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Barbara O'Brien

Who Are the Hungry Ghosts?

By August 9, 2012

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I've been going on about the Six Realms but haven't yet mentioned hungry ghosts. And, y'know, summer is hungry ghost season in much of Asia. In parts of Japan, the hungry ghost observance Obon is held in mid-August (or mid-July in other parts). And in China, this year's hungry ghost festivals will be late in August.

In Buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts are creatures with big, empty bellies, straw-thin necks and tiny mouths. They are desperately hungry but cannot eat. Even if they are given food, the food turns into blazing coals or blood or pus before they can eat it.

As explained in earlier posts, you can think of the Six Realms as realities we create for ourselves out of our own mental projections. Basically, the realms are who we think we are and what we think life is supposed to be. Most of the realms are marked by some kind of insatiable desire. What sets hungry ghosts apart?

Hungry ghosts often are compared to people with drug and alcohol addictions, and I think that's valid. But on reflection, there may be another way to define them, to contrast them with beings living in other realms.

In other realms, people strive for something that's always just out of reach. Or, they may achieve what they desire, but soon they are dissatisfied and want something else. But for hungry ghosts, there is no satisfaction, even for a moment. The craving is their only reality, and they have no hope that life will ever be otherwise.

The origin of hungry ghost festivals can be found in a Mahayana scripture called the Ullambana Sutra. In this sutra, the Buddha's disciple Maudgalyayana learned that his mother had been reborn as a hungry ghost. Food turned into burning coals before she could eat it. . Maudgalyayana went to the Buddha to learn what he could do for her.

The Buddha told his disciple to fill clean basins with fruits and other food, along with offerings such as incense and candles, and place them in front of an altar. Then the sangha could assemble and chant on behalf of the hungry ghosts. Food presented in this way would satisfy the hungry ghosts.

The Zen ceremony performed on behalf of hungry ghosts is called the Gate of Sweet Nectar. One of the poignant aspects of this ceremony is that offerings of food and flowers are made on a special altar set up some distance from the main altar. This is done, I am told, because hungry ghosts are afraid of the Buddha.

So the answer to "Who are the hungry ghosts?" would be, those who are hopelessly lost to unsatisfiable craving and who are afraid, or somehow feel unworthy, to ask for help. Hungry ghosts can also metaphorically represent all of our unending cravings.

Comments
August 11, 2012 at 9:29 pm
(1) Tanukisan says:

Would hungry ghosts also be people who insatiably crave power and/or wealth? I’ve often wondered if people like Rupert Murdoch fall into this category, as they seem incapable of ever having enough of either.

August 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Tanukisan — I don’t know Mr. Murdoch personally, but he strikes me as more of an asura than a hungry ghost. All of the realms are marked by some kind of desire, and the money/power axis usually belongs to devas and asuras.

August 13, 2012 at 3:10 am
(3) Paul UK says:

We must not forget though that the psychology interpretation we give to the six realms was originally an innovation of Trungpa Rinpoche to make the six realms more palatable to western middle class intellectual ordinances. These realms/worlds/dimensions, whatever we may like to call them are actual places where a sentient being may take rebirth, & that the Wheel of Life is a pictorial representation of the psychological processes that take place leading to such states depicted at the outer edge of the Wheel of Life. SOHA !

August 13, 2012 at 7:04 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

We must not forget though that the psychology interpretation we give to the six realms was originally an innovation of Trungpa Rinpoche to make the six realms more palatable to western middle class intellectual ordinances.

That’s not entirely true. I have read centuries-old commentaries on the Six Realms that clearly were describing what we would call “psychology” today. I think within Tibetan Buddhism Trungpa may have been a bit of a trailblazer, but Asian teachers in some other schools had long been moving in that direction generations before Buddhism came to the West.

These realms/worlds/dimensions, whatever we may like to call them are actual places where a sentient being may take rebirth

Again, many schools of Buddhism in Asia stopped thinking of the Six Worlds in that literal way generations ago. Back in the 13th century Dogen described the various kinds of beings perceiving reality differently because of their different mental projections, not because they were living in different worlds. By the 17th century educated Asians, including many Buddhist teachers in Asia, had come to understand that the old Mount Meru cosmology was metaphorical, not literal, and they began to interpret the various “worlds” as something like mental projections and not actual different worlds. Tibetan Buddhism was late getting to that picnic, so to speak.

