In the context of contemporary society, a prevalent skepticism surrounds the existence of spirits and demons. Despite this, an array of unexplained spiritual phenomena persists, including sightings of ghosts and malevolent spirits, instances of demonic possession, and the experience of receiving messages from the deceased in dreams. This raises the question of the reality of an unseen, supernatural realm.
Buddhist teachings address the existence of such entities through narratives and iconography. Notably, the concept of the ‘hungry ghost’ figures prominently in Buddhist doctrine as one of the six realms of rebirth in the samsara cycle. The seventh lunar month, often referred to as the ‘Ghost Month,’ holds significant spiritual meaning in Buddhist belief. It is regarded as a period when spirits are believed to emerge from lower realms and interact with the living.
While this article does not delve into the veracity of such supernatural phenomena, it does explore the concept of hungry ghosts and outlines some Tibetan practices aimed at warding off malevolent spirits. This offers readers insight into the rich spiritual culture of Tibet, a region with a long-standing history of such beliefs.
What are Hungry Ghosts?
Hungry ghosts, known as Yidag in Tibetan and Preta in Sanskrit, are depicted in Buddhist lore as distorted human forms with a foul odor. Characterized by tiny throats and massive bellies, they are eternally unsatisfied, embodying insatiable hunger and thirst.
According to Buddhist beliefs, upon death, a soul enters an intermediate state called Bardo, lasting 49 days, as described in the Bardo Thodol. This period determines the realm of their next rebirth. Individuals who led lives marked by greed, hatred, and malevolence, instead of being guided by the light of Buddha, follow the path of dark magic and become hungry ghosts.
In some Buddhist views, Dorje Shugden, considered by some as a deity and by others, including the Dalai Lama, as a wrathful spirit responsible for discord in the Tibetan exile community, is an example of such a spirit.
Venerable Toai Khanh shared in a discussion: “Hungry ghosts are mentioned in the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. They are dirty, hungry creatures that often live in sewers and landfills looking for food. In rural areas, people do not have refrigerators to store leftover food, so they often leave it overnight. But by morning, that food is spoiled because hungry ghosts sneak in at night and use dirty hands to eat it.”
Buddhism also posits that these suffering spirits should be treated with compassion rather than fear. Through chanting, spiritual teachings, and understanding the concepts of impermanence and non-self, these spirits can be guided towards enlightenment. This approach aims to help them realize the impermanence of the material world and shed their attachments, eventually leading them towards the illuminating path of Buddha.
In Vietnam, many Buddhist families are particularly cautious during the ‘Ghost Month’. They offer food and other items outside their homes to appease wandering hungry ghosts, hoping to prevent disturbances in their businesses. The efficacy and religious correctness of this practice are subjects of debate, with some considering it non-Buddhist.
The nature of hungry ghosts raises various philosophical questions: Do they consume physical offerings? If they do not eat, do they truly exist? Where do they go upon ‘death’? Are offerings made during Ghost Month driven by self-interest or compassion? Ultimately, these spirits are seen as souls trapped due to a lack of spiritual understanding, possibly liberated through exposure to Buddhist teachings and chants designed for this purpose.
How is Life in the Hungry Ghost Realm?
Life in the hungry ghost realm, as depicted in Buddhist scriptures, is marked by prolonged suffering and unique existential challenges. For example, in a story narrated by Shariputra, one of Buddha’s disciples, he encounters a hungry ghost child waiting for its mother to bring sustenance from a hospital. When asked about the duration of her torment, the ghost mother reveals that she has been in this state for so long that the city has undergone seven cycles of destruction and rebirth.
Another scripture, “The Hungry Ghosts Outside the Walls,” describes the plight of these beings as lasting across 92 rebirths, spanning the eras from the Buddha Kasyapa to Gautama Buddha. The time between these Buddhas and the future Buddha Maitreya is said to be an inconceivably long period, highlighting the extended nature of existence in the hungry ghost realm.
