”
Holding up a board displaying findings from a research report, Tzu Chi volunteers raised these questions to the audience, hoping to prompt them to think deeply. According to a five-year study by Nanyang Technological University, during the “Hungry Ghost Festival”, the concentration of suspended micro-particles, known as PM2.5, will increase. These micro-particles contain metals such as lead and tin, which may adversely affect the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
To raise the public’s awareness of environmental protection, Singapore’s Civil Societies, private enterprises and Government agencies formed an “Alliance for Action on Norms for Joss Paper Burning” to advocate environmental protection during ritual offerings. Responding to the appeal, Tzu Chi Merit Organization (Singapore) organised two afternoon sessions of “Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month” prayer ceremonies at Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre on 9 August 2022. Through various creative segments such as a skit and storytelling using paper-cut characters to kick-start the “Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month”, Tzu Chi Singapore volunteers were determined to persuade the public to celebrate the festival with the right faith and right thoughts.
Good Deeds in replacement of Extravagant Worships
Volunteers shared with the participants that “doing good deeds to sow actual merit” is more meaningful than burning joss paper and encouraged everyone to use the money saved to do good deeds by helping those living who are in need instead. And that shall be the best merit.
To vividly demonstrate the impact that burning joss paper has on the environment, the programme planner in charge, volunteer Kenny Huang said environmental protection volunteers used different sets of data to show the public the negative impacts traditional worshipping methods bring about, such as environmental pollution and food wastage. After which, they steered and imparted the correct concept by sharing alternative worship methods like offering fruits and flowers, which are environmentally friendly and animal friendly.
A skit on stage told the story of a father who likes burning huge amounts of joss paper at home because of his obsession with wanting to strike a fortune. One day, he left his house in a hurry and did not wait for all the joss paper to burn completely, causing his house to catch fire. When he returned, everything in the house had been burnt beyond recognition. Fortunately, the entire family was safe. Through this incident, the father changed his mindset and learnt more environmentally friendly worship methods from his neighbours.
Teo Seok Ching, the coordinator of the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month event hoped that the lively and interesting performances would be educational and entertaining at the same time.
“Before burning (the joss paper), think and know that the very same things that you burn will affect your family.”
This was also the first time the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month event was held at the Humanistic Youth Centre. Seok Ching said, “The two years of pandemic streak resulted in a lack of warm interactions between people. Hence we have deliberately arranged for a tea gathering to allow people to chat and interact to restore the warmth.”
At the tea gathering, the facilitator of each table shared different ways of worshipping with the participants. Seok Ching revealed that in the past, though participants could understand the problem of using meat as offerings, they did not know how to switch to using vegetarian food as offerings. She said, “(The public) seemed to have had some realisation but lacked actual guidance. Hence the environmental protection team was roped in to transform their confusion into ‘enlightenment’.”
Giving Others Peace of Mind by Casting Aside Superstitions
9 August was also the National Day of Singapore. On this day, 520 people were present at Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre to attend the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month event. Among them, many wore red clothes to show their respect to the country.
Being invited by her neighbour, Madam Tan, who came from Malaysia and has settled down in Singapore, brought her daughter to participate in the prayer ceremony. Her biggest gain in attending the event was casting aside her years of superstition. She said that her elders had reminded her that the seventh lunar month was the ghost month since she was young. That made her abide by many taboos out of fear, such as not going out and washing clothes at night.
She added cheerfully, "After listening to Master Cheng Yen’s teaching in the prayer ceremony today, I have learnt that the seventh lunar month is a joyful and auspicious month. That made me feel at ease and happy. We won’t have to worry if we uphold the right faith and don't do bad things."
Madam Tan also understood the importance of adopting a plant-based diet. Through visiting the environmental protection and vegetarianism education booths, she learned that consuming meat greatly impacts the environment negatively. Madam Tan, who almost goes meatless once a day, said, "I will try to eat less meat in future. However, my husband enjoys meat very much. I will introduce Tzu Chi to him next time."
Public member Yap Soon Seng brought his father who is visually impaired and has hearing difficulty to the event. The father, Yap Eng Kuang, put his hand on his son's shoulder and followed his guide slowly. It was a heart-warming sight. Yap Soon Seng said, "I am really happy to be able to bring my father here."
The hard-of-hearing father could only hear partially during the event. However, he noticed the concept of environmental protection mentioned in the skit and agreed, "The current offerings are the way merchants do business. If we think seriously about it, we will understand our deceased relatives will not receive these offerings at all."
Going Meatless to Protect Animals and Strengthen Environmental Protection Education
Besides promoting the right faith, the organiser also set up environmental protection and vegetarianism educational booths and held a sharing session on this day. A public member, Hsu Cheng Yuan, refreshed his understanding of environmental protection after visiting the exhibition.
Hsu Cheng Yuan shared that people thought they have fulfilled their responsibilities after throwing the rubbish into the dustbin but were unaware that the rubbish might lead to environmental degradation. He reflected that if people were used to a certain way of lifestyle, they might not think twice when taking action. It was like how he usually followed his parents in worshipping but did not realise that their habits could harm the environment.
Hsu Cheng Yuan has now changed his mindset. He agreed with the line in the skit, "It's better to use the money from buying joss paper to help people". He also intended to start with himself by reducing the use of plastic bags and doing his part for the earth.
During the vegetarianism promotion session, Tzu Chi volunteer Hwang Man Wei stood in front of the public with her youngest daughter on the stage and shared her experience of adopting a plant-based diet. The family’s affinity to adopt a meatless diet came when Hwang was expecting her first child. Hwang recalled that her firstborn was not stable during pregnancy. Thus, her husband, Low Yee Leong, vowed in front of the Bodhisattva that if both mother and daughter were safe, he would adopt a plant-based diet.
Although Hwang Man Wei was not yet a vegetarian after the child was born, the babysitter for her three children and their school, Tzu Chi Great Love Preschool, provided plant-based food and taught them to love animals and not to kill them.
"It's good for the children to be vegetarians, but they felt confused when their mother cooked meat for them," said Hwang Man Wei.
She said that the family has since only cooked vegetarian food for the sake of the children.
"However, I still ate meat when I went to work, and I was only going vegetarian 90% of the time."
Until the pandemic struck in 2020 and Master Cheng Yen urged everyone to adopt a plant-based diet, Hwang realised that the obstacles of not becoming a vegetarian were set by herself, so she finally switched to a full vegetarian diet.
Hwang Man Wei shared that deciding to become a vegetarian was just a matter of thought. Reducing cravings and making life simpler and family more harmonious were the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet. She called on everyone to eat less meat and eat more vegetables to protect ourselves and the earth.
All it takes is a decisive thought to give up on superstition and embrace the right faith. The ingenuity and dedication of volunteers made the auspicious month activities educational and entertaining. While preserving traditional culture, people were protecting the environment as well. Such practical actions were the best birthday present for Singapore.