Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Preta realms from the Wheel of Life
 The realms of the pretas are to be found in two places: one is bellow Jambudvipa (our realm of human beings), which is their main place of existence and is ruled by King Yama, and the other is between the realm of humans and the realms of the gods. Master Vasubandhu explains:

“The king of the pretas is called Yama; his residence, which is the principal dwelling of the pretas, is located under Jambudvipa. The pretas that are found elsewhere are the surplus of the pretas. The pretas differ much one from another; certain of them possess supernatural powers and enjoy a glory similar to that of the gods”. 

            There are two kinds of pretas: 1. pretas who live collectively, and 2. pretas who travel through space. Among the pretas who live collectively there are three types: the pretas who suffer from external obscurations, pretas who suffer from internal obscurations and pretas who suffer from specific obscurations.

             Pretas who suffer from external obscurations
            These are the pretas who suffer from intense hunger and thirst or from unbearable heat and cold.
Thus, whatever food or water they see in the distance, it proves to be nothing but a mirage, because when they come closer, they realize it vanished, dried up or that it is guarded by armed demons who beat them and chase them away.
As Master Genshin described:

“At times they succeed in finding a stream of pure water but when they rush to it and try to scoop up the water in their hands, demons of great strength come along and beat them with iron clubs, or the water suddenly turns into flames and burns them or it ceases to flow and is dried up”. […]

Section of the Hungry Ghosts Scroll depicting one of 
the thirty-six types of hungry ghosts
who constantly seeks water to drink. Kyoto Museum
“There are hungry spirits  called Eating-Water whose bodies are parched with thirst. They rush about in search for water but cannot find even a drop. Their long hair covers their faces so that they cannot see. They run along the river banks and if there are people crossing they lap up the water which may be left in their foot prints, and thus moistening their parched throats they manage to exist. Or when people make an offering of water to the spirits of their departed parents they give a little to these spirits and so they prolong their lives. If the spirits try to take some of this water themselves then the various demons whose function it is to guard the water beat them with sticks. Those who in this life mixed water with the sake they sold, or those who put in earth worms and leeches and so did not fulfill the good Law, receive this reward”.

Also, as Genshin said, “there are still other hungry spirit  called Fear-Hope who live on the offerings which people make to their departed parents. Beside this they have nothing on which to live. Those who in this life rob the poor of even the little they have acquired through great efforts, receive this reward. Then, again, there are hungry spirits who are born on the seashore where there is neither cool shade nor river water and where it is so hot that even their winter days are more than a thousand times hotter than summer days on earth. They subsist on obtaining only the morning dew. Though they live on the sea shore, the sea looks to their eyes like a dry place. Those who in this life have taken advantage of merchants who have been overtaken with illness on their journey and have beaten down their prices and so robbed them receive this reward”.

            Pretas who suffer from internal obscurations
            This kind of pretas have very small mouths, some no bigger than the eye of a needle, and a large sized stomach of hundreds of meters or even more. When they try to drink water, the heat of their breath evaporates it as soon as it goes down their throats. In the same way, no matter how much they eat, they cannot be satisfied due to the contradiction between their mouths and stomachs, but even if they somehow manage to eat a little, it will burst into flames during the night and burn their inside organs. Also movement is extremely hard and painful to them because of their grass-like limbs.

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend[1]:

(92) Some, with bellies as (huge) in size as a mountain,
(Connected) to mouths, the mere eye of a needle,
Are tortured by hunger, not having the capacity
To eat even the tiniest lump of filth thrown away.

(93) Some, with bodies (just) skin and bones, and naked,
Are like the withered trunk-tops of palmyra palm trees;
While some blaze (flames) from their mouths in the sphere of the night,
Having to eat blazing sand as their food, poured into their mouths.