August 13, 2012 at 3:28 am
(5) Paul UK says:

A topic for an interesting blog maybe is, “Is it easy to become enlightened than it is to get lineaged”

An important subject considering the power games often played out in Buddhadharma these days, and all the problems this leads to, though this could be an unpopular & uncomfortable issue for some, as I have found to my cost when trying to breach this issue.

August 13, 2012 at 7:20 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

A topic for an interesting blog maybe is, “Is it easy to become enlightened than it is to get lineaged”

Does this relate to hungry ghosts?

An important subject considering the power games often played out in Buddhadharma these days, and all the problems this leads to, though this could be an unpopular & uncomfortable issue for some, as I have found to my cost when trying to breach this issue.

I don’t know what you mean by “these days.” There have always been power games being played out in Buddhist establishments, going back to the time of the Buddha. Things actually are a lot tamer than they used to be.

August 13, 2012 at 11:19 pm
(7) Paul UK says:

Well Barbara, then Dogen was wrong, simple as that. The six realms are places not psychological states in the human world.

Eh, no, second post obviously does not relate to hungry ghosts, doh !

August 14, 2012 at 7:12 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Well Barbara, then Dogen was wrong, simple as that.

A little humility might be in order here. Dogen was one of the greatest Zen masters of all time. Only a fool would say “Dogen was wrong” out of hand. I say you are wrong, and clinging to some fundamentalist idea as you are doing is an impediment to genuine understanding.

August 13, 2012 at 11:21 pm
(9) Paul UK says:

Uncomfortable though lmao.

August 14, 2012 at 8:03 am
(10) Paul UK says:

Somehow I don’t think Dogen would give a flipping hoot !

Well, most would consider Theravadin to be the closest to Lord Buddhas original Teachings, as far as is possible anyway, and the Buddha most definitely taught the six realms as actual places sentient beings may be born, said subject has always been taught such, though you zennie types may be different.

Six realms as psychological states is Watered down Dharma.

August 14, 2012 at 10:16 am
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Somehow I don’t think Dogen would give a flipping hoot !

Your judgment on the matter is highly suspect.

August 14, 2012 at 10:22 am
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Six realms as psychological states is Watered down Dharma.

I say the opposite is true; believing in separate physical realms is watered down dharma, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha taught in a way to instruct the audience in front of him, limiting himself to what they could understand, and he was teaching to people of 25 centuries ago. The last thing he intended was for any of his sermons to harden into dogma that had to be accepted on faith by all generations to come. And your literalist view smacks of materialism.

When I talk about mental projections I’m not just talking about psychological states; that’s your term, not mine. See Mila’s explanation. See also Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.

August 14, 2012 at 8:03 am
(13) Paul UK says:

Somehow I don’t think Dogen would give a flipping hoot !

Well, most would consider Theravadin to be the closest to Lord Buddhas original Teachings, as far as is possible anyway, and the Buddha most definitely taught the six realms as actual places sentient beings may be born, said subject has always been taught such, though you zennie types may be different.

Six realms as psychological states is Watered down Dharma.

August 14, 2012 at 9:15 am
(14) Mila says:

RE: “Six realms as psychological states is Watered down Dharma.”

Well, maybe — if, for instance, this kind of teaching is used to deny the existence of subtle (or even not-so-subtle) realms of existence that most of us simply do not yet — because of various mental/emotional obscurations — have the capacity to perceive.

But …. IMHO it’s just as legitimate to claim that: the Six Realms as “objective” (as in, independent of our individual and collective perception/cognition of them) Newtonian space-time “locations” is watered-down Dharma.

In other words, making a rigid distinction between “psychological” — as something that happens “inside of” a human bodymind — and “objective” — as something happening “outside of” or independent of a human bodymind — is something that Mahayana Buddhism (Dogen included, as far as I can tell :) ) calls into question.

Also good to keep in mind that much of what is recorded in the Pali Canon are teachings that were intended as provisional not ultimate teachings — and I take some of the more “fire and brimstone” renderings of the various hell realms, for instance, to be intended for specific audiences — and not as the ultimate truth of the matter.

August 15, 2012 at 2:26 am
(15) Paul UK says:

@Barbara. Oh I love your rhetorical diatribe, though I prefer the term “useless sophistry”, people may pontificate to their hearts content & still find no scriptural reference to the six realms being psychological states (or what ever term you prefer, is mind states ok ?).

