There is a Buddhist monastery in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, north-east of Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The monastery sits on the side of a small mountain, overlooking Turtle Rock, and the climb to it is lined with illustrated sutras posted on sign boards. There are well over one hundred sutras, and they are in English as well as in Mongolian, and I made myself odious to my travels companions by reading every single one.
One in particular struck me, and I took a picture of it:
“The number of animals is much less than that of hungry ghosts; it is like comparing the number of stars in the nighttime with those that shine during the day.”
At first, I supposed that ‘hungry ghosts’ was a poetical description. However, the term appeared on a number of the sutra boards, so if it was a poetical description, it was heavily utilized.
I know now that ‘hungry ghost’ is a technical term. It is a translation of ‘preta’. Pretas, in the Buddhist tradition of that monastery, were once wicked, corrupted, or greedy men. When they died, they were reincarnated as pretas, beings afflicted with a terrible and insatiable appetite. Sometimes, this appetite was simple hunger or thirst; sometimes, it was more elaborate. The pretas are often depicted, as on the sutra board, as skeletal, with protruding stomachs. Their appearance frightened off humans who might have otherwise been moved by pity to feed them, and their enormous bellies were impossible to fill.
Sometimes, in their desperation, they were driven to humiliating exigencies, like the consumption of feces. Sometimes, they ate the flesh of the human dead. Sometimes, what food they could acquire burst into flames at their touch. Sometimes, they were afflicted with so great a thirst that their throats dried and closed.
The most wretched pretas I encountered in H.L. Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods’; where he encountered them, I don’t know. He writes,
“Yet others suffered from such deformities and diseases that they could not eat, even when food was before them. The teeth of some, for example, turned into needles, and mastication became impossible.”
If the sutra on that mountain is to be believed, these unfortunates are all around us. They outnumber and walk among us, thin, swollen, needle-toothed, and hungry, in a desolating afterlife.
H.L. Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods.