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Hungry ghost is a Western translation of Chinese 餓鬼 (èguǐ), a concept in Chinese Buddhism and Chinese traditional religion representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way.
These beings are "ghosts" only in the sense of not being fully alive; not fully capable of living and appreciating what the moment has to offer.
The English term has often been used metaphorically to describe the insatiable craving of an addict.
Chinese folk religion
Hungry ghosts also appear in Chinese ancestor worship. 鬼法界, 鬼界 is "the realm of hungry ghosts". Some Chinese believe[who?] that the ghosts of their ancestors return to their houses at a certain time of the year, hungry and ready to eat. A festival called the Hungry Ghost Festival (TC: 盂蘭盆, SC: 盂兰盆 Yúlánpén) is held to honor the hungry ancestor ghosts and food and drink is put out to satisfy their needs.
When Buddhism entered China, it encountered stiff opposition from the Confucian adherents to ancestor worship. Under these pressures, ancestor worship was combined with the Hindu/Buddhist concept of the hungry ghost. Eventually, the Hungry Ghost Festival became an important part of Chinese Buddhist life.
According to transcribed oral tradition, some Chinese villagers believe that spirits may be granted permission to return to the world of the living, and to take what they can from there, if these spirits had not been given sufficient offerings by their living relatives.
Comparison with Buddhism outside of China
In Tibetan Buddhism Hungry Ghosts (Tib. ཡི་དྭགས་, Wyl. yi dwags, Sanskrit: pretas) have their own realm depicted on the Bhavacakra and are represented as teardrop or paisley-shaped with bloated stomachs and necks too thin to pass food such that attempting to eat is also incredibly painful. Some are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain". This is a metaphor for people futilely attempting to fulfill their illusory physical desires.
According to the History of Buddhism, as elements of Chinese Buddhism entered a dialogue with Indian Buddhism in the Tibetan Plateau, this synthesis is evident in the compassion rendered in the form of blessed remains of food, etc., offered to the pretas in rites such as Ganachakra.
In Japanese Buddhism, two such creatures exist: the gaki and the jikininki. Gaki (餓鬼) are the spirits of jealous or greedy people who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as human corpses or feces, though in more recent legends, it may be virtually anything, no matter how bizarre. Jikininki (食人鬼 "man-eating ghosts") are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to seek out and eat human corpses. They do this at night, scavenging for newly dead bodies and food offerings left for the dead. They sometimes also loot the corpses they eat for valuables. Nevertheless, jikininki lament their condition and hate their repugnant cravings for dead human flesh.
Similar traditions in other cultures
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The Book of Enoch (a pseudepigraphal book of the Bible) describes the fall of the Grigori and the demons who might be the Grigori themselves, or the offspring of the union of the Grigori and mankind. These creatures are said to wander the world in the form of evil spirit, endlessly yearning for food though they have no mouths to eat, endlessly thirsty though they cannot drink. Endlessly seeking these things from the living, the evil spirits seek to possess weak-willed men and women to dispossess their spirits and to take over their bodies so as to partake of food and drink.
- E.g. Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker, pp. 29, 30, ISBN 0-465-08585-7, of the compulsive infidelity of a patient.
- Source: http://buddhism-dict.net/ddb/indexes/term-en.html (accessed: October 18, 2007)
- Martin, Emily; Emíly M. Ahern (1973). The cult of the dead in a Chinese village. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804708357.