The second of the lower realms is that of the yidags4 or hungry ghosts. This kind of being craves satisfaction but never achieves it. They struggle to manipulate the process of samsara similarly to the jealous gods, but hungry ghosts fail to experience any success. They are always hungry, for mental and physical nourishment. They are caricatured as having huge mouths and bellies and long thin necks, a symbolic representation of the needy-greedy experience of this realm. Hungry ghosts eat ravenously but are unable to swallow what they eat. Alternatively whatever they swallow becomes burning oil or poison. Nothing they consume provides nutritional benefit or relief from hunger. Hungry ghost perception cannot experience anything as wholesome or valuable.
When the hungry ghost offering is made during the tsog’khorlo ceremony5, the food is placed in a dirty cracked bowl, and left in an unhygienic location – such as on the ground or by the outside toilet. Symbolically this is the only way it is possible for these beings to see the offering as desirable. Hungry ghost appreciation is characteristically distorted in terms of the all-pervading hunger that dominates their existence. They continually consume, but are never satisfied. They have to constantly move on to the next object of their yearning.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of the hungry ghost realm,
This is the realm of the of the Vajrayana student who sees Vajrayana as a means of compensating for their unassuageable neediness. They see Vajrayana as an emporium of commodities which will give them the power and prestige they lack. They chase empowerments and Dzogchen transmission but never gain any benefit from what they imagine they receive. One sees hungry ghosts at every centre in every country. They are the ones who vaunt their knowledge at the expense of others, thinking that their information makes them more important – more to be admired. The problem is that the more they know the less it means to them in terms of how it changes their lives and their perception. There is always more to consume and it is never enough. There is always something more special and more secret which might provide the admiration and self-importance they crave. They seek further and further detail without comprehending the nature of the detail and therefore everything they learn merely cripples them further.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche says of this realm that we are ‘fascinated with being hungry rather than with satisfying hunger6’ which echoes Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s description of the Western Vajrayana ghosts who haunt the world of Vajrayana without entering it.
As a yidag, whatever experience comes my way in life I am never able to be receptive to it. All my opportunities are missed because I do not see them as opportunities. The job offer was fine, but the salary was not quite what it should be and the employer seemed antagonistic. My partner is a good person, I can see that – but they have such irritating habits. Hungry ghosts lack the capacity to actively appreciate. There is always a downside, always a ‘but’. In this realm there is a feeling of isolation. I cannot trust that I am liked, or fully embrace liking others. I am unable to appreciate what I have, so I exist in continual poverty, desperate to fulfil the next perceived need. What I have is never good enough, but I also feel that I could never achieve anything better. Hungry ghost perception is completely coloured by perceptual poverty and isolation. We live in this realm a great deal of the time.
It is not possible to engage with spiritual practice from within hungry ghost realm perception, because all we are ever able to see are the drawbacks. We are consumed with doubt as to the efficacy of practice and therefore lack the capacity for sustained effort and involvement. We require instant gratification. If I do not gain profound experience from Dharma practice immediately, I give up and move on to something else. This is because nothing gains ascendancy over our imperative neediness as ‘dharma ghosts’. There is always some shortcoming in the path with which I am involved. If I do gain experience quickly, I find it unfulfilling and uncomfortable. I decide Dharma is not good for me, and try to gain nourishment through telling everyone about my ‘bad experience’ in the hope that they will be impressed by my sincerity. I cannot take a long-term view in terms of developing on the path of growth and transformation. I cannot enter the sphere of devotion and so I fail to derive the inspiration which builds confidence. My Lama never quite understands me. The practice never completely suits me. There is always a more attractive prospect of practice somewhere else. I lack the capacity to engage, embrace, and appreciate where I am.
There was once a man who used to attend our meetings of the Cardiff Vajrayana Meditation Group. He was always critical of the way in which our meetings were conducted. He complained that we should set up our shrine room and organise ourselves the same way as another Buddhist group in Cardiff. He arrived late to every meeting and was generally disruptive. He would call at our home unannounced and demand individual attention. He would disappear for months and we would not see him at all, and then he would turn up again and behave in the same manner. We discovered by chance that he acted in exactly the same way at the meetings of other Buddhist groups in Cardiff. He would tell them that they should do things the same way as the Cardiff Vajrayana Meditation Group…
4. Yidag (yi dvags) (Tibetan): or preta (Sanskrit), hungry ghosts
5. Tsog’khorlo (tshogs kyi ’khor lo) (Tibetan: ganachakra (Sanskrit). A ceremony performed twice in the lunar month in which practitioners gather together to share and offer food, and perform symbolic practices of visualisation, song, chant, and dance.
6. Chögyam Trungpa, Transcending Madness; Part II, Chapter 6, ‘Realm of the Hungry Ghosts’ (Shambhala Publications, 1992).