Maudgalyayana and His Mother

The Great Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother from Hell is a Buddhist Legend about a monk who travels to heaven, hell, and back to save the soul of his mother from the depths of the deepest Hell. The story is a representative of the filial piety and family duty that defined Chinese Culture as early as the 9th century. It is also the Buddhist Canonical origin of the Avalamba “Hungry Ghost” festival which illustrates the Buddhist sentiment of interceding for the dead and accumulating good karma for one’s ancestors. The work discusses many spiritual and material themes such as Chinese/Buddhist ideas about the afterlife, the importance of family values, evidence for the support of charitable works, and an illustration of the Buddhist Pantheon of Heaven and Hell. The work elaborates the necessity to live life beyond human perspective and engage with the wholistic world both before and beyond the barrier of death. The study of Buddhism from a western perspective cannot be complete without an effective understanding of this work as it provides a view outside of the philosophical domain that many westerners are not privy to, showing the deeply religious and cultural impact that Buddhism had on China.

After searching through heaven and hell, petitioning the Buddha for aid in helping to reach his mother in the deepest of Aviccii Hells The Great Maudgalyayana (referred to hereafter a Mu-Lien) meets his mother. “Mu-lien embraced his mother, bursting into tears, and crying ‘this comes from not being a devoted son!’ (Ma 451).” In a prior conversation with the Yama King, a deity charged with ruling hell and judging the dead, analogous to Hades in Greek Mythology, Pluto in Roman Mythology, Anubis in Egyptian Mythology, but most directly related to King Minos in Inferno by Dante Alighieri, the Yama King responds to Mu-Lien’s inquiries about his mother with the confirmation that she was a wicked human. “Your mother committed many sins when she was alive; she was completely and utterly evil, and must have dropped down to [hell] (Ma 446).”

Breaking from the narrative, the story of Mu-lien and His Mother is one of the earliest depictions and detailed descriptions of the hells in Buddhism. When this story was written the dominant form of printing was through the use of Wood Blocks. This allowed depictions of the visceral tortures of individuals in hell to be portrayed and reproduced. This reproduction shows the various leveling in hells (such as the hill of swords) as well as the various punishments and actions which would cause one to receive the various tortures of hell. Representations of Hell provide a visceral reality to the living about what the possibility of their actions and karma could beget them.

Despite the Yama King’s confirmation of his mother’s internal evil Mu-lien weeps and blames himself for his mother’s punishment. The Chinese concept of filial piety or duty to one’s parents is clearly evidenced in Mu-Lien’s attitude toward his mothers suffering. “Filial piety is revealed as an act of love to the parent’s which children are supposed to show as their subordinates. It is therefore expected that in the actions of the children that a sense of responsibility and due care be revealed in their actions (Sanders).” Although no direct fault for his mother’s suffering can be seen on Mu-lien from a western perspective, he is to blame from the viewpoint of Buddhist Chinese Philosophy. By allowing his mother’s soul to be in such a shattered and tortured state it becomes his responsibility to rescue his mother. Another evidence for the importance of Filial Piety in this work is prior to the discovery of his mother in the lowest hell (Aviccii), Mu-lien finds a group of ghosts at the banks of the river crossing into hell (analogous to the Styx river in many western mythologies and belief systems).

“No, No! Don’t bow toward me. Good souls, who are you? Why are you all milling around here, Wandering about with nothing to do?

They replied, telling the monk: “It’s only because we have the same surnames and given names that our names were confused, and we were summoned here. We wandered around for a few days. Proven innocent, we were released, and then went home, But we had been buried prematurely by our families. To moan and bewail our fate does no good in the end. Please go to tell the men and women in our families, Tell them to perform good works to save the dead from misfortune (Ma 445).”

These ghosts are products of improper filial piety similar to Mu-lien’s mother. Through a combination of incorrect or premature burial these ghosts are lost and unable to move forward in life. They petition Mu-lien not to save them directly although he is in possession of many supernatural powers and artifacts given to him by the Buddha; they petition Mu-lien to have their living relatives save them through good works and the development of good karma. This solidifies the idea that filial piety had both a secular and religious purpose both before and after death. A child should embrace filial piety in life in order to prevent the dishonor of their ancestors which could result in their souls being denied heaven or punished in hell as well as to save the souls of their ancestors who have died. The extension of filial piety impacted the Chinese-Buddhist philosophy to be a matter of importance both during and after the lives of one’s ancestors ensuring that filial piety was a generation spanning concept and practice.

Mu-lien’s powers are incapable of rooting out the sin of his mother’s evil and he cannot rescue her from Avicii. Out of love for Mu-lien the Buddha harrows hell with an army of the heavenly host and rescues many of the souls trapped within. However, Mu-lien’s mother is not taken to heaven. Mu-lien again searches for his mother and finds her in the realm of hungry ghosts (analogous to the circle of Gluttony in the inferno). Inquiring to the Buddha as to why his mother is a starved ghost unable to eat or drink, the Buddha explains that her sins were too deep to purge completely. “Your mother cannot eat anything, and there is no way to over come this without first celebrating, one year from now, on the fifteenth day of the seventh moth the Festival of Avalamba. Only then can she begin to eat.” On the day of the Avalamba Mu-lien is told that his mother can receive the good works and karma built up for her and leave hell.

