Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Contemplating the suffering of hungry ghosts (pretas)

Preta realms from the Wheel of Life
The realms of the pretas are to be found in two places: one is bellow Jambudvipa (our realm of human beings[1]), which is their main place of existence and is ruled by King Yama, and the other is between the realm of humans and the realms of the gods. Master Vasubandhu explains:

“The king of the pretas is called Yama; his residence, which is the principal dwelling of the pretas, is located under Jambudvipa. The pretas that are found elsewhere are the surplus of the pretas. The pretas differ much one from another; certain of them possess supernatural powers and enjoy a glory similar to that of the gods”.[2] 

            There are two kinds of pretas: 1) pretas who live collectively, and 2) pretas who travel through space.

1) Pretas who live collectively
Among the pretas who live collectively, there are three types: a) pretas who suffer from external obscurations, b) pretas who suffer from internal obscurations and c) pretas who suffer from specific obscurations.

a) Pretas who suffer from external obscurations
These are the pretas who suffer from intense hunger and thirst or from unbearable heat and cold. Thus, whatever food or water they see in the distance, it proves to be nothing but a mirage, because when they come closer, they realize it vanished, dried up or that it is guarded by armed demons who beat them and chase them away.
As Master Genshin described:

Section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll depicting one of 
the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts
who constantly seeks water to drink. Kyoto Museum
“At times they succeed in finding a stream of pure water but when they rush to it and try to scoop up the water in their hands, demons of great strength come along and beat them with iron clubs, or the water suddenly turns into flames and burns them or it ceases to flow and is dried up”. […]

There are hungry spirits  called Eating-Water whose bodies are parched with thirst. They rush about in search for water but cannot find even a drop. Their long hair covers their faces so that they cannot see. They run along the river banks and if there are people crossing they lap up the water which may be left in their foot prints, and thus moistening their parched throats they manage to exist. Or when people make an offering of water to the spirits of their departed parents they give a little to these spirits and so they prolong their lives. If the spirits try to take some of this water themselves then the various demons whose function it is to guard the water beat them with sticks. Those who in this life mixed water with the sake they sold, or those who put in earth worms and leeches and so did not fulfill the good Law (Dharma), receive this reward”.

Also, as Genshin said, "there are still other hungry spirit  called Fear-Hope who live on the offerings which people make to their departed parents. Beside this they have nothing on which to live. Those who in this life rob the poor of even the little they have acquired through great efforts, receive this reward. Then, again, there are hungry spirits who are born on the seashore where there is neither cool shade nor river water and where it is so hot that even their winter days are more than a thousand times hotter than summer days on earth. They subsist on obtaining only the morning dew. Though they live on the sea shore, the sea looks to their eyes like a dry place. Those who in this life have taken advantage of merchants who have been overtaken with illness on their journey and have beaten down their prices and so robbed them receive this reward”.

b) Pretas who suffer from internal obscurations
This kind of pretas have very small mouths, some no bigger than the eye of a needle, and a large sized stomach of hundreds of meters or even more. When they try to drink water, the heat of their breath evaporates it as soon as it goes down their throats. In the same way, no matter how much they eat, they cannot be satisfied due to the contradiction between their mouths and stomachs, but even if they somehow manage to eat a little, it will burst into flames during the night and burn their inside organs. Also movement is extremely hard and painful to them because of their grass-like limbs.

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend[3]:

"Some, with bellies as huge in size as a mountain,
Connected to mouths, the mere eye of a needle,
Are tortured by hunger, not having the capacity
To eat even the tiniest lump of filth thrown away.

Some, with bodies just skin and bones, and naked,
Are like the withered trunk-tops of palmyra palm trees;
While some blaze flames from their mouths in the sphere of the night,
Having to eat blazing sand as their food, poured into their mouths."

Master Genshin also described such type of pretas who suffer from internal obscurations:

“Then there are hungry spirits called Eating-and-Vomiting whose bodies are very broad and a half  yodjana in height. Their stomach and chest feel heavy, and so they continually try to vomit, but as they cannot succeed in this they suffer in various ways. Those husbands who in this life ate the good food themselves and gave nothing to their wives and children, and such wives as ate all the good food themselves and gave nothing to their husbands, receive this reward.

