In traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six major realms of existence. Only two of these, the human and animal realms, are visible. The other four, which include both heavens and hells, are not manifest to our physical senses. Unlike Christian heaven and hell, none of these are forever – the length of one’s sojourn depends on karma.
Many contemporary teachers, while not denying the metaphysical reality of these regions, focus on our inner “location” in the here and now. One who is filled with love and compassion dwells in heaven. The one seething with anger, red in the face, like a devil, at that moment experiences one of the hells.
Hungry ghosts have a region all to themselves; their dominant trait is insatiable craving. Hungry ghosts are depicted with huge bellies but tiny throats and mouths – desperate hunger and thirst that can never find relief.
“Never enough, there is never, ever enough,” is the mindset of hungry ghosts, both in the imagined subtle realm and in this world. Addictions and insatiable cravings of all sorts make us hungry ghosts. The pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge, the archetypal miser, is the best known western hungry ghost. Now, the Panama Papers reveal how widespread is this disease, and how it drives the leaders and elites in nations throughout the world. Nor do we, at least in “the free world,” get to sit back and righteously condemn “those bad people.” Not in Buddhist thought, at least, where everything is interconnected.
The people of Iceland forced their Prime Minister out of office within 48 hours of the time the story broke. They did the same with the bankers in 2008. We, who have elected officials of both parties who tolerate bailouts and corporate shell games, are are not separate from the hungry ghosts who are fucking this world.
In his public discourse, Buddha never commented one way or another on metaphysical truths. There’s plenty to worry about here and now, he said. If greed locks us into the hell of the hungry ghosts, generosity, the mindset of Scrooge on Christmas morning, opens the gates of heaven.
Perhaps there are no big or small acts of generosity. Our world, the people in it, and we ourselves, need nothing more urgently at this time.
I love this image of “hungry ghost” and you correctly made it so timely and appropriate. The “hungry ghost” within each of us is the source of much of the world’s suffering. A key part of my Jesuit Catholic Christian spirituality is to seek the opposite of the hungry ghost, to embrace the belief that “all is gift.” Everything we have is gift, not something we earned or deserve, and we should feel liberated to share or give away.
Seeking and practicing the opposite is the key of countering the afflictive emotions in Buddha’s teaching as well.
There’s a wonderful story that one day, Buddha and some of his students were sitting in the shade of a tree at the edge of a clearing, when a distraught local farmer ran up asking if they had seen his cows. “They broke down the fence, trampled all the sesame, and ran off.”
“We have not seen them,” said Buddha. “Perhaps you should look by the river.”
The farmer ran off, crying “I’ll die if I don’t find them!”
A few moments passed in silence, then Buddha said to his students, “Aren’t you glad you don’t have any cows?”