Meditation and other Rituals – Chapter 46: Feeding Hungry Ghosts

As described in Chapter 1, ghosts suffer from hunger and thirst. They are constantly seeking food and drink, and when they find it they encounter obstacles. The Sanskrit term that is rendered here as ‘ghost’, preta, means ‘departed’, suggesting that these ghosts are the wandering spirits of departed ancestors whose families have failed to make the proper offerings for their sustenance in the next life. Buddhist monks and nuns, who (at least theoretically) have renounced the responsibilities of family life, have traditionally taken it as their task to feed the hungry ghosts.

In the eighth century a text appeared in China that would gain wide popularity. It was entitled Sutra for the Spell that Brought Deliverance to the Flaming Mouth Hungry Ghost (Fo shuo quiba yankou egui tuoluoni jing). In the text, Ananda was sitting in contemplation when he was approached by a hungry ghost of horrifying visage, named Flaming Mouth. The ghost informed Ananda that he would die in three days, to be reborn as a hungry ghost. Ananda asked whether there was anything he could do to avoid this horrible state. The ghost told him that the next day he must distribute one bushel of food and drink to hundreds of thousands of ghosts and to hundreds of thousands of brahmins. If he did so, Ananda’s lifespan would increase and Flaming Mouth would be released from the realm of ghosts and be reborn as a god. It was impossible for Ananda to prepare such a feast in such a short period of time. However, the Buddha explained another method, involving the recitation of long mantras or dharanl. An elaborate ritual based on this story, sometimes taking five hours to perform, became popular in China. The feeding of hungry ghosts became a standard responsibility of Buddhist monasteries in China, and a daily (and much briefer) ritual would be performed as part of the worship service each evening, when ghosts were known to wander.

One of the most widely practised versions of that daily rite appears below. It is known as the Mengshan rite (named after a monastery in Sichuan province). Its authorship is traditionally attributed to the dhaima-master Ganlu (Budong) of the Xixia (1032-1227) and Song periods (c. 960-1279), although portions of the rite are clearly taken from older sources. Evidence indicates that the particular arrangement here may date back as far as the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368). In the text below, the words to be recited are indented.

Tradition holds that [this rite] was compiled by the foreign dharma- master Ganlu [Amrta] after he settled from his wanderings as a mendicant at Mengshan in Sichuan.

Fierce fires blaze vigorously, illumining the Iron City [of the hells].

Inside the Iron City, it scorches the solitary souls.

If those orphaned souls should wish to gain birth in the Pure Land,

They should listen to this reciting of the half-verse from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

If you wish to know all the buddhas of the three times, you should contemplate the

dharmadhatu as, by nature, being entirely the creation of the mind.

Recite the mantra for breaking open the hells.

Recite the mantra for conjuring or summoning all [wandering] souls.

Recite the mantra for untying the knots of resentment.

Homage to the great vaipulya Avatamsaka Sutra.

Homage to the eternally abiding [Buddha, dharma, sangha] of the ten directions.

Homage to our original teacher, Buddha Sakyamuni.

Homage to the bodhisattva Guanshihyin, the greatly compassionate one.

Homage to the bodhisattva Dizang, who delivers beings from the tribulations of the netherworld.

Homage to the venerable Ananda, who inspired creation of this teaching.

The officiant comes forth from his or her station and prostrates to the buddhas three times. Accordingly he or she visualizes that, by dint of their original vows, the three jewels, Sakyamuni, Guanyin, Dizang, and Ananda all hear our intoning of their names and manifest in the air, in order to alleviate the sufferings of the hungry ghosts.

I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the dharma; I take refuge in the sangha.

I take refuge in the Buddha, the most revered among two-legged creatures.

I take refuge in the dharma, the teaching that transcends worldly desires.

I take refuge in the sangha, the most exalted of all communities.

Refuge in the Buddha has been taken; refuge in the dharma has been taken; refuge in the sangha has been taken.

All evils committed by [(1) children of the Buddha, (2) sentient beings, (3) solitary souls], that have been generated by body, mouth and mind, under the influence of beginningless craving, hatred and delusion – all of them the [(1) children of the Buddha, (2) sentient beings, (3) solitary souls] accordingly confess and repent.

Sentient beings without limit I vow to deliver.

Afflictions without end I vow to sever.

Approaches to dharma beyond count I vow to master.

Buddhahood without peer I vow to achieve.

Sentient beings that are identical with my own original nature I vow to deliver.

Afflictions identical with my original nature I vow to sever.