Then, again, there are hungry spirits called Eating-Odour who have to live on the smell of the food which sick people offer along the rivers or in forests. Those who in this life allowed wife and children only to smell the good food which they themselves ate, receive this reward”.

Pretas who feed on human dung
c) Pretas who suffer from specific obscurations
The experiences of this kind of pretas vary from one another, according to the specific causes that brought them into that state. For example, some have many creatures living on their bodies and devouring them, or may have their own food transformed into various uneatable and foul matters, while some other cut their own flesh and eat it. 

As Master Genshin said, quoting Nagarjuna’s Prajnaparamita-sastra:

“Then there are hungry spirits who have nothing at all to eat, and so they break open their own skulls and eat their brains. Again, there are hungry spirits who emit flames from their mouths and live upon the moths which happen to fly into these flames. There are hungry spirits who feed on pus, phlegm and the remains of the washings of human dung.”

Or as he described in his Ojoyoshu:

“ There are other hungry spirits who for lack of food go to cemeteries and eat the cremated bodies, but this does not stay their hunger. Those who in this life were prison wardens and who ate the food intended for the prisoners receive this reward.”

 Pretas who go to cemeteries and feed on corpses
A specific obscuration is that which manifests upon the false teachers of the Dharma:

“There are hungry spirits called Eating-Law (Dharma) who run about on steep places where it is difficult to walk, seeking food but finding none. If they enter a temple and hear an exposition of the Law (Dharma) they obtain strength and manage to live. Those who in this life sought to obtain fame by a false interpretation of the Law receive this reward”.

2. Pretas who travel through space
This category includes various types of pretas which are generaly tormented by constant fear and hallucination. Generaly speaking, they want to offload their pain on others, so wherever they go they do harm to others, thus many of them fall into hells when their life as a preta comes to an end. Even when they visit their dear ones from previous life, they bring only sickness, insanity and various other sufferings, which causes magicians and exorcists to harm and destroy them.
They also suffer from the distorted perceptions of other kind of pretas, like perceiving the sun of winter to be too cold, or the moon too hot in summer night. Their bodily form may be of various hideous animals, like ugly dogs, birds and others.

As we have seen, the causes of being born among pretas are various kinds of actions motivated by greed, avarice, jealousy, etc. Their lifespan is also described by Master Genshin as follows:

“One day in this realm is as long as one month of human life and existence here lasts for 500 [preta] years".

Other texts, including Nagarjuna's Letter to a Friend, say that the life of pretas can be even longer, like five thousand or ten thousand preta years.
Master Genshin said:
"The Shobonenjogyo[4] says that those who are cruel, covetous, jealous and envious fall into this realm of hungry ghosts (Spirits). By the cruel and the covetous are meant those who think only of their own things, who do not love others or give alms, and those who are never satisfied no matter how much they rob others”.

In chapter four of his Kyogyoshinsho, Master Shinran quotes Master Che-kwan of Koryo[5]:

“Hungry ghosts are called pretas in Sanskrit. Their places of habitation are found in various realms. Hungry ghosts with much merit become spirits of mountains and forests or of graveyards. Those without merit dwell in filthy places, receive no food or drink, and are constantly whipped. Forced to dam up rivers and oceans, they suffer immeasurable pain. Those who harbor flattery and deception in their hearts and have committed the five grave offenses and the ten evil acts that belong to the lowest degree of karmic evil receive the recompense of this state of existence”.[6]

*

            At the end of this presentation on pretas, I would like to add another special category of hungry ghosts - the powerful pretas who wish to dominate other beings through religion.

As I explained above, there are various types of pretas, and not all of them are weak or tortured by mere hunger or thirst. Some pretas have great powers due to previous good karma and merits, as Vasubandhu said: "the pretas differ much one from another; certain of them possess supernatural powers and enjoy a glory similar to that of the gods”[7], but also great arrogance and pride.  