Hungry ghosts’ lifestyles vary according to their past deeds (karma). There are different types of hungry ghosts, each with their distinct dietary needs, ranging from consuming subtle energies to less savory items, as a consequence of their past actions. Unlike humans, they absorb moisture from the air and do not experience thirst in the same way.
Their physical appearance differs significantly from humans, often invisible to the human eye, and they lead a life distinct from ours. The attire of hungry ghosts also varies, as illustrated in “The Hungry Ghosts Outside the Walls.” King Bimbisara, upon seeing these suffering beings in tattered clothes, is advised by Buddha to make offerings to the Sangha and dedicate the merit to these spirits, which would then be reflected in their improved condition. Their clothing is believed to manifest from accumulated merit and varies across different types of ghosts.
The realm of hungry ghosts lacks marketplaces, agriculture, or any form of trade and sustenance. Buddha emphasized that these spirits are nourished through the offerings and meritorious deeds dedicated to them by the living. These offerings are akin to rivers that fill an ocean, providing nourishment and relief to the spirits.
These teachings highlight the difficult conditions faced by beings in the hungry ghost realm and serve as a reminder of the importance of ethical conduct and meritorious deeds. They encourage practitioners to cultivate virtue and dedicate the resulting merits to all beings, aiding in their liberation from suffering and guiding them towards the Dharma.
Types of Hungry Ghosts in Buddhism
There are 24 types of hungry ghosts listed in Buddhist scriptures. The following content briefly describes the appearance, characteristics as well as the reason why a person is reincarnated into a hungry ghost in this life.
1. VANTASA hungry ghost
These beings are characterized by deeply wrinkled faces, round bulging eyes, unkempt hair, distorted mouths, and twisted, emaciated limbs. Their bodies are swollen, emitting a foul odor, with protruding, uneven teeth and veins visible on their thin limbs. They are depicted as tall, gaunt, and covered in sores, enduring years of hunger and extreme suffering. Desperate for nourishment, they are drawn to any discarded or unclean substances, such as spit, which they consume in an attempt to alleviate their hunger.
This category of hungry ghosts is often believed to be found near human dwellings, in villages, or in unclean places like garbage dumps and sewers, scavenging for sustenance.
Their current state is attributed to their previous life’s behavior. Traditionally, these spirits were individuals who exhibited extreme miserliness and a lack of charitable actions. Their transgressions included desecrating sacred spaces such as temples by littering or spitting, showing disrespect to places maintained by monks, and generally behaving in a reckless and irreverent manner, ignoring the teachings and guidance of the monks. As a result of these actions, they are said to be reborn into this unfortunate state of existence as hungry ghosts.
2. KUNAPA hungry ghost
This type of hungry ghost is depicted with a grotesque and peculiar physique in Buddhist texts. They possess a large, sagging belly, a short neck with an elongated chin, eyes as large as bowls, and teeth as big as shovels. Their hair is so long it trails the ground, and their heads are disproportionately larger than their bodies.
The appearance of these beings is strikingly fearsome, accompanied by a foul and pungent odor. Their diet is gruesome, consisting of pus, blood, and corpses, yet no matter how much they consume, their hunger only intensifies. They are drawn to abandoned corpses, voraciously tearing and consuming them, but remain in a state of perpetual hunger and thirst.
In their previous lives, these individuals are believed to have been devoid of virtuous deeds, displaying morally reprehensible behavior without fear of sin. They were careless and deceptive, notably deceiving monks by offering them meat, which is forbidden in many Buddhist practices. The gravity of deceiving such religious figures is considered a severe transgression, leading to their rebirth as this type of hungry ghost.
3. GUTHA hungry ghost
The GUTHA hungry ghost is described with eyes slanting downwards and a mouth twisted upwards, its neck and shoulders covered with dense hair. Its head is large and gaunt, with sparse hair around it. The ghost’s abdomen is bloated, resembling a large drum, and its skin is covered with sores and emits a foul odor. Its diet consists of filth and blood, and it is often found near homes and public latrines in its relentless search for food, suffering from chronic hunger and extreme misery.
