THE ORIGIN OF VU LAN FEAST
Most of the Pagodas encourage their devotees to organize, with the help of the Monks, Prayers for the souls of the dead.
This custom would be based on the legend of Mục Kiều Liên. In this legend, Buddha himself is said to have publicly advised this practice.
THE LEGEND OF MUC-KIÊU-LIÊN
Muc Kiêu Liên has been one of the greatest disciples of Buddha. He has attained the highest degree of wisdom. He has also acquired great magical powers.
His mother, on reverse, was a sinner. Upon her death, she has been sent to Hell, as a hungry demoness. Everything she swallowed would turn to hot charcoal as soon as it was put in her mouth.
Muc Kieu Lien's great magical powers could not save his mother. He would, then, have begged Buddha to help him.
Buddha himself, according to this legend, advised Mục Kiều Liên to ask all the monks of the country to meet one day, to pray for the salvation of his mother. The latter, thus, finally, saved from Hell.
This day, July 15 of the lunar calendar, became the Feast of Filial Piety, or Vu Lan Feast.
PRAYERS FOR THE SOUL OF THE DECEASED
Buddhists are used to praying for their Dead. However, some young Vietnamese, would not distinguish the differences between "traditional Ancestor Worship" and Buddhism.
The word "Soul" might suggest that, in each human, there is some kind of eternal and unchanging entity, created by a supreme God.
The word "Nirvana" might suggest a kind of Paradise, where the deserving Dead would live happily, for eternity.
The phrase "Prayers for the Rest of the Dead" might suggest, that their Dead might not stay in a resting place . Instead, they could be in a kind of Hell, where residents would be miserable for all eternity.
The phrase "Prayers for the Accession of the Dead to Nirvana" might suggest, that the prayers of monks or relatives and friends, might help the Dead gain access to a kind of Paradise, which would be called Nirvana.
However, Buddha did not agree with all of the above.
The concept of God as been created by men, to satisfy their needs for the Absolute. On the other hand, Bouddha never claimed himself as God, or that he was inspired by God. He was only a human, who had been awakened.
The concept of "the eternal Soul" has been created by men, to satisfy their thirst for immortality.
Inside each human, in place of the soul, there would be a powerful and changing flow of positive and/or negative mental energies.
This flow results from his positive and negative actions, his thoughts, his personality, his ignorance, his attachments to beliefs, to ideals, his thirst for wealth, power, sex, his thirst to become, to continue, to grow, to be reborn, etc.
Upon his death, this flow of mental energies would be released from the body.
The nuclear energy of an atom generally remains in the nucleus of this atom. Heat, or thermal energy, produced by wood burning in a chimney, disperses and dilutes in the atmosphere.
The flow of mental energies, released from the body of the Deceased at his death, would remain concentrated.
Upon its release, this energy would move through space, and settle in the womb of a newly fertilized woman, (instantly, or within a maximum period of 49 days, according to some people).
This energy would be reborn as a new being. This new being would retain, in his new life, some characteristics of the previous life.
Once again, when this being would pass away, he would be reborn into a new being.
It's a seamless series, but one that changes every moment, like a flame that burns during the night: at every moment, it is no longer the same flame, but it is not another either.
A child grows up, he becomes a sixty-year-old man. It is obvious that this man is not the same as the child born sixty years before, but also he is not another person.
Nirvana would not be a place. It is defined as the state of Supreme Wisdom, which a human can only attain through his efforts, not through the help or prayers of someone else.
The concepts of Hell and Paradise would have been created by humans. There would be no God to decide what is right or wrong, and to send humans to Heaven or Hell according to their merits at their death.
Instead, Buddha taught the concept of Karma.
Karma is defined as the set of deeds, performed by a human during his past and present lives.
These natural effects could occur immediately after the actions or only a very long time after them. That would explain why they could reach this human in his present life or his rebirths.
Whatever the prayers of the monks, you cannot escape your Karma.
REAL BENEFITS OF PRAYERS
Despite the misconceptions of non-Buddhists, described above, prayers most certainly have a very beneficial impact, not on the Dead, but on the surviving close relatives of the Deceased.
By giving to others examples of good lives, monks encourage the good behavior of others: much compassion, much equanimity, little greed, and little aversion, etc. Pagodas are healthy places to socialize. Monks organize a lot of good deeds: teaching, helping orphans, the disabled, the sick, the old, the hungry, etc.
Monks need our donations to live. They deserve them, except in rare cases. These donations are collected mainly during the ceremonies of prayers for the Dead.
These ceremonies are also very beneficial for the spouse and children.. The Ceremonial period is a period of transition that allows them to mentally adapt to their new situation. During this period, they are often busy receiving family, friends, monks, and busy organizing events. During the day, they thus have less free time to think directly about the Deceased. At night, they sleep better, thanks to the fatigue accumulated during the day. All of this lessens their pain.
A hasty funeral, without prayers, would not allow them to turn the page. They would always feel like they had missed something. They would not have had enough time to show their Deceased all their affection, their gratitude, etc. If everything happens too quickly, without prayers, they could feel that they had not fully accomplished their duty.
The presence of extended family and friends, in person or by zoom, prayers, condolences, wreaths, donations to the Pagoda or charitable institutions, etc. are a great consolation for the close relatives of the Deceased. They feel comforted by this accompaniment of their pain.
In conclusion, the Prayers for the Rest of the Dead are unnecessary, according to Buddhist teaching, but in real life, they are very useful, psychologically and socially.
(Translation from the book "L’enseignement du Bouddha" of Author Walpola Rahula by Vũ Thiện Đắc)