Dan Zigmond

Hungry Ghosts

A Dharma Talk at Jikoji Zen Center
Oct 30, 2016

Good morning. Thank you for having me back here at Jikoji. It’s been over a year since my last talk here. That feels almost like a confession. I miss this place so much when I’m not here, and yet it is so easy to get caught up in our lives outside the temple. But even though I miss it here, it’s important to remember that a temple is just a place. Formal practice is important, but it’s just one part of practice. If we aren’t practicing in our daily lives, then we aren’t really practicing. Zen practice is different than piano practice or soccer practice. It’s not something you do now and then.

I can’t help but tell the story of the last time I was up here, which was last winter. I wasn’t scheduled to give a talk or anything like that – it was the middle of the week actually and I had asked Michael, our resident teacher, if I could come up to meet with him. We had made the plans maybe two weeks before, but that morning I called to confirm and he said it would be fine but he might need help with some dishes before we spoke. That seemed like a very odd thing to say, but I was between jobs at the time and had nothing else planned that day, so of course I said it would be fine and I drove up.

When I got here Michael and I think Doug and maybe another resident were all in the main kitchen, sort of wandering around and scratching their heads. It turned out someone had accidentally triggered the fire suppression systems in the kitchen the night before, which had then released an explosion of fine powder throughout the room. So when he said there might be “some dishes,” what he actually meant was that literally every dish and pot and pan and utensil in the main kitchen needed to be cleaned – plus every surface of every counter and stove and sink. They had only gotten as far as starting to pile the dirty dishes outside by the time I got there. 

So we got to work. The other guys focused on cleaning the kitchen itself, and I started on the dishes. We laid out a huge tarp in the driveway and after I washed a dish, I set it on the tarp to dry. Eventually I needed another tarp, and in the end I had washed several car-lengths of dishes. I don’t even know how long it took. It started to look like it might rain, and I couldn’t decide if that would be good news or bad news. It might make washing easier, but drying harder. Lots of things in life are like that.

When I was all done with the dishes, I went to find Michael and we had a nice talk. I wanted to talk about my own practice, since I haven’t had a formal teacher since Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi passed away. Kobun started this temple and several others, and helped start Tassajara, the first Zen monastery here in the States. So after washing all those dishes, I asked Michael what he thought the next step in my own practice and training should be, and he said I should come to Jikoji more often. That was about it.

I guess I didn’t really take his advice. But now I’m here again at last. 

When I signed up to give this talk, Cliff suggested that I might talk about Halloween, since that’s coming up tomorrow. And this got me thinking of the Hungry Ghosts. I don’t think anyone dresses up as a ghost any more for Halloween – I think my daughters are going as one of the Spice Girls – but we still think about ghosts around this time of year. 

In Buddhism, the Hungry Ghosts are spirits of departed people. In fact, the original Sanskrit term preta literally means more like “departed one,” so “ghost” isn’t a literal translation. And the “hungry” part comes from the Chinese rendering of this term. In the original Buddhist scriptures, the realm of Hungry Ghosts was a sort of purgatory where you might be reborn if your karma was not quite good enough for a good next life, but not quite bad enough for the worst of the hells. The pretas are said to haunt our world here on earth, but are mostly invisible. They tend to congregate in the least habitable places, but they can only be seen by people in certain mental states. 

The “hungry” part is something that got emphasized later as Buddhism spread through Asia and mingled with other local beliefs. In these traditions, pretas were depicted as having huge stomachs and tiny mouths. They were afflicted with horrible cravings. In some tellings, they would crave something awful, like the flesh of a corpse, but in others they might have perfectly normal hungers like the rest of us. But their throats are no wider than a needle, and sometimes food turns to fire when it touches their tongue. So they are cursed to spend their lives starving but unable to eat.

You don’t have to be much a Buddhist scholar to see the symbolism there. 

