Hungry Ghosts 6: Mentally Ill Ghouls

You’ve probably figured this out by now, but I’m not ashamed to say that I’m one of those Taobabes who are easily spooked. I am actually scared of ghosts and ghouls and such–but I am also curious about them and what makes them ‘tick’.

As I have written in previous posts, Hungry Ghosts are not beings from a different dimension. Those are entities of a different breed and are not part of this discussion.

Hungry Ghosts are the mentally ill entities of the otherworld.

Mental Illness

Hungry Ghosts were once humans just like us. They also had earthly desires, loves, ambitions, grievances and regrets.

Since we are all humans, we too feel these emotions to some extent. This allows us to have the compassion necessary to empathize with these humans who are gripped by these negative emotions and to find ways to treat their illnesses.

An entire medical field is targeted at these individuals. They range from doctors who can prescribe medication, psychologists who try to counsel the individual, to field social workers who reach out to stray individuals in an attempt to save them from the darkness they have fallen prey to.

Mental health is considered a real medical condition and are categorized in six categories [1].

If these negative emotions cannot be controlled and become debilitating, the person can be helped by working alongside psychologists and mental health professionals who can provide assistance through medications and counseling.

But this is for the living only. Once a person dies, the chance to get professional and medical help is gone.

Without any recourse, the ghosts continue to hang onto these negative emotions, and it is these heartaches and rage that are the invisible chains that keep them imprisoned in a hell of their own making.

They then turn into Hungry Ghosts.

For many of these Hungry Ghosts, even the knowledge that letting go of these heartaches and rage would allow them to pass onto the next realm does little to help them.

This can be seen, even in the physical reality of our world. In my city, the homeless population is offered shelter but many refuse the assistance, preferring to live outside under bridges, on sidewalks, or against the sides of buildings.

This could be due to a variety of factors, including substance addiction, or the inability to conform to societal norms such as not threatening or harming others who are also sharing the same fate and sharing the same resources.

Whatever affliction humans have, they hold onto those negative energies and when they die, these negative energies continue to twist their souls until they are no longer recognizable as the humans they once were.

Mentally Ill Ghosts

Although these Hungry Ghosts know that these negative energies are the last vestiges that would allow them to remain in the realm of the living, they still cling onto these chains as if they are lifelines because they cannot let go of their earthy ambitions, grievances and regrets–whatever or whoever they have attachments to.

In my humble opinion, I consider these Hungry Ghosts to be afflicted with the sickness of attachments. They cannot grasp the fact that once they die, they are only allowed to take a few things with them.

These ‘things’ aren’t really physical objects though. We are allowed to take our memories, the love we hold in our hearts for our fellow beings, and the lessons we learned along the path we took during our journey through life.

These are the lessons that we have successfully passed, which we are allowed to keep the results of so that we don’t have to repeat the lessons again.

The lessons that we failed–well, we gotta take those tests again in the next life, but the only way to move forward towards that next life is for us to let go of our attachments to everything that ties us to this world.

This is where the Hungry Ghosts have a problem. They can’t let go.

I remember hearing a sermon from a well-known monk who was also an exorcist. In that sermon, he said that the way to determine if a newly dead person has turned into a Hungry Ghost is simply to touch their corpse, from top to bottom.

If their entire body is cold except for their stomach, you can be sure they have turned into a Hungry Ghost.

Since I do not want to touch the cadavers of any dead people, in this post, I will gingerly feel around the edges and identify those entities who were once human but have lost their physical bodies.

Hungry Ghosts as defined by the Petavatthu

To understand more about the Hungry Ghosts, I did a bit of research and found an ancient Buddhist scripture called The Petavatthu from Pali Canon‘s Sutta Pitaka dated to approximately 300 BC. [2]

This is important because, you know me. I like to go to the source and read stuff for myself, and then I like to interpret the source material based upon my understanding of what is written.

Note: The Buddhist Pali Canon is written in the sacred Pali script of the Middle Indo-Aryan language native to India. The canons of Theravāda Buddhism, the oldest existing school to have preserved the earliest version of Gautama Buddha‘s teaching, are all written in Pali script.

Since I can’t read Pali, I did the next best thing. I got the book translated into English.

The Hungry Ghosts that are specifically mentioned in the Petavatthu come in twenty-four varieties.

Each of these Hungry Ghosts are described in vivid details, as if they had been seen quite often, by so many people that specifics and fine points were mentioned which differentiated each type of ghoul from all the others.

There are two main categories of Hungry Ghosts. The first grouping hangs out together in a horde of misfits that have some form of hierarchy. The second group travels as loners through space and time.  

The horde group has three subtypes:

  1. the first are the ones who suffer constant hunger and thirst even though they are able to eat. They also suffer from the cold or the heat even though the weather may be mild.
  2. The second sort have small mouths, skinny necks, and large stomachs. Even if food is present, their mouths are so small that they cannot eat, and what they are able to fit does not pass through their skinny necks. Their bloated stomachs are not filled with food, they are swollen from hunger, much like what real humans go through when they are starving.
  3. The third type of horde are Hungry Ghosts who suffer from specific afflictions like creatures who live on and feast on their bodies or needles and swords that are stuck into their bodies.

The loner group travels alone, through time and space. They are always scared and are dangerous because they have a tendency to inflict pain on others out of their own fear of all things.

When I first read the descriptions, the thing that came to mind was: These are descriptions of mentally ill ghouls! Westerners don’t know what hungry ghosts are, but we are all too aware of what a ghoul is.

The modern understanding about ghouls comes from modern fiction which has its roots from the Arabic word غول, which means a demon-like being or monstrous humanoid.

The concept originated in pre-Islamic Arabian religion associated with graveyards and the consumption of human flesh, and continued through the ages into modern-day depictions of the undead.

The 24 types are not individuals, but rather archetypes which humans could fall into depending on past transgressions.

I will detail all 24 types in my next posting, as translated directly from the canon, with commentaries included by yours truly (me).

  1. Mental Disorders
  2. Petavatthu

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: