Vietnam's parents' festival: time for kids to repay their debts

By Kim Thuy   August 16, 2016 | 03:00 pm PT
And this is not just for parents in this life...

Western countries have their own days for mothers and fathers, and so does Vietnam.

Like other Asian countries, Vietnam honors the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar as the day to pray for their parents. That is today, August 17.


The Vu Lan Festival at Ninh Tao Pagoda in the northern province of Nam Dinh. Photo by VnExpress

The legend

The Vu Lan Festival, as it's known here, originates from a legend that goes something like this:

Once upon a time there lived a wicked lady named Thanh De. She never gave anything to anyone, even those in dire need. Distressed beggars were driven away from her house. She trampled on the peasants' hard-earned rice they had worked year-round to grow. She made fun of Buddhist priests and nuns, trying to interrupt their prayers. She blasphemed and made food offerings to the pagodas mixed with forbidden meat.

After her death, she was sent to Hell where she had to pay for all the evils she had committed. She sat on spikes and thorns holding a basin of blood. She starved because all the food that touched her lips turned to fire or melted into blood.

Her son Muc Kien Lien a monk of high virtue, went down to Hell to look for his mother. Having witnessed her suffering, he requested grace from Buddha to help his mother.

Buddha told him to arrange the Vu Lan Ceremony on the 15th day of the 7th month of the lunar calendar, during which time he could ask for his mother's sentence to be overturned with prayers and alms.

He arrived back to Earth and when the day arrived, an austere and fervent Muc Kien Lien set up an altar in honor of Buddha. With sincerity of spirit, he prayed and gave alms to the poor. In Hell, Thanh De had gradually come to understand what it meant to be hungry and to suffer pain. Her naughty nature turned into sincere remorse.

The story of Muc Kien Lien’s piety reached the gates of Heaven. The Holy Father reviewed Thanh De’s case, found that she had truly repented and acquitted her. Muc Kien Lien was allowed to go down to Hell to bring his mother back to the living world.

Inspired by the story, Vietnamese hold a ceremony to ask for Buddha to bless their parents if they're still alive or to protect and welcome them into Heaven if they had passed away. They burn fake alms for their parents, and also for lonely spirits because they believe it is a good deed that will bestow more blessings on their parents. 

During the ceremony, people not only pray for their parents in this life but in all previous lives. Buddhists believes in reincarnation, which means any lonely spirits drifting out there could be their parents from previous lives, so they pray for every one who has ever walked this planet.

What to do?

For Vietnamese, this is a special occasion for all children to honor their parents and to remember their responsibilities for them. Vietnamese believe that children bear an immeasurable debt to their parents and dedicating one's lifetime to paying it off is still not enough. Children are taught to place their parents above all: to care for and love them till the day they die.

The Vu Lan Festival is a good time to once again remind children about that.

If you are in Vietnam on the occasion, here are some suggestions for you to enjoy one of the most important cultural days of the year:

- Go to a pagoda to watch the ceremony, where people of all age gather together to read Buddhist scripture and children wash their parents feet as a mark of respect. Roses and tea are also presented to parents as part of the ceremony.

- If you want to do something rather than watching, some pagodas will let you "give candles to the lake/river". People release these little lantarns onto the water, whispering prayers for their parents while hoping the gods can hear.


A feet washing ceremony. Photo by VnEpress

- Take part in your native friends' July ceremony. Families burn fake alms for lonely spirits and desperately need people to "steal" the ceremonial food. People believe that the food offered to the gods and lonely spirits should be given to others outside the family for good luck, so the more food that is 'stolen', the better.

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