The last post I did was about demons. With Halloween upon us tonight, this one is appropriately about ghosts. Hungry Ghosts are mentioned in some Buddhist traditions. The Wikipedia entry describes them as being associated primarily with Chinese Buddhism, but also mentions Japanese, Tibetan, and even Taoism (which is not a Buddhist tradition, but which had an influence on Chinese Buddhism.) The list of “The Thirty-one Planes of Existence” lists the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts/Shades and provides links to the Pali Canon, plus linking to a description of the realm by a Theravadan monk, Ajahn Lee, who was from the Thai Forest tradition:
Hungry shades come in all different shapes and sizes — really entertaining, the hungry shades. Some of them have heads as big as large water jars, but their mouths are just like the eye of a needle: that’s all, no bigger than the eye of a needle! Some of them have legs six yards long, but hands only half a foot. They’re amazing to watch, just like a cartoon. Some of them have lower lips with no upper lips, some of them are missing their lips altogether, with their teeth exposed all the time. There are all kinds of hungry shades. Some of them have big, bulging eyes, the size of coconuts, others have fingernails as long as palm leaves. You really ought to see them. Some of them are so fat they can’t move, others so thin that they’re nothing but bones. And sometimes the different groups get into battles, biting each other, hitting each other. That’s the hungry shades for you. Really entertaining.
These beings were said to be people who, in life, were particularly subject to the power of greed and are tormented by insatiable hunger without having any ability to diminish it. No amount of trick or trick goodies would be of any help to them!
“Grasper, ” of course, is a reference to “Casper the Friendly Ghost, ” star of many animated cartoons and featured title for many years with Harvey Comics. Without imitating Casper slavishly, I wanted to weave some of his aspects into my little story in a kind of homage. I hadn’t seen Casper’s cute little ectoplasmic form in decades, so I borrowed a couple of books that collected some of Casper’s comic stories from the good ol’ Free Library (Thank you, Free Library!)
Casper’s usual story line, both in cartoons and comics was simple. Unlike all the other ghosts who delighted in scaring people, Casper wanted to make friends. His efforts to engage others were repeatedly met with fear. (The cartoonists had a ball exaggerating fear reactions, often to the point where eyeballs, even teeth, were popping out of their bodies and folks were jumping right out of their shoes. The people in the fear-state were often much scarier-looking than poor Casper. As you can see above, I had some fun with this trope as well, although I left the picnic family’s eyes in their sockets and shoes on their feet.)
Eventually, Caspar would manage to make a friend and the cartoon or comic would end on a happy note. Casper was a kind of little kid superhero. He could fly, he could walk through walls. An immaterial being, he couldn’t be harmed. But the fear he inspired was not only his “curse,” but a potent source of power in its own right. Sometimes he made friends by protecting them –scaring off the bad guys.
Casper is “neotenized,” by the way. (See the Wikipedia entry on Neoteny and its picture of “Betty Boop.” The admirable Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead and cultural satirist nonpareil, has coined the word “cutism” to express the tendency of cartoonists to pander to this style of infantile exaggeration.)
So why would such a cute little ectoplasmic being inspire such fear? Because of death, of course. Ghosts are most often malevolent reminders of our mortality. Interestingly, I understand Paramount Pictures got a lot of questions about Casper. For example, “What was Casper like as a boy and how did he die?” Those kinds of questions drove the movie executives batty. They would insist that he had nothing to do with death. They said he was just an imaginary being like an elf or pixie, something out of a fairy tale. The fact that he was a ghost was an important aspect of his appeal, but the executives were afraid themselves of any trace of morbidity attaching to their entertaining friendly little spirit.
Casper fans will get the reference to “Ajahn Mettawendi.” “Wendy the Good Little Witch” was Casper’s friend who got a comic series of her own. This is my first attempt at actually having a character who is a Buddhist monastic. I doubt that I’ll use her again. I’ve adopted this oversized-head-and-eyes style in homage to Harvey Comics cartoonists, but I think I already may have too much “cutism” in my work without further cultivating it.
Finally, there’s the evangelism in my little story. This is Buddhism 101: While meditating or in any aspect of daily life, if something difficult arises, turn and face it, open to it without squirming to avoid it or rationalizing it away. Don’t stew in it, don’t bother berating yourself. Just see it for what it is without reacting –an unpleasant emotion, memory, worry, or, yes, a fear. Feel it to the full extent of your being. Get interested in it as a mental and physical process instead of going with the content and creating all sorts of stories around it. It’s a fundamental teaching, like meditation itself, that is simple, but not easy.
But the payoff is freedom.
Happy Halloween and as I repeatedly remind myself, give the treats away, don’t give way to excess gluttony. Who knows, if you aren’t moderate, you could be cultivating the karma of a hungry ghost!
New business card!