Thursday, 6 July 2017


"Finish your bowl!" she said, as though admonishing a naughty child.

The small bowl was nearly finished... it had been his third, after all, and he was sated. He had made the mistake of pushing it away from himself, indicating he was done, and was immediately shamed. Generations brought up in times of scarcity rear a generation of scolds, but these in turn tend to begat profligate sons and daughters. He laughed, nervously, and with guilt, as he finished the remaining grains.

"Good. I wouldn't want you to become a hungry ghost when you die."

Hungry Ghost- what a collocation. It seems so apposite: the disembodied spirit refuses to let go of some shred of life from hunger, from lack. And above, pictured, No-Face (or even Noh-Face): spurred by his desire to befriend a sympathetic girl, he ate his way through a bathhouse of rogues and fiends, shitting gold.

Noh-face was but one of many characters in the movie Spirited Away, and by no means central to the story, which was principally concerned with a little girl from the "normal" world negotaiting the complex and bizarre world of ghosts in order to rescue her parents. The standard reading of Spirited Away is that it is a kind of coming-of-age story, albeit one in which the protagonist transitions from infant to juvenile rather than adolescent to adult. Ultimately, Chihiro/Sen leaves the magical world for the mundane, as we all most do (apparently) as part of growing up.

The universe according to the child is undoubtedly a more terrifying yet magical place, and in many respects parents are agents in the creation of this landscape. Figures from folklore, myth and religion are used to manipulate children into conforming. Sometimes, this is a performance that the child realises (eventually), is intended purely for the aforementioned effect; at other times, this practice is an embedded cultural artefact as real to the parents as the children uttering it. Warnings that bad behaviour will result in a eternal damnation, perpetual immolation in the flames of hell are, right now being issued to Muslim and Christian children all across the globe, even as you read this. Many will carry a subtle fear of that fate to their grave.

The creative intellect of the child is quick to populate their immediate universe with invisible spirits. It is a facet of our psyche that is evolutionarily advantageous: establish agency, be wary of revealed agents, fear those agents that cannot be seen or understood. On top of this multifarious cosmologies have been constructed, but on top of this layer children build their own folklore, spending, as they do, a great deal of time in the realm of the imagination.

The six realms of Buddhism (Animal, Human, Jealous Gods, Hungry Ghosts, Gods, Hell) were "depending on what one read... mystical states, psychological states or actual physical places", according to Roy Bayfield in Desire Paths. Bayfield had been exploring Buddhism in the aftermath of major surgery, and seeking to engage more directly with the subject (and, one suspects, to give himself an excuse to do some walking), took it upon himself to explore the six realms in person. Superimposing a simple mandala-as-map over the United Kingdom, the six realms converged at the traditional centre of England, somewhere near Coventry. Over a period of two days, Bayfield utilised the "Finding" approach (discussed briefly here), "externalising my mediation practice into physical territory.." The Six Realms were psychological and mystical states and actual, physical places, because he said they were!

The idea of alternate realms of ghosts and spirits operating on a parallel plane to our own is common to the mythology of many European and Asian folk traditions: the Sidhe of Celtic legend, the world of the Kami in Shinto, the elemental planes of the western mystery tradition. Likewise, the Hungry Ghosts of Buddhism seem to occupy two worlds simultaneously, that of the living and the dead... or, rather, their world exists within our own, but is invisible most of the time.

Re-constructing the mythology of the hungry ghost in Vietnamese culture is complex, not least due to the cultural layering that seems to take place in Vietnamese and other Asian cultures. Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity and Communism have all impacted the folk practices of the Vietnamese to lesser or greater extents, with no doctrine completely able to oust the other one. This might explain why ostensibly Catholic families still maintain ancestral shrines and whilst otherwise secular families might make an offering to the ancestral spirit of Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps this is no more remarkable than the appropriation of pagan festivals by the Christian calendar, but it is hard to draw objective conclusions when one sat in the midst of the subject.

So, whilst the threat of becoming a hungry ghost might be familiar to Hue's children, in parts of China the phrase hungry ghost  is synonymous with ancestor worship. This may or may not tie into Buddhist tradition, wherein those who have committed the least evil spend a period in the realm of Hungry Ghosts prior to rebirth, a kind of purgatory. Whilst there it is confusing for the layman outsider to negotiate the nomenclature and the architecture of indigenous belief systems, there are some obvious takeaways to be had, not least that to the majority of Vietnamese people ghosts are a real and important part of life, and their intentions are not always benign.

Dr. Gabor Maté is a physician who has worked with "hardcore drug addicts" (his words) for most of his career. Drawing upon his experiences working with these people he has concluded that addiction stems principally from childhood trauma, rather than genetics or the psychoactive properties of the substances themselves. When his experiences were published he chose the title In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. The title is evocative, and speaks sympathetically to those among us who have encountered addiction in our own lives or those close to us. Dr. Maté offers this explanation for his choice of title:

"Now, the hungry ghost realm, the creatures in it are depicted as people with large empty bellies, small mouths and scrawny thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They’re always hungry, always empty, always seeking it from the outside. 

"That speaks to a part of us that I have and everybody in our society has, where we want satisfaction from the outside, where we’re empty, where we want to be soothed by something in the short term, but we can never feel that or fulfill that insatiety from the outside. The addicts are in that realm all the time. Most of us are in that realm some of the time. And my point really is, is that there’s no clear distinction between the identified addict and the rest of us. There’s just a continuum in which we all may be found. They’re on it, because they’ve suffered a lot more than most of us. 

In other words, to Maté we are all Hungry ghosts, to a lesser or greater extent, and that extent is defined by the degree to which we have suffered in childhood. Whether one can be led into permanent exile in the realm of hungry ghosts merely by being traumatised with threats of being turned into a hungry ghost is open to debate....

Back in Blighty, Roy Bayfield ventured to Coventry in his quest to externalise his understanding of the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, "a place of endless, unsatisfied consumption and continuous, grasping poverty" (the Realm, not Coventry), and did not initially find hat he was looking for. However, it soon occurred to him that his feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction was entirely in keeping with the feelings that a hungry ghost would encounter, thus "job done", he took a train to the next stop in the six realms, that of the Realm of Jealous Gods.

In the Human Realm the man finished his bowl of rice, and asked his wife if she really believed in Hungry Ghosts.

"Don't be ridiculous." she said, and finished her rice porridge.

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