Uranbunjae (Kor. 우란분재, Chin. 盂蘭盆齋, lit. Ullambana purification) is a Buddhist ceremony in which food offerings are given to the monastic community in an effort to save the spirits of the dead suffering in hell, especially those of one’s ancestors. The ceremony is held on the Buddhist All Soul’s Day, or Baekjung (Kor. 백중, Chin. 百中, the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month), and constitutes one of the important events of the day in order to console the souls of the dead.
The ceremony most likely started as an effort on the part of Korean Buddhists to establish a way of expressing filial piety, one of the fundamental concepts of Confucianism. The concept had been a subject of conflict between the two ideologies since the introduction of Confucianism and its rise to the status of state ideology during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). According to the belief behind the Ullambana Ceremony, descendants’ devotion in this world helps lead the spirits of their deceased ancestors to the land of bliss. Uranbunjae is still performed today and follows the same rituals of the past.
On Baekjung Day, Buddhist followers gather together at a temple and have a large service in honor of their ancestral spirits during which they offer food and fruit and pray that Buddha guides their ancestors safely to the Buddhist utopia, the land of bliss. Unlike on Shakyamuni’s Birthday (Kor. 초파일, Chin. 初八日, the eighth of the fourth lunar month), which is celebrated with lotus lanterns, during Uranbunjae the followers light white lanterns as they comfort the souls of the dead.