The 15th day of the seventh lunar month originally marked Sakyamuni Buddha’s “Joyful Day”, when many of his disciples reported attainment of enlightenment after completing their spiritual practice during the annual summer retreat. Among these monastics was Maudgalyayana. In spite of his formidable supernatural powers, he was powerless in rescuing his mother, who was suffering in Hell due to the negative karma she had committed during her lifetime.
With instructions from the Buddha, Maudgalyayana made offerings to the monastic community on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, and thus managed to save his mother from Hell through the merits attained. His efforts were an expression of filial piety for his beloved mother.
However, this Buddhist commemoration to mark the filial piety of a disciple of the Buddha and the spiritual attainments of the monastics in the seventh lunar month had gradually evolved into the current superstitious practice of animal sacrifices and joss paper offerings.
According to a study conducted by the Nanyang Technological University, the amount of joss paper burned during the seventh lunar month is capable of increasing the Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) by as much as 6 times. Every kilogram of joss paper burned generates up to 1.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide, which causes significant damage to the environment.
In a concerted effort to dispel such superstitious beliefs, the Tzu Chi Merit Organization (Singapore) held two sessions of the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony in the East Zone on 29th July, and another two rounds of the Ceremony were held on 19th August in the North Zone. The event was an effort to advocate the importance of Right Faith and to lead the public towards an understanding of the true significance behind the seventh lunar month.
Beside lively presentations, there were also posters and information to introduce and promote vegetarianism. Volunteers were onsite to explain the origins of “Por Dor” or “普渡” (which actually means “delivering all sentient beings from suffering”), and to encourage everyone to welcome the auspicious month with a heart of joy and thanksgiving.
Creating Blessings with Right Faith
At the East Zone Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony, which was held at the Jing Si Hall, Guo Mei Gui and her husband Zhuang Jian Ming shared their past experiences with burning joss paper money.
The couple are business folks, and had heard a saying that burning joss paper in front of their doorstep was good for business, and even tried this practice for a while. “However, as our business did not improve even after burning the joss paper, we felt that it was unnecessary to continue the practice. In fact, our hearts were more at ease after we stopped burning paper money,” shared Mdm Guo.
Mdm Guo further added that she would sometimes visit the temples to pay respects to the gods even though she didn’t specifically pray for blessings or for wealth. After joining Tzu Chi, she gained a deeper and firmer understanding of the wise teaching of Dharma Master Cheng Yen: “One can only reap the fruits of blessings from the fields of blessings that one has cultivated.” She applied this principle to her own life, and finally understood the real meaning behind the seventh lunar month, which has helped her discover the pathway to Right Faith and Right View.
Instead of burning joss paper as an offering to spirits, Zhuang Jian Ming of today would rather park his time and money in meaningful places, such as honouring and remembering the ancestors with his family. This not only helps to protect the environment, but also helps the next generation to break the superstitious tradition and to fully understand the significance behind the seventh lunar month.
Many of those who have attended the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony a number of times in the past brought their Tzu Chi bamboo coin banks to the venue and donated their savings accumulated over a period of time to help those in need. First-time attendee Tang Feng Jun adopted a bamboo coin bank for herself and said resolutely, “I want to become a volunteer; volunteerism should be regardless of age.”
Tang Feng Jun operates a fruit juice stall in a coffee shop. When the weather is exceptionally hot, she would give fruits away to the elderly. With a heart full of love, she had specially ended her business two hours earlier to attend the prayer ceremony.
“In the past, during the 1st and 15th days of every lunar month or during Qing Ming, I would burn joss paper. After discovering the harmful environmental effects of burning joss paper through the skit on stage today, I will not burn it anymore,” said Tang.
Pertaining to the taboos of the seventh lunar month, such as to avoid returning home late at night, or not to hang laundry outdoors, she said, “People are afraid only because of the unease in their own hearts. We need not be fearful if there is peace in our hearts.”
