In Sanskrit it’s called Ullambana, and is based upon a sutra of the same name. The premise is that we and the deceased are not separate, and that the thoughts we raise can benefit those around us.
So apart from the sincerity of the offerings, the parts of the ceremony that are chanted are also about compassion and understanding that we are not our bodies, (that they are composites that come and go) and so we are free to let go of those and be reborn at whatever level we choose.
And, as we internalize those truths (compassion, sincerity, and impermanence) and let them settle down within us, those beings we share a karmic connection with are also experiencing those truths. Because we know it, they do. Just intellectually knowing won’t do much good though, we have to input and let go of all of that to this very deep place where no fixed forms or concepts can survive. When we connect with this place, what we’ve input is communicated with all beings.
One of the big disadvantages about being dead is that, having no new sensory input, consciousness tends to “drift” along, stuck in whatever it was experiencing at the time of death, or in the very slowly changing karmicly conditioned states of consciousness.* So when we hold ceremonies like this, the purpose is to become one with the deceased, and, as they become one with our level, (which is hopefully focusing on these truths!) knock them out of the loop they were stuck in.
* If someone has experienced this inner light for themselves while alive, and is practiced at relying upon it, apparently “drift” isn’t a problem, because the person follows this inner light, instead of getting hung up in the various conditioned states of consciousness that arise.
My thanks to Roy, at Return to the Center, for getting me thinking about this topic.
The images are from the main Hanmaum Seon Center in Anyang, South Korea.