In traditional Buddhist imagery, there is a type of being called a preta or hungry ghost.  They are described as human-like, but with sunken, mummified skin, narrow limbs, enormously distended bellies and long, thin necks. This appearance is a metaphor for their mental situation: they have enormous appetites, signified by their gigantic bellies, but a very limited ability to satisfy those appetites, symbolized by their slender necks.  Some of them can eat a little, but find it very difficult to find food or drink.  Others can find food and drink, but find it very difficult to swallow.  Others find that the food they eat seems to burst into flames or into blood and pus as they swallow it.  Others see something edible or drinkable and desire it but it withers or dries up before their eyes. As a result, they are always hungry.

I have always found the hungry ghost to be such a powerful metaphor for those parts of ourselves that are hungry, unsatisfied, that can’t find expression or resolution.  For me, it’s one of the best examples of how a traditional image of a supernatural being can readily be accessed as a metaphor.  Do we literally believe that there are such beings?  Maybe, maybe not.  Do we resonate with the image of a being that has an insatiable appetite that can never be satisfied?  Absolutely.

At Tassajara, every few days, we did a ceremony for the hungry ghosts, which involves making a ceremonial food offering to the hungry ghosts as a means of helping them to find their way.  It has some beautiful chanting in Japanese, but the beginning of the ceremony is in English and is called “The Gate of Sweet Dew” and here is the text.  As you read it, reflect upon the parts of yourself that are hungry or unsatisfied and what it would mean or feel like to have resolution:

Giving rise to the awakened mind, we unconditionally offer up a bowl
of pure food to all the hungry ghosts in every land to the farthest
reaches of vast emptiness in the ten directions, including every atom
throughout the entire dharma realm. We invite all our departed
ancestors going back to ancient times, the spirits dwelling in
mountains, rivers, and earth, as well as rough demonic spirits from
the untamed wilderness, to come and gather here. Now, with deep
sympathy we offer food to all of you, sincerely hoping that you will
each accept this food and turn it over, making offerings to buddhas,
sages, and all sentient beings throughout the vast emptiness of the
universe, so that you and all the many sentient beings will be
satisfied. Moreover, we sincerely wish that your bodies be conveyed by
these mantrams and food so that you may depart from suffering, be
liberated, find birth in heaven, and receive joy. In accordance with
your intentions, may you travel freely through the pure lands in the
ten directions and arouse awakened mind practicing the awakened way
and in the future become a buddha without regressing. We entreat those
who have previously attained the way since ancient times to vow to
realize liberation with all other beings together. Day and night,
constantly protect us so that our vows will be fulfilled. We offer
food to beings throughout the dharma realm, so that every being will
equally receive this fortunate offering. Whatever virtue and merit
this produces, we completely transfer and dedicate to the unsurpassed
awakening with total clarity and wisdom of the whole dharma realm of
true reality, that all may speedily attain buddhahood without
incurring any other destinies. May all sentient beings of the dharma
realm take advantage of this teaching to quickly attain buddhahood.

I find it especially inspiring that the goal of this ceremony isn’t just to release or satisfy the hungry ghosts, but actually to help them to become awakened, and for them to then take part in the awakening of others.  Isn’t that beautiful?  Our own hunger and pain can be transformed into a vehicle for the awakening of others.  Do you believe that?  What does that mean to you?
An extension of this ceremony is done each year around Halloween, in a ceremony called Sejiki.  In this ceremony, a big table is set up in the zendo piled high with food – fruit, rice, and especially delicious cakes.  We chant the Gate of Sweet Dew, offer incense, and read aloud the names of friends and family who have died within the last year, or the names of anyone who has died at any time if we feel that there is still something unresolved.  Some folks wanted to include names of friends who died many years ago, others who maybe lost a family member more recently felt that they were resolved and that they didn’t need to include a name.  So it was very individual.  I found it very moving to make these offerings while remembering dear friends who have passed away.  I really felt the power of ceremony to release or to resolve something within me.

Vicki Austin says that we started to do the ceremony at Zen Center at Kobun Chino Roshi’s suggestion. He thought it would be helpful to us to have a deeper relationship with the negative aspects of our lives.  Speaking to Rick Levine, Chino Roshi said the Segaki (Sejiki) ceremony “makes a statement about. . .how to deal with negative things, negative happenings, negative parts of phenomena . . . For it is a kind of reminding ceremony, expanding your awakening to the darkness. . . Awareness is expanded to existence which is unseen, unknown, unthinked. . . Negative is another positive side. Awareness is already round and pure. [We can] expand our practice of compassion, in space as well as time. . . perhaps [with] this ceremony.”

The spirit of this ceremony was beautifully extended by Bernie Glassman and the great American kirtan musician Krishna Das.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, kirtan is this gorgeous, ecstatic chanting practice from the Hindu tradition. Krishna Das adapted part of the Gate of Sweet Dew, and it’s starting to make its way around the Buddhist scene.  I first encountered it in 2010 at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association meeting, where we used it as a pre-meal chant.  It was so touching to be part of this warm community, reconnecting with old friends, making new friends, and to take a moment before sitting down to a meal to reflect in this way:

Calling out to hungry hearts,

everywhere through endless time,

you who wander, you who thirst,

I offer you this heart of mine. 

Calling out to hungry spirits,

everywhere through endless time.

Calling out to hungry hearts,

all the lost and the left behind. 

Gather round and share this meal. 

Your joy and your sorrow,

I make them mine.

A good practice for us to hold over the next days and weeks is to look within and identify those parts of us that are hungry ghosts.  What is the yearning in your life that can’t be satisfied?  What is that unresolved place in your own heart?  Can you imagine what it would be like for your hungry ghost to be fed and cared for?  How do you relate to the hungry ghost in others?  Can you reach out in the spirit of the Gate of Sweet Dew?  All you have to do is offer your heart and take in the suffering of the world.  No problem!