Expressing Filial Piety through Serving Tea
This auspicious month of joy is also a great opportunity to express filial piety. With the accompaniment of melodious music, children came onto the stage bearing cups of tea to serve their awaiting parents as a sign of their utmost gratitude.
“I had wanted to serve my parents tea five years ago, and felt a little regret after my father passed on more than a year ago. Today, I am finally able to serve tea to my mother,” said volunteer Tan Siew Khim, whose face was radiating with joy.
Together with an older sister and younger sister, she accompanied their 80-year-old mother, to participate in the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony. The three sisters served hot tea to their aged mother to thank her for the many years of nurturing them.
Volunteer Rachel Tan Bee Ean and her husband Li Kui Mian invited their family members, including Li’s parents and his older sister’s family, to participate in this day’s activity.
“Asians are generally reserved, and yet on this occasion I have the opportunity to serve tea to my parents-in-laws, to personally thank them. I hope that this attitude of gratitude will eventually become a habit,” shared Tan.
On this day, Li Kui Mian’s older sister was also being served tea for the first time by her son, and was deeply touched by his act of filial piety.
Healthy Living through Vegetarianism
After the prayer ceremony, volunteers invited the attendees to stay back for a health talk titled, “Preventing Chronic Diseases through a Natural Diet”, which was about how to eat healthily with a vegetarian diet. The speaker was Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner cum Tzu Chi volunteer, Dr. Lim Lee Huang, who provided many useful tips on how to maintain a nutritious vegetarian diet.
Roslin, a Muslim who hails from the Philippines, has worked in Singapore for over 20 years. She said she could sense the good vibes around her as she stepped into the Jing Si Hall for the first time. She also shared that her god-mother would prepare vegetarian meals for her on every Friday, and this has been ongoing for over a year now. She further added that her habit of eating vegetarian was not limited to only one day. She would attempt to increase the frequency of eating vegetarian meals as she believed that as long as she was committed, making vegetarian meals shouldn’t be too difficult.
The East Zone volunteers specially organised the solemn prayer ceremony about a month before the seventh lunar month. The event, which was attended by some 490 people, helped establish Right Faith and promote filial piety and vegetarianism, as well as the message of environmental protection. Those who have attended the ceremony could further share what they had learned with their friends and loved ones, allowing more people to enjoy a meaningful and auspicious seventh lunar month.
Transformation from Superstition into Right Faith
The Tzu Chi team in the North Zone adopted an enlivening approach in conducting the two rounds of the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony at the Tzu Chi Eco-Awareness Centre in Woodlands. Both sessions drew large crowds, totaling about 460 members of the public.
Volunteer Sang Mei Hua shared her real life experiences with everyone at the prayer event. Before joining Tzu Chi, she was very superstitious and believed that the seventh lunar month was a festival for “hungry ghosts”. So she used to drink “amulet water” before stepping out of her house during this month, and even carried an amulet whenever she was outdoors. Going out of the house at night was a taboo to her, and so was traveling overseas, or even moving house during the “ghost festival”.
Sang said that in the past, she used to prepare many offerings before the seventh lunar month, including joss paper and such. “It first started with a small quantity for burning, but in the second year, after hearing from others that we must increase each year’s offerings, (I bought even more joss paper), until the final time I burned more than $100 worth of paper money. At times, the smoke from the paper inferno was so thick that my eyes started tearing, but I still kept burning.”
Sang added with a smile, “Looking back on the past, not only did I buy fake money with real money, but I even contributed to environmental pollution.”
It was only after joining Tzu Chi and learning about the true significance behind the seventh lunar month that she started setting aside the money saved from not buying joss paper and donating it to charity.
“Now I have no unfulfilled desires in my heart. With no unfulfilled desires, my heart is finally free from unnecessary worries, and I can go about my life with peace in my heart. Even without making offerings of joss paper, I am equally at peace.”
