Hungry Ghosts and the Cầu Siêu Ritual

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(Continued from Hungry Ghosts 1: Vu Lan Season)

It is common knowledge that dogs, cats, and especially little children, are not allowed to be present at a Cầu Hồn (evocation or conjuration ritual), a Triệu Hồn (summoning ritual), or a Cầu Siêu (there is no equivalent English word) .

I know because the first time I ever heard of a Cầu Siêu, I was only five or six.  I asked if I could come along because the person being Cầu Siêu-ed, was my maternal grandmother.

Now, normally, for family events, I wouldn’t even need to ask to join, but in this case, Mom would not let me come along with her because this was no ordinary funeral or memorial service.

This—was a Cầu Siêu.

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If you look up the word Cầu Siêu in a translated dictionary, what you get is requiem, which is a mass (especially Catholic) to honor and remember a dead person.

Sorry to say, that’s not what a Cầu Siêu is.  A requiem is just a memorial service, in which case, our whole entire family would have been required to attend.

A Cầu Siêu is a summoning ritual for the purpose of retrieving a lost soul, and then capturing that soul into a vessel such as a bottle or a jar, and then bringing it to a temple for psychological healing and eventual send-off into the next realm.

That’s the entirety of it, without missing a single step.  As well as I know the English language, I have never heard of any word that even comes close to describing the process of doing a Cầu Siêu.  If you know what the word is, please share with me.

Exorcisms come close, but exorcisms only contend with removing the spirit from a person (dead or alive), or an object (a doll or a car or a house).  Where that spirit goes next, the exorcist does not care, as long as it does not return to bother the living person or dead corpse, or inanimate object that it had previously occupied.

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However, casting a spirit out and just letting it wander around until it finds another person or thing to possess is not something that a practicing Buddhist or Taoist monk could ever do.

First off, it’s never a good idea to let lost and wandering spirits continue to wander around in this reality because in most cases, they have degenerated into that deplorable state of existence where they are nothing more than a hungry ghost and desperately need assistance to move onto the next cycle of their existences.

Sadly, most hungry ghosts don’t know where to get help, which is why the monks’ job is so important.  As an aside, if you are curious as to what a hungry ghost is, I wrote about it is in one of my previous posts, Hungry Ghosts and the Vu Lan Season.

Secondly, if it is a more demonic type of spirit, that’s just asking for trouble to release them into the general populace.  They need to be contained and dealt with in the most humane fashion possible.

So it is with this understanding of what a Cầu Siêu is, let me describe to you certain scenarios and situations that would require a Cầu Siêu, and also what actually happens at a Cầu Siêu.

Situations requiring a Cầu Siêu mass.

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Imagine, if you will, a scenario where a person has suffered a tremendous blow to the head due to some accident of some sort, or had contracted some type of illness whereby his brain has been affected, which resulted in the person going into a coma or living in a vegetative state.  They are no longer themselves, and live without comprehension of their existence.  This was what happened to my grandmother, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Day in and day out, they either sit and rock without saying a word, or howl and cackle without warning, and speak gibberish to nobody.  They may eat with wanton gusto, soil on themselves, and in general, act like a caged wild animal.  Their family members, unable to care for such an invalid, bring them to a hospital ward, where they are given drugs to calm them down, and basic care alongside others of similar fates.  Their existences are akin to a living hell on Earth.

greenhillsIt is from this type of situation that the heartbroken Vietnamese family members call upon the mercy of the monks and nuns to perform a Cầu Siêu ritual for the pathetic beings who are living these desperate dire lives that continued on for years and years with no end in sight.

In essence, the family is asking the monks and nuns to please help the person to die with some dignity so they can move past being stuck in this reality, due to the fact that, their spirits having flown, are no longer residing within the shell that was once their bodies.

This request is not stated in so many words because it is something of a taboo to ask monks and nuns to assist someone to die, when usually, they are asked to help heal people.  There is, however, a time when healing is no longer possible, and it is best to allow the person to move on.

The monks and nuns will make that determination, case by case, and depending on each individual situation, they will schedule a good day to hold the Cầu Siêu mass.

The Cầu Siêu Ritual

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I personally have never attended one of these rituals before in my life.  Every time there was one held that I might have had the chance to take part in, I was either too small, too busy, or too far away.  However, I have heard the recounting of the events from Mom, so I will dutifully report what I have heard.

