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One of the four lowest realms of the 31 planes of existence is the realm of the hungry ghosts or hungry shades or petas or pretas.

These cannot be souls or spirits, because in Buddhism, there is no transmigration of souls.

On this page, it is described as:

peta yoni — here the beings have deformed bodies and are usually consumed by hunger and thirst

In the Janussonin Sutta, the Buddha states that food offerings to the dead cannot reach them if they are reborn in hell, as animal, as human or as devas (heavanly beings). However, food offerings to the dead would reach them or other ancestors who are born as hungry ghosts or petas. Those who offer this, would not go unrewarded for their generosity, according to the sutta. This appears to be the practice described in the Tirokudda Kanda.

Ven. Nanda Mahathera writes here:

Peta-yoni (pa + ita) lit., departed beings, or those absolutely devoid of happiness. They are not disembodied spirits of ghosts. They possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye. They have no planes of their own, but live in forests, dirty surroundings, etc.

Ven. Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo describes them here as:

Hungry shades come in all different shapes and sizes — really entertaining, the hungry shades. Some of them have heads as big as large water jars, but their mouths are just like the eye of a needle: that's all, no bigger than the eye of a needle! Some of them have legs six yards long, but hands only half a foot. They're amazing to watch, just like a cartoon. Some of them have lower lips with no upper lips, some of them are missing their lips altogether, with their teeth exposed all the time. There are all kinds of hungry shades. Some of them have big, bulging eyes, the size of coconuts, others have fingernails as long as palm leaves. You really ought to see them. Some of them are so fat they can't move, others so thin that they're nothing but bones. And sometimes the different groups get into battles, biting each other, hitting each other.

Based on all the descriptions above, it sounds to me like hungry ghosts or hungry shades are microorganisms. It also makes sense that when food offerings are made to the dead, they would be consumed by microorganisms.

Questions:

  1. What are the hungry ghosts or hungry shades really?
  2. Could they be microorganisms? Have any Buddhist scholars considered this possibility?
  3. Is offering of food to the dead still practised today?
  4. Is this a recommended practice or is it not recommended? And why? According to this answer, the Buddha neither rejected nor endorsed the practice.
  5. Does the opinion of the different Buddhist schools differ from each other on this?
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It is common in Sri Lankan' Buddhist to pass the merits to departed relatives and friends after a wholesome action (Dana etc.). Some people offer food but it is not in line with Buddha's teaching. There is a section in Sutta pitaka named Petavatthu. Unfortunately no English translation as yet.

https://suttacentral.net/pv

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Interesting question...

What are the hungry ghosts or hungry shades really?

Likely no one can really explain in words so to make you understand unless you reach the 4th Dhyana/Jhana and see them yourselves ;). Because only by reaching 4th Dhyana you can have Rddhi/Iddhi (psychic power) - to see other dimensions. Yet unlikely meditator if do complete the 4th Dhyana will go around proclaiming he/she achieved 4th Jhana! Imagine an Arhat/Arahant going around town telling everybody he achieved Arahant-hood?!

However, some hints from the Sutras/Suttas. Hungry-shades are related to one of the Five Hinderances: Greed. In your quoted Ven. A. L. Dhammadharo's, the summerized characteristic is they can't have the way to consume food even they wanted to.

  • heads as big as large water jars, but their mouths are just like the eye of a needle: Can't swallow food
  • Some of them have legs six yards long, but hands only half a foot: Can't reach food or break their bodies
  • Some of them have lower lips with no upper lips, some of them are missing their lips altogether, with their teeth exposed all the time: Can't eat/chew food

When one contemplate the Hinderance of Greed: Greed is always unsatisfiable, not because of lack, it's the unsatisfiable-ness, wanting more that we called greed, so even there's plenty, to the greed it still means lack, needs more. This unsatifiable-ness backfires caused actualizing their lack-ness: needle mouth, over-short hands, no lips. When this mental state becomes the dominate it will manifest as a physical form that match such mental state. All forms are the manifestation of corresponding consciousness (consciousness is not really an exact term but can't think up better one yet). Animal form is animal consciousness, human form human consciousness. Beware and condemn those Neo-Buddhism followers those have an apetite for twisting the Dharma/Dhamma and fitting it into their self-invented "self-views". If an animal mental state is a self-view of a human how does the existence of animal realm exist in our world? It's ludicrous for those clever men taking a literal term "mental state" treating like a real Buddhist doctrine.

