Hungry Ghosts 6: Liên Hoa Đăng

The words Liên Hoa Đăng means the Festival of the Flower Lanterns. Sounds pretty doesn’t it? It actually is more than just pretty. It takes your breath away.

It normally takes place during the Hungry Ghost Vu Lan season which lasts for about two weeks. It starts on the 15th night of the seventh month of the lunar-solar calendar and ends on the 30th of that month.

Since we don’t use the lunar-solar calendar, we have to do a bit of calculation to get the correct dates for the western Gregorian calendar. Using our handy-dandy converter, the 15th of the seventh month lands on Wednesday, August 30, 2023.

The Flower Lanterns Festival is an all-day affair, with the usual noise and effervescent activities that a large gathering of people filled with good food and beer would entail.

Once darkness falls across the land, the people would row their boats out onto the placid lakes, or gather at the edge of the rivers or coastal areas if the waters were too choppy to traverse, light their lanterns, and release the flowers into the water.

The sight and sound of the festival is a feast for the eyes and hearts of those who take part in this ancient custom.

I wrote about the Hungry Ghost Vu Lan Season in my previous series of posts starting with Hungry Ghosts 1: Vu Lan Season. This post continues that series with the colorful and festive tradition of lighting and releasing flower lanterns onto rivers and lakes.

But what is the root of this floating flower lantern custom and what does it have to do with hungry ghosts?

Liên Hoa Đăng

According to Viet folk beliefs, humans living on the earth belong to the yang realm whereas the spirits and water are part of the yin realm. These two realms are different and are separated by a veil. 

To reach this yin realm, you wait until the seventh month (August for us solar-calendar aficionados) when the veil between the realms are the thinnest. This is the perfect time to take tiny paper lanterns within lotus flowers and release them onto gentle streams, quiet rivers, and placid lakes.

These lights were considered as guide points for lost souls so that they could have something to grab onto in order to leave behind their greed, hatred and delusion and follow the path that would free them from their suffering.

This is in keeping with traditional Buddhism where it is written that the aura of Buddha pervades everywhere, illuminating the way for sentient beings to escape samsara.

This festival seems as if it could be a fun sort of holiday, similar to Halloween where fake ghosts and ghouls roam about asking for candy. However, it is still being used, even to this day, in the real world, by real monks, to ameliorate and rescue real people who have perished.

Hội An Capsized Tour Boat

The motorboat that capsized off the Hoi An Town is pulled to shore February 27, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyen Dong

On the afternoon of 26th of February 2022 at around 2PM, a tour boat with 39 people onboard departed from Cham Island on a return trip to Hội An. Midway through the 3-hour ride, the boat capsized due to rough weather. [1]

It was the same sort of rough weather that would keep the local fishermen and other tour boats moored at home base, but apparently, this boat did not heed the warnings of the authorities or the seafaring community.

By early morning of the 27th, the authorities had recovered the bodies of 17 people who died in the tragic accident. With 21 survivors and 17 dead, that meant there was one person still missing, a three-year-old boy from Ha Noi.

With a specialized search force that included the Hội An City Police, military border guards, search helicopters, highly experienced divers, and local seafarers to assist in the search for those still missing, the search intensified.

The search and rescue teams circled the waters near Cửa Đại shore, past the location of the accident, along the shoreline dotted with sand dunes. In the past, when maritime accidents occurred, these places would be the most likely areas that the missing person would drift into. 

Although no effort was spared, all they could find were some random flotsam and floating shoes from the victims floating in the sea not far from where the ship sank. It wasn’t until the evening of the 28th of February that the final victim was found. [2]

On March 3, six days after the tragic accident, the City of Hội An and the Vietnam Buddhist community of Ho Chi Minh City held a public ceremony to pray for the victims of the capsized craft. [3]

The ceremony consisted of two parts. The first part was the basic memorial ceremony which began in the early morning. This memorial allowed people from everywhere a chance to gather, light incense, and pray for the victims.

The second part of the ceremony was the Cầu siêu, (aka pháp sự).

The Buddhist monks gathered on the shores near the area of the capsized boat and led the prayers that would guide the spirits who were lost.

That night, the people lit lanterns and floated candles on the water as a way to guide the spirits of the deceased towards the light. This type of ceremony is called Cầu siêu and has been practiced for thousands of years. [4]

In this case, where the souls of the dead are lost adrift at sea, the Hoa Đăng lanterns were not only sent out by boat and then cast in the area where the boat capsized, but also set on poles by the seaside to guide them back to shore.

Meanwhile, the adherents onshore continued to chant the Great Compassion Mantra to assist the souls that struggle to come ashore, guided by the light of the lanterns and the sounds of the Avalokiteshvara.

May the souls find peace and escape, to continue their path towards enlightenment.

The Great Compassion Mantra

Namo Ratna Trayaya,
Namo Arya Jnana Sagara, Vairochana,
Byuhara Jara Tathagataya,
Arahat e , Samyaksam Buddhaya,
Namo Sarwa Tathagate Bhyay,
Arhata Bhyah,
Samyaksam Buddhe Bhyah,
Namo Arya Avalokite
shoraya Bodhisattvaya,
Maha Sattvaya,
Maha Karunikaya,
Tadyata, Om Dara Dara,
Diri Diri, Duru Duru
Itte We, Itte Chale Chale,
Purachale Purachale,
Kusume Kusuma Wa Re,
Ili Milli, Chiti Jvalam, Apanaye Shoha.

  1. Nóng: Chìm ca nô chở 39 người ở biển Cửa Đại, 13 người tử vong, 4 người mất tích
  2. Tìm thấy thi thể cuối cùng vụ lật ca nô ở biển Cửa Đại
  3. Hội An tổ chức lễ tưởng niệm, cầu siêu cho 17 nạn nhân vụ lật ca nô ở biển Cửa Đại
  4. Cầu siêu
  5. Liên Hoa Đăng
  6. Calendar Conversion Tool

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