Hungry Ghosts, Spirits And Chinese Time


Hungry ghost masksTiong Ah Leng, a trader on the street in front of my block of apartments had a bundle of joss sticks clasped tightly in his hands. His eyes closed, he bowed in staccato motions facing the full moon, while cars whizzed up and down the major highway. An incongruous sight even in Kuala Lumpur, where sights and sounds never fail to amaze me daily. I have been living here for over a month and each day, I sense that I am re-entering my childhood of a Malaysia forty years ago. Some things never change. One of these is the full moon in August.  The other is the festival of hungry ghosts. During this lunar year, the two almost coincided.

The moon is perfectly round with a red aura tonight.  This is the night the Buddhist/Taoist Chinese all over the world celebrate the festival of the hungry ghosts. For them, their ‘real’ world has an exact replica – the nether world – where spirits and ghosts dwell and roam about, casting good and bad spells depending on their luck.  They believe that there is a world above the human realm (tian in Mandarin) and below- the “nether” world (similar to hell). In the “below” world, spirits and ghosts, at certain time of the lunar year, are ‘released’ to access the world of people. This is when they can bring blessings, chaos, and good or bad business luck.

Once a year, Buddhist/Taoist Chinese believe that the gates separating our human world and the world below open up and ghosts emerge to wander freely. Just for thirty days. Within these thirty days business people who believe in this, rush around setting up temporary altars in the shops, street stalls, markets or wherever commercial activities are being carried out. During the festival of the hungry ghosts, people especially hawkers and traders, offer food, drinks and other gifts to placate the spirits and ghosts. Had their business been prosperous, more expensive food will be offered to the hungry ghosts. This year, Tiong said business was not too good so no roast pigs or roast ducks were being offered; only some Chinese buns and red cakes. Standing next to him, Tiong’s hawker friend, famous for his chicken rice, said he was worried that the avian ‘flu might return so he was offering food to appease the hungry ghosts.Hungry ghost

As I stood there, looking at the full moon and listening to these two middle-aged men, who still believe in ghosts and spirits, it hits me that some things just never change. The moon, forever exquisitely bright and round, has not changed one iota in spite of the fact that human feet had tainted it. Out of their own psychological needs – anxiety about the bottom line (read $$$) and a need for guarantees of future good business, grown men and women still hang onto ancient superstitions; their thoughts focusing on the past and the future. Time – segments of past, present and future, are intricately interwoven in the Chinese psyche.

Recently a line in a book by Dr Brian Weiss caught my attention. My reflection upon this line concluded that in order to heal for the present, it is important to remember the past hurts, then to forgive and forget them. Dr Brian Weiss is a past life regression psychiatrist, most well known for his book, Many Masters, Many Lives. The western concept of time or temporality is rather linear (i.e. left brain). Whereas in the Chinese consciousness, time is more holistic, rather like a spiral going on and on, infinitely; constantly changing when past, present and future are interwoven with no beginning or end. There is no fixed point to demarcate the beginning or end. In one of his poems T. S. Eliot describes this when he says the beginning is the end and the end is the beginning. For some, an ending portends another beginning. Death for most is the end, yet for Buddhists and Hindus, it is the beginning. I hold Weiss’ book in my hand and my thoughts meander to the different streams of my own life.

In the ‘now-ness’ of things, I remember the sorrow of my husband’s death yet I must move on. The end of my marriage has meant the beginning of my life as a single woman. In the realm of ‘single-dom’, I discover a newly regained freedom yet at the same time, finding new strength and courage to live in a world without a man constantly beside me is indeed a challenge. It is a world of infinite possibilities. It is a good life in the present.

Within this cobweb of the present, however, there are micro flashes of the past creeping stealthily through my memory: shared laughter, a wet towel on the bathroom floor, a wispy touch on my cheek, and sometimes hurtful words, Such tender memories are to be welcomed, savored, then gently and lovingly stored away, to be retrieved when life demands it. They are never to be denied nor to forget permanently, but courageously used, both wise and careless words and actions, to live the present to the fullest.

This evening, in my experience of sharing the moment with the two Chinese traders, my past became my present in time. Staring at the moon now, I made a conscious decision to make peace with past hurts, caused by husband, siblings, parents, relatives who are linked by blood and nothing else, friends who offered their conditional friendships, and acquaintances whose identities and email addresses have changed through the passing of time yet held on to in the hope of new business.

Time needs to take its course, whether it spirals upwards towards tian or downwards towards the nether world (where a Chinese Buddhist/Taoist will spend some time after death). It is eternal and relentless. What matters at the end of a Chinese Buddhist’s time on earth really depends on the amount of appeasement and offerings she has made in the past.  She either ascends to tian, where the gods and goddesses gambol around and dole out blessings or descend to face the hungry ghosts.


2 Replies to “Hungry Ghosts, Spirits And Chinese Time”

  1. I often read your blog and always find it very interesting. Thought it was about time i let you know…Keep up the great work

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