Who Are the Hungry Ghosts?
I've been going on about the Six Realms but haven't yet mentioned hungry ghosts. And, y'know, summer is hungry ghost season in much of Asia. In parts of Japan, the hungry ghost observance Obon is held in mid-August (or mid-July in other parts). And in China, this year's hungry ghost festivals will be late in August.
In Buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts are creatures with big, empty bellies, straw-thin necks and tiny mouths. They are desperately hungry but cannot eat. Even if they are given food, the food turns into blazing coals or blood or pus before they can eat it.
As explained in earlier posts, you can think of the Six Realms as realities we create for ourselves out of our own mental projections. Basically, the realms are who we think we are and what we think life is supposed to be. Most of the realms are marked by some kind of insatiable desire. What sets hungry ghosts apart?
Hungry ghosts often are compared to people with drug and alcohol addictions, and I think that's valid. But on reflection, there may be another way to define them, to contrast them with beings living in other realms.
In other realms, people strive for something that's always just out of reach. Or, they may achieve what they desire, but soon they are dissatisfied and want something else. But for hungry ghosts, there is no satisfaction, even for a moment. The craving is their only reality, and they have no hope that life will ever be otherwise.
The origin of hungry ghost festivals can be found in a Mahayana scripture called the Ullambana Sutra. In this sutra, the Buddha's disciple Maudgalyayana learned that his mother had been reborn as a hungry ghost. Food turned into burning coals before she could eat it. . Maudgalyayana went to the Buddha to learn what he could do for her.
The Buddha told his disciple to fill clean basins with fruits and other food, along with offerings such as incense and candles, and place them in front of an altar. Then the sangha could assemble and chant on behalf of the hungry ghosts. Food presented in this way would satisfy the hungry ghosts.
The Zen ceremony performed on behalf of hungry ghosts is called the Gate of Sweet Nectar. One of the poignant aspects of this ceremony is that offerings of food and flowers are made on a special altar set up some distance from the main altar. This is done, I am told, because hungry ghosts are afraid of the Buddha.
So the answer to "Who are the hungry ghosts?" would be, those who are hopelessly lost to unsatisfiable craving and who are afraid, or somehow feel unworthy, to ask for help. Hungry ghosts can also metaphorically represent all of our unending cravings.