Among the pretas, the category called gyalpos in Tibetan are the most powerful. "Gyalpo" means "king" or "royal" and it indicates the various leaders of the preta plane of existence, so they are from the same category Vasubandhu reffered to in the above passage. It is said that in their past lives they were great practitioners who accumulated merit, but were not able to overcome pride and arrogance, or they died with thoughts of hate, vengeance, etc.

Generally speaking, all the pretas have the tendency to influence others. They are all eager for attention, offerings, etc, but the gyalpos have the best power to put this wish into action. They can be masters of deceit[8], disguise in various ways, even take the appearance of great teachers of the past or Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and they like to impart various so called "teachings". There are some stories of advanced Buddhist practitioners who were tricked by gyalpos. This category of pretas can also perform miracles and offer visions to make people entrust and obey to them.

Into my opinion, the abrahamic/monotheist religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) were caused by such powerful pretas with imperialist tendencies. All of these religions were founded arround visions, miracles and a central authoritarian "divine" figure who pretends total subsmission from his believers. The jealousy of the "god" of Old Testament is clearly expressed in the first of the ten comandments and in other passages of the same text. This is also accepted in Christianity:

"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out  of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments."

Also in the Quran there are many passages like that, but I quote here only a few:

“Follow what thou art taught by inspiration from thy Lord: there is no god but He: and turn aside from those who join gods with Allah.”(Qur’an 6:106)

"The worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are those who reject Him: They will not believe." (Qur’an 8:55)

“Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. And those with him are hard (ruthless) against the disbelievers and merciful among themselves" (Qur'an 48:29)

“I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip.” (Qur’an8:12)

“Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book (Jews or Christians), until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.” (Qur’an 9:29)

As we can clearly see here, such a "god" is clearly NOT an Enlightened being, but a person dominated by jealousy, frustration and anger, who shares his so called "love" only with those who love him or follow his instructions, and punishes the lack of obedience of fathers to the third and fourth generations. Also, in the case of the Quran, he encourages his worshippers to be ruthless with non-believers, whom he himself regards as "beasts" and does his best to terrorize them! Surely a being like that will sink even more in the lower realms, even in the hells, after his life as a gyalpo or powerful preta is over.

We can see clearly the difference between such angry spirits dominated by the need for attention and a Buddha who has undiscriminative Compassion for all beings, no matter they accept His teachings or not! A Buddha does not need the attention and worship of others[9], He is not affected if beings love Him or despise Him. Praise or critic do not influence Him. All He does for unenlightened beings arises from His pure Wisdom and Compassion:

"The Buddhas of the ten quarters think compassionately on sentient beings just as a mother thinks of her child."[10]

Also, how do all Buddhas try to convince us to entrust to Amida Buddha? Clearly, not by force, nor terror, and not by threatening to destroy us and our children to the third and fourth generations:

"Shakyamuni and all the other Buddhas

Are truly our compassionate father and mother.
With various compassionate means they lead us to awaken
Supreme shinjin (faith in Amida Buddha) that is true and real."[11]


Surely, no good can come from entrusting to some worldly jealous and vengeful spirits, no matter if the teachings associated with them do contain some good elements, too. Powerful pretas (and their followers, too) can have their own spiritual evolution, some may be better than others, but certainly, not one of them is enlightened and none escaped from the slavery of the three poisons: ignorance, greed/attachement and aversion. Contrary to this, taking refuge in a Buddha will lead us, sooner or later, to Enlightenment. Thus, one must be extremely careful to whom he is entrusting oneself to, as the effect is simmilar to the cause. If we take refuge in samsaric spirits, no matter how powerful they are, we will never escape samsara; if we take refuge in the Buddhas, and especially in Amida Buddha, we will ourseles attain Buddhahood.

            The monotheistic religions believe in the existence of a creator god. However, this runs contrary to the teaching of the Buddha, according to which unenlightened beings are the karmic cause for the existence of unenlightened samsaric realms. Their individual and collective karma actually manifested the realms, worlds and universes in which they live[12]. Contrary to this, Enlightened beings or Buddhas, naturaly and karmically manifest Pure Lands or Enlightened realms. If a so called "supreme being" created a world like ours that means he is not enlightened, because if he was enlightened this world would have been perfect and inhabitted by perfectly enlightened beings. Amida Buddha (and any Buddha!) does not pretend to be the creator of this samsaric world, but only of His enlightened Pure Land, where He vowed to bring all samsaric beings for their final liberation (attainment of Buddhahood/Nirvana).

Any person who pretends to be the creator and owner of this world or any samsaric world is afflicted with arrogance and is hungry for power - a feature which is often found in some gods and especially in some powerful pretas (hungry spirits) who have connection with the human realms. The attitude of such spirits or gods is an imperialist one, that is, to receive the praise and submission of as many beings as possible. I often give the example of Baka Brahma, the god who was mislead by Mara into believing that he was "the Omniscient, the Omnipotent, the Lord God, the Maker, the Creator, the Chief, the Ordainer, the Almighty, the Father of all that are and that will be" and was corrected by Shakyamuni Buddha[13]. However, those who have such imperialist tendency are not only from the realms of gods, but from the preta realms, too. My opinion is that most of the gods who live way beyond our human realm are more busy with enjoying their beautiful long lives, than dealing with the affairs of the humans. So, I think that the pretas are more connected with us, and more involved with our plane of existence. Knowing this we must be aware of the category of powerful pretas who want to dominate others through religion, and do as Shinran advised us:

“Those who take refuge truly and wholeheartedly, freeing themselves from all delusional attachments and all concern with the propitious or unpropitious, must never take refuge in spirits or non-Buddhist teachings.”[14]





[1] The realm of human beings does not mean only the humans living on this planet. The Buddha Dharma recognizes the existence of many parallel universes and worlds.
[2] AbhidharmakoSabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p. 460

[3] Letter to a Friend (bShes-pa'i springs-yig, Skt. Suhrllekha) by Nagarjuna, translated by Alexander Berzin, 2006, http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/sutra/level6_study_major_texts/suhrllekha_letter_friend_nagarjuna/letter_friend.html
[4] Saddharmasm tyupasthana Sutra (Shobonenjogyo) – Mindfulness of the Right Dharma Sutra.
[5] That passage appeared in T’ien-t’ai’s Discourse on the Fourfold Teachings.
[6] Kyogyoshinsho – On Teaching, Practice, Faith, and Enlightenment, translated by Hisao Inagaki, Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, Kyoto, 2003, p.334
[7] AbhidharmakoSabhasyam, English translation by Leo M. Pruden; Berkeley, Calif, Asian Humanities Press, 1991; vol 2, p. 460
[8] However, not all gyalpo spirits manifest a negative and imperialist attitude. There are also some gyalpo who can show interest in the Dharma, but as they have an inconstant character and pride and anger are some of their main features, they can be easily offended and manipulated by the Maras.
[9] To worship the Buddha is karmically beneficial for the unenlightened beings, not for a Buddha, as He does not depend on anything.
[10] The 'Chapter of Mahasthamaprapta' of the Sutra of the Samadhi of Heroic Advance.
[11] Shinran Shonin, Hymn of the Two Gateways of Entrance and EmergenceThe Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.629
[12] See the chapter "Some Buddhist explanations of the origin and existence of the universe" from my book, The True Teaching on Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, Dharma Lion Publications, Craiova, 2015, p. 31
[13] See chapter "There is no supreme god or creator in the Buddha Dharma" from my book, The True Teaching on Amida Buddha and His Pure Land, Dharma Lion Publications, Craiova, 2015, p. 18
[14] Shinran quoted this passage in his Kyogyoshinsho, chapter VI, from the Sutra of the Ten Wheels of Ksitigarbha.  Kyogyoshinsho - The Collected Works of Shinran, Shin Buddhism Translation Series, Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, Kyoto, 1997, p.273

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