Why Hungry Ghosts Must Keep Flying


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.

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  1. I enjoyed this piece, Ruth. I’m intrigued with this mythos. What are black beasts? You know I am always parsing and interrogating those visceral words in English that have indoctrinated our color palette with descriptions that do more than describe. – connotations that add more. I’m just curious as to why your beasts are black.

    1. Breena, it was a literal translation of the French phrase “bête noire” meaning bane. To me the “blackness” of the beast is of the shadow, the dark self (dark because it’s not seen) which must be acknowledged and integrated to be whole. But with hungry ghosts the void – the hole inside – is their entire identity and they expect others to fill it, blame others for their emptiness.
      But that doesn’t really answer your question. I didn’t see the phrase (in French or English) as referring to skin color or racial stereotypes, but I was ignorant. Doing even a little research this morning, I see that there is even a study of African American masculine identity entitled In The Shadow of the Black Beast. So for me to use this phrase, although to me it had no racist (or even human) connotation, was just plain ignorant and potentially harmful. The image has been used to reinforce the most vicious horrors in the American psyche. I apologize. I would replace it with the neutral word “bane” except that maybe this conversation is valuable to others who, like me, use a phrase without thinking how it may have been, or might still be, embedded in people’s unconscious belief structures. There’s nothing wrong in itself with using the image of a black nightmare animal, but in a society where black children are murdered by police and abused by school authorities every day, white people like me cannot afford to be naive or careless about what words we use. (God knows black people have never been able to afford to be naive or careless.) So, Breena, thank you for opening my eyes to this. I am truly grateful. As a poet I work a lot with concepts of darkness, shadow, light, as equally necessary and ultimately one whole – but I need always to be aware of how they can be distorted, especially within the horrendous religious dualism that dominates our culture.

    1. Thank you, Jocelyn. Now I am imagining you singing with the hungry ghost voices singing and swirling all around you — maybe an otherworlds/afterworlds oratorio-series?

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