Could they be microorganisms? Have any Buddhist scholars considered this possibility?

That's very insightful. I would agree partly with this. Yes, as far as I know there is one Chinese Buddhist teacher Nan Hui-chin said so. I would say this realm some take it as also include the microorganisms, or, mcgms are in-between realms of animals and Hungry-shades. I think the realms should not be read as rigid territories. Like we say rainbows have 7 colours, but we know we can't really exactly say that is red, that is orange in the rainbow. The realms are like this too.

Is offering of food to the dead still practised today?

I think in Asian countries most likely, in occasions, like during Qhingming Festival, but many are cultural traditions, not Buddhist tradition. Monasteries may do this too - but for Hungry-shades, as part of their daily practice of sending merits and blessings to all the sentient beings. In Mahayana Monasteries, they usually also throw 7 grains to the courtyards for the Garudas. Because when the Garuda King converted to the Buddha and promised not to kill, however he mentioned there was a difficulty, for the karmic effect all Garudas must eat Nagas as food, or die. Thus the Buddha promised him from then and to the future his Bhikhus will feed them with the grains, so they wouldn't die even didn't eat Nagas. Just read about this story haven't been bother to find any Sutra/Sutta reference yet, but that's what the monasteries do. Would be interested to know if it also practiced by the Theravada monasteries :).

Is this a recommended practice or is it not recommended? And why? According to this answer, the Buddha neither rejected nor endorsed the practice.

Personal opinion, I don't think it should be recommended. The Hungry-shades won't be able to consume the food. Unless it's on a specific day or with specific blessing by an accomplished Buddhist/Bhikhus, Bodhisattva or Buddha. If also included the mcgms, it's bad to the hygiene, and mcgms have their way already in natural environment.

Does the opinion of the different Buddhist schools differ from each other on this?

As far as I study, I think the general principles are same but may vary in practice.

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Buddha didn't say much about hungry ghost realm. From my collection, he went on and described the appearances of about 21 types of hungry ghost seen by him and Ven Moggallana. I will share trivia facts I know and hopefully answer some of your question along the way.

  • hungry ghost is a realm step down from us human, and one step up from animal wombs. This is very interesting fact that not many take notice. Buddha have a great organization of words, no others are equal. He always spoke of listed of things using one order or the other. Buddha never switched or said things out of order, ever! This quality is in Buddha only. Whenever Buddha talked about realms, in every sutta, he said, in precise order, hell-animal wombs-hungry ghost-human-heaven (or reversed order) every time. Another sutta you can see Buddha's skill in words organization is from 38 blessings, from very simple: not hanging out with fools, to most sophisticated blessings, Nirvana. You can actually see the complexity of each blessing increases as you read along. No one but Buddha has this kind of words organization.
  • why else I understand hungry ghost realm is better than being born from animal wombs? From The Greater Discourse on the Lion’s Roar, Buddha compared being born in Hungry Ghost Realm as sitting under a light small tree subjected to harsh elements. Compare to being born from Animal Wombs is falling into cest pit, hell is fire pit, human- is sitting under a dense shaded tree, heaven is sitting in a castle, etc.
  • I think Hungry Ghost is one of "pit stops" for beings from hell to come to higher realms. Buddha mentioned in many sutta about how rare beings to be born in pleasant realms, dust under finger tips, heavens to human/heavens, human to human/heavens, animal wombs to human/heavens, hungry ghost to human/heaven. From my study, I have not read Buddha talked about being from hell straight to human/heaven. At this point, I think beings from hell need to stop at animal wombs or hungry ghost first.
  • Hungry Ghost is a spontaneous birth, so appearance is from either mind (mano), or perception (sanna). I don't think microorganisms is being in hungry ghost realms since they don't appear spontaneously.
  • It is recommended to remember or dedicated merits (not food) to relatives who have passed away. I think of my grand parents and other dead relatives often when i do something good.

