This was posted on The Substation’s FB page. Duplicated here for those of you not on FB and also for our own records. Post-Museum started a 2-month residency in The Substation on 11 Jul.
Post-Museum Residency Update: Ghosts, Hauntings, the Seventh Month
One of the first things we heard about The Substation residency was that there are ghosts in the building. Ooh, exciting! We have a strong interest in the supernatural, and though we can sometimes feel them, we have not been able to see any. In our artwork The Bukit Brown Index, we have created a Supernatural Map of Bukit Brown, a drawing of where people have experienced ‘encounters’. And, of course, we are living in Asia, where most people believe in ghosts, and specifically in Singapore, where book series The Singapore Ghost Stories has been on the bestseller list for as long as we remember.
Ok, back to The Substation. So, it seems that there are 4 spirits that haunt this place: a little girl, an old couple and a shapeshifter. Don’t be scared, this is not unique to The Substation – as far as we’ve heard, all the old buildings and especially museums in Singapore, have their own in-house spirits! Anyway, they are everywhere and are generally harmless, just that we usually can’t see or feel them… So, as our residency coincides with the Seventh Month aka Hungry Ghost Festival, and we’ve recently learned about the special service that the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple offers, we decided to do something for the 4 ‘friends’ in the building. The special service offered by the temple is a 5-day chanting session during the Ullambana Festival (from 16-20 August), where the merits of the chanting could be dedicated to one’s ancestors, named deceased, karmic debtors, wandering spirits and/or spirits at a specific location.
The earliest written evidence of the existence of this festival that has been found by researchers is from around 400AD. ‘Yulan Pen’ (盂蘭盆) is the Chinese name, and ‘Ullambana’ is the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit name. This festival is also called ‘Zhong Yuan Jie’ (中元节) as it has been held in conjunction with services honoring the ‘Zhong Yuan’ (Middle Primordial) of the Taoist pantheon. This festival is important to both Buddhists and Taoists, and because of the interwovenness of early Chinese society and religion, it is considered an important Chinese festival. Variations of the festival exist in Korea and Japan.
‘Yulan Pen’ is widely considered to be connected to the story of Mu Lian (目连 aka Maudgalyayana) saving his mother. It is said that his mother has been reborn in the deepest of all hells where she suffered retribution for her evil deed in a previous life. She was starving and unable to eat as any food that was offered to her would burst into flames upon reaching her mouth. The Buddha told Mu Lian that the only way to save her was to provide a feast for the monks who were emerging from their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. This ritual indeed resulted in his mother being released from hell, and hence this festival is celebrated as an act of filiality, to achieve salvation for ancestors.
In addition to the story of Mu Lian, the Taoists also believe that the fifteenth day of the seventh month is the day when the Officer of Earth (Zhong Yuan) adjusts humans’ life spans according to the good and evil they have done. This is also the time when hell’s prisoners and hungry ghosts are allowed back in the human world and can eat their fill. As such, this is not only a time for Taoists to make offerings to gods and ancestors, it is also a time for rites of confessions.
We hope this post has helped you to understand a bit more about what this festival is about. We’ve always just thought that this festival is a time to appease the spirits but it is actually much more. If you would like to read more about it, we highly recommend the excellent book from which the info in this post is from: The Ghost Festival in Medieval China by Stephen F. Teiser.
Happy Seventh Month and more updates soon!