August 2017 Message
Understanding The Hungry Ghosts, A Look Into Our Own Cravings
“All sentient beings are constantly oppressed by immeasurable blind passions and lack the wisdom-eye; hence they cannot see.” Nirvana Sutra
I recently gave a Dharma talk about blind passions, at one of our Sunday services. This is a growing area of interest for me at the Institute of Buddhist Studies. I would like to discuss how our blind passions could be understood through the Buddhist idea of Hungry Ghosts. I first came to better understand this topic, about ten years ago, when Jimmy Styles invited me to join a new college group that he and his friends were reforming in the Bay Area. I wasn’t sure if I should join, as I didn’t really know Jimmy that well, and had only briefly met a few of his friends. I was convinced to check it out, as he reminded me this group while younger, would have more in common with me, opposed to the parents at church or the Jr. YBA kids. I remember learning at one of the conferences about the Six Realms of Existence, and really appreciated this lecture. I had previously read about it, but this workshop was thought provoking to say the least as it provided more details.
There are six Realms of Rebirth in Buddhist cosmology: Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Humans, Fighting Spirits, and Heavenly Beings. In some Buddhist thought these realms are meant to represent what our state of mind is in, and we move throughout these different realms. Other Buddhist beliefs feel beings are literally reborn here, after they pass away. Traditionally being born into the lower realms, Hungry Ghosts being one of them, is a result of unwholesome actions, like hatred, strong greed, and delusion. If someone is stuck in addiction, they would be having these same issues like, getting angry, craving, and having a backwards way of seeing things. If you have ever tried to help someone struggling with addiction, you know how hard and difficult it is to have this person understand your concerns.
Hungry Ghosts represent craving to me, but more so, an intense yearning for something. This is not to say all desires are this extreme, but many of us will end up here at some point in our lives. We all have wants but there can be times when this can be more than a minor hindrance, creating suffering in our lives. I believe the Hungry Ghosts can represent this extreme way of thinking. I would like to focus on the Hungry Ghost Realm, and provide some of insight on this subject and its metaphorical importance to my own life’s experiences.
Hungry Ghosts can be described looking like a human suffering from starvation, bones showing, frail or sickly looking, but having large stomachs. Other descriptions state they have flaming mouths, needle sized throats, messy hair, long sharp nails, and fangs. It varies on what they are able to eat; some traditions say they can only eat smoke through the small hole in their mouth. Others say they attract moths to the flame in their mouth for nourishment. Some accounts state they can only eat pus, blood and other human excrements. While others believe when they do grab food or water, their mouths become too small, or the item turns to coal, or the water evaporates. Whichever story one wants to follow, their state of existence shows how these beings are constantly suffering. They can never eat or find relief from their hunger and just as they are close to getting some sense of relief, their world changes, reverting back to torment.
When I think about the stories of these Ghosts, and how they come to find food but then it disappears or they become unable to eat, it shows the temporary fix that addictions bring. The act of finding food and the Ghosts mouth’s closing, or the food changing into coals or some disgusting type of uneatable substance is no different from the process of one who is addicted to something. I think blind passions are a good description of the beings found in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. They are always hungry but cannot find relief due to the circumstances that they have been put into. This idea of never being full, no matter the situation, can metaphorically describe one who is stuck in addiction, they will always want more. They can temporarily find relief from their cravings but more often than not, the longer they are in this mindset, their cravings will continue. They will be consistently thinking about when the next time they can get their fix.
People, who are stuck in this mindset, often will display traits called addict behaviors. These include, displacing, projecting, manipulation, playing the victim, and the lack of ability to see their own part. If one is displacing, they will maneuver away from a feeling or a subject, trying to avoid the topic by bringing something else non related up. By projecting, one is pushing their own feelings onto someone else, often blaming them, while trying to flip the argument making someone else be the center of attention. They will always make an excuse to why this situation is not their fault, and attempt to make people feel bad for them, as they are unable to self-monitor their feelings or actions.
I myself am guilty of these traits, but fortunately for me, my first job after college was working for a drug rehab. This was an environment where people were taught how to take a look at themselves. Someone who is stuck in addiction can only look outward, because they cannot look within themselves. Often they don’t want to see any aspect of themselves doing wrong, and usually the ego is proficient at creating ways to continue these actions. If they are forced to see their faults, they may have to admit they need to change, but initially most don’t want to. This is why Hungry Ghosts are a good metaphor for craving or blind passions. The people, who are portraying these character traits, will continue to crave, as they are not taking personal responsibility for their actions. They cannot see how they are affecting themselves, or those around them, because their egos have become proficient at tricking their minds into seeing reality in a distorted way. By having blind passions, or the need to search out something so badly, one creates a “rational” way of thinking. They can then continue to do what they want, without taking personal responsibility. When dealing with someone who displays addict behaviors, they will be unable to see themselves in an objective way. In my experience when working with people who do this, one has to constantly give them other possibilities in how to view something before seeing any change in the person’s perspectives. While frustrating, it helps to remember that they cannot see their true selves, often due to some sort of trauma. Their addictions allow them to escape thinking about this issue, focusing on something else, like their desires.
I was lucky to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings to listen to peoples’ stories on how they used to act, then their coming to the realization of how their own egos were allowing the addiction to dominate their lives, and how they were able to make a change. It was here, listening to their confessions, I was able to see myself in their stories, and realized I too was guilty of thinking like this. The process of dealing with my own blind passions was difficult, as it made me start to play devil’s advocate, forcing me to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. I think Shinran’s thoughts on deep self reflection is beneficial here, as I never wanted to look inwards at my own issues because it was too scary, due to the darkness I was running away from. It is easier to point the finger outwards, versus taking the time to really look deep within one’s own self.
Shinran was concerned with how he saw himself and through his writings we see he was constantly self-examining himself, and pointing out his own shortcomings. I think it is through this self-examination of ourselves, we can start to uncover our own egos. I feel most people have strong egos, preventing us to not really see our true selves. If we don’t start to look inward versus pointing outward, we will continue to trick our minds into not seeking to change anything. What continues to motivate my own self-reflections is the fact that one day I would like to have children, and I don’t want to show them this type of thinking. I know I can’t help doing it, but I know I need to keep my ego in check because if I give an inch it will take a yard, and then I could easily revert back to rationalizing why I should just do what I want, instead of monitoring myself.
The quote from the beginning of this article is discussing how we as humans are hindered by our blind passions. We all have blind passions because we are not perfect beings, having not yet attained enlightenment, but I don’t think we need to fully do away with all our cravings. What I feel is important to understand, is how at times we can get caught up in wanting to take more than we need, versus, understanding what we do have now. Having hopes and wants is part of being human, and we should strive for positive and healthy ideals. I think we just have to remember to check ourselves from time to time, to ensure we are not letting our egos manipulate our thoughts in a way that is unfair to ourselves and those around us. I hope this was useful in understanding how our own passions and ego’s go hand in hand, and have provided some insight in how we can better self-monitor ourselves.
In Gassho (with palms together),