Monday, October 31, 2016

Hungry Ghosts

Touched off by my last post on the Japanese holiday of Obon, and the fact that it's Halloween, and tomorrow will be the Mexican Day of the Dead, I decided to write  this post focusing on the concept of Hungry Ghosts.

Since I learned about the East Asian concept of "Hungry Ghosts," I found it intriguing. Initially, I found it rather contrasting with Western ideas of what a ghost is supposed to be, but the more I read about it, the more I have come to think that these Eastern and Western ideas may not be entirely different after all.

When I think of a "ghost" in the Western sense, I think of the spirit or soul of a person who has died, but hasn't yet "crossed over" into heaven or hell. A ghost may be around haunting places, objects, or even people, because it as "unfinished business" on earth; events the ghost would like to see happen before its soul can finally rest in peace.

So when I first read about "the Hungry Ghosts," I thought it was strange. Ghosts are dead. They lack physical bodies that must be nourished by food, let alone digestive tracts that yearn to digest it. This suggests that they can "die" again, if they don't get food. Or what what would the food sustain if it the ghost is already dead?

There are some common threads that seem to run through both the Western and Asian idea of a "ghost." The first is the idea of being stuck somewhere in a realm between the land of the living and a final resting place for spirits. The second is the idea for yearning, want, or desire for something. In this sense, the ghosts in both cultures are "hungry." And the third seems to be the need for some sort of atonement in order to escape this realm; you don't want to be a hungry ghost, you want to be a satiated ghost. The difference seems to be in the objectives or requirements that need to be fulfilled in order for this to happen; the "unfinished business" is different.

Whereas in the West, a ghost is usually searching to fulfill something, finding a lost object, seeing a person that wasn't present at its death, mourning the destruction, holding his or her murderer responsible etc., in the case of the Buddhist Hungry Ghost, the ghost is atoning for the specific deeds of its greed and stinginess as a living being on earth.

 Realm of Hungry Ghosts on the
Buddhist Wheel of Life

This could be telling of where Western and Eastern traditions might place value; in the West, a ghost might be seeking to fulfill an individual, almost selfish desire or want, in the East, the ghost is paying the price for being a self-serving, stingy person in life, who cared more about him or herself rather than helping others.

The moral the Western idea of ghosts seems to be, live life to the fullest; have no regrets. You may be a ghost crawling the earth unless you complete everything on the bucket list. But the moral the Eastern idea of ghosts seems to be, put others before you; don't be so stingy and greedy, or when you die, you will know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

So in both cultures you can become a hungry ghost, but for different reasons.

In Buddhist traditions, right moral actions on earth determine whether or not you will be reborn in Nirvana, or will continue to be reborn in one of the realms of Samsara, such as the realm of Hungry Ghosts.

The Western Judeo-Christian tradition is similar, but slightly different; right moral actions determine whether your soul/spirit will be sent to heaven or hell, but being a ghost crawling around on earth in between the spirit and physical realm seems to be a separate phase that exists only in those cases where the deceased has "unfinished business" on earth, which seems to have nothing to do regarding his heaven/hell status. Once you "cross over," your soul "rests in peace," until "Judgement Day."

For Buddhists, being a Hungry Ghost IS its own "hell."

There may be a point at which both cultures meet; a ghost in the western sense may be around because of regret of wrongdoing. Perhaps the ghost feels responsible for killing someone and is trying to atone for that somehow. Perhaps a ghost feels responsible for having stolen something in life, or hidden it, or may be responsible for fraud and it may be around trying to "undo" that deed.

The processes may be different, but in the end, perhaps the idea of ghosts in both cultures may be getting at the same thing, placing value on doing good earthly deeds, such as showing restraint and being benevolent to others on earth etc., so that one may enjoy a favorable and/or fulfilling afterlife.

Where both cultures seem to differ is the final destination of souls.

While in Buddhist traditions, all beings continue to be reborn into one of the realms of Samsara and have a chance to attain "enlightenment," if only they would choose to be "awake," acknowledge the Four Noble truths etc., in Western Judeo-Christian traditions, you get only one chance; if you live a righteous life, heaven awaits, if you live a life of sin you will burn in hell for eternity, and there is no escape.

Ghosts in Video Games
My earliest recollection of a ghost appearing in a video game has got to be of when I played Super Mario 3. In the instruction booklet, the bashful ghost that hides its face when you turn to it was called "Boo Diddley."

Similar ghosts appear in Super Mario World, only now they appear in hordes called the "Boo Buddies."

Now just known as "Boo," these ghosts come back to haunt Mario in later games, appearing hungrier than ever.

Inclusively, Mario is able to become a ghost as one of his abilities in Super Mario Galaxy.

Very recently, I ran across a video on YouTube, on a channel called "Gaming Historian." It's about a game I played a long, long time ago when I was in elementary school, called "Conquest of the Crystal Palace."

The video brought back memories, including one where I was mesmerized by one of the levels, namely Level 3, where the music was creepy, and the background seemed like the faces of other-worldly creatures, like aliens of some kind.

Interestingly enough, a girl named Kim is always around at different parts of each level to try and sell you stuff and give you "news bulletins" from a news network called "QNN." She is somehow around in this level despite all the danger.

And the news bulletin you get from her at this part of the stage is the only hint on where you're at. The words of the bulletin stayed in my mind, and seeing the above video made me somehow remember them.

And I had always asked myself... "Hungry ghosts... What are these hungry ghosts..."

Years later, when I began to study Japanese language and culture, I would come across these words again, when I researched the origins of Obon. When I read about Mokuren's mother ending up in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, memories of this game resurfaced. I felt like Dory from Finding Nemo when she started recalling everything at once.


After seeing the above video, stuff started making more sense. Before I saw it, I had no idea that efforts were made to censor parts of the game. One of the parts of the game to be majorly affected was Level 3, which looks even more creepy in its original form. The hungry ghosts are more clearly seen.

Perhaps the most obvious reference to the Hungry Ghosts as depicted in traditional Buddhist art is the character Yokai Kusaregedo, from one of my most favorite videogame series, Samurai Shodown.

Yokai Kusaregedo is a tragic character as he is quite literally a hungry ghost that crawls the earth looking for food. He has an insatiable appetite for human flesh.

But perhaps the most memorable ghost for me in video games that has stayed in my mind haunting me since the day I saw it has got to be the ghost from the game Zelda: Link's Awakening for the Gameboy.

Ghosts have appeared in the Zelda series since the very first game on the original NES.

And they appear as normal enemies in Zelda Link's Awakening.

But this one particular ghost starts following you and he won't leave you alone until you do what it asks you; take it to its old house.

After seeing its old house abandoned and dilapidated, one last time, it finally asks you to take it to its grave, the ghost's final resting place.

For your service, the ghost awards you a Secret Seashell which it tells you is hidden in a jar in its old home. And there, your quest with the ghost ends.

This mini side-game/story really stayed in my mind after playing this game. I always asked myself... Who was this the ghost of? What did it do in its life? Did it have relatives? A mate? Why did it want to see its house again?

This was one of those ghosts who was "hungry," but in the Western sense.

For whatever reason, I feel like this ghost right here...

A part of me wishes it could go back to the house where I grew up... To recall all the memories I had as a child...

Related Post:
Summer: Obon Season in Japan

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