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The Story of Maudgalyāyana in the Ullambana Sutra

Thus have I heard. At one time, the Buddha dwelt in the kingdom of Sravasti in the Garden of Anathapindika, the Benefactor of Orphans and the Solitary. Maudgalyāyana had just obtained the six penetrations. Wishing to repay the kindness of his parents for raising him, Maudgalyāyana used his Way Eye to observe the world and saw that his deceased mother had been reborn among the hungry ghosts. Not being able to consume any food nor drink, she was but skin and bones.

Maudgalyāyana felt deep pity and sadness, filled his bowl with food, and went to his mother to provide this bowl. Upon seeing this bowl of food, his mother habitually used her left hand to guard the food and the right hand to make a fist of food. But before it entered her mouth, it turned into burning coals which could not be eaten. Maudgalyāyana cried out in grief and wept sorrowfully. He hastened to return to the Buddha and described everything as it had happened for Buddha’s advice.

The Buddha said, "Your mother’s negative deeds are deep and firmly rooted. It is not within your power as a single individual to do anything about it. Although your filial devotion moves heaven and earth, the spirits of heaven, spirits of earth, harmful demons, masters of the outer paths, monks and the Four Heavenly King Gods are also without sufficient power. You must rely on the great spiritual power of the assembled sangha of the ten directions in order to obtain her deliverance. I shall now speak of the method of salvation, so that all beings in difficulty and trouble may leave sadness and suffering, and the obstacles caused by wrong deeds be eradicated."

The Buddha told Maudgalyāyana, "The fifteenth day of the seventh month is the Pravarana Day for the assembled sangha of the ten directions. For the sake of seven generations of ancestors, as well as for parents of the present and those who are in distress, you should prepare an offering of clean basins full of one hundred flavors and five kinds of fruit, and other offerings of incense, oil, lamps, candles, mattresses and bedding, all the best of the world, to the assembled sangha, those of great virtue of the ten directions.

On this day, the entire assembly of saints - those in the mountains practicing meditation and concentration, those who have attained the fruit of the four paths, those who practice pacing beneath trees, those who use the six penetrations to be free; those who teach and transform Sound Hearers and Those Enlightened to Conditions, and those who provisionally manifesting as Bhikshus when in face they are Great Bodhisattvas on the Tenth Ground who are complete with pure precepts and ocean-like virtue of the Way - all of those who are part of the holy assembly shall receive the Pravarana food. One who possesses fully the purity of the precepts and the Way of the assembly of saints obtain vast virtue.

When you make offerings to these Pravarana Sanghas, your current parents, seven generations of ancestors, and the six kinds of close relatives will escape from the three paths of suffering, and at that moment they will be liberated and clothed and fed naturally. If one’s parents are still alive, they will have wealth and blessings for a hundred years. The seven generations of ancestors will be reborn in heavens. Transformationally born, they will independently enter the celestial flower light and experience limitless bliss.”

At that time the Buddha commanded the assembled Sangha of the ten directions to recite mantras and vows for the sake of the donor’s family, for parents of seven generations. After practicing meditation and concentration, the Sangha accepted the food. When they first received the bowls, they placed them in front of the Buddha’s stupa. When the assembly Sangha had finished the mantras and vows they then individually received the food.

At that time the bhikshu Maudgalyāyana and the assembly of great bodhisattvas rejoiced and Maudgalyāyana's sorrowful tears ceased and the sound of his crying died out. At that time Maudgalyāyana's mother obtained liberation from one kalpa of suffering as a hungry ghost. Maudgalyāyana addressed the Buddha and said, “The parents who gave birth to me, your disciple, have received the power of the merit of the Triple Jewel because of the grand spiritual power of the assembled Sangha. If in the future the Buddha’s disciples practice filial devotion by offering up the Ullambana basins, will they be able to save their parents as well as seven generations of ancestors?” The Buddha replied, “Excellent! I am happy you asked that question. It is what I would like to speak about and now you have also asked about it.

Good man, if Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, kings, crown princes, great ministers, great officials, cabinet members, the hundred ministers, and the tens of thousands of citizens wish to practice compassionate filial conduct for the sake of the parents who bore them, as well as for the sake of the past seven generations of ancestors, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the day of the Buddha’s Delight, the day of the Sangha’s Pravarana, they all should place hundreds of flavors of foods in the Ullambana basins, and offer them to the Pravarana Sangha of the ten directions. They should vow to cause the length of their present fathers' and mothers' lives to reach a hundred years without illnesses, without sufferings, afflictions, or worries, and also vow to cause seven generations of ancestors to leave the sufferings of the hungry ghosts, to be born among humans and gods, and to have blessings and bliss without limit."

The Buddha told all of the good men and good women, “Those disciples of the Buddha who cultivate and practice filial devotion must in every moment of consciousness recall their present parents when making offerings, as well as the ancestors of past seven generations. Each year on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, out of filial devotion and compassionate consideration for the parents who gave birth to them and for seven generations of ancestors, they should always make a ullambana basin and donate it to the Buddha and Sangha to repay the kindness bestowed by parents in nurturing and caring for them. All disciples of the Buddha must carry out this law." Upon hearing what the Buddha preached, the bhiksu Maudgalyāyana and the four classes of disciples rejoiced and put it into practice.


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