Mulian Rescues His Mother

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Template:Clone Template:Italic title Template:Chinese Mulian Rescues His Mother or Mulian Saves His Mother From Hell is a popular Chinese Buddhist tale originating in the third century CE, inspired by tales from India of Maudgalyayana, who is named Mulian in Chinese stories. Mulian, a virtuous monk, seeks the help of the Buddha to rescue his mother, who has been condemned to the lowest and most painful purgatory in karmic retribution for her transgressions. Mulian cannot rescue her by his individual effort, however, but is instructed by the Buddha to offer food and gifts to monks and monasteries on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which established the Ghost Festival (Template:Zh). The monk's devotion to his mother reassured Chinese that Buddhism did not undermine the Confucian value of filial piety and helped to make Buddhism into a Chinese religion.

The story developed many variations and appeared in many forms. Tang dynasty texts discovered early in the twentieth century at Dunhuang in Gansu revealed rich stories in the form of chuanqi ('transmissions of the strange') or bianwen ('transformation tales'). Mulian and his mother appeared onstage in operas, especially folk-opera, and have been the subject of films and television series. The story became a standard part of Buddhist funeral services, especially in the countryside, until the end of the twentieth century. The legend spread quickly to other parts of East Asia, and was one of the earliest to be written down in the literature of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.Template:Sfnb

A version of the legend substituting Mulian (Pali: Template:Transl) with his friend, Sāriputta, is recorded in the Theravāda Petavatthu and is the basis of the custom of offering foods to the hungry ghosts and the Ghost Festival in the cultures of Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos.[1]

The stages of the story

Indian myth becomes Chinese legend

The Indian ancient classic epic, the Mahabarata, includes the story of an ascetic who sees his ancestors hanging upside down in purgatory because he has not married and provided them with heirs.Template:Sfnb The Petavatthu, a Theravadan scripture in the Pali Canon, contains an account of the disciple Sāriputta rescuing his mother from her torment in hell as an act of filial piety. It claims to represent conversations that occurred during the lifetime of the Buddha but probably dates to the 3rdTemplate:NbspcenturyTemplate:NbspTemplate:Sc.[2]

The apocryphal Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra retells this story, but changes the protagonist to the disciple Moggallāna, known in Chinese as "Mulian". Mulian asks the Buddha how he can relieve the suffering his mother is enduring in her present incarnation as a hungry ghost. Prior to his enlightenment, both of his parents had died. His clairvoyance had found his father's new incarnation in the heavenly realms but his mother had been greedy with money he had left her, refusing to help the monks who passed by, and she had been reborn into Avīci, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Pretas. These had ravenous appetites but could not eat, either because food burst into flames upon their touch or because their throats were too thin and fragile. Mulian is informed that a tray of food offered to the community of monks and nuns at the time of their return from the summer retreat (i.e., on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month) will prompt them to offer prayers that will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors.Template:Sfnp

Buddhist tradition held that this was an authentic record of a conversation in the 5th centuryTemplate:NbspTemplate:Sc that had been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Dharmaraksa under the Jin at some point between Template:ScTemplate:Nbsp266 and 313.Template:Sfnp[3] The earliest attested celebration of the festival appears in much later sources, such as the 7th-century Record of the Seasons of Jingchu, and more recent scholarship finds that the sutra was a forgery[4] composed in China in the mid-6th century.Template:Sfnp Particularly Chinese phrases include the phrasing "divine eyes" used to describe Moggallāna's clairvoyance.Template:Fact The tale is possibly based on a Central Asian original[4] contained in the 4th-century Zengyi Ahan Jing translated into Chinese by the Kabuli monk Gautama Samghadeva during his residence in Chang'an.[3]

The tale was part of an ongoing process of reconciling Buddhism with Chinese ideas of filial piety.Template:Sfnb

Tang dynasty tales of karmic punishment and redemption

In the Tang dynasty, Mulian was a popular topic of sutra lectures by monks. They often used pictures and songs to amuse their illiterate audiences, enriching the Mulian story with many variations and making it thoroughly Chinese. The story-tellers shaped their stories to meet the charge that Buddhism undermined filial piety because it took believers away from their families and prevented them from attending to their ancestors. The written versions of these stories were bianwen, of which a large number were preserved in the library cave at Dunhuang, an oasis in Central Asia, and not rediscovered until the twentieth century.Template:Sfnb

File:Tortures of Chinese Buddhist Hell.jpg
Tortures of Chinese Buddhist Hell (including those who take money intended for temples [5]

The fullest and most important of these Dunhuang texts is "Maudgalyāyana: Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld, With Pictures, One Scroll, With Preface." Template:Sfnb In this text, Mulian's original name is "Radish", or "Turnip," typical Chinese nicknames, and his mother is Liu Qingti.Template:Sfnb

