Today is the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrated during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, known as Ghost Month, coinciding with the full moon. It is celebrated in Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism and also in many East Asian folk religions. On the fifteenth day of the month, all the hungry ghosts are released and are allowed to wander in the world of the living for a month. The intention of this festival is to honor one’s ancestors and dutiful family members burn joss paper clothes and money to help ease one’s ancestors’ suffering in the afterlife. In fact, this year, one Hong Kong establishment is selling joss paper face masks for the celebration. (Even hungry ghosts need to social distance!) Some celebrate by providing lavish trays of food and sweet treats for their ancestors.
Specifically in Buddhism, a hungry ghost is known as a preta, “a spiritual being damned to suffer great pangs of intense need in the afterlife for displays of greed, theft, or violence while living.” (Lion’s Roar email 8/28/20) A hungry ghost is quite literally suffering karmic retribution in the afterlife for committing these heinous deeds while alive.
A hungry ghost’s unending desire can never be satiated because they have a pin-hole mouth or in some cases a mouth that contains flames so that any nourishment is immediately burned up before it can come inside. They also have very, very thin necks, without any space for nourishment to travel. Hungry ghosts also have the caricatured large, extended bellies of those who are starving. Though living celebrants put food out for the hungry ghosts in hopes that it will help to ease their suffering, it can also serve as a teasing taunt to hungry ghosts who are unable to get any of the gifts of nourishment inside their bodies and so are constantly frustrated, ungratified, unfulfilled, and angry. Always hungry, they can never consume enough to ease the suffering of their hunger. Suffering from such unquenchable desire can never be sated. This is the lesson of the hungry ghost.
The suffering of a hungry ghost however, is a temporary punishment. Once the karmic sentence has been served, one can be reborn into a new life and hopefully work, when human again, towards enlightenment and avoid ever being a hungry ghost again. Redemption is always possible, unlike the damnation of an infinitely eternal hell.
In one way or another, we are all hungry ghosts. Our society, our economy, is built on the false promise of satisfying an insatiable hunger. We are never satisfied with what we have and are always desirous of more and more, believing we will find some sense of contentment or happiness in acquiring more and “better.” This is what drives and what defines capitalism. This mindset can also exploit our politics in protecting the powerful who want even more, at the expense of everyone else.
We are all hungry ghosts and the time for reincarnation is now. This reincarnation has never been more urgent. We have served our karmic sentence. It’s time to focus on our redemption—our shared humanity, our connections, our intra- and interdependence. May the memory of this collective sentence of our karma as hungry ghosts awaken us beyond our own selfish desires to the more generous understanding that we are all, in fact, one community. May we rebirth ourselves and our society with the awareness that we affect and are affected by everyone’s experience and life, that we are all inextricably linked.
May we learn from the suffering of the hungry ghosts that we can only be truly nourished when everyone is nourished. This is the only redemption.