The Hungry Ghosts of Washington

Hungry Ghost Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c.

There are six realms of being in traditional Buddhist cosmology. Two of these, the human and the animal realms, are visible to our senses. The other four are not. Because all these regions are part of samsara, the world of “original ignorance,” (rather than original sin), even the apparently pleasant places are characterized by suffering, because, to quote the song by Iris Dement, “nothing good ever lasts.” We suffer until we learn to see through our illusions and delusions.

Traditional Buddhists regard the four non-physical regions as subtle astral planes where, just like the physical regions, beings sojourn for longer or shorter periods of time, depending on karma. It is possible to read them inwardly, as archetypal situations as well. Among the “lower realms,” where you don’t want to go, are the hell realms, where the dominant emotion is anger. Violent actions driven by anger can project beings into these regions after this life, yet when we see a person, or ourselves, seething with anger – red in the face, trembling, on the edge of violence, we see what a hell-being looks like, right then, without going anywhere else.

“Hungry ghosts” live in a world of insatiable craving, appetites that can never be satisfied. In eastern iconography, they are pictured with huge, distended bellies and tiny mouths that can never eat or drink enough. This is the realm of addiction, to anything or everything. In western art, Hieronymus Bosch shows us what hungry ghosts look like:

From “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1500

We all have a sense of the ravages of addiction to food, drugs, or alchohol. In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef says that life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. Some addictions will land you in jail. Some will win you applause. Some, like addiction to money and power can win you a seat in congress.

Beyond all the rationale, couched in economic terms and political rhetoric, there’s a greed that drives our current political strife that is an insatiable craving for wealth that can never be satisfied. When we read of American oligarchs trying to strip healthcare from millions for tax cuts for people who don’t even need it, remember this image of their inner nature:

Hungry Ghost, Japanese.

What are the odds that such beings can do anything good for their fellows or for the planet?

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This entry was posted in #TheResistance, Buddhism, Culture, Notes from 2017, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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