Mom is a self-professed faint-of-heart.  She has seen ghosts hanging out on the gnarled twisted branches of the great banyan tree that grew on an abandoned corner lot near the alleyway that led to her childhood home.  She would always pretend she does not see them so they will leave her alone.  She said don’t look at them in the eyes or they will follow you home.  It is best to just ignore them.

I believe her.

Her greatest fear has always been that one of her four children might inherit the same disease she lives with.  I am happy to report that none of us have ever seen anything odd or scary.  Yes, I may catch glimpses here and there, but thankfully, I am hardly that sensitive.  Nor do I wish to be.  Opening that third eye is a scary thing indeed, and I am just about as faint-hearted as Mom is.

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I kid you not.  Mom always attended these rituals in full protective gear.  What do I mean when I say full protective gear?  Well I’m not talking about hazmat suits, although it probably would have been considered such in the old days.

In her right hand, she clutched a black tektite stone (more on various power stones in another posting), and in her left hand, she had a death grip a protection bùa given to her by one of the nuns prior to the ritual (more on this later as well).  Her head was covered with a white hood, and  her body covered in scented oils.  To the spirit beings, she was effectively invisible…or so she thinks.

SAMSUNG CSCAt the place where the ritual mass was to take place, the group of Buddhist or Taoist monks and nuns congregated at the designated hour.

They went around the perimeter and secured all dogs and cats a good distance away.  This was to prevent the distraught spirit from escaping by possessing the poor animals and then running away.

They also made sure children were not present at the ritual gathering.  Children usually have a heightened sense of the extant realms and are more prone to being affected by the spirits.

Then, one by one, they arrived and found an unoccupied spot on the floor, where they promptly sat, lotus position, and began meditation.  Since they came from various temples around the area, the colors of their cà-sa (Buddhist robes) were different and varied (orange, pink, blue, yellow, olive green, grey, white, black).  To my mom, it almost looked like a bright festival had just begun.

Once the chief Kahuna arrived (she seemed to be the most senior-ranking nun), they began chanting in earnest, the Heart Sutra, over and over and over.  Everyone else around them, the regular people, also started chanting, as the Heart Sutra is very well-known to the Buddhist adherent.

The rise and fall of the chant filled the room as sound waves echoed throughout the place, spilling out into the hallways and courtyard beyond the windows.  No ghosts worth their salts would willingly hang out to hear the reverberations of the sound waves of a group of chanting monks and nuns, as I’m sure if they did, they would not have turned into hungry ghosts.

talismangirl2While the temple monks and nuns chanted, the head nun wrote the name and birth date of the patient on an exorcism spell sheet (lá bùa).

Then, she added some Chinese or Sanskrit characters with some embellished scribbles.  Mom was never sure what was written on there because she does not read Chinese or Sanskrit characters.  It was all black squiggles to her.

Then, the head nun begin talking to the patient as if she was awake and alert, and able to understand.  She spoke of life and death, and samsara and the turning of the wheel of dharma.

All these things that were at once familiar, and yet so strange, she spoke of, in normal Vietnamese, as the droning of the other monks and nuns continued without cessation.

Mom said that the best that could happen at one of these rituals is that nothing would happen and the person would die peacefully in his or her sleep within a week or two after the ritual had taken place.

This did not happen at my grandmother’s Cầu Siêu ritual.  In fact, before the monks and nuns began chanting the sutra, grandmother was lying there quietly.  After the sutra had been repeated a couple of times, she began to make odd noises.  By the time the head nun had finished talking to her, grandmother (or whatever was inside her) started howling like a banshee.

The head nun then commanded the spirit to exit grandmother’s body, and with more chants and prayers, the spirit eventually calmed.  Then, the monks and nuns chanted for a bit more, finished out their sutra and quietly left.

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Nothing much happened after that except that grandmother passed away a week later.  I asked Mom what happened to the spirit that was inside grandmother.  Mom said she didn’t know, so I did a bit of research to find out what, if anything, happened at the temple after the hungry ghost had been retrieved and sent there.

This is rather involved, so I will leave it for the next posting.

(Continue to Hungry Ghosts 3: Sermons for the Dead)

4 thoughts on “Hungry Ghosts and the Cầu Siêu Ritual

  1. This is a most interesting story. I do wonder if there is a great deal of ghost that run about today with little regulation in comparison to the past.

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  2. Hi Paul. When Mom was taking care of grandma’s soul, she was being helped by Buddhist monks, but I’m sure Taoist monks would have also been able to help her. I don’t know any more than that, as mom’s memory is not that great any more. I’m luck I can get even that much out of her, as lately she is getting more and more forgetful.

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