In the West, we think of ghosts as spirits to haunt old and dilapidated places. The kinds of specters that make our blood run cold and serve to scare the wits out of us. Yet across Easter Asia, the concept of a hungry ghosts emerged — these hungry ghost are forced to wander to earth, eternally wanting.
The Japanese call these ghosts Gaki (literally meaning “hungry ghost”) but they also go under the name Preta from Buddhist cosmology. These are the spirits of people who were exceptionally greedy in life. Most of the tales about how Gaki are created originate with a person refusing to give a Buddhist monk food or water.
A commonality with all hungry ghosts is their insatiable need to eat. Yet most of the time they are unable to consume food. For some it’s impossible to find nourishment. With others, their mouths or necks are too small to eat the food. And for some, the food bursts into flames even as they consume it.
Feeding the Hungry Ghosts
The Buddhist cosmology has six realms of existence and rebirth. The realm of Gakidō is the land of hungry spirits. It’s a barren land filled with deserts. A person who is cursed to become a Gaki is trapped there for 500 years (A single day for a hungry ghost is equivalent to 10 of our years). Yet the living can perform a ritual to ease the cravings of these restless spirits.
A special Buddhist ceremony, called the Segaki (feeding the hungry ghosts) is performed as part of the O-Bon festival in July or August (and feels a bit like the Western All Hallows’ Eve). Offerings of rice and water are presented on altars positioned out of sight of any Buddha statues.
The 36 Types of Hungry Ghosts
Gaki come in all shapes and sizes. Many of the sites simply give a brief example of a few, but we’ll list the whole shebang here. If you want a more detailed explanation, you can read Sūtra of the Foundations of Mindfulness of the True Law. Presented here are the first 16 of these ghosts. The remainder will come in the next post.
1 Cauldron-Body Ghosts
These Gaki are twice the size of a human and they can never find food. These ghosts are plagued by fire. In life, they were greedy and refused to return items to their rightful owners.
2 Needle-Mouth Ghosts
These spirits have throats only as wide as a needle. Even when they find food, they cannot consume it. In life, these people were rich but pretended to be poor to avoid giving to charity.
3 Vomit-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts of this sort prefer to scarf up vomit. Although harmless, they may follow around an alcoholic and seek to influence that person to drink more, in order to produce more vomit. In life, these people only shared “inferior” or lower-quality food with others while keeping the most delicious eats for themselves.
4 Excrement-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki prefer to dine on excrement and frequent dirty toilets. If you enter a bathroom and feel like someone is watching you, it might be this spirit. In life, they offered spoiled food to charity or to holy people.
5 Foodless Ghosts
These should really be called thirst-ghosts. They roam the countryside in search of water to quench the raging flames in their stomachs. In life, these people starved others to death. They can also be people who abused their power over others (as in jailers abusing prisoners).
6 Odor-Eating Ghosts
Ghosts in this category feed off the smell of food offered to deities. In life, these people didn’t share the best foods with their spouse or family members.
7 Dharma-Eating Ghosts
These repulsive ghosts are bony and emancipated, with protruding veins along their body. Insects swarm around them, slowly nibbling away. Their only sustenance is to hear monks at the temple teaching Dharma. They tend to cluster around temples anytime there is a Dharma talk. In life, they spread false teaching of Dharma.
8 Water-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki have desiccated and brittle bodies. They live near drains or rivers and slurp up water, but with their dry, withered bodies make it hard to hydrate. They can only swallow small droplets of water at a time because they try to grab it with their hands and it slips through their fingers. In life, these people were brewers of alcohol, but they tampered with their product by adding worms or insects.
9 Living-On-Hope Ghosts
These spirits are extremely hairy with deep wrinkles on their faces. The can only consume offerings made by mourners to honor deceased parents. THey frequent funerals. In life, these people profited off the misfortune of others by selling goods at inflated prices.
10 Spittle-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki hunger for human spit and they follow those who spit often. In life, they offered impure food to monks.
11 Garland-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts can appear in dreams to scare people. They crave offerings intended for Buddha or monks. However, once they have these offerings in hand, the garland attached itself to the ghost to torment it. In life, these people were caught stealing from religious places.
12 Blood-Eating Ghosts
These Gaki are attracted to blood. They will influence the mind of a victim to self-inflict wounds in order to draw blood.
Another type of ghost with supernatural power. They are attracted by blood and blood sacrifice. Some people mistaken them as gods and make blood offerings to them and pray to them for material gains.
13 Flesh-Eating Ghosts
These ghosts feed on various meat offerings, preferring raw meat to blood. In life, these people were butchers who took advantage of customers by short selling meat.
14 Fragrance-Eating Ghosts
Gaki of this sort yearn for incense and sweet smells. They have the ability to fool people into worshiping them in order that someone will burn incense. In life, they sold low-quality incense at high prices.
15 Harmful-Conduct Ghosts
These ghosts feed off the wicked deeds of unsavory people. They delight in epidemics and death, often traveling thousands of miles in seconds to find a meal. In life, they encouraged people to donate to the poor, but kept the donations for themselves.
16 Looking-For-The-Right-Opportunity Ghosts
These ghosts have hairy bodies and are always surrounded by flames. They feed off the negative energy generated from weak-willed people — a sort of energy vampire. Meditation and chanting can strengthen the mind and thus fend off these ghosts. Instead of a former human life, these spirits are yakṣa, a nature-spirits.
The next post will show the rest of the hungry ghosts. Until then, be virtuous, lest you end up as a Gaki in the afterlife.