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This article is about the concept in Chinese religions. For other uses, see Hungry Ghosts (disambiguation). For the Buddhist variant and for the Hindu variant, see Preta.

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Hungry ghost

7th month Hungry Ghost Festival offerings in Singapore.

GroupingLegendary creature
Sub groupingNocturnal, revenant
Similar entitiesKrasue and Kalag
FolkloreChinese Buddhism, Chinese traditional religion,
RegionEast Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

Hungry ghost is a term in Buddhism, and Chinese traditional religion, representing beings who are driven by intense emotional needs in an animalistic way. The terms 餓鬼 èguǐ literally "hungry ghost", are the Chinese translation of the term preta in Buddhism. "Hungry ghosts" play a role in Chinese Buddhism and Taoism as well as in Chinese folk religion. The term is not to tướng be confused with the generic term for "ghost" or damnation, guǐ (i.e. the residual spirit of a deceased ancestor). The understanding is that all people become such a regular ghost when they die,[1] and would then slowly weaken and eventually die a second time.[2][3]

With the rise in popularity of Buddhism, the idea became popular that souls would live in space until reincarnation.[3] In the Taoist tradition it is believed that hungry ghosts can arise from people whose deaths have been violent or unhappy. Both Buddhism[3] and Taoism[4] share the idea that hungry ghosts can emerge from neglect or desertion of ancestors. According to tướng the Hua-yen Sutra evil deeds will cause a soul to tướng be reborn in one of six different realms.[5] The highest degree of evil deed will cause a soul to tướng be reborn as a denizen of hell, a lower degree of evil will cause a soul to tướng be reborn as an animal, and the lowest degree will cause a soul to tướng be reborn as a hungry ghost.[6] According to tướng the tradition, evil deeds that lead to tướng becoming a hungry ghost are killing, stealing and sexual misconduct. Desire, greed, anger and ignorance are all factors in causing a soul to tướng be reborn as a hungry ghost because they are motives for people to tướng perform evil deeds.[1]

Myths of origin[edit]

It is likely that the idea of hungry ghosts originated from ancient Indian culture, where they were referred to tướng as Preta. However, there are many legends regarding the origin of hungry ghosts.

In the Buddhist tradition there are stories from Chuan-chi po-yuan ching ("Sutra of One Hundred Selected Legends") that is from the early third century.[7] Some examples of these stories are as follows:

One story is of a rich man who traveled selling sugar-cane juice. One day a monk came to tướng his house looking for some juice to tướng cure an illness. The man had to tướng leave, so sánh he instructed his wife to tướng give the monk the drink in his absence. Instead of doing this, she secretly urinated in the monk's bowl, added sugar cane juice to tướng it and gave it to tướng the monk. The monk was not deceived; he poured out the bowl and left. When the wife died she was reborn as a hungry ghost.[7]

Another such tale is of a man who was giving and kind. One day he was about to tướng leave his house when a monk came by begging. The man instructed his wife to tướng give the monk some food. After the man left his house his wife was overcome with greed. She took it upon herself to tướng teach the monk a lesson, so sánh she locked the monk in an empty room all day with no food. She was reborn as a hungry ghost for innumerable lifetimes.[7]

Most times the legends speak of hungry ghosts who in a previous lifetime were greedy women who refused to tướng give away food.[7] Other stories in the Buddhist tradition come from Kuei wen mu-lien ching ("The Sutra on the Ghosts Questioning Mu-lien"). One of the stories tells of a man who was a diviner who constantly misled people due to tướng his own avarice and is now a hungry ghost.[3] There is another story in "The Legend of Mu-lien Entering the City and Seeing Five Hundred Hungry Ghosts". The story is about five hundred men that were sons of elders of the đô thị they lived in. When monks came begging to tướng the đô thị for food, the sons denied them because they thought the monks would keep coming back and eventually take all their food. After the sons died they were reborn as hungry ghosts.[3]

In China[edit]

In Chinese Buddhism, The World of the Hungry Ghosts (鬼法界, 鬼界) is one of the six domains of the desire realm of Buddhism.[8] There is a belief in the oral tradition of Chinese ancestral worship that the ghosts of the ancestors may be granted permission to tướng return to tướng the world of the living at a certain time of the year, hungry and ready to tướng take what they can from there, if these spirits had not been given sufficient offerings by their living relatives.[9]

