In Tibetan paintings, the realm of the hungry ghosts coexists with this one. They fly around and around us, wailing their lack, screaming to be filled. They are pictured with long constricted necks and vast, flapping, empty bellies. There is no way to unknot the neck and receive nourishment, no matter how much – or who – they eat.
Nor can they love another, their hearts being locked around their own need.
Often, in the folk stories, people are reborn as hungry ghosts because of their greed and selfishness. It’s a punishment. But in more sophisticated philosophies of rebirth, the dead are drawn to a way of being that matches their existing energy, that feels familiar to them. This is also another way of understanding karma.
Hungry ghosts flew into my poems because they look like the Birdwoman, a figure who haunted my dreams. For me they have less connection with Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism than with my own syncretic mythology. They are the excluded fairy at Talia’s feast; they are the harpies at the throat; they are the mother whose emptiness is a hole in the world.
Hungry ghosts believe that others have what they do not, and that what they need must come from outside themselves. Their lives are always conditional on others, and thus they can never be happy. Nor do the astonishing joys of the earth speak to them.
Hungry ghosts are my black beasts. From my poor starving mother to the cult leader who ate my life – they keep coming back. I was destroyed, and I escaped and made myself anew, but they smell me out, they circle – I want, I want – and it takes so much energy to fight them, over and over to say No.
I would free them if I could. If unconditionality were a magic potion, if it could fall from the skies like sweet rain.
But I know it doesn’t work like that.
May all beings be happy. I say. May all beings be free.
But we choose who we are. Every day, we choose.
We grow roots deep within ourselves, and day by day, joy by joy, gratitude by gratitude, we grow ourselves human.
Or we don’t.
Here is a poem for the hungry ghosts, from Woman With Crows, where they had their own story to tell.
Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying
Because they cannot rest
cannot dance strong fishbodies
through long brown kelp
or seep like sun through the tufted fingers of redwoods
cannot breathe through their feet
or sprawl in hot sweet grass sated as seeds
cannot flicker out and in through their fingertips
making cloud-to-cloud lightning along the edges of the world.
And in this place where throats are bells
clamoring the great sounding universe back to itself
they fly with throats clutched close
they drag empty dirigible bellies
their ears are filled with their own keening.