Why did she have nothing to eat? Due to her karma, no matter what food she put in her mouth, it would turn into flames and burn her. When Maudgalyayana saw his mother suffering in the path of hungry ghosts with nothing to eat, he filled a bowl with food and went to the hells to give it to her to eat. What he had not counted on was that his mother’s karma was stronger than his filial piety. When his mother grabbed the food with her hand and put it into her mouth to swallow, it turned into flames. Maudgalyayana saw that although he had great spiritual powers, he had no way to save his own mother. Thus, he tearfully knelt before the Buddha to plead for help. The Buddha said, “Your mother’s offenses are such that you alone do not have enough power to save her. Because her karma is so heavy, on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, the Day of the Buddha’s Rejoicing and also the day of the Sangha’s Pravarana, you must set up Ullambana basins with all kinds of food, drink, bedding, and medicines to offer to the holy Sangha of the ten directions. Relying on the strength of the transference of merit made by the holy Sangha of the ten directions on behalf of your mother, she will be liberated and reborn in the heavens.
From the fifteenth of the fourth lunar month to the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month, cultivators refrain from traveling. This is called the summer retreat. During the summer retreat, all activities are stopped and cultivators dwell peacefully in one place. They do not go out on alms rounds, but just stay in a fixed place. Of course in the monastery, they continue to lecture sutras and speak the Dharma. It is only after doing a summer retreat that a monastic gains one year in the Sangha. If one does not do the summer retreat, one does not gain a year. This is one’s age in the Sangha. The Buddha told Maudgalyayana that if he wanted to rescue his mother, he had to do the Ullambana offering on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, which is the day when the Buddha rejoices, and also the day when Sangha members mutually share and discuss their experiences during the past three months, and evaluate their own practice. Sangha members very openly and freely discuss these issues. Maudgalyayana did as the Buddha instructed and established the Ullambana offerings, the merit and virtue of which enabled his mother to leave the hells.
Maudgalyayana subdued a venomous dragon which tried to prevent the Buddha from speaking the
Earth Store Sutra. The Buddha wanted to go to the Trayastrimsha Heaven to speak the Dharma for his mother, but halfway up Mount Sumeru, this venomous dragon spit poisonous sand to block the Buddha. Maudgalyayana engaged in a Dharma battle with the venomous dragon, and in the end the dragon was subdued and took refuge with the Buddha. When Venerable Maudgalyayana and Venerable Shariputra found out that the Buddha was about to enter Nirvana, they entered Nirvana before the Buddha did, because they could not bear to witness the Buddha entering Nirvana. Before the Buddha entered Nirvana, they departed first. This is a brief introduction to Maudgalyayana. If I were to explain the wonderful functions of his spiritual powers in detail, I would not be able to finish. Since language and time are both limited, I will just give this simple explanation.
A verse in praise says:
With utmost filiality, he served his mother.
With true sincerity, he took refuge with the Buddha.
He overcame a venemous dragon
And tried to save the Shakyan people.
Profound were his spiritual transformations,
Exceptionally profound, his prajna wisdom.
The Ullambana Dharma assembly began
Upon his request for the World Honored One’s help.
With utmost filiality, he served his mother. He was extremely filial to his mother, to the point that there could be no one more filial than him. That’s why, as soon as he attained spiritual powers, he wanted to rescue his mother.
With true sincerity, he took refuge with the Buddha. After he took refuge with the Buddha, he very sincerely and wholeheartedly, without any doubt or hesitation, took up the study of the Buddhadharma with single-minded concentration.
He overcame a venemous dragon / And tried to save the Shakyan people. He tried to save the Shakyan clanspeople when King Crystal was seeking to annihilate them. King Crystal and the Shakyan clan had been engaged in a blood feud, and debts of blood had to be repaid with blood. In a past life, King Crystal had been a king of fish in a pond, and his subjects were fish, turtles, shrimp, crabs. He and his retinue of fish lived in the river. The people in the village next to the river loved to eat fish, so they ate all the fish in the river, and finally they even caught the fish king. This happened a long, long time ago, and at that time Shakyamuni Buddha was also there playing. When he saw that huge fish, he took a stick and hit the fish on the head three times. The Buddha hit this fish in the formative stages of his cultivation, and this king of fish gave rise to hatred and vowed to seek revenge. Therefore, after Shakyamuni Buddha became a Buddha, he suffered a three-day headache because he had hit the fish three times. The Buddha also had to undergo the retributions of being injured by a spear and being fed horsefeed. Due to these past circumstances, King Crystal, the former fish king, led his followers to annihilate the clan of people that had eaten him in the past.