The very first teaching the Buddha gave after his enlightenment, after he became the Buddha, the Awakened One, is called the Deer Park Sermon, because literally he literally gave it in a park with some deer nearby. We have a few spots we could Deer Parks up here. And he basically lays out all of Buddhism in this one talk. Keep in mind, the Buddhist scriptures are tens of thousands of pages – maybe 80,000, many times longer than the Jewish or Christian bible – covering all sorts of topics. I’m not sure anyone has actually read the whole thing, and I don’t think I’ve read even 1%. The bits we chant in our services are a tiny, tiny fraction. But the basics of Buddhism are all laid out right there in the very first talk. And it’s just a few pages.

First, he says the key to awakening is what he calls the “middle way.” His own life up to that point had been full of extremes. First, he lived as a prince, and his parents ensured he had every luxury. A fortune teller had told the parents that their son would become either a great ruler or a great teacher, and like many parents they thought a life of material success sounded a lot better. They were worried that any hint of suffering might set him on the spiritual path, so they pampered him like crazy. They even posted guards at the palace gates to make sure no one depressing got in. And like a lot of well-intentioned helicopter parents, all this worked for a while. But then it didn’t. As he got into early adulthood, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to life than this Shangri-La of comfort his parents had made for him. Despite all their efforts, he got restless.

So one day he convinced a servant to sneak him out into the world, and there at last he confronted reality. And his parents were right. As soon as he encountered real suffering – as soon as he saw first-hand the reality of sickness, old age, and death – he knew that his life of luxury had no meaning. None at all. He noticed a band of wandering ascetics in the village, and decided to abandon his wealth and family and join them in their spiritual quest.

And with that, he went from one extreme to another. All of a sudden his life was full of pain. This new path was all about self-mortification. The ancient yogis believed you had to beat yourself up to get enlightened – literally. They would whip themselves and contort their bodies into crazy shapes. They would try to stop breathing for minutes at a time. They would starve themselves. And Buddha tried all this, for several years, wandering around India from teacher to teacher. Some people still try these things. But none of it worked. He learned something about suffering, of course, and this might be useful in a way. But he came no closer to overcoming suffering. 

The business of starving himself was the last straw for Buddha. He realized that if he continued on this path he would just die. Seeing his emaciated form on the side of the road, some passersby thought he already was dead. And death did not seem like the answer. For one thing, he believed in reincarnation, so death would just start the whole process over again. It accomplished nothing. But even setting that aside, death felt like giving up. Death could not be the answer to overcoming suffering in this life, because death ended this life.

So instead he ate a little food and started meditating under a Bodhi tree, and he had his awakening. He realized that a life of extremes was not the answer, and that the answer was to find balance, to find the middle.

That’s where the Deer Park Sermon begins – explaining the middle way. The middle way is the path that avoids all extremes. But then Buddha tries to make it a bit more concrete. He gives us what we usually call the Four Noble Truths. There are many ways of translating these, and I think Kobun had his own formulation, but the translation I first learned has always stuck with me. It goes like this:


Life is suffering.

The cause of suffering is desire.

The way to end suffering is to end desire.

The way to end desire is through the Holy Eightfold Path.


The first of these, Life is suffering, is just what Buddha learned when he first left the palace. Suffering is everywhere. It’s not that we all suffer all the time, but none of us can escape it forever. Not really. Sickness, old age, and death eventually claim us all. It’s kind of depressing.

The second of his truths is where things start to get more interesting. The cause of suffering is desire. We suffer primarily because we want things. When bad things happen, we want them to stop. When good things happen, we want them to continue. When he lack things, we want to have them. When we have things, we want more. When we love someone, we want to keep them close forever. The wanting never stops. And this makes us suffer.

We’ve all experienced this. Maybe we’re craving a certain food and it drives us crazy. Maybe we’re obsessed with some new car or house or jacket we can’t afford. Maybe we’ve lost a friend or lover we can’t stop thinking about. There’s always something. Sure, we have our moments of pure bliss. But they never last. We sit on a beautiful beach without a care in the world, and then suddenly the cares start flooding back. We think about the work piling up at our job or the bills waiting for us at home. We wish we could extend our vacation another day or two. The wanting, the desire, is never far away.

