The realm of hungry ghost (preta) is one of the 6 types of existence according to Buddhist scriptures. They are unlike those murderous ghost we see in horror movies. Much confusion arises because the word ghost was used in translation.
The modern scholars and educated Buddhist may find ghost related topic irrelevant and backward. Consequently, some Buddhist teachers had started explaining this as a state of mind instead of spectra beings wandering in limbo. Which seems more acceptable to audiences who were educated in the modern curriculum of science.
I witness this changing trend both in buddhist publication and talks over the past 30 years.
Personally, I think it will be a loss of diversity in buddhist literature if everyone decided to white wash this topic or store it away in the archive section.
So lets talk about hungry ghost since the hungry ghost festival in Asia is around the corner.
One is reborn as a hungry ghost (preta / 饿鬼) due to extreme craving and greed.
Interpreting this realm of existence as a state of mind may help us understand them better. It also reinforce the Buddhist principle that craving leads to suffering. Thus, one should curb their craving if one does not wish to experience such sufferings in their next life.
In summary, the state of a preta is an insatiable craving for something that is simply unobtainable. Consequently one suffers greatly. We might have similar experience as a human. A desire for something that we feel we cannot live without. However, that something is beyond our reach. Consequently, it causes intense mental suffering.
Yet, when we finally obtain it, we discover that our object of desire is not that alluring after all. When that happened, it’s similar to our object of desire become worthless (just like ashes). Then another round of desire begins. This time round we desire something better or bigger. (bigger house or bigger car etc) It is like the object of our desire turning into burning coal and harming us further. Which leads to another round of sufferings.
In traditional Buddhist literature, hungry ghost are depicted as having an enormous stomach to represent an enormous appetite. They crave for food. (The irony is that preta are spectra being and do not need physical food.) In this manner it seems like a perfect description for human craving of the non-necessities in life. For example intense craving for designer bags when one can hardly afford it.
Food is hard to obtain for the preta and traditionally it is told that preta sees unclean matters such as excrete and urine as food and drinks. That is due to their intense ignorance. Again this is relatable to human craving. Following the above example, a wise man may look upon a designer bag with distaste. To the wise, a bag is still a bag. It is worthless and undesirable,just like human waste. On the other hand a craving person would look at the designer bag as a ‘must have’ when he could hardly even pay for his utilities or rent.
Preta is described as having throat that is the size of a needle. Any food that is obtained becomes burning coal or crumble to ashes when they try to eat it. In this manner, preta can hardly swallow the food they managed to obtain. (When we do not have contentment. we can hardly appreciate or enjoy what we have. Whatever we obtained, becomes valueless because we start to crave for something else)
Preta wanders about in limbo. Searching for food. They suffer from intense heat and cold. When the rain hits them, it is like being peirce by a thousand arrows. It is a state of great suffering according to scriptural descriptions.
Therefore, Buddhist try their best to curb their craving. Otherwise, we may end up being reborn as a preta.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there are certain practices that places emphasis towards associating with the preta. We’ll discuss that in the next post. May all be well and happy.