Wednesday 2nd September 2020 is the festival day for the Hungry Ghost, an observance in certain Buddhist communities around the world. Whether or not you believe spirits leave their ghostly realm during the time of the festival, the hungry ghost can be a great reminder of how desire causes suffering, not in the afterlife but in the present moment.
The concept of the “hungry ghost” is an old one. In Buddhism, a hungry ghost is known as a preta, a spiritual being damned to suffer great pangs of intense need in the afterlife for displays of greed, theft, or violence while living. In a famous example leading to the origin of the festival, a man named Mulian gave his mother money to feed monks and beggars while he was off traveling. Instead, she squirreled away the money for herself. Years later, Mulian discovers such actions have landed his mother in hungry ghost territory — she has become a hungry ghost who can never eat her fill, and her neck has grown too thin because of her stinginess. Mulian first attempts to provide her food by placing it on the ancestral altar, but it explodes into flame as it touches her lips. Seeking the Buddha’s advice, Mulian is instructed to provide a feast on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, now known as Ghost Day. Following this tradition can be seen as an acknowledgment that however much we venerate our forebears, they too suffered from the same great twinges of desire that we do.
Whether or not you believe spirits leave their ghostly realm during the time of the festival, the hungry ghost can be a great reminder of how desire causes suffering, not in the afterlife but in the present moment.
Pretas, or “hungry ghosts,” are beings who are tormented by desire that can never be sated. They are often portrayed with tiny mouths and throats and the swollen bellies of the starving, meaning they can never consume enough to ease the suffering of their hungers
Pretas are described in many different Asian mythologies. In Buddhism, they are considered one of the six realms of cyclic existence (samsara), along with devas (gods), asuras (warring gods), humans, animals, and hell beings. Enlightenment can be defined as freeing oneself from these realms entirely.
Although the beings in them believe these realms are real, they are only subjective experiences created by mind. Each of the realms is characterized by a particular mental obscuration or klesha (see Buddhism by the Numbers). The preta realm is defined by attachment, and the truth that we can never end the suffering of unquenched desire, no matter how much we consume.
Because humans are not as solidly fixed in a particular mental state as other beings, our realm is defined by choice and the possibility of enlightenment. Moment by moment, we move from the bliss of the god realms to the anger of the hell realms to the stupidity of the animal realm. When breaks or gaps occur—spontaneously or cultivated in meditation—we glimpse the open, awakened mind that is always present but has been obscured by the fixations of the realms.
See Hungry Ghosts – a four part serial on SBS On Demand.