Barbara I ask you a simple question, do the six realms exists or not, no bovine schatology now, its a simple question !

Also Barbara you keep using the expression “…in Mahayana Buddhism…”, what exactly do you mean by this, your interpretation ? Plus you call me “fundamentalist”, very funny, what exactly is a fundamentalist Buddhist (I giggle in anticipation of your answer), an emotive word used to try to invalidate what I say maybe ???

@Mila. “provisional” ah, a standard Tibetan answer but with no real historical backup, oh us Buddhists need a reality check at times ! Linguistic analysis clearly shows that Sanskrit Mahayana Sutras are written centuries apart from each other…….its so obvious that it screams at us but faith & fear of vajra hell makes us say otherwise eh ?

THE TRUTH SHOULD INFORM OPINION NOT OPINION THE TRUTH.

The sound of one hand clapping? A man with one arm. Bugger me I`m enlightened !

August 15, 2012 at 7:33 am
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

find no scriptural reference to the six realms being psychological states (or what ever term you prefer, is mind states ok ?).

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that everything you see as “real” is a mental projection. The chair you are sitting on right now is a mental projection, neither real nor not-real. This is basic Mahayana; elemental Madhyamika and Yogacara. If you are practicing in a Mahayana school and no one is teaching you this, find another teacher. If you are practicing in Theravada, then we’ll just have to agree to disagree, I suppose. But all of the major Mahayana sutras I know of reflect this view. So there’s your scriptural reference, unless you are going to argue that while your chair neither exists nor does not exists, the six realms DO exist. Which would be weird.

Barbara I ask you a simple question, do the six realms exists or not, no bovine schatology now, its a simple question !

I can’t believe you’re asking about whether the six realms “exist.” Basic Madhyamika — phenomena neither exist nor do not exist. Brush up on your prajnaparamita basics, dude.

Also Barbara you keep using the expression “…in Mahayana Buddhism…”, what exactly do you mean by this, your interpretation ?

There are two major schools of Buddhism today. They are called Theravada and Mahayana. The differences between them all boil down to a different understanding of the nature of existence. Mahayana is mostly built on the foundation of Madhyamika, a philosophy attributed to the sage-philosopher Nagarjuna, ca. 2nd century CE. Madhyamika means “middle way,” and in this case it is a middle way between affirmation and negation; i.e., that phenomena can be said to exist, or not. This is sunyata taken to a local conclusion, in a way. Then a century or two later the yogacara school came along. I think Mila has spent more time with yogacara than I have, so I would defer to her explanation of it, but very very simplified, yogacara teaches that the mind only is real, and all of what we think is “reality” is mental projection. And I add that you have to spend a lot of time soaking in this before it clears up; these are difficult teachings.

This is why we keep going on about Mahayana Buddhism. In Zen, if anyone but a newbie were to ask if anything were “real,” you’d get your mouth washed out with soap, so to speak. All schools of Mahayana are schools of Madhamika as well; the degree to which yogacara is an influence varies a bit. Both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism are thoroughly infused with both Madhyamika and Yogacara, although some sects of both stress one over the other.

Plus you call me “fundamentalist”, very funny, what exactly is a fundamentalist Buddhist (I giggle in anticipation of your answer), an emotive word used to try to invalidate what I say maybe ???

Fundamentalist as in rigidly stuck in the literal meanings of texts, without real understanding. The original meaning of “fundamentalism” in Christianity was that one accepted a certain set of doctrines considered “fundamental,” and a primary one of those was that everything written in the Bible is literally true. Even in Theravada Buddhism it is understood that we’re not to believe things just because they are written in books, but instead look to our own direct insight for answers. (See Kalama Sutta.)

@Mila. “provisional” ah, a standard Tibetan answer but with no real historical backup

Again, your comment reflects a profound ignorance of Mahayana Buddhism and how it developed. All teachings are provisional. That’s not just Tibetan Buddhism; that’s all of Mahayana. That’s how the dharma wheel could be turned three times. The first turning, the teachings recorded in the Pali Tipitika, are said to be crude conceptual approximations of the nature of enlightenment; sort of the introductory course. The next turning was the sunyata/prajnaparamita teachings, which came to light a few centuries later when humankind was ready for it, and the third turning was the doctrine of Buddha Nature. But even as individuals in most schools of Mahayana, one is told over and over again to not ever accept any understanding as final, absolute truth; there is always something more to be understood. Hence, all teachings are provisional.

