The festival is after the lunar New Year (Tet) festival, Tet Vu Lan is the second largest annual traditional festival of Vietnam. The Vu Lan Day is known in English as Parents’ Day or Wandering Soul’s Day (Xa toi vong nhan). It is celebrated on the 15th day of seventh lunar month by Vietnamese people participating in various religious rituals and humanitarian activities.
From traditional customs
The seventh lunar month is believed to be the time wandering souls are returning to their former homes. The tradition has very old roots, but it continues unaltered to this day, with families putting out offerings – flowers, fruits, sticky rice cakes, boiled cassava, sweet potatoes and sugarcane – to nurture the souls of their ancestors.
The Vu Lan Day is a continiuation of the tradition of seeking forgiveness for the sins of deceased parents, so that they may be spared the tortures of hell and may return home. This day is also a mark of gratitude towards deceased parents. Lights are set afloat on the river to guide the wandering souls to nirvana. Also, on this night food is spread out on an altar within the house to appease the souls’ hunger, and false money is burnt as an offering to honor them.
As the story goes, once upon a time there was a young boy called Muc Kien Lien; he was one of Buddha’s ten principle disciples who attained ‘enlightenment’ very early in life. When his mother died, she was compelled to pass through the 18 doors of hell as a punishment for her wickedness. As each consecutive door became tougher and more terrifying to get through, and as she grew to be plagued by overwhelming hunger, Muc Kien Lien was distressed and thought up of a way to smuggle food to her by magic. He managed to do that, but it was not of much help as the tormentors of hell turned all the food into fire as soon as she brought it to her mouth.
When he arrived back in the physical world, he asked for the Buddha’s guidance to help his mother and fulfill his duty as a pious son. The Buddha advised him to collect a gathering of monks and devotees and get them to pray together on the 15th day of the seventh month of lunar calendar. The combined prayers proved to be so powerful that they achieved the release not only of Muc Kien Lien’s mother, but also of countless other souls. Ever since, on the festival of Vu Lan – Wandering Soul’s Day- the gates of hell are believed to be thrown open to give the tormented souls a 24 hour holiday.
What to do in the festival
During the festival, people visit pagodas and temples to worship, burn incense and offer votives to their ancestors and wandering souls. They prepare offerings of food, clothes and votive papers, and release animals like birds or fish. They also buy presents and flowers to show their deep love and gratitude towards their parents.
Many people go to pagoda on this occasion, wearing either a red rose if their parents are alive or a white rose if their parents have passed away. The rose is a symbol of love and gratitude shown by every family towards their ancestors.
The Vu Lan Festival is seen as an opportunity to teach the laws of karma and cause and effect to younger generations, as well as teach children to respect their elders and to live moral lives.
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