Weren’t we just talking about some other beings cursed by constant craving? That’s the weird thing about the pretas. It turns out we’re all basically Hungry Ghosts. We’re all wandering around trying to fill some empty void with things. Last year I wrote a whole book about this with respect to food, and how many of us eat not because we’re truly hungry, but because we’re craving something else, like comfort or peace of mind. But the same applies to all sorts of longings. The foods we eat and the things we buy don’t usually turn to flames as soon as we touch them, but they might as well. Because the longing, the craving, the empty feeling never really goes away.

This is all still feeling pretty depressing. But finally the next line suddenly offers a bit of hope, The way to end suffering is to end desire. He doesn’t quite come out and say it there, but he seems to be implying that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to end suffering. There is a way to end desire. We don’t have to live like the Hungry Ghosts.

And finally the last line tells us what that way is. The way to end desire is through the Holy Eightfold Path

This sounds awfully promising. It’s kind of like those ads you see all over the Internet these days. You can end desire and end suffering just by following these eight simple steps.

Well, sadly, it turns out not be that easy – kind of like those online ads. The Eightfold Path turns out to be pretty difficult. Again, there are lots of translations. But basically following the path means finding what he calls Right Understanding, Right Aspiration, Right Effort, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. So here it starts to get a little discouraging again, because in a nutshell, it sounds like it means doing everything right. 

And it is pretty intimidating. It sounds at first like Buddha is asking us to be perfect. Think right, talk right, act right – all the time. It doesn’t seem possible. And it’s not. But luckily, Buddha doesn’t really mean that. Doing things “right” doesn’t mean doing them perfectly – or even correctly, really. Being “right” in this context means following that middle way. It means avoiding extremes. 

I don’t want to make it sound too easy either. Finding that center, keeping that balance, is very hard. Most of us are sitting here today, in this incredible little temple, because we’re having trouble finding our middle way. But it’s there. That’s Buddha’s real message. We don’t have to live our lives buffeted by extremes. Awakening is possible. The middle way is real. And the only way to end suffering is to find it.

In some Asian cultures these days, it’s common to leave out food for the Hungry Ghosts. Like a lot of folk traditions, if you think about this too much, it doesn’t make much sense. The Hungry Ghosts don’t suffer because there’s no food around. They suffer because they can’t eat the food even when they find it, because food can’t satisfy what they are truly craving. But it’s a nice gesture nonetheless. Because when we see suffering, we want to help. And we should help. Even if at some level that helping can’t really solve the underlying problem. This is the essence of compassion – doing whatever we can to alleviate suffering, even if we know we can never do enough.

And so I thought I would end my talk with this. When you look around, whether you’re here in the temple or out in the world, you actually see a lot of Hungry Ghosts. All around you are beings suffering. Everybody wants something they can’t have, or clings to something they can’t keep. And maybe these days this is even more apparent. The current election has gotten very ugly, and is filed with stories of suffering. Whether it is physical abuse or economic hardship or countless other problems, our world seems especially filled with stories of suffering, as well as greed, hate, and other delusions. 

And whether we agree with these people or not, whether they look like us or think like us or not, it is important to live and act with compassion. Leaving morsels of food on an altar in the garden, or even giving candy to trick-or-treaters at your door tomorrow, symbolize this greater good. Just as Buddha taught, all of us are suffering. And all of us wish we could end it. And it’s not enough to end it for ourselves. Our work isn’t done, our practice isn’t complete, until we’ve ended it for everyone.

So in your life, and especially in the next few weeks, keeps your eyes open for those Hungry Ghosts. Offer them some kindness. Embody the middle way. 

Thank you for coming. Happy Halloween.