The Congee Offerings
By Ven. Thich Nguyen Tang
This year, at the summer retreat, Vien Tu and Minh Hanh, the two novice monks, took turns to prepare the congee offering each evening. Many Buddhists were curious to know why the congee was offered but not the cooked rice or others. This article is writing about the congee services to the spirits.
The congee offering is a daily process that endows the spirits with the frumenty. It is an important labor taking a part in the Buddhist ceremony section as the tradition of Mahayana Buddhism practice. The question is why do we need to offer the spirits the congee? Indeed, this is a type of food donation to the spirits those have no place to go and could be able to take the offers, and to the spirits in the form of the hungry ghosts those have been mastered by evil karma created in the previous life. Hungry ghosts stay hungry always because of their continual and unsatisfied cravings, under the ugly body images with giant stomachs and tiny needle shape throats that make them could not swallow anything other than the broth. The congee services began when the Buddha was alive. There’s a story wrote in one section of a Sutra named “Phật Thuyết Cứu Diện Nhiên Ngạ Quỷ Đà La Ni Kinh“(Buddha Talking on Saving Hungry Ghosts Dharani) about Arya Ananda (1), an attendant of Buddha, as he was in deep meditation during the twilight closed to the morning. Arya Ananda saw a ghost in an ugly image with a green burnt face bore down on a tiny needle throat to a skeleton body along with the mouth spitting flames consistently. The zombie walked in and warned him that within three days he would die and become a hungry ghost. In extremely hurry and fear, Arya Ananda had asked the ghost that if there was a way of not to be in the situation. The answer was “Tomorrow, by early morning, you please offer some foods and drinks to the hungry ghosts along with the serving to the three Precious Gems in order to transfer the merit to help release the pain of lives in hell and hungry ghost realms, you then could earn some years to your life.” Arya Ananda came to Lord Buddha for the advice. Buddha said “Ananda, not too worry, I recall my past life, way back in uncountable eons, I was a Brahmin meeting Bodhisattva Avalokitesvera and had learnt and practiced a dharani named “Transforming the Food True Words” (Biến Thực Chân Ngôn) originally taught by Infinite Light Buddha (Vô Lượng Uy Đức Tự Tại Quang Minh Như Lai); I now want to pass this dharani to you for practice. If you recite it for seven times consistently in concentration then a miracle would appear at your observance that makes one course of the food become a banquet in rich of freshly fragrant variety so that all the spirits could come and receive''. (“Nhi Khoa Hiep Giai” translated by Venerable Khanh Anh). Then, Lord Buddha carefully showed how to comfort and save the hungry ghosts thru reciting dharani. The sutra was then named “Buddha Talking on Saving the Hungry Ghost Dharani” and has passed to China and Vietnam since the Buddhism first spread into these two countries. This year, for the summer retreat, Venerable Thich Huyen Ton had devoted his time to translate this well known dharani into Vietnamese for the Buddhists to study. This translation is publishing widely in Australia and other countries (it has been posted on Quangduc.com). A compliment to the remarkable point of this version is that the writing and the setup presented in all sections have made the readers feel like reading the sutra of the original language but not a translation. This is the first Vietnamese book that contains all information about the rites on food offerings to the spirits and is the best gift to life from Venerable Thich Huyen Ton.
Endowing the spirits with frumenty is required to perform at the altar table that worships Tiêu Diện Mahasattva who the Vietnamese like to call Sir Tiêu or Sir Ác (2). The reason for them to call him by those names is because of his face looks “bad”, half evil and half zombie. They want to distinguish him from Sir Thiện who has a “good” looking face. Sir Thiện is a Dharma Guardian, in parallel with Sir Ác both are located right in front of the Main Hall of each temple representing the protectors. Regarding the history of Tiêu Diện Mahasattva, I haven’t found a fiction or non-fiction in any book however, right since a little boy, I already heard roughly about his legend by my grandfather.
