And long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night! It’s Halloween once again. Funny how it always comes on October 31st, isn’t it?
Now, as you may or may not know, the word Halloween comes from Old English and means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening’, referring to the eve before All Hallows Day or The Feast of All Saints. Well, somehow over the centuries, Halloween became associated with things very much unholy: ghouls, ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and all the rest.
Here’s some more etymology for you, the word ‘ghost’ comes from High German geist or ‘spirit’ and is related to the Sanskrit word heda, ‘anger.’ The concept of a ghost is based on the idea that a person’s spirit exists separately from his or her body. This is not exactly how Buddhism sees things, but nonetheless we have plenty of specters floating around the Buddhist world and they are called “hungry ghosts.” Actually, they are not quite “ghosts” because they are only half-dead, but why nit-pick.
Hungry ghosts can be found in folklore from every corner of Asia. They are usually described as having mummified skin, withered limbs, extended stomachs, long thin necks, and sometimes they breathe fire.
Hungry ghosts are hungry for life, but for some reason they are not capable of experiencing it completely. The unsatisfactoriness (dukkha) they feel is the misery of being only half-alive.
In Tibet, “hungry ghosts” (Sanskrit: pretas) exist in their own realm on the Wheel of Becoming (Bhavacakra). In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it says “At the same time a soft yellow light of the hungry ghosts realm shines before you, penetrating your heart in parallel with the wisdom light. Do not indulge in it! Abandon clinging and longing!” Indeed, you don’t want to mess with the hungry ghost realm.
In Japanese Buddhism they have gaki, spirits who are cursed with insatiable desires, and jikininki, man-eating ghosts, hungrier than anyone in the Donner party.
Hungry ghosts can be understood metaphorically, of course. They represent a life-condition in which one is never satisfied, subject to constant craving. A person in such a state is miserable, and their misery stems from looking for satisfaction from things outside of their own lives. When we have realized inner-contentment, and are satisfied with the knowledge of our true nature, there is no need to look anywhere for peace, satisfaction, happiness, for we understand that it is always present within us. All we need to do is tap into it.
Here’s what Shunryu Suzuki had to say about this in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
“When we express our true nature, we are human beings. When we do not, we do not know what we are. We are not an animal, because we walk on two legs. We are something different from an animal, but what are we? We may be a ghost; we do not know what to call ourselves. Such a creature does not actually exist. It is a delusion. We are not a human being anymore, but we do exist . . .
If something exists, it has its own true nature, its Buddha nature. In the Pari-nirvana Sutra, Buddha says, “Everything has Buddha nature,” but Dogen reads it in this way: “Everything is Buddha nature.” There is a difference. If you say, “Everything has Buddha nature,” it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, “Everything is Buddha nature,” it means everything is Buddha nature itself. When there is no Buddha nature, there is nothing at all. Something apart from Buddha nature is just a delusion. It may exist in your mind, but such things actually do not exist.”