Soothing Our Hungry Ghost

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In Buddhist mythology the Hungry Ghost is portrayed with a large belly and a very skinny throat, just wide enough for a needle. He wants to eat and feel full, but he can not do it. No matter what he eats, no matter how much he eats, he is always hungry.

Traditionally, the Hungry Ghosts represented ancestors who had not been properly provided with what they need to flourish in the afterlife. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, often uses the Hungry Ghost to describe a psychological condition:

When we feel disconnected with our source of life, with our ancestors, with our traditional values, we begin to wither and become a hungry ghost, going around and looking for something to help us revive, looking for a source of vitality again. Someone who is alienated feels that he or she is a separate entity that has no connection with anyone. There is no real communication between him or her with the sky, with the earth, with other human beings, including his father, her mother, brother, sister and so on. Those who feel cut off like that have to learn how to practice so that they will feel connected again with life, with the source of life that has bought him or her there. (From the essay, "Touching the Earth.")

It is rare to grow up anywhere in the world today without having a little bit of the Hungry Ghost in us. For some of us, it is a primary drive, though often unconscious. It expresses itself as generalized disappointment and restlessness. Where we are, what we have, who we are, is not good enough. We want to be somewhere else, doing something else, being someone else.

Mindfulness practice soothes the Hungry Ghost in us. We come back to our bodies and to the direct experience of the present moment. We begin to see glimpses of our interconnectedness. (I love the way the Japanese Zen teacher Uchiyama says it: “We’re universal whether we think so or not, and reality doesn’t care what we think.”)

A specific Hungry Ghost therapy developed by Thich Nhat Hanh is the movement meditation known as the The Five Touchings of the Earth. In the Five Touchings we bring to conscious awareness the ways we are connected to our blood and spiritual families, to the people we love and the people who have made us suffer, and to our country and its history. We acknowledge what is and also see the potential for transformative change in ourselves and in others.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will practice together the Five Touchings of the Earth. If you are not able to be with us, I invite you to practice the Five Touchings on your own this week.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


Kosho Uchiyama: This Life is One With Everything
from Opening the Hand of Thought : Approach to Zen

It’s incredibly difficult to understand this life which is one with everything. I have been practicing zazen for some thirty years since becoming a monk, and the one thing that is gradually becoming clearer to me is that “I” am one with everything. . . . [T]he longer I practice, the clearer it becomes to me that nothing is separated from me. Please try it and see: If you put your whole energy into practicing zazen, continually opening the hand of thought, you will clearly see that you are connected to everything.

Where do we go after death? Nowhere. Life is universal. When we’re born, we come from this universal life. We are all, without exception, universal. Only our brains get caught up in the notion that we are individual. We’re universal whether we think so or not, and reality doesn’t care what we think.

As long as we are living, we eat cabbage and rice, pasta and fruit, bread and wine, or whatever. Our bodies are collections of such stuff: Superficially, it seems that our bodies are separate from the rest of the world. But as a matter of fact, heat and moisture are radiated, and nutrients and light are constantly being absorbed by our skins. Everything is coming and going with remarkable freedom. We really are universal. Where are we going after death? Back to the universal life. That’s why the, Japanese refer to the recently deceased as shin ki gen (“one who has returned to the origin”). This universal life is the original Self.