Monday, February 8, 2010

What is the "Realm of Hungry Ghosts"? (video)

Hungry Ghosts may be understood in terms of Buddhist cosmology or psychology: Whereas one makes them hard to believe in, the other is undeniable because it's us.

What does the book title In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts mean?
DR. GABOR MATE: It's a Buddhist phrase. In Buddhist Psychology, there are a number of realms that human beings cycle through. All of us. One is the Human Realm, which is our ordinary selves. The Hell Realm is that of unbearable rage, fear, terror, you know, these emotions that are difficult to handle. The Animal Realm is our instincts and our [hate] and our passions.

Now, the Hungry Ghost Realm, the creatures in it are depicted as people with large, empty bellies, small mouths, and scrawny, thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They're always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. That speaks to a part of us that I have, and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we're empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term. But we can never feel that, or fulfill that, insatiety from outside.

The addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time. And my point really is, is that there's no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There's just a continuum on which we all may be found. They're on it because they suffered more than most of us.

Can you talk about the biology of addiction?
DR. MATE: Sure, you see, if you look at the brain circuits of addiction -- and that's true whether it's a shopping addiction, like mine, or an addiction to opiates like the heroin addict -- we're looking for endorphins in our brains. Endorphins are the brain's feelgood, reward, pleasure, and pain-relief chemicals. They also happen to be the love chemicals that connect us to the universe and to one another.

A visit to the Hungry Ghost Realm, circa 1969, with petas before they became horribly disfigured by their all-consuming cravings and addictions (Rolling Stones).

Now, that circuitry in addicts doesn't function very well. As the circuitry of incentive and motivation, which involves the chemical dopamine, also doesn't function very well. Stimulant drugs like cocaine and crystal meth, nicotine and caffeine -- all elevate dopamine levels in the brain -- as does sexual acting out, as does extreme sports, as does workaholism, and so on.

Now the issue is, Why do these circuits not work so well in some people? Because the drugs in themselves are not, surprisingly, addictive. And what I mean by that is, is that most people who try most drugs never become addicted to them. And so there has to be susceptibility there. And the susceptible people are the ones with these impaired brain circuits. And the impairment is caused by early adversity rather than by genetics...

What do you mean "early adversity"?
DR. MATE: Well, the human brain, unlike any other mammal, for the most part develops under the influence of the environment. And that's because, from the evolutionary point of view, we develop these large heads, large fore brains, and to walk on two legs... Listen to more (4:20)

The Stories of Ghosts (Petavatthu) is a Theravada Buddhist scripture. It is included in the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali Canon's Sutta Pitaka. It is composed of 51 verse narratives describing how the effects of bad actions can lead to rebirth in the unhappy world of hungry ghosts (petas). Such rebirth takes place in accordance with the doctrine of karma. It also highlights the teaching that giving alms to very moral individuals in particular and monastics in general might benefit one's relatives who have passed away.

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