A festival called the Hungry Ghost Festival (simplified Chinese: 盂兰盆; traditional Chinese: 盂蘭盆; pinyin: Yúlánpén is held to tướng honor the hungry ancestor ghosts and food and drink is put out to tướng satisfy their needs. The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated during the seventh month of the Chinese calendar. It also falls at the same time as a full moon, the new season, the fall harvest, the peak of monastic asceticism, the rebirth of ancestors, and the assembly of the local community.[10] According to tướng tradition, during this month, the gates of hell are opened up and the hungry ghosts are không tính phí to tướng roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. These ghosts are believed to tướng be ancestors of those who have forgotten to tướng pay tribute to tướng them after they died. They have long thin necks because they have not been fed by their families. Tradition states that families should offer prayers to tướng their deceased relatives and burn "hell money". It is believed that "hell money" is a valid currency in the underworld and helps ghosts to tướng live comfortably in the afterlife. People also burn other forms of joss paper such as paper houses, cars and televisions to tướng please the ghosts.[11] This festival is one of numerous tantric practices from Chinese Esoteric Buddhism preserved in modern Chinese Buddhism after the various Buddhist traditions started to tướng merge in the early modern period.[12]

Families also pay tribute to tướng other unknown wandering ghosts so sánh that these homeless souls bởi not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A big feast is held for the ghosts on the 15th day of the seventh month, where people bring samples of food and place them on the offering table to tướng please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Live shows are also put on and everyone is invited to tướng attend. The first row of seats is always empty as this is where the ghosts are supposed to tướng sit to tướng better enjoy the live entertainment. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so sánh that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts.[13] These acts were better known as "Merry-making".[14]

Offerings are prepared for hungry ghosts during Ghost month in Hong Kong.

The chief Taoist priest of the town wears an ornate crown of five gold and red panels, a practice borrowed from Buddhism. This represented the five most powerful deities (The Jade Emperor, Guan Yu, Tu Di Gong, Mazu and Xi Wangmu). He is believed to tướng become their voice on earth.[11]

A performance held during Ghost month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. People are not supposed to tướng sit in the red chairs at the front because they are reserved for the "hungry ghosts."

A sacrificial altar and a chair are built for a priest either at a street entrance or in front of the village. The Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha sits in front of the chair. Under the chair are plates of rice flour and peaches. Sitting on the altar are three spirit tablets and three funeral banners. After noon, sheep, pigs, chicken, fruits, and cakes are donated by families that are displayed on the altar. A priest will put a triangular paper banner of three colors with special characters on every sacrifice. After the music begins to tướng play, the priest hits the bell to tướng Hotline the hungry ghosts back to tướng the table. He then throws the rice and peaches into the air in all directions to tướng distribute them to tướng the ghosts.[14]

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During the evening, incense is burnt in front of the doors of households. Incense stands for prosperity, the more incense burnt, the greater one's prosperity.[14] During the festival, shops are closed to tướng leave the streets open for the ghosts. In the middle of each street stands an altar of incense with fresh fruit and sacrifices displayed on it. Behind the altar, monks will sing songs that it is believed only the ghosts can understand. This rite is called shi ge'r, meaning "singing ghost songs".[14]

Fifteen days after the feast, to tướng make sure all the hungry ghosts find their way back to tướng hell, people float lanterns on water and phối them outside their houses. These lanterns are made by setting a lotus flower-shaped lantern on a piece of board. Hungry ghosts are believed to tướng have found their way back when the lanterns go out.[14]

There are many folk beliefs and taboos surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. Spirits are thought to tướng be dangerous, and can take many forms, including snakes, moths, birds, foxes, wolves, and tigers. Some can even use the guise of a beautiful man or woman to tướng seduce and possess. One story refers to tướng a ghost which takes the khuông of a pretty girl and seduces a young man until a priest intervenes and sends the spirit back to tướng hell. It is believed that possession can cause illness and/or mental disorders.[15]

During the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, children are advised (usually by an elder in the family) to tướng be trang chính before dark, and not to tướng wander the streets at night for fear a ghost might possess them. Swimming is thought to tướng be dangerous as well, as spirits are believed to tướng have drowned people. People will generally avoid driving at night, for fear of a "collision", or spiritual offence, which is any sự kiện leading to tướng illness or misfortune.[16] While "ghost" is a commonly used term throughout the year, many people use the phrase "backdoor god" or "good brother" instead during the 7th month, so sánh as not to tướng anger the ghosts. Another thing to tướng avoid is sampling any of the food placed on the offering table, as doing this can result in "mysterious illness". Any person attending a show at indoor entertainment venues (getais) will notice the first row of chairs is left empty. These seats are reserved for the spirits, and it is considered bad khuông to tướng sit in them. After an offering has been burnt for the spirits, stepping on or near the burnt area should be avoided, as it is considered an "opening" to tướng the spirit world and touching it may cause the person to tướng be possessed.[citation needed]

