The hunger of ghosts
Over the years I’ve been following how the beliefs in the Chinese hungry ghosts have been evolving, including, it seems, more non-Chinese beginning to pick up, mainly by way of precautions and avoidances.
Yesterday marked the start of the 7th lunar month, which varies from year to year on the solar calendar. This year the month runs from Aug. 22 to Sept. 19, a time when hungry ghosts supposedly roam the land, sea and air causing trouble.
The belief probably originated in India, with the Sanskrit name “preta” which simply meant the deceased but could also be used to refer to ghosts and evil beings. Borrowed into Buddhism and transported across Southeast and East Asia, the local terms came to refer to hungry or even starving ghosts — “egui” in Chinese and “gaiki” in Japanese.
These ghosts are said to be the souls of people who were deceitful, greedy and selfish, traits which they carry into the afterlife as a hungry ghost, constantly hungry for particular objects. It fits into the Buddhist idea of karma: The greed one harbors in life spills over into death and because this greed is insatiable, it causes extreme suffering. Social inequities seem to carry over as well into death. The poor ones will just never find food or water. The wealthier ones will find themselves feasting on feces and corpses. Worse though are those who do find sustenance but cannot swallow. Still others can swallow, but the food immediately evaporates into smoke while drinking water turns into fire!
The hungry ghosts have found their way into art, the subject of paintings used for religious instruction. They are usually painted as emaciated, with a bloated belly to signify their huge appetites but, at the same time, have long thin necks and tiny mouths to emphasize their difficulties taking in food.
These hungry ghosts are usually confined to an underworld, tormented and desperate. It is clear that the hungry ghosts folklore was intended as morality lessons, warning people that their excesses in life would bring them grievous suffering after death.
There is, however, a chance of reducing, even redeeming, the suffering, because in the 7th lunar month, when they are let out of the underworld, they can benefit from offerings left by the living, as acts of compassion. This is why the living are urged to leave food and beverages outside their homes, which benefit the malevolent hungry ghosts as well as spirits of those who the living have forgotten.
Across the centuries, food offerings seem to have become more of methods to appease hungry ghosts, asking them to spare households or communities. The Taoists have borrowed this belief as well, with even more elaborate ceremonies and feasts to appease hungry ghosts.
It seems the beliefs have mutated to become more like Halloween, the ghosts beginning to resemble cinema ghouls and the walking dead that go around wreaking havoc on the living and just making the whole month inauspicious.
Business people are reluctant to start new businesses, including investing in stocks. Surgeries are postponed; I checked with my physician friends and they say elective surgeries are indeed deferred until the month is over. The most superstitious will not fly, or take long trips, fearful that they might be ambushed by hungry ghosts.
Sometimes there’s a chain of adverse effects, as in people postponing marriages, which means a decline in the incomes of wedding event planners, and restaurants that rely on big nuptial receptions.
I’ve always scoffed at this hungry ghosts bit, pointing out how believers further reinforce their fear by becoming more conscious of every misfortune, every accident, during this month, and then convincing themselves it happened because of hungry ghosts. The harm they cause comes from our own created fears.
Yet we seem to almost want to believe in these malevolent ghosts. I’m reminded of the film “Ghost,” where the villain is dragged off into the night by shadowy spirits. Reinvented for our times, these hungry ghosts now have to be appeased. In one of the early morning shows yesterday, they were talking about hungry ghosts together with “iwas malas” (avoiding bad luck) measures like lighting incense and red candles and offering fruits, food and even beer to the spirits.
It’s strange seeing how a Chinese Buddhist belief is adopted and modified for settings like the Philippines, with thoroughly modern concerns such as the stock market. The emphasis is on avoiding misfortune by bribing the ghosts.
I would have preferred the original concept of using the hungry ghosts to remind people to remember the dead. Or, more importantly, the stories around the torment of the hungry ghosts were meant to underscore the dangers of greed and selfishness. We can become hungry ghosts even in life, never satisfied with what we have, whether it is wealth, material possessions, or power.
Ghost stories are more about the living and the bereaved than the deceased. Filipinos love to exchange ghost stories that might actually be pleasant, speaking of close ties with the recently departed. We Filipinos have our own hungry ghosts, the ones whose deaths are premature, leaving pain and grief. There too are the hungry ghosts who are victims of violence, and, more than sorrow, they spark anger.
In the 1970s when my mother would warn me about the ghost month and tell me to avoid being out too late at night, I would laugh and tell her she was just imposing her own brand of curfew. When I began to hear stories of people being arrested and disappeared, I realized we did indeed face another kind of hungry ghost. Are we seeing more of these hungry silenced ghosts today?
Left untreated and festering, the wounds left by the disappeared, the salvaged, inflict great harm on families, communities and the nation, poisoning the wells of goodness and virtue and condemning us to drift about without our moral compasses.
We should take heed and fear the lingering malaise of these hungry ghosts of injustice.
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