Do people ever say you’re a selfish person? Do you find yourself eating cookies every time you desire them? Well guess what, you lucky duck? You’re on the short path towards getting yourself reborn as a “Hungry Ghost,” aka Jikininki, aka Shokujinki, aka Preta.
You’re probably asking: “Oh no, I was hungry last night! Does that make me a Hungry Ghost?”
Actually my slow friend, no, it doesn’t. There are certain strategies one may administer to greatly increase their chances of becoming one, though, should that be your heart’s desire. In fact, desiring to become a hungry ghost may cause you to become a hungry ghost, cursed to seek out other hungry ghosts while eating their feces… but I digress! Let’s learn more about this fantastic creature.
Hungry Ghosts And The Six Realms Of Existence
In Buddhism, there are six realms of existence (well, technically there are many more, but this is the simple version). The realms are, in order of awesomeness:
God Realm: Bliss and pleasure galore! You’re not immortal, but it sure is nice. That being said, you get addicted to how nice it is, which makes it harder to attain enlightenment. Too much good is a bad thing.
Demi-God Realm: Pretty nice like the God realm, though things tend to revolve around jealousy and competitiveness. It’s probably not unlike being born into a reality television show.
Human Realm: This is the realm you’re in… or is it? Get out of here, god. Okay, only humans left now? Good. This is sort of the “middle” realm. In it you can experience both “heavenly” and “hellish” experiences, but that’s good for you, at least when it comes to attaining enlightenment.
Animal Realm: A realm defined by ignorance. You can’t think for yourself and life is about survival.
Hungry Ghosts Realm: Constant desire and greed! You can never have enough and you always want more. Sometimes the thing you want has something to do with a desire that consumed you in a past life. You’re an addict and probably have a huge beer belly.
Hell Realm: Hatred and rage! There’s no compassion and you’re constantly fighting with others. Fiery torture is also common. Luckily, once you’ve finished “burning” all that negative karma you can move up a realm or three! Nowhere to go but up for you!
Of course, the realm we’re most concerned about is the Hungry Ghosts realm. Second to the bottom… not bad, right? Anyways, it could be worse. As mentioned above, the Hungry Ghost realm is achieved by being too greedy or fixed on a certain desire. Maybe you ate too much. Maybe you drank too much. Maybe you sought out “other” pleasures a little too much (I’m looking at you, Mr. Hands). Whatever it is, you’re being punished for wanting too much. Your punishment? Wanting it even more.
Think of it like this… you catch your kid smoking a cigarette. Instead of taking the cigarettes away, you make him smoke the whole thing. Then, one lung later, he realizes that he shouldn’t be smoking anymore. Buddha’s like the father and you’re like the kid.
Now, depending on what country you look at, the Hungry Ghosts have some differences, though they’re all basically the same idea. Some of the “features” of being a hungry ghost.
- The desires you have are never attainable. You want them more than anything but you can never have them.
- Instead of “desires” like the above point, you feed on corpses or eat human feces.
- Some Hungry Ghosts find that they can eat their fill but not be able to drink anything. Others find they can drink there fill but their mouths are the size of pinholes so they cannot eat. Some are able to eat and drink anything, but it just turns to fire whenever they eat it.
Basically, things aren’t great. They also have similarities in terms of how they look all across the board.
- Not really “ghosts” as you might think of them. More like half rotten corpse bodies.
- Big pot bellies. Probably because of the extreme malnutrition they experience.
- So terrifying looking that when a person sees them they “freeze in place and can’t take their eyes off them.” I for one would take my eyes off them.
Here’s some artist renditions to give you an idea:
Even the demons of hell look down on the hungry ghosts, apparently.
Here’s a pleasant cemetery scene.
In the market, Hungry Ghosts gobble up excrement and skin flakes.
Happy birthday (yesterday), Bob Ross!
As you can see, it’s quite the fun-parade. So how do the hungry ghosts affect you and me (besides eating up our poop)? Well, there’s actually a ceremony for it.
