Monday, October 28, 2013

"The Ghost Stories" (Petavatthu)

Ashley Wells, Dhr. Seven, Amber Larson, Abbot Karunananda (Bodhi Vihara), Wisdom Quarterly; G.P. Malalasekera, Dictionary of Pali Proper Names  (Pali Text Society)
The "Brown Lady" ghost seen manifesting as ecstoplasm on the staircase (
Seance, circa 1920 (C2C)
PETA VATTHU: The seventh book of the Khuddaka Nikāya (The Miscellany) consists of stories of persons born in the peta (preta, ghost) world owing to karma manifesting as various misdeeds motivated by greed, aversion, and/or delusion.
Dhammapāla wrote on it a commentary called the Peta-vatthu-vannanā, or Petavatthu Atthakathā, which forms part of the Vimalavīlāsinī (GV.60), the commentary on the Vimāna Vatthu, which describes the splendor of various space abodes belonging to different devas, obtained by them as a result of meritorious karma performed in previous lives.
The Realm of Hungry Ghosts (peta loka)
The arhat Mahinda -- the son of the Indian Buddhist emperor Asoka, who together with his enlightened sister Sanghamitta traveled south as missionaries to Sri Lanka with a cutting from the original Bodhi tree the Buddha gained enlightenment under, which is the oldest documented tree in the world and the progenitor of most bodhi trees (Ficus religiosa, sacred fig or pipal) in Buddhist temples today -- preached the Peta Vatthu to Anulā and her companions on the day of his arrival in Anurādhapura, Sri Lanka (according to the island's own history, the Mahavamsa or "Great Chronicle" (Mhv.xiv.58).

What is a peta (Sanskrit preta)? Dr. Gabor Mate, the Canadian drug and addiction specialist, explains that it is a "hungry ghost." This refers to a poltergeist, a German term for a restless, unquiet, or "unclean" spirit, a banshee, a howler, a disturbance.

There are countless worlds. The Buddha categorized them into 31 general planes of existence. Their diversity is unimaginable. Consider, for example, the Animal Realm (tiracchana), which includes lazy tigers and hungry termites, slimy amoeba and my puppy Rocky, and more than a million other kinds of sentient beings. Such is karma that it leads to this specificity in impersonally doling out results.

The ancient Buddhist book that follows the Vimana-vatthu is the Peta-vatthu. It contains stories of beings in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, which is in this world but mostly goes unseen. Once when the Buddha's male disciple "foremost in psychic powers," corresponding to the chief female disciple with the same designation (Ven. Uppalavanna), Maha Moggallana surveys an area to find how the hungry ghosts there were reborn into that realm. One passage states, "This woman ate meat and deceived with a lying word" (Petavatthu 3.4). 
In another passage, a hunter kills deer and shares the meat with children every time he arrives back in town. In spite of his generosity, which when it comes to fruition will lead to fortunate and welcome results, the hunter is reborn as a hungry ghost because of murder -- killing of deer and butchering and distributing flesh (Petavatthu 3.1). 

Ghost of Borobudur (Winterlicht/
This happens not because killing animals leads merely to rebirth as a ghost -- it generally leads to far worse -- but because destination depends on when karma ripens. If it should ripen right at the moment of death/rebirth during what is technically called the "rebirth linking consciousness," it is a course of conduct that can lead to a miserable plane of existence, a world of torment far worse than the moderate "plane of deprivation" (apaya) ghosts exist on. The book also contains verses showing that the Buddha was offered vegetarian foods gathered and given out of compassion. Does this mean eating flesh (Dhamma Wheel) thereby causing and encouraging the captivity, cruelty toward, and killing of animals is unwholesome, unskillful behavior? Who can say?

What leads to rebirth in this miserable destination among ghosts? Missing the mark of upholding The Five Precepts:
  1. to abstain from taking the lives of living beings or encouraging others to harm,
  2. to abstain from taking what is not given or encouraging others to steal,
  3. to abstain from sexual misconduct or encouraging others to violate this precept (which Wisdom Quarterly spells out elsewhere from the sutras as having sex with people who are off limits and not as being what we might imagine in our guilt-ridden Christian-Catholic-Jewish context but rather, more generally, as harming others motivated by our sensual lust),
  4. to abstain from false speech (perjury, slander, harshness, babble) or encouraging others to speak falsely,
  5. to abstain from intoxicants that lead one to violate these precepts or encouraging others to become intoxicated occasioning heedlessness.

No comments: