Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Hungry Ghosts" as Metaphor

Detail from Scroll of Hungry Ghosts depicting ghosts devouring corpses in a graveyard.
Hungry Ghosts and Rational Faith
(By John Remy, Posted January 28th, 2008)

"A few years back, I took a graduate course called 'Japanese Ghosts.' It was a fascinating blend of cultural, folklore, literary, feminist, political, and religious studies. One article argued against the common assumption among academics that the pre-modern world view was somehow less rational than our own and brought in hungry ghosts (Japanese: gaki 六道, Sanskrit: preta) to support this assertion.

"In medieval Japan, there were many influences on cosmology, but the Buddhist concept of the Six Realms of rebirth (rokudô 六道) was a powerful one. Depending on your karma in this life, you could be reborn into anything from paradise to hell, including the in between states of animals and hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts had a pretty bad lot. It wasn’t quite as bad as the many Buddhist hells, which included the familiar Christian themes of fire and brimstone and demons jabbing poor souls in the groin with pointy things, but one-upped them with creative tortures like drowning in pools of menstrual blood (apparently all women who reached puberty qualified for this punishment) and getting devoured from the inside-out by disease and insects (reserved for merchants who watered down their sake). Hungry ghosts got to hang out in our world, trying to force organic garbage, fecal matter, and dead bodies through impossibly thin throats into bellies swollen with hunger.

"Buddhism dominated the intellectual world of medieval Japan. It was of great antiquity, had been transmitted to Japan through the long established Chinese and Indian civilizations, and had a huge canon of complex philosophical and theological support. Given this intellectual framework (and the apparent lack of microscopes), it’s not surprising that some Japanese speculated that hungry ghosts were responsible for nibbling at feces, corpses and last week’s bad tofu. This happened even when you protected the repugnant stuff from insects. Something had to be eating at it, and Buddhism provided yet another convenient and entirely rational explanation for the unseen world...." (Read entire post, view scroll: SOURCE).

A worshipper dressed in a costume as "Ba Ye" dances during the Cheng Huang Ye parade as part of the Hungry Ghost Festival or "Zhong Yuan Jie" in Hsinchu August 26, 2007. It is believed by worshippers that the gates of Hell are opened during the month and the dead ancestors return to visit their relatives. The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated every year during the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar (Reuters).

"In Tibetan Buddhism, 'hungry ghosts' (Pali petas; Sanskrit pretas) have their own realm depicted on the Wheel of Life (Bhava-cakra). They are represented as teardrop or paisley-shaped with bloated stomachs and necks too thin to pass food. Attempting to eat is therefore incredibly painful. Some are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain." This is a metaphor for people futilely attempting to fulfill their illusory physical desires.

The idea of ghosts in many cultures and religions seems over emphasized -- given that we do not often SEE ghosts, if at all. The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Chinese meditation classic, states that "If we do not meditate for a day, then we become a ghost for that day." This stuck with me, as I have always had trouble keeping my daily practice consistent. This idea implies that if we do not practice becoming closer to our natural physical bodies, we enter a "ghost world" of floating bodiless. And we're "hungry ghosts" because a lack of meditation will condition our hungry desires to surface.

This has illustrated the world of "hungry ghosts" a lot better for me, and it puts the mystical idea into a practical, observable context. It seems one frequently encounters "hungry ghosts" in society, who encourage us to leave our physical body behind and drift with them looking for trash to "eat." (Source: Wikipedia &

Recent Chinese-American celebrations, San Gabriel, California

Original Concept of Hungry Ghost

(Petavatthu 1.5 translated by Ven. Thanissaro,

Outside the walls they stand,
and at crossroads.
At door posts they stand,
returning to their old homes.

But when a meal with plentiful food and drink is served,
no one remembers them:
Such is the karma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives
give timely donations of proper food and drink
— exquisite, clean —

[thinking:] "May this be for our relatives.
May our relatives be happy!"
And those who have gathered there,
the assembled shades of the relatives,
with appreciation give their blessing
for the plentiful food & drink:
"May our relatives live long
because of whom we have gained [this gift].
We have been honored,
and the donors are not without reward!"
For there [in their realm] there's
no farming,
no herding of cattle,
no commerce,
no trading with money.
They live on what is given here,
hungry shades,
whose time here is done.
As water raining on a hill
flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water
fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
they were my relatives, companions, friends":
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus
on things done in the past.
For no weeping,
no sorrowing
no other lamentation
benefits the dead
whose relatives persist in that way.
But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha,
it works for their long-term benefit
and they profit immediately.
In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown,
great honor has been done to the dead,
and [monastics] have been given strength:
The merit you've acquired
is not small.

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