Hungry Shades Outside the Walls
A spectre is haunting your town – the spectre of Halloween! Today, there was a Halloween parade in town. All the little kids got to dress up, go “trick-or-treating” at local businesses, and march in the parade. Also, it seems this Saturday, at a local antique shop, there is going to be a Halloween-themed costume party. Apparently, some people from the Travel Channel are also going to be staying the night there – as it is supposedly “haunted”.
So, in the spirit of Halloween, I thought I would share a post on what are commonly referred to as “hungry ghosts” or “hungry shades” in Buddhist culture. In the cyclical existence of Samsara, depending on their karma, some beings may be reborn in the realm of peta loka – which is a realm where ghosts and unhappy spirits wander hopelessly about, searching in vain for sensual fulfillment. Rebirth in this realm is usually due to the vipaka (result, reaction, etc) conditioned by the karma (intended action, volition, etc) of the ten unwholesome actions or a lack of virtue and holding to wrong views.
In his talk called Knowledge, Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo gives this colorful depiction of the realm of hungry shades:
“Or, if you want, you can travel in the world of the hungry shades. The world of the hungry shades is even more fun. Hungry shades come in all different shapes and sizes — really entertaining, the hungry shades. Some of them have heads as big as large water jars, but their mouths are just like the eye of a needle: that’s all, no bigger than the eye of a needle! Some of them have legs six yards long, but hands only half a foot. They’re amazing to watch, just like a cartoon. Some of them have lower lips with no upper lips, some of them are missing their lips altogether, with their teeth exposed all the time. There are all kinds of hungry shades. Some of them have big, bulging eyes, the size of coconuts, others have fingernails as long as palm leaves. You really ought to see them. Some of them are so fat they can’t move, others so thin that they’re nothing but bones. And sometimes the different groups get into battles, biting each other, hitting each other. That’s the hungry shades for you. Really entertaining.”
The title of this post comes from the Tirokudda Kanda:
“Outside the walls they stand, and at crossroads. At door posts they stand, returning to their old homes. But when a meal with plentiful food and drink is served, no one remembers them: Such is the kamma of living beings.
Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives give timely donations of proper food and drink — exquisite, clean — [thinking:] “May this be for our relatives. May our relatives be happy!”
And those who have gathered there, the assembled shades of the relatives, with appreciation give their blessing for the plentiful food and drink: “May our relatives live long because of whom we have gained [this gift]. We have been honored, and the donors are not without reward!”
For there [in their realm] there’s no farming, no herding of cattle, no commerce, no trading with money. They live on what is given here, hungry shades whose time here is done.
As water raining on a hill ƒlows down to the valley, even so does what is given here benefit the dead. As rivers full of water fill the ocean full, even so does what is given here benefit the dead.
“He gave to me, she acted on my behalf, they were my relatives, companions, friends”: Offerings should be given for the dead when one reƒlects thus on things done in the past. For no weeping, no sorrowing no other lamentation benefits the dead whose relatives persist in that way. But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha, it works for their long-term benefit and they profit immediately.
In this way the proper duty to relatives has been shown, great honor has been done to the dead, and monks have been given strength: The merit you’ve acquired isn’t small.”