In its previous life, this ghost is believed to have been a cruel and ruthless individual, skeptical of the concepts of sin and virtue. Exhibiting excessive rudeness and exploiting power to oppress those pursuing spiritual paths, this person also demonstrated stinginess, unwilling to provide for their own family, including parents, spouse, and children, leaving them in a state of poverty and starvation. As a result of these heinous actions, upon death, they endured a prolonged period in hell. After serving their sentence, remnants of their past karma compelled them to be reborn as a GUTHA hungry ghost, condemned to subsist on waste and blood.
4. AGGHALA hungry ghost
This hungry ghost is characterized by severely swollen eyes that bulge outward. Its body is perpetually engulfed in flames, emitting thick smoke day and night. The skin is blistered and peeling, with the sensation of intense heat radiating from within. Despite an overwhelming hunger and thirst, these beings do not perish due to the negative karma they have accumulated. They are typically found in remote natural settings, such as mountainous forests or near the seashore and riverbanks.
In their previous lives, these individuals were careless and disrespectful, particularly towards Buddhist monks, mocking and belittling them. As a consequence of these harmful actions, upon death, they were reborn into this state of existence as hungry ghosts, a manifestation of the retribution for their past misdeeds.
5. SUCIMUKHA hungry ghost
The SUCIMUKHA presents a profoundly distressing image. It is characterized by an abnormally small mouth, sharp as a needle, set on a vast and grotesque body. The skin is uneven with bumps and boils, and the nails are long and sharp. Its limbs are covered in sores, and its body is overgrown with moss, giving it a neglected appearance. The hair is unkempt and disheveled. This ghost suffers from extreme hunger and thirst, as its minuscule mouth renders it incapable of consuming food. It is typically found in deep forests and remote mountainous areas.
In its previous human incarnation, this being was exceptionally miserly and stingy, fearful of spending even the slightest amount. This individual never engaged in acts of charity, even in small measures, and neglected the basic needs of their own family, including parents and close relatives, leaving them in poverty and starvation. Driven by an intense greed for money and a reluctance to part with wealth, they hoarded every penny. This severe lack of compassion and generosity in their past life led to their rebirth as the SUCIMUKHA hungry ghost, a direct consequence of their past negative actions.
6. KANHAJI hungry ghost
This hungry ghost is characterized by a tall, imposing stature, with a long neck and a distorted head. Its large, protruding eyes, short nose, and uneven, protruding teeth contribute to its fearsome appearance. The ghost’s hair and body hair are coarse and unkempt, and its limbs are bent and twisted.
Notably, its abdomen is excessively large, and its lips are drooping and slack. This ghost typically resides in deep, secluded forests and endures perpetual hunger and thirst. A unique aspect of its suffering is the illusion of water or food that disappears or transforms into something undesirable or harmful, like stones or fire, as it approaches.
In its previous human life, this spirit was ignorant of the concepts of sin and virtue and behaved rudely and destructively. It caused harm by letting cattle and goats damage the gardens and ponds of temples and spoke disrespectfully to monks. Due to these negative actions, upon death, the individual was reborn as this type of hungry ghost, enduring the consequences of their past deeds.
7. NIJJHA hungry ghost
This entity is depicted as extremely emaciated, unable to consume food or drink. Its mouth emits a foul and putrid odor, and its fingers are fused together, leaving only one nail resembling a shovel. The ghost’s abdomen is abnormally swollen, hanging down loosely, and its upper lip is excessively long, drooping down to its chin. Its arms hang limply to its sides, and its hair grows in a wild, unkempt manner.
This ghost is typically found in remote and desolate places like deep forests, mountains, or deserted areas. In its previous human life, the spirit was characterized by a malevolent and cruel disposition. It exhibited disdain and abusive behavior towards monks and beggars, resorting to intimidation and derogatory remarks. Additionally, it engaged in slander and incited division among people of moral standing, and cruelly mocked those with disabilities. Due to these accumulated negative actions, upon death, the individual was reborn as this type of hungry ghost, enduring the karmic consequences of their past misdeeds.