When I was seven years old, I followed my grandfather to An Duong Temple, a temple of Thai Thong Village which was away from our home for just ten minutes walk. My grandfather grew up during the time that Vietnam country was under the French Colonist Command. He was in service and sent to France for three years as a “green belt uniform” soldier and came back to the village in early of 1929. My grandfather spoke good French, wrote beautifully the Vietnamese words, and had broad knowledge about the stories of the ancient life as well. For his last years of life, he was guided by my brother, Venerable Thich Tam Phuong, to Long Son Temple for Taking Three Refuges with Venerable Thich Tri Nghiem (1911 – 2003) and obtained his Buddhist name Nguyen Truong. My grandfather passed away in the summer of 1986 under the ceremony of Buddhist Funeral served by Ven. Thich Tri Nghiem. In here, I would like to share with you a little journal of my grandfather in gratifying his kindness because of just him who first sowed the Bodhi seeds in me since I was a very young boy. My father died when I was little, my grandfather was the one I came closely to share my childhood; we often went together to the temple to worship Buddha. The most beautiful memory that makes me feel sweet and smile always is about his pretty umbrella, it protected us under the burning sunlight, really; I used to follow him and kept my feet contact to earn little happy shade!
I’m taking you back to An Duong Temple for a legend of Tiêu Diện Mahasattva. I saw his statue on the left of the temple and Sir Dharma Guardian on the right in parallel; I saw people worshipping them both and set the statues outside at the porch. I observed many sculptures over there but Tiêu Diện Mahasattva had mostly caught my attention probably because of his ugly outlook. I think you would agree with me about his face, it looks not only very unhappy but also horror. The face with three sharp horns, two grow on the top and one burst out at the forehead, along with the weirdly wide opened eyes popping out of the sockets right on the large mouth alongside by the two extending sharp canine teeth vamped down. The most nightmare item on the face is his tongue uncontrollably grown all the way down passing his chest! Once, I asked my grandfather that why his tongue was so long and didn’t stay inside the mouth? He started to narrate “Once upon a time, there lived a demon in a little shrine built on the hill in a village, it liked to eat people. Each morning, the demon went down the hill to kidnap the villagers for the flesh. More people were missing, more people died each day. The villagers were in the funk ever since they saw the bones stacked up high on a side of the hill. Yes, they were too fearful and no longer dared to pass nearby the deadly area. In the risk with no hope, the villagers just had one way to go was that setting up an altar table to pray in wishing if the Buddha or the Highest Heaven could hear and save them from the misfortune.
Guess what was a miracle? One morning, there’s an old lady, with a basket on her hand, went to the market by crossing the “deadly” hill; immediately, of cause, the demon jumped out and attempted to grab her for the fresh meat of the day but the old lady just disappeared. Within a blink, Bodhisattva Avalokitesvera showed right on and returned a favor. She grabbed that demon at its neck and lifted high, she squeezed more and more at the neck that made its tongue stick out of the mouth at a standstill half way down on the chest. Then, she seriously warned the demon: “You! Never ever again stay here to kidnap people for food. In stead, you must cultivate at the temple in the village where people come to worship and eat congee each evening from the offerings. Your responsibility is to supervise all the ghost species including the spirits those are under the state of intermediate body. Your job is to lead them to the right path, that is, doing all the good but not a single bad, and asking them to come to the temple for listening to the Sutras and Dharma Teachings so that they could release the evil karma for the rebirth.”
That is a story from my grandfather about Tiêu Diện Mahasattva, I am not sure that there is anyone has heard this legend. So far, there is no fiction or non-fiction in any book written about him that I am aware of. However, recently I read the translation prepared by Venerable Thich Huyen Ton about the food offerings to the spirits in “ Du Già Diệm Khẩu Thí Thực Khoa Nghi” (The Offerings to Flaming Mouth Ghosts Process by Yogacara) I then clearly understood the meaning of the above story. Right in the opening paragraph there is a phrase: “Diện Nhiên Mahasattva was another form of Bodhisattva, appeared at the foot of Ốc Tiêu Mountain, straightened out the issues with demon, offered food to forsaken spirits, to comfort and lead them to the right path for rebirth.” (Diện Nhiên Đại Sĩ, Bồ Tát Hóa Thân, Ốc Tiêu sơn hạ hiện chơn hình, kình phá thiết vi thành, đới lãnh cô hồn, bảo mãn tận siêu thăng). Via this message we could tell Avalokitesvera Bodhisattva and Tiêu Diện Mahasattva is the same person. In order to save the ghost species she had to engage herself in the form of a hungry ghost to stop them from eating people. In the end, she evangelized and brought them back to the right path.