The English term has often been used metaphorically to tướng describe the insatiable craving of an addict.[17]

In Tibet[edit]

In Tibetan Buddhism, Hungry Ghosts (Tib. ཡི་དྭགས་, Wyl. yi dwags, Sanskrit: preta) have their own realm depicted on the Bhavacakra and are represented as teardrop or paisley-shaped with bloated stomachs and necks too thin to tướng pass food so sánh that attempting to tướng eat is also incredibly painful. Some are described as having "mouths the size of a needle's eye and a stomach the size of a mountain". This is a metaphor for people futilely attempting to tướng fulfill their illusory physical desires.

According to tướng the History of Buddhism, as elements of Chinese Buddhism entered a dialogue with Indian Buddhism in the Tibetan Plateau, this synthesis is evident in the compassion rendered in the khuông of blessed remains of food, etc., offered to tướng the pretas in rites such as Ganachakra.[citation needed]

In Japan[edit]

Image from a Japanese scroll which describes the realm of the hungry ghosts and how to tướng placate them. Currently housed at the Kyoto National Museum, artist unknown.

In Japanese Buddhism, the Hungry Ghosts are considered to tướng have two variants: the gaki and the jikininki. Gaki (餓鬼) are the spirits of jealous or greedy people who, as punishment for their mortal vices, have been cursed with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as human corpses or feces, though in more recent legends, it may be virtually anything, no matter how bizarre. Jikininki (食人鬼 "people-eating ghosts") are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to tướng seek out and eat human corpses. They bởi this at night, scavenging for newly dead bodies and food offerings left for the dead. They sometimes also loot the corpses they eat for valuables. Nevertheless, jikininki lament their condition and hate their repugnant cravings for dead human flesh.[citation needed]

The Hungry Ghosts Scroll kept at the Kyoto National Museum depicts the world of the hungry ghosts and the suffering of these creatures, and contains tales of salvation of the ghosts. The whole scroll has been designated as National Treasure of nhật bản and it was possibly part of a phối of scrolls depicting the six realms which was kept at Sanjūsangen-dō.[18]

Types of spirits[edit]

Section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll depicting one of the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts who constantly seeks water to tướng drink and explaining how those who have been born as such are saved by the offerings of the living. Kyoto Museum

It is believed that the soul contains elements of both yin and yang. The yin is the kui, or demon part, and the yang is the shen, or spirit part. When death occurs, the kui should return to tướng earth, and the shen to tướng the grave or family shrine. If a ghost is neglected, it will become a kui. The shen, or ancestral spirit, watches over its descendants, and can bring good fortune if properly worshipped.[15]

Hungry ghosts are different from the ghosts of Chinese which all people are believed to tướng become after death.

According to tướng the Nyāyānusāriṇī, there are three main groups of hungry ghosts, each of which are divided into three sub-groups:[1]

  • ghosts of no wealth (無財鬼)
    • torch or flaming mouths (炬口鬼): These ghosts regurgitate fierce flames with mouths of inextinguishable embers. Their bodies are lượt thích that of a palmyra tree. This is the karmic result of stinginess.
    • needle mouths (針口鬼): These ghosts have bellies as vast as mountain valleys. Their mouth are lượt thích the hole of a needle. Even if they find food or drink, they cannot consume it. Thus they suffer from hunger and thirst.
    • putrid mouths (臭口鬼): These ghosts give off a great decomposing odor from their mouths. They may be found at privies overflowing with filth and fecal matter. They constantly emit a nauseating, evil fumes. Although they find food, they cannot eat it. This fills them with anger and they lập cập about shrieking.
  • ghosts of little wealth (少財鬼)
    • needle hair (針毛鬼): These ghosts have bodies made of hair, firm lượt thích spears. They are unapproachable. Their insides burn, as a deer shot with a poison arrow. They lập cập about suffering from ulcers. Only small quantities of impure food can allay their hunger.
Gaki zōshi 餓鬼草紙 "Scroll of Hungry Ghosts", a gaki condemned to tướng shit-eating watches a child wearing geta and holding a chūgi, c. 12th century.
    • putrid hair (臭毛鬼): These ghosts also have bodies made of hair that smells incredibly foul. Their flesh and bones emit noxious fumes and their bowels are full of grime. They are agitated from poison in their throats and their skin splits when their hair is pulled out. Only small quantities of impure food can allay their hunger.
    • swollen (癭鬼): Large protuberances grow in their throats. They suffer from aches and fever. They smell of pus that gushes forth from their bodies. They fight with each other over food. They consume small bits of pus and blood and can be somewhat satiated.
  • ghosts of much wealth (多財鬼)
    • ghosts of sacrifices (希祠鬼): These ghosts live off sacrifices offered by humans. One is reborn here by ethically gathering wealth, but with a stingy heart does not practice generosity. If one is reborn here, their descendants can make offerings to tướng satiate their hunger.
    • ghosts of losses (希棄鬼): These ghosts are always covetous, searching out filth lượt thích vomit and feces to tướng eat. In life, they sought out and found enjoyment in both clean and unclean things, and were thus reborn here.
    • ghosts of great power (大勢鬼): includes certain yakshas, rakshasas, kumbhandas and the lượt thích who are the powerful rulers of the spirits. They reside in forests, stupas, mountain valleys, and empty palaces. Those with no authoritative power live on all four continents except for Uttarakuru. Those with authoritative power may also be found in the heavens and on two of the five-hundred islands that lie to tướng the west of Jambudvipa. One island holds their castle while the other holds the castle of those ghosts with no authority.