8. SABBANKÀ hungry ghost
The SABBANKÀ hungry ghost is covered with sores and festering wounds, attracting swarms of flies and insects. The flesh is swollen and emits a foul odor. This ghost is characterized by large, protruding eyes and an unusually long and large nose. Consumed by extreme hunger and thirst, in moments of unbearable hunger, it resorts to using its sharp, nail-like fingers to tear off its own flesh for consumption, a process filled with both physical and emotional agony. The more it eats, the more intense its hunger becomes. This ghost typically inhabits remote and desolate places like mountain valleys and barren lands.
In its previous human life, this spirit was miserly and ignorant of the concepts of sin and virtue. It displayed ingratitude and a lack of moral integrity, showing disrespect and even cruelty towards parents and elders, betraying those who had shown it kindness, and lacking in reverence and respect. As a result of these negative actions and attitudes, upon death, it was reborn as the SABBANKÀ hungry ghost, as a karmic consequence of its past deeds.
9. PABBANKÀ hungry ghost
This particular type of hungry ghost has an enormous body with disproportionately short limbs, a small head, and a short neck, with skin and flesh as hard as the earth. The ghost is perpetually engulfed in flames, burning intensely day and night, similar to red-hot iron, symbolizing extreme physical and mental suffering. This state of unrelenting pain is compounded by an insatiable hunger and thirst that persists for eons. These ghosts are numerous and are said to inhabit the mountainous regions of Kỳ Xá Quật and Tuyết Lãnh Sơn.
In their previous lives, these individuals were characterized by fierce and malicious natures, filled with hatred and resentment. They frequently engaged in verbal abuse towards people of moral integrity, wantonly destroyed property, and committed acts of violence without hesitation, including arson driven by spite and hatred. Their behavior was marked by stubbornness, arrogance, and a desire to dominate others, leading to a multitude of sins. As a result of these actions, upon death, they were reborn as this type of hungry ghost, suffering the consequences of their past misdeeds.
10. AJAGARA hungry ghost
This depiction of a hungry ghost in Buddhist teachings portrays a being with an extraordinarily bizarre and terrifying appearance. It has a serpentine body, larger than an elephant, with multiple heads that shift in form, including those of a bull, tiger, elephant, chicken, and monkey. This ghost suffers from eternal hunger and thirst, and its body is constantly ablaze, causing it to emit heart-wrenching cries of agony. Despite this suffering, it cannot die, a direct result of the heinous karma it accumulated.
In its previous life, this spirit was known for its aggressive and vengeful nature. It engaged in destructive acts like arson, burning homes and fields. Its speech was harsh and cruel, often cursing parents and disrespectfully addressing monks and virtuous individuals with derogatory terms likening them to animals. Due to these grievous actions, upon death, it endured a prolonged period in hell. After serving this sentence, the spirit was reborn as this type of hungry ghost, inhabiting desolate forests, mountains, and barren lands, as a consequence of its past misdeeds.
Ways to Ward Off Evil Spirits and Hungry Ghosts
There are various methods employed to ward off and eliminate malevolent spirits and hungry ghosts, especially within the context of Tibetan Buddhism, a tradition renowned for its mystical practices and powerful secret mantras. These techniques, deeply rooted in the esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, have been widely acknowledged and utilized for their effectiveness in dealing with supernatural entities.
1. Use Phurba knife
The use of the Phurba, also known as Kila in Sanskrit, is a significant practice in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism for dealing with malevolent spirits.
The Phurba is a ritual dagger, traditionally employed by practitioners of the Tantric path to resolve the turmoil of suffering spirits and guide them towards a more auspicious realm of rebirth. This practice is particularly aimed at spirits that are lost or confused between different realms.
The ritual involves the symbolic use of the Phurba to pinpoint and address the confusion and suffering of the spirit. By ‘stabbing’ the dagger into a representation of the spirit, it is believed that the practitioner can disrupt the spirit’s state of confusion, effectively casting it out. This act is not seen as a form of aggression but rather as a compassionate means to guide the spirit away from its suffering state.
The ultimate goal is to assist these troubled entities in finding a path towards a lower realm, perhaps that of animals, where they have the opportunity for rebirth and eventual liberation. This practice underscores the core Buddhist tenet of compassion, even towards beings that might be considered malevolent or harmful.
2. Use magic traps to catch ghosts
In Tibetan culture, families often employ magical traps as a means to capture ghosts. These traps, typically affixed to the rooftops of houses, are made of intricately knotted colored strings. They can also be found hanging from trees.
The belief is that when a ghost becomes entangled in these traps, it undergoes a transformative process akin to being burned, facilitating its release from the ghostly state. This concept draws a parallel to how fire changes the solid state of ice into water, symbolizing a transition from one form of existence to another. These practices reflect a deep-seated cultural approach to dealing with spiritual disturbances and are a part of the rich tapestry of Tibetan spiritual life.
3. Participate in Gutor holidays
Participating in the Tibetan religious festival “Gutor,” held annually on the 29th of the 12th Tibetan month, is a significant cultural practice aimed at dispelling misfortunes, troubles, and evil spirits from the previous year, thereby ushering in a peaceful and prosperous new year.
Throughout Tibet, temples and monasteries conduct grand ceremonial dances, with notable celebrations taking place at the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Families engage in thorough house cleaning on this day, decorating their homes and preparing a special soup known as “Guthuk.” In the evening, people carry torches and recite secret mantras as part of rituals to exorcise evil spirits. These traditions reflect a deep connection to cultural heritage and are integral to Tibetan spiritual life, symbolizing a community’s collective effort to start the new year on a positive note.
4. Chanting mantras to ward off evil spirits
In Buddhism, chanting mantras is a widely practiced method for repelling and overcoming evil spirits. One of the most potent Buddhist mantras is the Shurangama mantra, which is both ancient and extensive. Monks often recite this mantra to uphold the Dharma on Earth.
Another significant mantra is the “Om Vajrapani Hum“, associated with the Bodhisattva Vajrapani. This mantra is frequently used for its perceived power to render one invincible against any form of demonic attack or disturbance.
Additionally, the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is commonly recited when encountering malevolent spirits. This mantra, attributed to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, known for compassion and relief of suffering, is believed to aid in overcoming distress and disruptions caused by evil spirits.
Hungry Ghost Festival in Asia
The Hungry Ghost Festival, observed in various parts of Asia, is a significant event rooted in traditional beliefs about the afterlife and the presence of spirits. This festival, typically held in the seventh lunar month, is a time when it’s believed that the gates of the afterlife are opened, allowing spirits to visit the world of the living.
One of the central activities of this festival is the offering of food and drink to appease the hungry ghosts, a practice stemming from the belief that providing for these spirits can bring about good fortune and alleviate their suffering. Families prepare elaborate meals, often leaving an empty seat at the table for invisible guests, and place food offerings at altars or in front of their homes.
Burning joss paper, or ‘ghost money,’ and papier-mâché items such as clothes, houses, and even cars is another widespread custom. These items are believed to be sent to the spirit world through fire, providing the ghosts with material comforts.
Community gatherings and performances, known as ‘getai,’ are also common. Stages are set up in open areas where live entertainment, including music, dance, and drama performances, are held for both the living and the spirits. It’s a common belief that the front rows of these performances are reserved for the spirits to enjoy the show.
Additionally, the festival includes various rituals and ceremonies conducted by Buddhist or Taoist priests to guide lost spirits towards peace and help them find their way to the afterlife. Prayer sessions and chanting of sacred texts are integral parts of these ceremonies.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is not only a time for honoring and pacifying the spirits but also serves as a reminder of the importance of filial piety and respect for ancestors. It’s a period for families to come together, reflect on their ancestry, and maintain a connection with those who have passed on. This festival, rich in tradition and culture, provides a unique insight into the spiritual beliefs and practices of Asian societies.