At Ullambana, we perform the 100 Torma Offering Ritual [Tibetan: torma gyatsa], a practice that entails giving generously to all beings while developing our compassion towards sentient beings who suffer as a result of karma and delusions.
Ullambana, which is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month in the lunar calendar [usually in August], is a joyful festival with its roots cited in the Ullambana Sutra. Passed down through history into modern times, Ullambana is observed by many Chinese communities in Asia as the Hungry Ghosts Festival and generally associated with appeasing hell beings and spirits.
According to Buddhist scripture however, Ullambana marked a time of joy during the 7th month, when the ordained disciples of the Buddha would enter retreat in the forest during the monsoon season. The 15th day of the 7th month was celebrated as the day the monks completed their retreat and reported their progress to the Buddha. It is said that the Buddha was pleased because many monks achieved realisations and even liberation during the Rains Retreat.
Ullambana also marked a time for joyful giving to all sentient beings, stemming from the fine example set by the Buddha’s close disciple, the arhat Maudgalyayana.
About the Festival
The Ullambana Sutra explains that the arhat Maudgalyayana had approached the Buddha for advice on how to obtain liberation for his mother who had passed away and been reborn as a hungry ghost. Through his clairvoyance, Maudgalyayana saw that his mother had taken the form of a hungry ghost who could not eat because she had a thin and fragile throat, but felt constant hunger with her belly large and distended.
The Buddha instructed Maudgalyayana to place some pieces of food on a clean plate, recite a mantra seven times to bless the food, snap his fingers to invite his mother and then lay the food on clean ground. The Buddha said that this would satisfy the hunger of the hungry ghost. Maudgalyayana’s mother was then reborn as a dog under the care of a noble family. However Maudgalyayana wished for his mother to be reborn a human. He again went to the Buddha for advice. The Buddha then told Maudgalyayana to offer food and drink to 500 monks on the 15th day of the 7th month, the day that marked the end of the Rains Retreat.
By performing this deed, Maudgalyayana created the merit that caused his mother to be reborn as a human.
It is for this reason that Buddhists celebrate Ullambana as a time to practise generosity towards all sentient beings.
About the Practice
The 100 Torma Offering Ritual involves making offerings to 12 types of guests, both the transcendental and the worldly. Two specific types of offerings are made: firstly, water is blessed and offered to the wealth deities White and Yellow Dzambhala. The blessed water is also offered to the hungry ghosts, intermediate state beings and the nagas.
Next, with a bodhicitta motivation, specially prepared dough balls are offered to the 12 types of guests, transformed into oceans of nectar that satisfies them. Offering to the transcendental guests invokes their blessings while offering to the worldly beings dispels harms and repays our karmic debts. The 12 types of guests are:
- Transcendental guests—lineage lamas, meditational deities, the 3 Jewels, Dharma protectors, sages and wealth deities
- Worldly beings—local deities, landlords, yakshas, interferers and spirits
- Sentient beings of the six realms
- Hungry ghosts
- Spirits to whom we owe karmic debts from our past acts of killing, beating and stealing
- Intermediate state beings
- Remaining guests, the most pitifully weak among the hungry ghosts
Through this act of giving, we accumulate the merit of practising generosity as well as the resulting benefits from having pleased the respective guests.