Before Radish became a Buddhist, he went abroad on business and gave his mother money for feeding monks and beggars. She stingily hides it away, and soon after Radish returns, dies and the Jade Emperor judges that she should be turned over to Yama, ruler of the underworld, and dropped to the lowest order of hell for her selfish deception. Mulian becomes a Buddhist and uses his new powers to travel to heaven. There his father informs him that his mother is suffering extremely in the Avīci Hell, the cruelest of the purgatories. Mulian descends and meets ox-headed devils who force sinners to cross the river to hell and to embrace hot copper pillars that burn away their chests. But by the time Mulian locates his mother she has been nailed down with forty-nine iron spikes. He seeks Buddha's help and is given a rod to smash prison walls and release the prisoners of hell to a higher reincarnation, but his mother is not released. Mulian's mother is reborn as a hungry ghost who can never eat her fill because her neck is too thin. Mulian tries to send her food by placing it on the ancestral altar, but the food bursts into flame just as it reaches her mouth. To rescue her from this torture, the Buddha instructs Mulian and all filial sons to provide a grand feast of "yülan bowls" on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the time when monks emerge from their summer retreat.Template:Sfnb When his mother is reincarnated once gain, this time as a black dog, Mulian recites sutras for seven days and seven nights, and his mother is reborn as a human again. In the end she is reborn again and can attain the joys of heaven.Template:Sfnb

Filial emotion is vivid in this version. Mulian's mother calls him "my filial and obedient son," while Mulian "chokes and sobs with his tears falling like rain." As in the Yulanpen Sutra, she only can be redeemed by group action of all the monks, not any one monk. Mulian, a good Chinese son, exclaims that the most important thing is "the affection of one's parents and their kindness most profound." As Guo puts it, by the late Tang, "the Buddhist embrace of filial piety seems to have been taken for granted..." and the way was opened for further synthesis in later dynasties".Template:Sfnb

The stories sometimes use earthy characterization.Template:Elucidate When Mulian's mother is reincarnated as a black dog, Mulian seeks her out and she concedes that she is better off than she had been as a hungry ghost. As a dog, she says:

"I can go or stay, sit or lie as I choose. If I am hungry I can always eat human excrement in the privy; if I am thirsty, I can always quench my thirst in the gutter. In the morning I hear my master invoking the protection of the Tree Treasures [Buddha, the Religion, and the Community]; in the evening I hear his wife reciting the noble scriptures. To be a dog and have to accept the whole realm of impurities is a small price to pay for never so much as hearing the word 'Hell' said in my ear."Template:Sfnb

In another version, "The Mulian Legend," Mulian's mother, Liu Qingti, had been pious but after her husband died took up sacrificing animals to eat meat, resorted to violence, and cursed. When she dies, the Jade Emperor judges that she should be sent to the underworld. Yama, ruler of the underworld, dispatches demons to take her, and she lies to them and to her son, saying that she has not eaten meat or done wrong things. The demons then take her away.Template:Sfnb

Later variations use Mulian's story for different purposes.Template:Elucidate In the thirteenth century Blood Bowl Sutra, for instance, Mulian's mother must swim in a bloody pool and drink blood to punish her for letting her menstrual blood flow into public waters which the Buddha drank it when his followers used it to make him a cup of tea.Template:Sfnb


The folk opera "Mulian Rescues his Mother" has been called "the greatest of all Chinese religious operas," often performed for the Ghost Festival on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. The performance "presented the mysteries of death and rebirth in scenes whose impact on audiences must have been overwhelming" and which taught the audience religious and moral values, though not always in orthodox form.Template:Sfnb

In the Ming dynasty, Zheng Zhizhen (Template:Lang-zh) (1518–1595), a native of the Huizhou, Anhui, village of Qingxi, Zhenyuan County, wrote the opera Mulian jiu mu xing xiao xi wen (Mulian rescues his mother).[6] According to local legend, Zheng was blind when he wrote the opera and was restored to full sight by a grateful Guanyin (the legend also has it that when Zheng later wrote a love story he went blind again). Zheng's opera places emphasis on Confucian family values.Template:Sfnb

Mulian in the twentieth century

On the mainland, after declining in popularity after the 1920s, the Mulian opera revived when it was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006. But even supporters in the People's Republic see the future as under threat from high-tech television and films. There are several further challenges. In the past, the opera was passed on orally through family troupes which kept their skills to themselves. However, these troupes no longer exist. The opera is difficult to perform. The ghost roles involve acrobatic skills which require years of training. Since it is a genre that has a small audience, performers require government support. Some observers point to signs for hope, however. While traditional village audiences have dwindled, some film stars and celebrities have taken up the art. Local authorities in Huangshan City, Anhui province, have also promoted performances as a tourist attraction.[7]

Anthropologists report that in Taiwan the Mulian story was used in funerals at least until the late decades of the twentieth century.[8] Seaman interprets the legend as reflecting attitudes toward women in village Taiwan. Since "because of their polluting nature, women cannot approach the deities who could help them to overcome the ties of karmic retribution caused by their sexuality," but "need men to act on their behalf..." [9]

Film and television adaptations

Among the many film and television adaptations is a 1957 version, starring popular actor Ivy Ling Po.Template:Citation needed





Further reading

External links

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