THE TRUTH SHOULD INFORM OPINION NOT OPINION THE TRUTH.

I’m beginning to think Buddhism is not the right spiritual path for you. Basic Buddhism: do not cling to opinions. If you want a path that just gives you books that explain everything so that you don’t have to struggle with realization, try any of the Abrahamic religions. It’s what they’re about.

Seriously; this is kindergarten level stuff. Considering yourself to be a Buddhist in the Mahayana tradition, and then saying that all of the wisdom teachings are nonsense and we must stick only to what’s in the Pali texts and believe them without question, is a bit like being an astronomer who thinks Copernicus was wrong about the earth revolving around the sun. It’s unreal, in other words. I’m happy to discuss teachings with people to clear up understanding as best I can, with the understanding that I’m still a student, too. But I really don’t have time to re-explain the wheel every day to someone who refuse to acknowledge torque.

August 15, 2012 at 3:53 am
(17) Paul UK says:

Mind, body, feelings, and phenomena are empty. Yet undeniably Angelina Jolie is hot. When you can comprehend the emptiness of mind, body, and feeling, and the hotness of Angeline Jolie, Then the ten thousand things will pass through the gate.

Haha, ya gotta luv zen !

August 15, 2012 at 7:36 am
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Hotness” is a good example of what I call mental projection; it is not a quality intrinsic to Ms. Jolie. She’s not “hot” to me, for example. I doubt she is “hot” to most schnauzers, or to a guppy.

August 15, 2012 at 8:35 am
(19) Mila says:

“I doubt she is hot to most schnauzers, or to a guppy.”

LOL :D …. but guppies love bread-crumbs!

August 15, 2012 at 10:35 am
(20) Paul UK says:

Phew ! Where does one start. First of all my last post was obviously a joke & was not even expecting a reply, oh dear me.

As for your reference to the Mind Only school, I dont know enough to say anything concerning the Zen view, but can assure you different Tibetan traditions have different takes on this, some minor some not, as Mila could no doubt inform you. Things being a mental projection does not mean things do not exist, there is data out there, just we usually never have a true pramana, a valid pramana yes, but not true. Plus Gelukpa Madhyamika Prasangika rejects Yogacara unless maybe taking a shentong vantage.

Things do nominally exist, called relative (deceptive) reality as opposed to ultimate (true) reality & Madhyamika is simply the process we use to deconstruct (as it were) the tendency we have to reify things, standard Geluk teachings, so go argue with Lama Zopa & such if you wish.

And , oh please, spare me the sarcy history lesson.

Fundamentalist as in rigidly stuck in the literal meanings of texts, without real understanding

Oh please ! Some teaching in Buddhadharma are fundamental, & I dont appologize for using this word, eg. Four Nobles truth, selflessness, dependent origination, emptiness, rebirth, & of course my favorate, karma

.All teachings are provisional

The closest we have to what the historical Buddha taught is the Theravadin school, like it or lump it, no profound ignorance there. Later Mahayana schools called the Theravadin Hinayana as an insult to imply lowness/meaness which is what the word originally meant (see Achan Brahmavamso) & used the term provisional teaching implying their own tenets were superior Basic history here, no ignorance.

of being childish.

August 15, 2012 at 11:35 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

Things being a mental projection does not mean things do not exist

Please actually read what I write before you respond to it. In reference to Madhyamika teaching, which pervades all of Mahayana, it is equally incorrect to say that things exist and to say that things do not exist. This is basic, beginner-level Nagarjuna, and I know full well that Geluk understands it that way. This teaching points to an understanding of “existence” that cannot respond to a question of what is “real” or not. The fact that you would ask such a question tells me you don’t get it. You recite words back at me without understanding.

The closest we have to what the historical Buddha taught is the Theravadin school, like it or lump it, no profound ignorance there.

Paul: If you are going to limit your understanding to the Theravadin school, then just drop out of this argument. We are talking about Mahayana understanding. If you want to say that Mahayana is invalid then just say that, and as I said, we’ll have to agree to disagree. But don’t lecture me that Chogyam Trungpa was the very first Mahayana teacher to describe the Six Realms as mental projections, because that is absolutely not true. Further, you lack the credibility to declare persuasively which of the great teachers of the past were right or wrong. Just say you see things otherwise, and let it drop.

