Realm of the Hungry Ghosts (Bhavacakra Pt. III)

Their skin is sunken, their ribs protrude. Narrow limbs on an otherwise distended body. Heads bob on a long, thin neck.

These, my friends, are the pretas, the hungry ghosts.

They wander, ceaselessly, seeking gratification. They hunger, they thirst. They starve. They want satisfaction.

These, my friends, are the pretas, the hungry ghosts.

In Buddhism, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is one of the six realms of the Bhavacakra, or wheel of life. As I have discussed previously (see link), each of these six realms describes psychological states, often associated with particular forms of suffering, and it is said, in Buddhist traditions, that everyone can find him/herself in one (if not more) of these realms throughout our days.

So what is the particular form of suffering one experiences when caught in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts?

Extreme hunger, extreme thirst.

But such are metaphors for desire.

In some depictions of the Bhavacakra, the hungry ghost wanders after the object of its desire, but like the mechanical rabbit at a dog race, it always remains outside its grasp. Then there are other pretas who succeed in grabbing hold of what they want, say a cup of water, but it passes right through them and they are left unsatisfied.

Ever had buyer’s remorse?

Ever bought something you really wanted then soon got bored of it? Ever bought your children something they really wanted and a week later, it’s forgotten about?

If you answered “yes,” then you know what it’s like to be a hungry ghost.

But there is more, for the primary suffering of the hungry ghosts is that want, that desire, that thirst.

The Buddha taught the number one cause of suffering is desire. We want things because we, being ignorant, think the object of our desires will satisfy us.  Our desires grow; they become insatiable. We want badly.

And thus we will endlessly seek satisfaction.

Maybe we get something, then a new version of said something soon comes out and all of a sudden the old is not good enough. We want the newest. This is how consumerism, especially concerning new technological devices, gets us and thus furthers suffering (see my post Dukkha and the new iPhone for further discussion on this point).

In addition to this kind of insatiable desire, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is related to past desires left unsatisfied. Maybe we are adults and there is something we did not accomplish/achieve/satisfy when we were younger and we remain stuck in the past. So too is this a Hungry Ghost experience.

I have seen this in little league baseball. I cannot count on both hands how many fathers I have seen, whether in the stands as fans or in the dugouts as coaches, who ride their sons, and ride them hard. As a coach, I witnessed a father berate is son on the field of play to the point of tears. Maybe you are familiar with the child beauty queen phenomenon; maybe you’ve even seen “Toddlers and Tiaras.” Mothers will go to any length to see their little girls be crowned.

The logic in both cases is: a) Daddy wanted to be a pro ball player, but didn’t make it, so he, being stuck in that past, pushed his son to succeed where he did not, and b) Mommy wasn’t the beauty queen she wanted to be, so she’ll make her little girl wear the crown for her.

Do we inherit the sins of our fathers? Of our mothers? If we think of sin here as suffering, in this case, I would say yes, we do. Mommies and Daddies putting their sufferings, placing their unfilled desires on their children so their children suffer for it.

The Buddha figure in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts carries a jar of honey, symbolizing that is what the Buddha has to offer (in the form of his teachings) is what truly satisfies, for it is through the Buddha’s teaching does one gain insight into the nature of reality through letting go of one’s desires, through the process of gaining wisdom. And in gaining insight into reality, our suffering decreases and as our suffering decreases, we will find ourselves less and less trapped in the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.

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