Similarly to the process of Cooked Rice Offering to the Eagle Birds observed by the noon time, the Congee Process of Mông Sơn is offered in the evening and becomes an important tradition participating in the Buddhist ceremony section. For more than two thousand years the process is continued in preserve and maintained well at the temples. I recall, my Surfu (Master Thich Chon Kien) had told me a story about Venerable Thich Thanh Binh who was freshly promoted as Abbot of a small temple in a village of Thanh Minh Town in Truong Lac of Dien Khank District (outskirt of Nha Trang City). One day, he was too busy on the mission and had forgot an evening service to the spirits; right in the late night, there were hungry ghosts came and knocked the door of his room and asked for the food, he then immediately went to the kitchen to cook congee donating them. There are many other stories related to the forsaken spirits along with the congee offerings; there was an Abbot of a temple forgetting one evening that not to offer the spirits the frumenty, he woke up over night and found that he was put on the ground from his bed; other night, he heard the noise of the spoons and bowls striking each other in the kitchen with an attempt of asking for food. Therefore, the temples those practice the Mahayana Buddhism often donate the congee to the spirits during the twilight of each evening.
The forsaken spirits abounds with different kind, but mostly came from someone who were killed in the accidents, from the sudden deaths, from getting kill by someone, or from by the suicides. Generally, they came from the deaths those were not yet about time to be dead. The forsaken spirits also came from the deaths of who created the evil deeds such as defaming the Three Precious Gems, eating beings, especially continuing the unsatisfied cravings at the departure time. After leaving the body the soul is led by the karma that makes it could no go for the rebirth and becomes a forsaken spirit.
The congee offering method was first prepared and written by the Chinese Buddhist Masters. All the details were collected and organized in one book named “Du Già Diệm Khẩu Thí Thực khoa nghi“(The Offerings to Flaming Mouth Ghosts Process by Yogacara), the process is to practice in the long offering ceremony from three to seven hours to pray the forsaken spirits into rebirth which is called by the Vietnamese as “Pure Food Donations and Praying Conduct” (làm chay và chạy kinh đàn). This formal ceremony is often performed in the season of Umllambana, or on the inauguration day of the temple, or on the forty-ninth day of the death of a person in order to transfer the merit to a spirit for the rebirth. The ceremony is ended with a step called giving-away-to-people that means the coins, candies, other foods, and most of observed stuffs from the altar tables are tossed in air to allow people picking up freely. People believe that those special gifts will bring them a miracle because they have been vowed and prayed by the Master. People, of cause, work very hard to fight for the gifts, the luckiest person is one who could get Sir Tieu’ s tongue for the young kid in the family to wear at the neck for being safe and calm when sleep at night.
In short, the congee offering practice is a path to the cultivation as it expresses the compassion to the invisible beings. There are two services each day at the temple, one is processed at noon time to serve cooked rice to the Eagle Birds other serves congee to the Spirits in twilight evening. In fact, the food offering process is not only just the method of cultivation but also brings into the temple a life style with a full line of beauty from the Buddhist culture that all of us could earn. Moreover, the Dharma Universe that we are now in is much beyond the mankind’s imagination; everywhere beings are existed however, by our naked eyes, we just could see the forms within the limit that could sometimes lead us to a mistaken on the judgment of the spirits being around. The Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s by their Three Angle Highest Vision (Dharma eyes, Buddha eyes, Highest Heaven eyes) had observed the beings in all Three Worlds (3) and carefully taught us to get to know and to try understanding their pain so that we could prolong our compassion to comfort and to help these invisible species. In other words, if we still do not seriously respect the process of the offerings to the forsaken spirits and the process of praying into rebirth we definitely haven’t understood nor practiced enough the Teachings. Hopefully, we all exercise this ceremonial tradition as our daily labor no matter where on Earth and regardless under what circumstances.
Namo Amitabha Buddha
Prepared at Phap Hoa Temple, South Australia
For the Summer Retreat, July 14th 2007
By Bhikku Thich Nguyen Tang
Translated into English by: Helen Quang Tue Nguyen
1/ Arya Ananda: Arhat Ananda. He was an attendant of Lord Buddha’s, who had the excellent memory and wide erudition.
2/ Sir Tiêu or Sir Ác: Mr. Burnt Face or Mr. Evil Face
3/ Three Worlds: Desire World, Material World, and Formless World. We are the beings in the realm named “Human” of the Desire World which includes six realms in general. The forsaken spirits are in the woe realm named “Hungry Ghost”.