The state of a preta’s existence is associated with intense sufferings. In this respect, they are classified as a lower grade of existence to human beings. In Buddhism, we are taught to have pity and compassion towards them. Naturally, we do not wish to be reborn a preta.
If we understand that the state of our being is in our mind, then we will recognise that some humans are already experiencing the sufferings of preta (Due to their insatiable greed and craving)
In the Mahayana tradition, there are some practitioners who focus their practices in helping the preta. Various rituals are performed to help the preta. These involves summoning the pretas, recitation of mantra and performing mudra to “open the throat” of preta. Mantra to purify the food, inviting the preta to partake the food offerings.
The practitioners perform all these ritual with compassion; strongly believing that they are doing meritorious deeds to help the preta. Once the preta is fed, their mind will be more receptive to Dharma. Sutra will then be chanted, hopefully the preta will have wisdom to receive the message of Buddha and be freed from their miserable state. Spiritual merits are dedicated to the preta so that they will have merits for better rebirth.
If we observe all these rituals with a critical mind, it seems like a bunch of superstitious buddhist are trying to fool themselves into feeling good about themselves; by engaging in make belief activities of helpling imaginary beings.
However, if one understands the various Buddha Dharma and practice the ritual, then it becomes a very rich mind training session.
Foremost is the belief in the Buddha and his Dharma. (faith) Secondly, we develop strong faith that everyone of us has the potential to become a Buddha to help others. When we chant mantra and perform mudra, we are symbolically enacting the role of a spiritually superior being. (great bodhisattva or Buddha) It’s like a form of self encouragement. (I think the modern world term this, Success Visualisation?)
However, it is important to have the correct understanding of what a Buddha is and what it takes to become Buddha. (the paramita). Otherwise, we will end up developing a super ego and becoming self delusional. Falsely believing that we are spiritually superior simply because we learn some mantra and can perform the mudra beautifully.
As can be seen, the above is already a kind of mental balancing exercise for a Mahayana practitioner who aspire to be a Buddha. (If we know the story of Buddha’s past life and the paramitas, the path towards Buddhahood can appear very daunting)
When we understand that a being’s mind will shape their future, we reflect upon our own mind and remind ourselves to be mindful of our own craving. (self reflection) We feel fortunate and grateful for encountering Buddha Dharma. (appreciative joy) At the same time reflect upon the world at large, we feel compassion for others who do not have the chance to learn dharma. How many people are caught in their insatiable craving and paving their way towards sufferings? What can we do to help them?
Concurrently, in our mind, we are mentally associating with mystical beings that usually conjure fear in us. We transform that fear into compassion, when we realised that all beings (seen or unseen) becomes what they are, out of their ignorance.
Example, when our bosses crave material success like a preta and turn the office into a state of suffering for others, we feel sorry for them instead of fear and aversion towards them.
So this part can become a mental exercise that help condition us to deal with our actual surrounding with a Mahayana attitude.
On the contrary, if wisdom is absent. A practitioner can become more deluded and self hallucinating. For example, the craving to see preta so that the ritual is successful. Such belief can create untold suffering and mental problems.
Furthermore, if we examine the description of a preta in light of our various mental habits (refer to article on preta), the various mantra and mudra that remedy the states of a preta’s sufferings becomes reminder for us to be discipline in our mind too. (for example; Contentment leads to happiness; Do not mistaken a “good to have” as life’s necessities) Although it is an indirect reminder, the embedded messages becomes more vibrant due to our usage of imagination and visualisation. It’s like educating a child through playtime!
There are many layers of meaning embedded in Buddhist rituals and ceremonies. The above are just some possible interpretation. Buddhist rituals and ceremonies are actually very deep and profound. Definitely not some mumbo jumbo done by weirdos.
Some of the embedded dharma message is meant for self discovery. That way, it becomes a eureka moment for you and it leaves a strong imprint in the mind. Strong enough to carry over many lifetimes!
Hope you enjoy my sharing. Have fun in your practice. Look for wisdom that can positively transform your life.
May all be well and happy.