I find your comments rude and childish, also, and am of a mind to begin deleting them if you don’t behave. If you want to say that you agree or disagree with a teaching that’s one thing, but to hand down judgments that if we don’t agree with you we are just wrong is offensive.

August 15, 2012 at 10:38 am
(22) Paul UK says:

The truth should still inform opinion & not opinion the truth.

EXAMPLE: Christians & Muslims are of the opinion that a creator god exists. Buddha was AETHEIST through & through (you`ll have fun with that one). So its either true that god exists or true that god does not exist. I`ve never seen any madhyamika teach there is no such thing as Truth, if you can quote then by all means do so, same concerning the six realms, quote, quote, quote.

Please spare me the patronism ! Its unbecoming of you & unnecessary so the rest of you post I will not address on the grounds of being childish.

August 15, 2012 at 11:48 am
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

I`ve never seen any madhyamika teach there is no such thing as Truth

Diamond Sutra, section 7, A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam translation:

Subhuti, what do you think? Has the Tathagata attained the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment? Has the Tathagata a teaching to enunciate?

Subhuti answered: As I understand Buddha’s meaning there is no formulation of truth called Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment. Moreover, the Tathagata has no formulated teaching to enunciate. Wherefore? Because the Tathagata has said that truth is uncontainable and inexpressible. It neither is nor is it not. Thus it is that this unformulated Principle is the foundation of the different systems of all the sages.

In conventional thinking, it may be perfectly logical to say “So its either true that god exists or true that god does not exist.” And I tend to put god in the same boat with unicorns and zombies also. But if you are equating “truth” with what is material or factual, this tells me you understand nothing. What we conventionally think of as “truth” neither is nor is not.

August 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm
(24) Paul UK says:

Oh what’s the point.

On a relative level then the six realms exist, I see no reason to apply madhyamaka reasoning at this level. The fact is the Buddhist teaching are permeated with teachings on the six realms, lamrim from gelukpas, Lamdre from sakyas, Gampopas Jewel Ornament from kargyupas, Words of my Perfect Teacher from nyingmas, all containing extensive explanations on the six states of existence plus karma teachings explaining how being take rebirth in them & how to avoid them, these are NOT provisional teachings.
Plus it’s commonly taught that beings in the upper realms are as dirt under ones nail & beings in the lower realms as dust motes on the earth. And not to teach others such, irrespective of their sensibilities, when explaining dharma is a disservice by not pointing out the horrendous states one may take rebirth in. If this is to hard line for you then I’m sorry but this is standard teachings in all Tibetan schools anyway & to claim otherwise is plane dishonest.

August 15, 2012 at 3:13 pm
(25) Barbara O'Brien says:

Paul, you are not being taught properly. You can believe what you like, and I would prefer not to argue with you, but you are stuck in conceptual understanding. My understanding is that in Tibetan Buddhism you begin with conceptual learning, then as one is initiated into higher levels of vajrayana the concepts are negated in favor of direct insight. Zen basically does the same thing; it just has a way steeper learning curve. What’s happening with you is that you aren’t getting past the introductory level, so it’s still all conceptual. And that would be all right if you didn’t insist that your understanding of dharma is the only possible understanding. That’s very unskillful. It’s like the first-grade children insisting they do all the teaching from now on.

November 30, 2012 at 7:44 am
(26) macineely says:

They could be psychological,or they could be literal.They remind me of some Buddhas and Bodhisattva,some people view them as external,and others internal.It doesn’t matter whether we view the 6 Realms(although I personally think of the Asura realm are part of the Deva realm.)what matters is that we learn from these teachings.
There are valid arguments from both sides,so I think we all need to keep an open mind.

November 30, 2012 at 10:55 am
(27) Barbara O'Brien says:

macineely — internal and external are delusions.

September 29, 2013 at 7:03 am
(28) Lashaan says:

Why are the ghosts afraid of the buddha does anyone know this? it’s intresting

September 29, 2013 at 7:44 pm
(29) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Why are the ghosts afraid of the buddha does anyone know this? it?s interesting”

For the same reasons any of us are afraid of things we don’t need to fear.

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