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Hungry Ghosts


Hungry ghosts are believed to wander the earth—the souls of those who were violent and unhappy, desirous and greedy—they have large bellies and eyes and small mouths, never able to satiate themselves.

Hungry ghosts are an integral part of Buddhist literature, but aptly it is a ghostly presence that is often ignored (it’s not as sexy as meditation after all, or yoni eggs*). Hungry ghosts is one of the realms of samsara, into which one can be reborn depending on their karma. Those who had been avaricious, selfish, envious, clinging and greedy, may be reborn into the realm of hungry ghosts.

There are vivid paintings of the hungry ghosts, shrivelled like tree bark and breathing out fire that seems to burn anything they may try to eat. They have small mouths like needles, unable to fill their bellies. Their eyes seem to see an illusion of barrenness, and they crave disgusting things like shit.

A Teaching on Hungry Ghosts - Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

It is also said that when we are visited by these feelings of greed or meanness, that we are receiving a glimpse into the realm of hungry ghosts.

On a cold night in December, that girl died.
They cremated her tiny bird-like body and she was so small that her funeral pyre was nothing more than a candlelight, and they laid to rest her still warm ashes in my heart.
That was seven years ago, but some nights (when it is especially cold and lonely)
The embers catch and the girl would come back to life as a column of black smoke rising up my lungs, choking me with her sweet incense
I still think of her and it brings sour tears to my eyes
Because I love her, I still love her
Even in her smallness and ugliness.

I wrote that poem last December, I have been noticing a pain arising in me that seems to come from a source deep inside my belly. I have a beautiful life, and people who love me, and yet my body seems to contain within it a wellspring of pain, like a river, that floods inside me. It felt like my karma, something I was born with and tasked as a person to carry and uncover and learn from.

Even within the luck of my life, I hold a fear that I would be abandoned in the middle of the wilderness.

Dear mother,
I know I have done shameful things.
Please don’t worry about me, bury me in an unmarked grave
Let there be no sons, or daughters, or grandchildren with flowers in their hands
Just let me out to sea while I’m alive
Let me laugh, let me cry

Stories of hungry ghosts often describe people who refuse to give water to the thirsty (fearing they would not have enough for themselves), or envious of another person’s virtues set out to destroy them. But asking or even begging for help does not make one a hungry ghost—refusing does.

I think about all the times I had clung so much to love, even when it needed to be cut loose. I think of all the times I have been envious, afraid of being replaced by a newer, glossier, whiter version. (I seem to fail to realize that I’m a woman, not a toaster). And I have that common addiction too: I find myself hungering for filth, spinning my mind around and around thoughts that do nothing but cut me open again and again and again. I recognize that these fears come from ways in which I was not cared for in the ways I needed, but I’m old enough now to be able to accept these things without anger, to carry on.

You were not born, but crawled headfirst into the hunger of dogs. Tell them that the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting. -Ocean Vuong

One time, inflamed with this sharp karmic pain, this hunger, I hit my head on the wooden floor. I was with someone who loved me dearly, who stopped me quite abruptly by gripping my hair. “Don’t hurt her.” He said, as if speaking to the ghost inside who was doing the hurting.

I am so full of the desire to live, and yet I wonder if I destroyed what was on the surface, how my body would grow beyond the ruin. I wanted to see what was growing underneath my skin if I tore it away. What would arise once the hunger has finished consuming me?

When I was a child, I used to always get nightmares (a witch’s kiss and my teeth falling out, another time that aliens had taken over our house and were wearing my family’s heads as masks). Eventually, I noticed that when I prayed, my dreams would be strange but they wouldn’t terrify me. So this afternoon, I walked to Greenwich Park and watched the birds migrate, as I wrote down my fears and prayers to accompany them.

We live in a funny world obsessed with power, obsessed with not being walked over, and freedom and pleasure. For now, I sit in my hunger, feeding on a bitter solitude, waiting for it to turn sweet in my mouth.

*Let it be known that “wherefore” means “why” not “where”, and “yoni” means “womb” not “vagina” — thank you and good night.

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