The main reason I posted my answer because I want to bring awareness to Buddha's skill in organization of words. I am very impressed with his skill.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Lanka Aug 31 '17 at 9:54
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Roben,

In regard to Robens question one by one, straight, defilement and doubts provoking and possible making nervous, for the gain of faith and encouragement to work on the base:

What are the hungry ghosts or hungry shades really? Could they be microorganisms?

A being ("mind") not capable to get even small satisfaction, even if food righ in front, not capable to take it. Not able to move from it's place, not able to trade. A famous Vietnamese Monks said once: "People who spend their times in Dhamma-centers without to grasp the Dhamma. Many being in the internet-realm have actually a mind like a hungry ghost. It's good to dedicate shares to them, if having once made merits befor they came in that state, they might be able to take.

Have any Buddhist scholars considered this possibility?

Scholars consider much. It's good to ask those knowing and seeing and with trust in the Noble Ones. If consdering, are scholars today not the most benefical provider for food for hungry ghost, thinking on the many new articels and consume of their work. They possible make much merits if knowing that and setting the mind to their ancestors and hungry ghosts.

Is offering of food to the dead still practised today?

Sure. Where ever there is still right view, where ever there is gratitude, where ever people know mother and father, where ever people know how seldom to gain a human life, where ever cause and effect, destinations of beings, taught by the Buddha, are known, there no one would eat before not having given a share to those before first. Yet it is also fast disapearing on earth at the same time, like right view, the Tripple Gems, prospering times...

Is this a recommended practice or is it not recommended?

The Buddha all wise recommended gifts to ancestors and spirits, recommend, and will recommend. So his, there good disciples, followers do.

And why?

  • Maker of gratitute. What ever you have been given, you might be able to use, is a sacrify of those having been here befor you and you might even have receive gifts at the time you have been a hungry ghost, had a mind like one, with patient and compassion, yourself.
  • In advanced for one self, esay to fall in that stat, even right next minute. Not having given, no support can be ever expected.
  • to be best respected and protected by spirits and ghosts
  • there are ghost and family members who can be very envy, disturbing and ill-willed, not getting a share.

According to this answer, the Buddha neither rejected nor endorsed the practice.

This answer is not right, uninformed and colored by modernism and faith in materialism rather into that of what the Buddha and wise recommend and all cultures and elders did till some years.

Even if intended to drive people to more refine merits, it misses the point to be in the mids of hungry ghosts and that there are less being who will even reach human life, having gained one for now, in the next, not to speak about capable for grasping the higher Dhamma, and for those having reached firm confidence, such small generousity and good sample for later generations is not a matter of defilements and stinginess.

Does the opinion of the different Buddhist schools differ from each other on this?

In regard of what can be said as old tradition, wiser, with practice: No. There is no school that can be called within the footsteps of Dhamma of the Buddha, with does not only recomment but also practice. They might differ in practice, rituals, folk explainings, focus, intensity, but not on the root: right view, gratitude and generosity.

The only "tradition" (with it's "monks" and lay peopke) that likes to make a better and wiser copy is modernism, secularism and scholar-hood, modern approaches, but they are not regarded as within the foot-steps of the Dhamma of the Buddha.

Some food for inspirations out of "Googlyana", some word written years ago:

Outside the walls they stand,

& at crossroads.

At door posts they stand,

returning to their old homes.

But when a meal with plentiful food & drink is served,

no one remembers them:

Such is the kamma of living beings.

Thus those who feel sympathy for their dead relatives

give timely donations of proper food & drink

— exquisite, clean —

[thinking:] "May this be for our relatives.

  May our relatives be happy!"

And those who have gathered there,

the assembled shades of the relatives,

with appreciation give their blessing

for the plentiful food & drink:

"May our relatives live long

because of whom we have gained [this gift].

We have been honored,

and the donors are not without reward!"

For there [in their realm] there's

no farming,

no herding of cattle,

no commerce,

no trading with money.

They live on what is given here,

hungry shades

whose time here is done.

As water raining on a hill

flows down to the valley,

even so does what is given here

benefit the dead.

As rivers full of water

fill the ocean full,

even so does what is given here

benefit the dead.

"He gave to me, she acted on my behalf,

they were my relatives, companions, friends":

Offerings should be given for the dead

when one reflects thus

on things done in the past.

For no weeping,

no sorrowing

no other lamentation

  benefits the dead

  whose relatives persist in that way.

But when this offering is given, well-placed in the Sangha,

it works for their long-term benefit

and they profit immediately.

In this way

  **the proper duty to relatives has been shown**,

  great honor has been done to the dead,

  and monks have been given strength:

The merit you've acquired isn't small.

Tirokudda Kanda: Hungry Shades Outside the Walls

May what ever being able to take this gift of Dhamma, have a satisfying and shareful share. May the Devas tell those not knowing, about the merits done here.

"Nur wenige der Menschen sind es, die, wenn sie als Menschen abscheiden, unter Menschen wiedergeboren werden; viel mehr aber sind es der Menschen, die, wenn sie als Menschen abscheiden, in der Hölle, im tierischen Schoß, in der Gespensterwelt wiedergeboren werden." (S 56, 102 - 104)

"only a view human, when departing form human Existence, are reborn as humans, but many humans, when they departing from human existence, are reborn in hell, in an animal womb, in the realm of hungry shades (petas)

from "What leads to Peta-existence

In regard of what is sharing merits, feel free to look here.

(Note: This is a gift of Dhamma, not meant to be used for commercial purpose or other wordily gains, not meant for making one a favor, but intended to liberation: so given to share without bounds to such tings)

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These cannot be souls or spirits, because in Buddhism, there is no transmigration of souls.

They are people or "beings", as the sutta states:

There is the case, brahman, where a certain person... With the break-up of the body, after death, he reappears...

'A being' ('satta') is defined in SN 23.2 & SN 5.10 as a state of 'clinging' & 'a view'.

satta 1 hanging, clinging or attached to

PTS Pali English Dictionary


In the Janussonin Sutta, the Buddha states that food offerings to the dead cannot reach them if they are reborn in hell, as animal, as human or as devas (heavanly beings). However, food offerings to the dead would reach them or other ancestors who are born as hungry ghosts or petas.

The sutta also states an offering will not accrue to a human or god. This is because a human or god does not need the gift, which is why the gift does not accrue to them. For example, a virtuous (human) parent gains merit from giving to its children. When a child gives a gift to its parents, this gift is only a trivial or amusing thing to the parent (rather than something that changes the parent's merit). Or when a rich person (a god) is given a gift, it does not change the rich person. For example, my rich friend returned home from overseas recently and when I visited him after many years I sensed I was not really appreciated by him because he has become very important & rich. But 15 years ago when he was having relationship problems & I helped him, he appreciated me because he was a hungry ghost then, wanting a successful relationship.

Similarly, for beings trapped in hell or animal mind, a gift does not accrue to them because of their chronic state. For example, when people are chronically depressed due to a deep loss (which is 'hell'), giving a gift does not help them. Similarly, an animal, such as a sexual predator, does not respond to gifts because they do not have the disposition for loving others. For example, I know a man who is a sexual predator, who is bitter & twisted. I helped him once for many hours set up & learn to use his new computer but he is never friendly when he sees me. He hates everyone. He is incapable of gratitude because his mind is animal mind, every morning & every afternoon on the same beat looking for tourist women to have sex with.

But for a hungry ghost, a person who is lonely or searching for love, a gift accrues to them because the hungry ghost is searching for love or gifts. The hungry ghost wants to be reborn in a human relationship & they respond very positively to receiving gifts.

enter image description here

In the same way, a family member who has not done enough merit to be human (enlightened) or a god & is also not an animal or hell being but is separated from their family & misses their family will accrue from a gift from their family. This is what the hungry ghost is here, namely, the needy & unenlightened family member who misses their family.

Its like my mother, who I see for one or two weeks per year. My giving gifts to her does not change the enormous merit she has made as a mother. Therefore, my gifts to her are essentially worthless, apart from a token gesture to show I think about her. This is the small but important 'hungry ghost' element in my mother; her need to know her children think about her on her birthday, mothers day, Xmas, etc. Just a small gift of phone call is enough to keep this hungry ghost element satisfied.


The above analysis is supported by the traditional depiction of the Wheel of Life (below), where the antidote, solution or practice for each realm given by the Buddha is depicted as follows:

  1. humane - renunciation

  2. godly - beauty

  3. animal - morality

  4. hungry ghost - generosity

  5. hell - 'the book' - the Four Noble Truths

enter image description here

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