The Buddhist Universe – Chapter 4: A Lesson from a Ghost

Ghosts are one of the six types of beings that populate the Buddhist universe. Although they have their own underground realm, some of them venture into the human world, invisible to all but the spiritually advanced, as in the story below. Ghosts suffer from hunger and thirst (thus, the common translation from the Chinese, ‘hungry ghosts’). They are constantly seeking food and drink, and when they find it, they encounter obstacles. A river, upon their approach, may turn into burning sand or into a current of pus and blood. Ghosts are often depicted as having huge abdomens and tiny limbs. Their throats are sometimes the size of the eye of a needle, sometimes tied in a knot.

The origin of the category of ghost is unclear, but their depiction in Buddhist iconography suggests a human suffering from acute starvation, with a bloated abdomen supported precariously by a skeletal frame.

The Sanskrit term 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.

There are many stories of Buddhist monks encountering ghosts, who relate to them the story of how they arrived at their sad state. Their accounts serve as cautionary tales. Here, the monk Narada encounters a ghost with a golden body and the mouth of a pig. In Buddhist stories, one’s past deeds are often displayed on one’s present body, and marks of both virtue and sin may be present, as with this ghost.

This story appears in a work called the Exposition of the Ultimate (Paramatthadapanl) by the monk Dhammapala, said to have lived in the south of India, perhaps in the middle of the sixth century ce.

This story was told about a certain ghost who had the mouth of a pig when the Teacher was living in the park of the Venuvana monastery near Rajagaha.

Once upon a time, at the time of the previous buddha Kassapa, there was a monk who was disciplined with respect to his body, but undisciplined with respect to his speech, and he insulted and abused other monks. When he died, he was reborn in hell. For the whole period in between buddhas, he cooked in hell. Moving from hell, he was reborn at the foot of Vulture Peak as a ghost at the time of the arising of the Buddha. He was afflicted with hunger and thirst as a result of what he did with his mouth. Moreover, his mouth was like the mouth of a pig, although his complexion was golden.

At that time, the Venerable Narada was living on Vulture Peak. After taking care of his bodily hygiene, he took his bowl and robe and went to Rajagaha to collect alms. He saw this hungry ghost while on his way to Rajagaha, and said this verse to ask what had been done by him to become like this:

Your complexion is all of gold, it shines in all directions,

The hungry ghost, asked about his karma, replied with the following verse:

I was disciplined with my body, but I was uncontrolled in my speech.

Because of that my complexion is like this, just as you see, O Narada.

When the hungry ghost had replied to the question of the elder, he said this verse to give the monk advice:

O Narada, I say this to you: This was seen by yourself.

Don’t sin with your mouth, don’t become someone with the mouth of a pig.

Then the Venerable Narada went on to Rajagaha for alms. He returned with his afternoon meal and, sitting in the middle of the fourfold assembly of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen, told the whole story to the Teacher. The Teacher replied that he had seen that hungry ghost earlier and he preached a sermon that displayed the several kinds of disadvantages and dangers connected with poor control of speech and the benefits connected with good conduct in speech. That sermon was filled with meaning and usefulness for everyone present.

Translated by Charles Hallisey from the Paramatthadrpani by Dhammapala, ed. E. Hardy (London: Pali Text Society, 1894), pp. 9-12.

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

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