Master Genshin also described such type of pretas who suffer from internal obscurations:

“Then there are hungry spirits called Eating-and-Vomiting whose bodies are very broad and a half  yodjana in height. Their stomach and chest feel heavy, and so they continually try to vomit, but as they cannot succeed in this they suffer in various ways. Those husbands who in this life ate the good food themselves and gave nothing to their wives and children, and such wives as ate all the good food themselves and gave nothing to their husbands, receive this reward.

Then, again, there are hungry spirits called Eating-Odour who have to live on the smell of the food which sick people offer along the rivers or in forests. Those who in this life allowed wife and children only to smell the good food which they themselves ate, receive this reward”.

Pretas who suffer from specific obscurations
The experiences of this kind of pretas vary from one another, according to the specific causes that brought them into that state. For example, some have many creatures living on their bodies and devouring them, or may have their own food transformed into various uneatable and foul matters, while some other cut their own flesh and eat it. 
Pretas who feed on human dung
As Master Genshin said, quoting Nagarjuna’s Prajnaparamita-sastra:

“Then there are hungry spirits who have nothing at all to eat, and so they break open their own skulls and eat their brains. Again, there are hungry spirits who emit flames from their mouths and live upon the moths which happen to fly into these flames. There are hungry spirits who feed on pus, phlegm and the remains of the washings of human dung.”

Or as he described in his Ojoyoshu:

There are other hungry spirits who for lack of food go to cemeteries and eat the cremated bodies, but this does not stay their hunger. Those who in this life were prison wardens and who ate the food intended for the prisoners receive this reward.” […]

A specific obscuration is that which manifests upon those false teachers of the Dharma:

Pretas who go to cemeteries and feed on corpses
“There are hungry spirits called Eating-Law (Dharma) who run about on steep places where it is difficult to walk, seeking food but finding none. If they enter a temple and hear an exposition of the Law (Dharma) they obtain strength and manage to live. Those who in this life sought to obtain fame by a false interpretation of the Law receive this reward”.

            Pretas who travel through space
            This category includes various types of pretas which are generaly tormented by constant fear and hallucination. Generaly speaking, they want to offload their pain on others, so wherever they go they do harm to others, thus many of them fall into hells when their life as a preta comes to an end. Even when they visit their dear ones from previous life, they bring only sickness, insanity and various other sufferings, which causes magicians and exorcists to harm and destroy them.
They also suffer from the distorted perceptions of other kind of pretas, like perceiving the sun of winter to be too cold, or the moon too hot in summer night. Their bodily form may be of various hideous animals, like ugly dogs, birds and others.

As we have seen, the causes of being born among pretas are various kinds of actions motivated by greed, avarice, jealousy, etc. The lifespan is also described by Master Genshin as follows:

“One day in this realm is as long as one month of human life and existence here lasts for 500 years. The Shobonenjogyo[2] says that those who are cruel, covetous, jealous and envious fall into this Realm of Hungry Ghosts (Spirits). By the cruel and the covetous are meant those who think only of their own things, who do not love others or give alms, and those who are never satisfied no matter how much they rob others”.

In chapter four of his Kyogyoshinsho[3], Master Shinran quotes Master Che-kwan of Koryo[4]:

“Hungry ghosts are called pretas in Sanskrit. Their places of habitation are found in various realms. Hungry ghosts with much merit become spirits of mountains and forests or of graveyards. Those without merit dwell in filthy places, receive no food or drink, and are constantly whipped. Forced to dam up rivers and oceans, they suffer immeasurable pain. Those who harbor flattery and deception in their hearts and have committed the five grave offenses and the ten evil acts that belong to the lowest degree of karmic evil receive the recompense of this state of existence”.

[1] Letter to a Friend (bShes-pa'i springs-yig, Skt. Suhrllekha) by Nagarjuna, translated by Alexander Berzin, 2006,
[2] Saddharmasm tyupasthana Sutra (Shobonenjogyo) Mindfulness of the Right Dharma Sutra.
[3] Inagaki, p 334.
[4] That passage appeared in T’ien-t’ai’s Discourse on the Fourfold Teachings.

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