In Taoist households, an offering of food is left for the hungry ghost on the family altar. If the family doesn’t leave a large enough offering, the hungry ghost might return to the world of the living where it can take whatever it needs. In China, the seventh lunar month, usually late summer or early fall, is devoted to the hungry ghost in a festival that continues all month.
A similar character shows up in the Buddhist/Hindu traditions as well, and the hungry ghost we have today is a blending of Southern and Central Asia, incorporating aspects of both the Taoist and Buddhist religions.
A hungry ghost can be interpreted in many ways but generally it represents a person who can never be satisfied, a person who is so intent on fulfilling his or her physical desires, so busy grasping that they end up haunted beings always chasing an illusive dream of wealth and possessions. Sometimes addicts, with their craving for drugs or alcohol, are called hungry ghosts.
In pictures this creature is often depicted with a huge stomach and spindly arms and legs. No matter how much it eats, it doesn’t receive nourishment because it is always looking for more.
I know I have a bit of the hungry ghost inside me. Maybe we all do.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be so busy grasping that we can’t experience the present moment.
My youngest son just finished at Lassen College and left for Southern California to attend a state college. It was a milestone for both of us. As I helped him pack and spent time with him during his last few days, I realized he would probably never live with me again, at least not for an extended period of time. It also made me look back on his childhood. I supported the family, usually working more than one job. Did I really need to work that hard? How much did I miss? How many lizards did he catch that I never saw? Could I have read to him more than I did?
Questions like these can sink you into a black hole faster than anything, and defeating the hungry ghost should be a step toward happiness not regret. All we can do is move forward.
It seems the past couple weeks I’ve been receiving lots of messages to appreciate the moment. A young man, the son of friends, was killed fighting a forest fire a couple days ago. My sister continues to fight her battle with breast cancer. A woman I used to work with crashed in a plane along with her husband two days after her retirement party. At the Federal Correctional Institute in Herlong recently I took photos during the Fallen Officers Memorial.
I’m not one of those people who think tragedy will never strike me. It comes to us all sooner or later.
Maybe I was once more driven but now I wonder what good it did. I remember too well feeling like a hungry ghost always worried that everything I worked for would disappear, worried about how I would pay my bills, worried about the future.
It’s not that those fears are gone, but I don’t let me eat me up from the
inside any more. I no longer wander the world like a hungry ghost full of fear and desires that can never be filled. I recognize her a little better now.
More importantly, I’ve learned when I take care of myself and nourish myself with things that can’t be bought, when I take time to appreciate every day some small moment of beauty, my hungry ghost learns what it really feels like to be satisfied and so leaves me alone.