At that time, Maudgalyayana begged the Buddha to save the Shakyan clan. I believe Shakyamuni Buddha could not go against the workings of cause and effect to save the Shakyans. Maudgalyayana placed 500 Shakyans in his almsbowl and sent them to the heavens to escape harm. After the calamity was over, he brought them back. Although his idea seemed good, he didn’t understand the law of cause and effect. If Shakyamuni Buddha had explained to him at the time and said, “This is cause and effect. I cannot save them,” I believe that Maudgalyayana would not have tried to save them, either. Why not? Because if he did try, first, he would not be listening to the Buddha’s Dharma, and second, he would not believe cause and effect. Therefore, I think that at the time the Buddha kept silent, and Maudgalyayana mistakenly thought that the Buddha was being unselfish in not saving his own clan and that it was up to his disciple to save them. That’s why Maudgalyayana bravely sent the Shakyans to the heavens. He never expected that in the heavens, they would still turn into a pool of blood and could not be saved. This shows that fixed karma cannot be changed. This is the power of living beings’ karma, and even Arhats cannot ignore cause and effect.
Profound were his spiritual transformations. The transformations of his spiritual powers were inconceivable; ordinary people could not entirely fathom them.
Exceptionally profound, his prajna wisdom was very lofty.
The Ullambana Dharma assembly began / Upon his request for the World Honored One’s help. Ullambana is Sanskrit and is translated as “rescuing those hanging upside-down.” That is, when people’s offenses are too great, they are as if hung upside-down. This is a very uncomfortable punishment. Since the Venerable One’s mother was suffering, he asked the World Honored One, Shakyamuni Buddha, for help, and the Buddha told him that an Ullambana Dharma assembly could rescue his mother from the karmic offenses that made her be as if hanging upside-down.
Another verse says:
The most filial monk, Maudgalyayana, sought to save his mother.
When all beings leave suffering, his vow will then be fulfilled.
The splendid assembly dispels the karma of hanging upside-down.
A Dharma banquet is offered to the venerable sages and worthy ones.
All sentient beings gain liberation, and hungry ghosts, many as
Ganges’ sands, exit the hells.
He was the Arhat with the foremost spiritual powers.
The miracles in Burma are remembered through the ages.
The most filial monk, Maudgalyayana, sought to save his mother. He was a very filial monastic.
When all beings leave suffering, his vow will then be fulfilled. His vow will only be realized when all beings have found happiness.
The splendid assembly dispels the karma of hanging upside-down. The splendid Ullambana Dharma assembly can liberate beings from the karmic offenses that cause them to be as if suspended upside-down.
A Dharma banquet, the Ullambana, is offered to the venerable sages and worthy ones of the ten directions.
By virtue of this Dharma assembly,
all sentient beings gain liberation, and hungry ghosts, many as Ganges’ sands, exit the hells and are reborn in the heavens.
He was the Arhat with the foremost spiritual powers. Although he is foremost in spiritual powers in the Lesser Vehicle, he cannot compare to Bodhisattvas. “Arhat” is Sanskrit and translates as “worthy of offerings,” “slayer of thieves,” and “unborn.” Since it has three meanings, it is kept in Sanskrit and not translated. “Worthy of offerings” means he is deserving of offerings from humans and gods. “Slayer of thieves” means he slays living beings’ thieves of ignorance and afflictions. He is “unborn” because he has already awakened to and attained patience with the nonarising of dharmas or phenomena, wherein he sees that phenomena neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Thus he is known as an Arhat.
The miracles in Burma are remembered through the ages. Venerable Maudgalyayana displayed his spiritual powers in Burma. In Burma there’s a place with two stones--an enormous stone that probably weighs several tons, on which sits a small stone shaped like peach or a gourd. What’s so special about that? How is this a manifestation of spiritual powers? Although the bottom stone is very heavy, two people standing on either side on the stone could use string to pull the stone from left to right, and from right to left, showing that the stone is suspended in mid-air. This is a manifestation of the Venerable Maudgalyayana’s spiritual powers. The fact that there are so many Buddhists in Burma has to do with Maudgalyayana. A golden pagoda was built in Burma because of this, and Buddhists travel thousands of miles to make a pilgrimage to this pagoda. When we speak of it, this sounds pretty inconceivable.