Vegetarianism for Health and for Our Planet
It was also the first time the North Zone team conducted the Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony at the Tzu Chi Eco-Awareness Centre. On the first floor of the Centre, volunteers had skillfully designed a mini-exhibition zone. There was a “Kneeling Lamb” exhibit depicting the spirit of filial piety, a booth that promoted Jing Si’s natural and lifestyle products, an area to promote the donation of bamboo coin banks as well as a vegetarianism promotion zone.
On top of these, there was an innovative “Seventh Lunar Month Festival” booth, with two dialectically opposite displays, one of which showed the traditional way of commemorating the event while the other showed an eco-friendly style of celebration.
An excited visitor, Zheng Yu Jun, whipped out a smartphone and began snapping photos of the exhibits. He said, “I used to pray during the seventh lunar month with joss paper offerings and offerings of lavish meat dishes. It is only now that I realise I can pray with vegetarian food and that I don’t need to burn joss paper, too!”
The vegetarianism promotion zone was decorated in elegant simplicity and chock-full of useful information. The booth not only provided information on F&B outlets to enjoy vegetarian meals in Singapore, but also screened short videos on how to prepare simple vegetarian meals at home. There were also ample displays of vegetarian recipe books and magazines for visitors’ browsing pleasure, to help them with preparing vegetarian meals at home.
Even on the advertising billboards hanging on the wall of the booth, there were articles and photos of celebrities and famous persons who are advocates on vegetarianism. One of these luminaries was Olympic 100m sprint gold medalist Carl Lewis, who explained the benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle, and thus dispelled the popularly held myth that eating vegetarian was unhealthy to the body.
As the saying goes, “Action speaks louder than words”. Another visitor, Ms Cai Pei Yin, who had never been a vegetarian before, experienced a moment of epiphany after listening to the volunteers’ sharing. When she learned that going vegetarian could help to save the planet, she quickly took a few vegetarian pledge cards, hoping to take the first step towards vegetarianism and to bring the valuable information back home to share with her family members.
A Month of Filial Piety and Gratitude
The seventh lunar month is also a month of filial piety. Thus the prayer ceremony also incorporated a “Filial Piety Footbath” segment, which enabled the participants to express gratitude to their parents. With the moving music from the song, “The Kneeling Lamb” playing in the background, and the showing of a video on filial piety in action through the washing of parents’ feet, some among the participants were moved to tears.
Under the guidance of the emcee, the children bowed deeply before their parents, before gently kneeling down to wash their parents’ tired feet. Some of the parents smiled warmly, some had eyes that were brimming with tears, while others were muted by their own crying. They gently touched their children’s heads, and hugged them; it was a deeply moving moment for everyone present.
“What do you want to tell daddy?”
A young girl, Chen Jie Ying, hugged her father tightly, and couldn’t hold back her tears even before she could finish her sentence.
Jie Ying shared that in the process of washing her father’s feet, she saw many scars and wrinkles on his feet, and deeply felt the hardships her father had endured at work. “I know that daddy loves me, but I have never said ‘thank you’ to him, and even flared up at him frequently. I feel really ashamed.”
Another participant, 17-year-old Xie Si Ying, had taken the initiative to sign up for the footbath activity, to express her filial piety and gratitude to her parents, who had always taken good care of her during her frequent bouts of illnesses.
“I want to treat my parents well while they are still around and not wait for future regrets after they are gone,” said Si Ying, choking back her own tears while speaking. She added that she was deeply moved and felt very blessed by the simple act of washing her parents’ feet, and hoped to take every opportunity to be filial to her parents.
The Auspicious Seventh Lunar Month Prayer Ceremony finally came to a fruitful conclusion, evoking a deep sense of gratitude and leaving an indelible mark in the hearts of the participants and volunteers.
Living in this world, only when we learn to co-exist with one another in harmony can we can enjoy days of peace and abundance. Hence, we must be thankful to all living beings. The Buddha is like a wise teacher who guides us along the path to righteous living; as such we must thank the teachers in our lives, and thank the Buddha for his grace. Thus it is said that the seventh lunar month is not only an auspicious month, but also a month of filial piety and gratitude.