service for deceased ancestors ［盂蘭盆］ ( ullambana; urabon): A Buddhist service in which offerings are made to the three treasures of Buddhism for the benefit of the deceased. Such ceremonies were conducted annually, usually on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. In Japan today, it is a Buddhist observance honoring the spirits of deceased ancestors, which is held July 13–15 (August in some areas). According to the Service for the Deceased Sutra, this tradition began with Shakyamuni’s disciple Maudgalyāyana, known as foremost in transcendental powers. That sutra states that Maudgalyāyana perceived with his divine eyesight that his deceased mother was suffering in the world of hungry spirits. He tried to send her food to ease her hunger by means of his transcendental abilities, but it turned into flames and instead burned her. Accordingly, he sought the advice of Shakyamuni Buddha, who urged him to make offerings to the monks on her behalf on the fifteenth day of the seventh month (the last day of the three-month rainy-season retreat, on which monks met and publicly acknowledged and repented of any violation of the precepts). Maudgalyāyana made offerings of food to the Buddhist Order as instructed, and his mother was relieved of her agony.
It is said that the first service for deceased ancestors was held in China in 538, and in Japan in 606. Some interpret the Sanskrit ullambana, which means “hanging upside down,” as a metaphor for the suffering that a deceased person is said to undergo in the world of hungry spirits. Hence the Buddhist observance was conducted to save the dead from that suffering. The Service for the Deceased Sutra is now regarded as having originated in China, as is the tradition of urabon, or the bon festival.