Here in Taiwan we're approaching the end of the seventh month on the lunar calendar, so-called 'Ghost Month'. Ghost Month (click here for a short video) is when, it's believed by many, the gates of hell open and the spirits trapped therein are able to wander freely among the living.
The following is adapted from a newspaper article written this time last year by my friend Rich J. Matheson (who also took this photo of Pudu rites in a Tainan temple):
[In] contrast to Halloween's donning of costumes and trick or treating, Ghost Month is a reverential and solemn affair. Ghosts without descendants to feed them are called 'wandering souls' [or] 'good brothers' and are widely feared. The 'good brothers' are blamed for many ills and must be placated. Placation comes in the form of feasts and chanting. Many taboos are observed during the month. Few Taiwanese will move, get married or open a business. Even swimming is frowned upon as the water is believed to be inhabited by ghosts that can only leave their watery grave by finding a replacement.
Originally, Pudu rites in Taiwan were held continuously throughout the seventh lunar month rotating from one household to another until the end of the month. Following government efforts to curb lavish temple activities, Pudu activities were, for the most part, consolidated on the 15th of the month. Currently, Pudu is often split into three parts: inviting the ghosts on the first, feeding them on the 15th and finally sending them away again on the 29th. For the invitation after the gates are opened, lanterns are hung to guide the ghosts to the offerings. One must be cautious, however, for if too many lanterns are hung attracting too many ghosts, and not enough food is supplied, the spirits could be angered, precipitating a bad year.
Feeding is the most important part of the Pudu rite. Temples will have feasts for the ghosts, but the majority of the feeding is done by the populace who set up tables laden with food in front of their workplaces or homes, and who also burn incense, ghost money and colourful paper dieties.
Pudu (which means 'universal salvation') are sacrificial rites with the intention of appeasing ghosts with no heirs to care for them. Zhongyuan Pudu (中元普渡) falls on the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Similar to 15th of any lunar month, households will prepare food offerings and burn ghost money, only on a much larger scale, as these offerings are not limited to one's own ancestors but to any passing ghosts. These rites are very widely observed in Taiwan.
Finally, the lanterns are taken down. This day is accompanied by more feasts for the wandering souls and some temples invite the god Zhong Kui to assure the good brothers do in fact return, thus keeping the people safe from their mischievous ways after the gates close.
Zhongyuan Pudu is a blend of folk religion, ancestor worship, Taoism (the 15th of the seventh lunar month is also the birthday of a Taoist god, Di Guan) and Buddhism.
The Buddhist religion celebrates the 'Ullambana' rite on the 15th of the seventh lunar month, during which food is offered to the dead. The story goes that Mu Lian, a disciple of Buddha, wanted to save his mother who was languishing in hell and unable to eat food without it turning to fire. Mu Lian organized a large gathering of monks to chant and offer food, thus alleviating his mother;s suffering. This custom has evolved into present-day Zhongyuan Pudu practices.
Zhongyuan Pudu activities of special interest are the Qiang Gu (搶孤) competitions in Toucheng (in Yilan County), Hengchun and Pingtung in which people compete to feed the most ghosts by climbing slippery bamboo poles, assuring themselves of an auspicious year.
The reading of the sutras to help wandering souls find paradise which can be seen in temples throughout Taiwan during Ghost Month. Other events include: Yimin Festival (義民節) at Yimin temples (20th day of the seventh lunar month), Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva Festival (地藏王祭日) (29th day of the month) and the Keelung Water Lantern Festival (基隆放水燈) (14th day).
The prominence of Zhongyuan Pudu arose due to the dangers early immigrants to Taiwan faced, often without family to care for them in death. Therefore there were many wandering souls to appease lest even more calamities occur. Beyond this, however, the true spirit of Zhongyuan Pudu lies in compassion for suffering, strengthening social ties, teaching the youth about filial piety and harmony between the world of the living and the world of the dead.