Hell Beings, Hungry Ghosts and the Like

Last Sunday I accompanied Krisadawan to her talk at the World Buddhist University, which was on the third floor of the World Fellowship of Buddhism Building behind the Benjasiri Park in Bangkok. She talked about “Practice of Tara in the Absolute and Relative” to about twenty or so audience in a rather small meeting room. The talk went well and there was a lively period of questions, answers and discussion afterwards.

One of the questions posed to Kris was from an Englishman (judging from his accent) who asked her how she did know that hell beings, hungry ghosts (or pretas in Sanskrit) and the like existed. She answered that they resided within your hearts. Whenever you are greedy and are never satisfied with what you have, then you have actually become a hungry ghost. This is true, and I added that the whole point of Buddhism is to teach us to realize this truth so that we naturally become so bored with this pointlessness of all the lives and wanderings within samsara that we strongly feel we need a way out, as if fire was burning on our head and we are instantly looking for a way to put it out. Some beings in samsara are suffering so intensely, like the hell beings and hungry ghosts, which are in these states because of what they have done in their past lives.

In fact the question about how do we know that such beings as those in hell or the hungry ghosts exist is an important one in basic Buddhist teaching. Krisadawan’s answer is that being a hungry ghost is a personification of our unwholesome state. But this state is not wholly subjective. This is the point. If it were wholly subjective, then it is an individual matter and seems to be nothing more than someone’s thoughts and feelings only. But in that case the realm of the pretas or hungry ghosts would be no more than some kind of thought realm without objective reality, whereas there are numerous passages in the Buddha’s original teachings in the Tipitaka of hungry ghosts having objective reality. One such case is mentioned in the Vinaya, the first of the Tipitaka dealing monastic rules. The story is that there was a monk who actually had sexual intercourse with a female preta and then wondered if he had broken the vow of celibacy (The Buddha answered the monk did indeed break the vow, so the monk was expelled from the order). This shows that pretas do exist objectively, and not only in the imagination of the monk, or someone else.

Philosophically speaking, there is also a lot of sense in maintaining that pretas do exist objectively, since the realm of the pretas does belong to the six realms of samsara, and in this respect they are equal in terms of their reality. If this were not the case, then there would be a problem of explaining how someone was born as a human being while in the previous life he or she was a preta. It would make more sense to hold that the realms of human beings and the pretas do exist at the same level, ontologically speaking. 

But then how would one explain how one comes to know anything about the pretas? For this we need to refer to the teaching on what happens to the consciousness after death, a topic that Krisadawan has been talking about for some time. After someone dies, his or her consciousness enters into an ‘in-between’ realm called “bardo” in Tibetan. This is a place where the consciousness stays for a period of time before they move on to a more permanent place within the samsaric realms. And what kind of realm they will enter largely depends on the quality of mind they have at the moment of their entering the bardo, or in other words at the moment of their death. If at the time they die they think of good things, such as the merits that they had done when they were living, or if they think continuously of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas at the time they die, then it is quite assured that they will go to the higher realms (gods or humans). But if they die thinking of nothing other than holding on to power or to their wealth, then it is said that they will accumulate this negative force so that when they enter bardo they will be compelled by their karmic force and enter a lower realm, such as that of the pretas.

So on the one hand, these beings in bardo kind of create their own world out of their karmic propensities. But so did we when we were born as human beings, and we do not seem to think that our world here where we live as human beings are but figments of our imagination. It is as objective as it can be, and the world of the pretas is as objective to them as ours to us too. So we seem to have both the objective and the subjective all in one go. This difficult tenet, I think, is best explained by the Yogacara school. According to the Yogacara, everything is created by the mind from the beginning, so there is ultimately speaking no absolute distinction between the subject and the object. Let’s take the argument whether the Yogacara represents the original teaching of the Buddha or things like that aside for a moment. The point here is that there is a sense in which the distinction between the subject and the object breaks down, and those who are mired in the distinction would have a hard time understanding exactly where the pretas exist. On the one hand they exist in our minds, but on the other they are objective too.



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