Updated: Oct 29, 2021
Dear Sensei - What does it mean to ‘Feed the Hungry Ghosts? Enjoy All Hallows’ Eve. This is Sara.
Happy Halloween, Sara. That phrase is very important to us in Buddhism and to the Dragonfly Sangha in particular. As you know, I like to define my terms. So let’s start with the word, “Feeding”. The root of this word means to nourish, sustain and foster. And the word, “Ghost”, means to “appear” as in a phantasm or spectre and is also related to the word for “returning“.
Thousands of years ago, the Buddha Shakyamuni used the metaphor of building a house to refer to the way in which our Ego Self is brought about. For him, liberation from suffering and experiencing Nirvana, was about understanding how this was house was built and mindfully changing it. When we awaken to our True Self, it now becomes the Lord of the House. Part of the understanding of how the house was built is also how Feeding the Hungry Ghosts comes in; I call that building constructed by our conditioning the “Haunted House.”
Each of us has probably heard of the expression, “Skeletons in the Closet”. It’s a similar idea to the ghosts that haunt our own negatively conditioned house. These ghosts are the spectres of people, places and things in the past that still return to haunt us. But it is important that we understand that they are not real but phantoms generated by the mind. And what these ghosts desire from us is to be fed. These ghosts represent all of the hurting and hungry aspects of ourselves that are repressed and have never been truly cared for; instead they usually hide in the shadows only coming out when our will is weakened or our minds seem fragile. Hiding from them won’t work as that only makes their power to cause havoc stronger. Like noisy poltergeists they can wreck our lives, throwing us about and making lots of noise.
Some years ago there was a spooky movie called, The Sixth Sense. In it a young boy was haunted by all sorts of ghosts. The turning point was when we he came to understand that resisting them or being frightened was not the answer. He learned that he had to turn towards them and listen to what they needed. When he did, they were freed from the trap of the hellish between realm they were caught up in. This same analogy can also be applied to situations in society at large. My own mentor Roshi Bernie Glassman experienced the cries of the Hungry Ghosts upon his awakening and then spent his life feeding them wherever they could be found.
The Dharma reveals a way to be both reconciled and healed. We do this by taking up our path and beginning training in the Way of Mindful Living. The ritual expression of this is the ancient fire ceremony we observe at the Segaki and experience through the liturgy known as the Gate of Sweet Nectar. The Segaki or "feeding the hungry ghosts" is a ritual that was traditionally performed to stop the suffering of the such restless ghosts/monsters as Gaki, (ghosts tormented by insatiable spiritual hunger), Jikininki (ghosts who were greedy and selfish), the Muenbotoke (the dead who have no living relatives). The ritual nourishes them to have the strength to foster freedom and be sustained for their continued spiritual evolution. It also helps prevent future ghosts from coming into being. In this rite we reflect and write down on a small scroll all the spectres in our personal lives and also in society. We then release them into the purifying fires of wisdom and compassion. It is a powerful experience that allows us to move onward and upward without further hindrance on our life’s journey.
I hope this was helpful and that you will join us in marking this momentous movement towards existential liberation.