In the Buddhist teaching, all beings endlessly cycle through six realms of existence: human, animal, jealous god, happy god, hell, and hungry ghost. The first realm is the most desirable, and the last condition, perhaps, the most excruciatingly abysmal, even worse than the innumerable tortures of various hells. One can imagine the Greek Tantalus, forever punished with unquenchable thirst and insatiable hunger, while barely out of reach is a feast. Hungry ghosts, or gakihowever, take their torments on the road.
Hungry ghosts are doomed to wander, hungry beyond measure, visiting their haunts while they are reshaped, Gollum-like, into grotesque entities with fat empty bellies and impossibly thin necks. Anything they are able to extract from the food and drink around them does nothing to feed them. Food tastes like poison, water – when demons let them near it – burns like fire. It’s hopeless.
How these supernatural beings became part of ancestor worship observances in medieval Japan is the subject of much cultural study. Suffice it to say that every summer for a period of about two weeks, usually beginning in August, Japanese families across the country celebrate the festival of obon, a time to honor ancestors – and feed all the hungry ghosts around. (In China, where many of these traditions originated, the end of July and most of August constitute an entire Hungry Ghost month.)
Rituals of ancestors and hungry ghosts in Japan are practiced by Buddhist families, Shinto families, by those who have no preference. These are not specifically religious practices. Curiously, Western Zen Buddhists have made them more solemn by moving the Segaki (or Sejiki) festival from July to the end of October, a perhaps more or less serious attempt to respond to the commercial scope of Halloween, to implant new habitus in Western minds, paying homage to the constant craving for sweets and the like that possesses everyone to some degree.
We may know the Hungry Ghost from popular culture, in translations of Kaidan (Where Kwaidan) – folk stories of ghosts and demons – in manga and film. These are the origin, for example, of Masaki Kobayashi’s quartet of stories Kwaidan. Anthony Bourdain titled his 2018 comic book collaboration with Joel Rose Hungry ghosts. A graphic satire of the insatiable greedy world that Bourdain despised, the comic also introduced the Game of 100 Candles, a macho Edo period ritual in which samurai tried to fight and scare each other with ghosts. stories.
Hungry guest stories in Japanese folklore and pop culture have themselves been largely informed by earlier depictions of mass media, so to speak, notably the medieval scroll art known as Gaki Sōshi. In a Google exhibit, the Kyoto National Museum describes the many such artifacts in its collection:
Gaki Sōshi are picture scrolls illustrating the world of gaki (Skt. ready to, or “hungry ghosts”) – spirits doomed to eternal hunger and thirst. Gaki Sōshi were created between the end of Heian (794-1185) and the beginning of Kamakura (1185-1333), when the country was ravaged by wars, and like the scrolls representing hell (Jigoku Sōshi) and the illnesses (Yamai no Sōshi) reflect an attitude of staring down hard reality.
These are not depictions of honoring family ancestors. They “usually contain episodes of the sufferings endured by the gaki”, the museum points out, but some also show “episodes of their salvation” – thus introducing a minor doctrinal dispute that plays a major role in the ghost story. Can spirits be appeased? Can they be freed from wretched states of wandering restlessness? The thought of such an existence rightly thrills us, so it makes psychological sense to ward it off with offerings, in the hope, at least, that no part of ourselves suffers this fate.
Despite their transformation into monsters on the page and on screen, the hungry ghosts of these scrolls do no harm to the living. Here, as in most traditional stories of hungry ghosts from India and China, they are pitiful creatures. Pursued by demons, administered by Buddhas and their followers, they mostly escape the notice of greedy human beings…. Except for a few times a year when millions of people stop to notice how they’re all mixed up with the ancestors… how there are hungry ghosts everywhere among the living and the dead.