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Mokuren (目連 (C. Mulian, S. Maudgalyāyana)

The protagonist of the Ullambana Sutra (Urabonkyō 盂蘭盆經), an apocryphal text (i.e. one that claimed to be a translation of an Indian Buddhist sutra but was actually written in China) that provided a scriptural basis for the mid-summer ghost festival, which became popular in medieval China and is still celebrated all over East Asia. According to the sutra, Mokuren was one of Shakamuni Buddha's ten great disciples, a monk who was known for his magical power. Being a good filial son, he made the usual ancestral offerings of food to his deceased parents and assumed that all was well with them. One day, however, he decided to use his magical powers to check up on them in the afterlife. Mokuren saw that his father had achieved a favorable rebirth as a brahmin, but was shocked and distressed to discover that his mother had become an emaciated hungry ghost. She could not eat the ancestral offerings that he gave to her because, due to her bad karma, the food burst into flames every time she brought it to her mouth. In despair, Mokuren asked Buddha for help but was told that his mother had accumulated so much bad karma that she could not be saved by the actions of just one person. Buddha recommended that on the fifteenth of the seventh month, when the three-month-long monastic retreat is over and the monks are replete with good karma, Mokuren should make offerings of food to them. The merit from that good deed, which tapped into the vast merit created by the Buddhist sangha (monastic order) itself, could then be successfully dedicated to his mother. The spiritual power of the sangha, in short, could ensure that the traditional offerings of nourishment got through without bursting into flames. Moreover, the sutra argues, offerings to the sangha at the end of the summer retreat is the best way to save one's parents and ancestors for seven generations from the three worst of the six rebirths. After Mokuren followed these instructions, his mother was reborn out of the path of hungry ghosts. This basic story of Mokuren was further elaborated in folklore and drama in China, where it informed the assembly for feeding hungry ghosts (segaki e 施餓鬼會), also known as "saving the burning mouths." The Mokuren story, ghost-feeding rituals, and associated beliefs and practices all found their way to Japan by the eighth century. They survive today in the context of the Bon festival. →"Bon festival," "hungry ghost."