Sixteen hungry ghosts are said to tướng live in hell or in a region of hell. Unlike other hell dwellers, they can leave hell and wander. They look through garbage and human waste on the outskirts of human cities. They are said to tướng be invisible during the daylight hours but visible at night. Some hungry ghosts can only eat corpses, or their food is burnt up in their mouths, sometimes they have a big belly and a neck as thin as a needle (this image is the basic one for hungry ghosts in Asian Buddhism).[5]

According to tướng the Saddharmasmṛtyupasthāna Sūtra, there are thirty-six different types of hungry ghost.

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See also[edit]

  • Buddhist cosmology
  • Ghosts in Chinese culture
  • Ghosts in Vietnamese culture
  • Ghosts in Thai culture
  • Obon
  • Segaki
  • Soul dualism
  • Vengeful ghost


  1. ^ a b c Venerable Yin-shun. The Way to tướng Buddhahood. Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications: 1998.
  2. ^ "目次:冥報記白話". www.bfnn.org.
  3. ^ a b c d e Eberhard, Stephen F. The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. New Jersey: Princeton University Press: 1988. Hungry ghosts, by contrast, are a much more exceptional case, and would only occur in very unfortunate circumstances, such as if a whole family were killed or when a family no longer venerated their ancestors.
  4. ^ Oldstone-Moore, Jennifer. Taoism. USA: Oxford University Press: 2003.
  5. ^ a b Baroni, Helen J. Ph.D. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Zen Buddhism. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Incorporated: 2002.
  6. ^ Gregory, Peter N., ed. Inquiry Into the Origin of Humanity. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press: 1995.
  7. ^ a b c d Eberhardt, Wolfram. Chinese Festivals. New York: Abelard-Schuman Ltd.: 1958.
  8. ^ Buddhism-dict.net (accessed: October 18, 2007)
  9. ^ Martin, Emily; Emíly M. Ahern (1973). The cult of the dead in a Chinese village. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804708357.
  10. ^ Stephen F. Teiser (1996). The Ghost Festival in Medieval China. Princeton University Press.
  11. ^ a b "Hungry Ghost Festival". Essortment, 2002. Retrieved October đôi mươi, 2008.
  12. ^ Orzech, Charles D. (1989). "Seeing Chen-Yen Buddhism: Traditional Scholarship and the Vajrayāna in China". History of Religions. 29 (2): 87–114. doi:10.1086/463182. ISSN 0018-2710. JSTOR 1062679. S2CID 162235701.
  13. ^ "お問い合わせ".
  14. ^ a b c d e "Ghost Festival" ChinaVoc 2001-2007 , "Chinese Festivals - the Ghost Festival". Archived from the original on 2009-06-08. Retrieved 2009-02-16..
  15. ^ a b "Zhongyua Festival - Hungry Ghost Festival". Trung Quốc Daily. 2004 Aug 30. Retrieved 2008 Oct đôi mươi. [1]
  16. ^ DeBernardi, Jean Elizabeth, and Jean DeBernardi. Rites of Belonging: Memory, Moderninity & Identity in a Malaysian Chinese Community. Stanford: Stanford University Press 2004.
  17. ^ E.g. Mark Epstein in Thoughts Without a Thinker, pp. 29, 30, ISBN 0-465-08585-7, of the compulsive infidelity of a patient.
  18. ^ Hungry Ghosts Scroll Kyoto 1