Approaches to dharma identical with my original nature I vow to master.

Buddhahood that is identical with my own original nature I vow to attain.

Recite the mantra that extinguishes determinate karma.

Recite the mantra that extinguishes karmic obstacles.

Recite the mantra that opens the throats [of hungry ghosts]. Form mudra gestures; sketch Sanskrit syllables in the air.

Recite the mantra of the samaya precepts.

Take the water vessel in your left hand [holding it between thumb and second and third fingers]; dip the ring finger of the right hand. Stir the water; remove and flick the droplets abroad with the finger.

Recite the mantra for food transformation.

Take the vessel of food in the left hand; touch [the index] finger of the right hand to [its lip]. Visualize as follows: ‘I now recite this excellent dharani of sovereign blazing radiance that is endowed with inestimable merits, and thereby I empower this food. One single meal thereupon becomes countless meals. Yet those countless meals all coalesce in this single meal. They are neither one nor are they countless; and at the same time they are both one and countless. From this single [meal], [countless meals] are reproduced, over and again, until they fill all space and extend throughout the universe of the dharmadhatu. There they alleviate all hunger and destitution, causing beings everywhere to depart from suffering and to experience happiness.’

Recite the mantra of the ambrosial water.

Visualize as follows: ‘This water, empowered by the spell, is now perfectly purified. Extending throughout the universe, it causes the throats of all hungry ghosts to open automatically. Creatures throughout the dharmadhatu at one and the same instant all obtain this ambrosial food and drink.’

Recite the mantra of the single-syllable waterwheel.

Recite the mantra of the milk sea.

Homage to the tathagata Many Jewels.

Homage to the tathagata Bejewelled Excellence.

Homage to the tathagata Body of Marvellous Form.

Homage to the tathagata Body of Vast Extent.

Homage to the tathagata Deliverer from Fear.

Homage to the tathagata King of Ambrosia.

Homage to the tathagata Amitabha.

With these divine spells we empower this [(1) pure food of dharma; (2) the food of dharma distribution; (3) ambrosial waters], which we charitably distribute to multitudes of [(1) children of the Buddha; (2) sentient beings; (3) solitary or orphaned souls] as countless in number as the sands of the Ganges River. May they all receive their fill and foreswear craving and attachment, speedily be set free from the netherworld and be reborn in the pure land. [May they thereby] take refuge in the three jewels, arouse the resolve to achieve buddhahood, and ultimately achieve supreme perfect enlightenment. For all time to come, may the illimitable merits [of this rite of bestowing food on hungry ghosts] extend to [and enable] all [(1) children of the Buddha; (2) sentient beings; (3) solitary or orphaned souls] to share in the food of dharma.

At this juncture the officiant takes the pure food outdoors and places it on the pedestal for beings. It should be divided into three portions: one for species of the waters, so that they may protect human beings and beings of the air; a second for furry beings, so that they may protect the dharma; and a third for beings of the other regions. He or she should pray that all will be satiated and led, thereby, to realization of the unoriginated nature of all things. If there is no pedestal for beings, place the food on purified ground. A large stone will also suffice. But do not place it at the foot of either a pomegranate or peach tree. Spirits and demons will be afraid and will not be able to eat it. The text of [master] Yunqi [Zhuhong] does not contain instructions for dividing the food into three parts, which would seem to be more appropriate. But here we follow the established custom.

Listen all you [(1) children of the Buddha; (2) sentient beings; (3) solitary souls]. We have now distributed to you this offering of food, which has suffused universally throughout the ten directions, reaching all [(1) children of the Buddha; (2) sentient beings; (3) solitary souls] together. We pray that the merits [of this offering] will extend universally to all beings everywhere, that those who have charitably distributed the food and all you [(1) children of the Buddha; (2) sentient beings; (3) solitary souls] who have received it will all realize buddhahood together.

Recite the mantra of universal offering.

Recite the Heart Sutra once; recite the spell of rebirth three times. Recite the mantra for the universal dedication of merits.

May the day be auspicious. May the night be auspicious.

May the six periods of day and night be altogether auspicious.

May every moment be auspicious.

May all exalted teachers take pity on and receive us.

May all the three jewels take pity on and receive us.

May all dharma-protectors always watch over and keep us.

Translated by Daniel Stevenson from the popular Chinese Buddhist breviary, Chanmen risong (Daily Recitations for Chan Practitioners) (Taipei: Xinwenfeng chubanshe, 1988), pp. 34a-36b.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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