Expanding from the perspective of this Chinese-Buddhist legend to a more material perspective the Chinese Festival of the Hungry Ghosts originates from 9th to 8th century rural Chinese agricultural society, however festivals such as this pre-date the introduction of Buddhism to china. As with many agricultural festivals during the fall when the harvest was over (the 7th month according to the Chinese calendar), the decay of the world began. The onset of the winter was seen as a time of death when the life of the world would recede. At these times when death took hold of the world it was possible for the living to intercede for the dead and aid them. “The Buddhists took this opportunity to teach that those ghosts who appeared during this festival had a correlation to spirits from the Buddhist cosmos. They were pretas (hungry ghosts), poor souls who during their lifetimes had been greedy and cruel, and were now paying the price. In the afterlife they returned as tortured ghosts who could never sate their ravenous appetites (Kestenbaum). In order to do honor to the departed, these Harvest festivals were used to extend the good karma of the living to the dead. “The Buddhists believed that it was necessary to help these pretas, not by offering them food, but instead offering them another, Buddhist type of sustenance: prayers (Kestenbaum).” This combination of agrarian tradition, and religious philosophy connected the practical and religious perspectives of Chinese society in a communal unity in which the community joined together to celebrate not only the living in the bounty of the harvest, but the revival and renewal of the dead in the face of the end of the harvest and the onset of the winter.

Returning to the story of Mu-lien: After the Avalamba festival, Mu-lien’s mother is reborn as a dog. Instructed by the Buddha he begs at the doors of wealthy men until he finds his mother. Entreating his mother to do good works so that she can one day be reborn in heaven, Mu-lein continues to do Dharma work for his mother, through recitations of Buddhist hymns and saying, and through good deeds. “Dharma Work for the deceased is very important. It consists of the following four works: To thank our beloved ones for sharing their wonderful human lives. To look back at their beautiful virtues and personalities so that we can look at our own ways of living with reflection. To learn the impermanence of life and to be ready to accept the reality of life and death. To thank innumerable causes and conditions that allow us to live at this moment (Shoyo 2).” Through both the good works of his mother and himself Mu-lien’s mother is able to escape the cycle of rebirth and enter heaven with his father who lived a good life from the beginning. “Mu-lien saw that his mother’s sins were expiated and was overjoyed (Ma 455).”  Through the continual work of Filial Piety, Mu-lien’s immense effort to rescue his mother is completed. “The story reveals that even a momentary period of loving-kindness, compassion, caring, and wisdom (which is equal to non-anger, non-greed, or non-hatred) rescued even the hungry ghost mother who was full of anger, greed and hatred. (Shoyo 2).” The legend of Mu-lien illustrates both the importance of Filial Piety, but also the necessity for one to do good works in their life. Not only should an individual do Dharma work for the sake of their own souls; one should do Dharma work for the souls of others in order to increase the good karma of the universe and to help all beings to escape the cycle of rebirth and eventually attain enlightenment and nirvana. The tale of Mu-lien is a lifelong application and illustration of how the principles of Buddhism can affect the world; how it can be possible to not only live a good life for oneself but for the entire connected universe. The festival of the hungry ghosts while founded for the sake of one man’s mother is in no way limited to the rescue of related souls. It is a festival for the collected intertwined living to aid the collected intertwined dead, in this way transcending the secular idea of filial piety and attain the higher idea of interconnectedness preached in the Buddhist Sutras.

Western perspective has a difficult time accessing Eastern ideology that does not create a phobia or “us vs. them” mentality. The tale of Mu-lien and his Mother is a piece of Chinese-Buddhist literature and mythology that speaks to many cultural, religious, and secular themes inherent to Eastern culture, but it also speaks to many universal themes that the West can contextualize in their own history and culture. The many similarities between the Buddhist organization of Heaven and Hell, events such as the Harrowing of Hell by the Buddha and the Descent and Harrowing of hell by Jesus, as well as archetypal characters such as the Yama King and the General of the Five Ways provide an access point through which Western Perspective can access Buddhist and Chinese Culture without appropriating or dominating it. There are similarities between this work and the works of Dante, Milton, and other Western Writers, however the subject matter of the story and the cultural presence of Chinese Society cannot be easily ignored and so the Eastern Perspective can in no way be brushed to the side allowing for an understanding of Eastern Philosophy to come about through this piece. This legend illustrates a common humanity and attempts to answer one of the Big questions about life and death. This critically important piece can be used not only as a tool to teach Chinese culture the importance of concepts of filial piety, and the importance of dharmic works, but also to teach all peoples the importance of compassion, love, and kindness.

Word Count: 2089


Kestenbaum, Sam. Hungry Ghosts & the Teleporting Monk. June 30,           2010.

Ma, Y.W. Lau Joseph. Traditional Chinese Stories: The Great Maudgalyayana Rescues His    Mother from Hell. Cheng & Tsui Publishers. 2000 print.

Sanders, Annie. Mulian Rescues His Mother. January 29, 2019 web.

Shoyo, Taniguchi.  How Did Moggallana and Sariputta Rescue their Mothers from the Hungry            Ghost Realm?

Walsh & Kelly. Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs. Shanghai Publishers. Dover 1976 print.