Feeding The Hungry Ghosts
“Segaki” (施餓鬼) is a Japanese Buddhist ritual that’s performed to stop the suffering of hungry ghosts as well as to force them to return to their sad corner of hell. It also helps to prevent the dead from falling to the realm of the hungry ghosts. Traditionally, this ritual is performed during O-Bon in the summer though it’s often held during Halloween these days as well (tricky Western influence!).
Want to perform Segaki because you think you have a hungry ghost following you around? Well, you’ll probably need a Buddhist monk, first of all. He will probably meditate for several days, then other people will gather and bring offerings (food), as well as burning incense and sprinkling water from a pine branch. They then burn a piece of paper with the name of the dead on them. This is followed by chants and prayers.
The legend of the jikininki is told in the old Japanese tale of the Buddhist priest Muso Kokushi. It is said that Muso was traveling alone through the mountains in the Mino prefecture of Japan when he lost his way. It was almost dark when he saw an old anjitsu, the home of solitary priests, at the top of a hill and asked the inhabitant if he could stay the night. The inhabitant was an old priest who harshly refused him lodging, however he told him he could find food and a place to sleep in a hamlet nearby.
Muso found the hamlet where the headman welcomed him and promptly supplied him food and a place to sleep. A little before midnight Muso was awakened by a young man, who informed him that earlier that day, before he had arrived, his father had died. He had not told Muso earlier as so he would not feel embarrassed or obliged to participate in ceremonies. However the entire village was now leaving their homes for a nearby village, as it was custom to leave the corpse alone for the night or bad things would befall the village inhabitants. As a priest, Muso told the young man he would do his duty and perform the burial service and stay the night with the corpse. He was not afraid of the demons or evil spirits the young man spoke of.
When the young man and the other villagers had left, Muso knelt by the corpse and the offerings and began the service. In the deepest part of a night a shapeless being entered while Muso was in meditation. Muso could not speak or move as he watched the shape devour the corpse and the offerings. The next morning when the villagers had returned, Muso told the young man what had happened. He was not surprised.
He then asked the young man why the priest on the nearby hill did not do the ceremony. The young man told him there was no priest who lived nearby and there hadn’t been for many years. When Muso spoke of the anjitsu the young man also denied its existence. Muso then departed from the village with proper directions to continue his journey.
Although before he left, he sought out the anjitsu and old priest on the top of the hill to see if he had been mistaken. He found the hill and anjitsu easily, and the old priest let him inside this time. The old priest then began to apologize for displaying his true form in front of Muso. He was the shapeless figure who had devoured the corpse in front of him. He explained that he was a jikininki. After living a selfish life as a priest, only caring about the food and clothes his services brought him, he was reborn as a jikininki, doomed to feed upon corpses. He pleaded with Muso to perform a segaki-service so he could escape his horrible existence as a jikininki. All of a sudden the old priest disappeared along with the anjitsu. Muso found himself kneeling in the grass on the top of a hill next to a tombstone of a priest.
OoOoooOOooh, spooky! Maybe he found a dismembered hook left behind on his car door too.
One more little tidbit before I leave you to your thoughts. Did you notice at the beginning that one of the words for “hungry ghost” was “gaki”? The “gaki” version of the hungry ghost is the one cursed to have an insatiable hunger for a certain object or substance. So, maybe if they were an LOLcat addict, they’d always want to read more LOLcats, and never be satisfied.
So, it’s fitting that the word “gaki” is now used in Japanese to refer to a spoiled child or brat. You’ll hear this word a ton in anime, movies, or TV. “OY, GAKI!” So, now you know where it comes from and what it means. They’re essentially calling them a spoiled brat, though the meaning of gaki nowadays is a little more wish washy.
So, if you think you’re giving in to your desires a little too much, it’s time to think again. I wouldn’t want you to turn into a poop eating desire seeking corpse ghost in your next life. Better to shoot for human again, or at the very least get reborn into the animal realm as a kanji-learning crabigator / allicrab.
Hugry ghost フォーー！