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Author of this essay:

Yao Xiang Shakya
(November 7, 2013)

The Disappointed, Hungry Ghost
by Yao Xiang Shakya

A student asks a Zen teacher, "What is the cause of trouble for human beings?"
The teacher replies, "Ghosts in the mind!"


The hungry ghost, especially the disappointed hungry ghost, is none other than a human being with ghosts in the mind.

Human beings, this includes you and me, disappoint one another. We disappoint ourselves and we disappoint others. This sense of disappointment may come from a sense of hunger and thirst to belong, fit in or to be loved. It may come from an internal sense of "how the other" should be or "how the other" should treat me. And it includes an internal image of "how I should be" included. The basis of such a view is hunger and thirst; this hunger and thirst is not satisfied and grows up inside of us as a thirst and takes the shape of a hungry ghost. It's a ghost in the mind.

And it must be understood, that only the conditioned self, aka the ego, feels such hunger and thirst.

Often we feel this hunger as a feeling of "not fitting in." We may feel rejected, misunderstood, overlooked or even betrayed. Of course this usually happens because we want to belong or feel we should belong or we feel we have put in effort to belong. This sense sometimes comes in the form of a need to help, contribute or participate in some meaningful way even in some powerful way. A classic hungry ghost is the loyal soldier who views himself as reliable, faithful and even dedicated to a cause, a relationship or an institution. This loyal soldier feels betrayed and deceived when the promises of the world do not deliver and match his expectations. And the promises of the world are sure to fail.

The object of the desire can be a person, an institution, a position in an organization or group; in fact it can be just about anything. When the disappointment comes it often is a sense of feeling "left out" accompanied by despondency and loneliness. But the main problem spiritually is that the heart of this devoted and loyal hungry ghost has set his heart on a human condition, such as another human being or a group of human beings. The disappointed hungry ghost misperceives reality and views the fleeting treasures of the world as the real treasure. And even worse, this hungry ghost thinks others have it and won't share it. Blame and anger and agony are bound to fly up into the mind from the aching belly of this hungry specter. The loyal, disappointed ghost has not yet gotten beyond the propaganda of world.

This place for the hungry ghost is quite painful and often leaves him feeling small and unwanted. It's almost incurable and often remains incurable for him if he is not able to see that the external world is unreal and continuously offers tricks and treats. It's a bumpy ride for the hungry ghost because he is unable to take in that others can not satisfy this sense of starvation.

It requires effort to withdraw the desire for others and the external world to be satisfying and fulfilling. It is, however, a necessity for the spiritual recovery of this starving ghost. He must withdraw the longing energy for the material world.

One of the tricks of the external world is that from time to time provisional worldly happiness is a treat, but the trick is that this provisional treat is never enough to satisfy this deep longing and yearning that the hungry ghost longs to consume. It's a short-lived treat, but often makes a thief of the beast within the hungry ghost. The hungry ghost suffers from rage and hate for the external world, whether it is other human beings or human circumstances that fail him. He is unable to realize that the external world continuously fails, is unreliable and untrustworthy. Nor is he able to see that his deep longing is for something beyond the trick or treat world.

From time to time all of us, it seems, falls into this realm, some are in it for long periods and others seem stuck there continuously with only small reprieves. If he has spent his life energy wanting to belong, to fit in or to be counted, he may repeat and cycle in the hungry ghost realm over and over again. The result is agony. The disappointed, hungry ghost is on the lookout wherever he goes for a bite of the world that makes for a ghoulish hunger. It keeps him continuously open for disappointment.

The Buddha Self, however, unlike the conditioned ego-self, does not long to take a bite of anything. The disappointed, hungry ghost has forgotten to look for and find him.

Humming Bird