Detail from Gaki-Zoshi, the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts: Ghosts devouring dead bodies in a graveyard. © Tokyo National Museum. Image via Wisdom Quarterly and Mind on Fire blogs.
From the fifteenth to the thirtieth days of the seventh lunar month in many parts of Asia, festivals are celebrated to honour the spirits of people's ancestors who have been briefly released from the afterworld to walk the earth. In Chinese lore, Ghost Day is the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, and the whole month is considered to be 'Ghost Month.' This year, Ghost Day was August 24 and Ghost Month ran into September. Ghost Day and Ghost Month are sometimes likened to Hallowe'en, but they are more like a combination of western Hallowe'en and All Souls' Day, which were coverted from older, pre-Christian rituals.
Detail from Gaki-Zoshi, the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts: How to feed Hungry Ghosts. © Tokyo National Museum.
The Buddhist Pāli Canon, which hails from Northern India in 29 BCE, contains a section on ghosts called the Petavatthu. In 51 verses, the Petavatthu explains how, under the doctrine of karma (कर्म), people who commit bad acts can find themselves reincarnated as a ghost, or peta (Japanese: gaki 餓鬼; Sanskrit: preta), after death.
Detail from Gaki-Zoshi, the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts: The suffering of the Hungry Ghost. © Tokyo National Museum.
On the site, Access to Insight, Thanissaro Bhikkhu has translated a section from the Petavatthu that describes the Hungry Ghosts:
Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls
Outside the walls they stand,
& at crossroads.
At door posts they stand,
returning to their old homes.
But when a meal with plentiful food & drink is served,
no one remembers them:
Such is the kamma of living beings.
Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives
give timely donations of proper food & drink
— exquisite, clean —
[thinking:] "May this be for our relatives.
May our relatives be happy!"
And those who have gathered there,
the assembled shades of the relatives,
with appreciation give their blessing
for the plentiful food & drink:
"May our relatives live long
because of whom we have gained [this gift].
We have been honored,
and the donors are not without reward!"
For there [in their realm] there's
no herding of cattle,
no trading with money.
They live on what is given here,
whose time here is done.
As water raining on a hill
flows down to the valley,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
As rivers full of water
fill the ocean full,
even so does what is given here
benefit the dead.
"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,
they were my relatives, companions, friends":
Offerings should be given for the dead
when one reflects thus
on things done in the past.
For no weeping,
no other lamentation
benefits the dead
whose relatives persist in that way.
But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha,
it works for their long-term benefit
and they profit immediately.
In this way
the proper duty to relatives has been shown,
great honor has been done to the dead,
and monks have been given strength:
The merit you've acquired
Wiki: "In Taoist Religion (as opposed to Taoist Philosophy), hungry ghosts are ghosts of people that did not find everything they need to survive in their after life. If a ghost passes on, but does not have enough food, water, shelter, etc., it will come back into the world of the living to feed on the living. They will scare you, and then they will feed on your energy and fear. Taoists also believe that the way a building is made will determine how attracted hungry ghosts or any ghost is to going there."
Frustrated or angry ghosts can metamorphose into animals or seductive figures who attempt to smuggle the living back to hell. They can attack through water, so swimming is discouraged. And children are kept indoors at night. This is why it is considered important to pray for, feed and honour one's ancestors when they are around during Ghost Month. The festival does not have the quite the same connotations as Hallowe'en. Yet the Chinese also refer to these spirits as 'Hungry Ghosts,' which are driven by intense needs and desires, such as burning thirst that cannot be quenched, insatiable hunger that can't be eased, and similar unfulfilled cravings. Hungry Ghosts have giant (empty) bellies and tiny mouths and necks. Like many of us, they also have wide open, hungry pocketbooks!
In China, 'Hell money' is folded and burned so that the ghosts have spending money in the afterworld. These bills are a modern form of Joss paper, known literally as 'shade' or 'dark' money in traditional Chinese. Much of the traditional ritual now shows modern and Western influences (like the bank note). Wiki: "More contemporary or westernized varieties of Joss paper include Hell Bank Notes, paper credit cards, cheques, as well as papier-mâché clothes, houses, cars, toiletries, and servants. The designs on paper items vary from the very simple to very elaborate (with custom artwork and names). ... The bills feature an image of the Jade Emperor [the Taoist monarch of Heaven and lower realms] on the front and the 'headquarters' of the Bank of Hell on the back. Another common feature is the signature of both the Jade Emperor and the King of Hell."
Condos for the dead. Report: The Star Online. Image: Lebuhraya Jelutong temple in Penang, Malaysia.
Image above, August 13, 2008: Joss Paper luxury condo effigies burned so the earthquake and cyclone victims of Sichuan, China and Myanmar would have somewhere to live in the afterlife.
There's a strong sense of give and take and mutual back-scratching between the living and the dead here. You look after your ancestors and respect them, help them out - and they'll help you out and possibly give you a longer, better life. For these reasons, as China has become more and more modernized, Chinese ancestors need nothing but the latest and best accoutrements for Western-style living. This update of a medieval tradition is an interesting twist on the reality-once-removed Millennial culture we all inhabit - where avatars, proxies, icons, screen-names, and similar tokens keep us one virtual symbolic step away from one another in real life - or in this case, in real death. On no account are you supposed to mix up the currency and context: giving living people Joss paper money is highly offensive. It's also considered bad luck to burn real money instead of Hell money (perhaps for reasons that are more obvious than just the superstitious ones). The same goes for the food left out for the ghosts - living people should not eat it. There's a picture here of Joss paper people who would act as servants to one's ancestors once their effigies were burned.
Yes, Hell has hyper-inflation: more Joss paper.
Over at Wisdom Quarterly, John Remy makes a comment that could well apply to our current obsession with the Internet and what the disconnection between our virtual and real lives is doing to us. Remy suggests that if we do not train to connect our minds to our bodies, our disembodied desires and urges turn us, living people, into ghosts: "The Secret of the Golden Flower, the Chinese meditation classic, states that 'If we do not meditate for a day, then we become a ghost for that day.' This stuck with me, as I have always had trouble keeping my daily practice consistent. This idea implies that if we do not practice becoming closer to our natural physical bodies, we enter a 'ghost world' of floating bodiless. And we're 'hungry ghosts' because a lack of meditation will condition our hungry desires to surface." This comment gets to the nub of what we're talking about. If ancestral worship denotes a strange symbiotic ritualistic engagement with an undead past, it also warns us against disengaging from ourselves.
Since that real-virtual trade-off is now bleeding into the much older practice of ancestor worship, we're seeing a weird confluence of ancient rituals and the late capitalist conspicuous consumption that whirls around a burbling core of virtual reality. From Wiki: "In 2006, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms of joss paper, such as MP3 players, planes, boats and even paper condoms, paper prostitutes and Viagra." More on the ghostly Viagra comes from a 2007 report from the New York Sun via the Daily Telegraph (also picked up at Metro.co.uk here):
"In the old days, all that the dead could hope for was paper 'heaven money,' or perhaps a bit of food. But with economic growth, variety and quality are matching the ambitions of China's new rich. Now, the offerings are getting out of hand, with one 'graveyard shop' in the city of Nanjing selling paper Viagra, newspapers reported this week amid calls for the authorities to take action.
'The people who make this stuff are definitely lacking in taste and civilization,' the Nanjing Morning News reported local people as saying. Burial rituals go back a long way in China, with the terracotta warriors only the most spectacular of a history of accompaniments for the dead. Burning flowers and paper money, and more elaborate gifts, is a popular folk tradition that survived even the Maoist era's dislike of 'feudal beliefs.'
Nevertheless, it has never come fully back into the open. Apart from areas around graveyards, shops often cluster in unfashionable outskirts of cities, like Ms. Wang's shop in southwest Beijing. A paper wreath in the windows normally indicates what is on sale, while staff members are reluctant to discuss their business.
Last year, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms. If he got anywhere, it was not as far as Nanjing, a former capital west of Shanghai. The Morning News reporters, on a tour of the city in advance of the Grave-Sweeping Festival next month, found paper laptop computers and mobile phones [picture here], credit cards, travelers' checks, and passports."
A hell bank note, in the denomination of one billion Hell dollars, featuring an image of the Jade Emperor. Image: Wiki.
A 500 million Hell dollar Joss bank note for sale at a specialty shop in California.
In Thailand, the Por Tor Hungry Ghost festival involves preparing special foods such as red turtle cakes; offerings are left to feed the spirits of ancestors who revisit homes of their descendants. In Phuket, turtles are released into the water because they symbolize longevity; this brings long life to those who release them.
Japanese Buddhist tradition describes two main kinds of ghosts: Gaki and Jikininki. Both are doomed to desperate tabooed consumption that reflect their sins in life. Wiki: "Gaki (餓鬼) [described above] 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. ... Jikininki (食人鬼 'man-eating ghosts') are the spirits of greedy, selfish or impious individuals who are cursed after death to seek out and eat human corpses." The latter are a ghoulish Japanese variant of vampires. Jikininki made it to number 4 on Lists List 'Top 10 Worst Theological or Mythological Demons' (check out their super creepy scary list here): "It is also said that they take valuables from the corpses, in order to bribe local law-enforcement officials to leave them alone. Unlike most demons, they actually hate what they are, and are in a constant state of self-disgust and self-loathing. Some accounts state that they are so terrifying to look at, that seeing one would make you paralyzed with fear. Other accounts indicate that Jikininki can take the form of normal human beings, and can even lead seemingly normal lives by day." The Jikininki are the 26th class of preta in Japanese Buddhism. If they are also Gaki, they can be freed from their state through the prayers and devotions of the living. Mind on Fire briefly describes the origins of the belief in Hungry Ghosts in Japan here.
Credits: Footnote for the cited section from the Petavatthu: "Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls" (Pv 1.5), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, August 8, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/pv/pv.1.05.than.html. The entire Scroll of Hungry Ghosts, or Gaki-Zoshi, is at the Kyoto National Museum here. Detail on the Scroll: "Handscroll; Color on paper; 26.8 x I38.4 cm; Late-Heian Period (Late-12th Century); National Treasure; AK 229"; "Through words and pictures, this scroll tells one part of the seven-part story of the gaki, or hungry ghosts. The emaciated ghosts, with their skeleton-thin limbs and swollen bellies, are invisible to the human eye. They are in a state of perpetual thirst and lick the drops of spilled water in a temple cemetery."