In this thangka, Hungry Ghosts are depicted on the bottom right side in the six realms and the cycle of samsara.

In this thangka, Hungry Ghosts are depicted on the bottom right side in the six realms and the cycle of samsara.

“The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty,” taught Mother Teresa. “Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.”
Every year in Tibet, ancestors are remembered and hungry ghosts (Tibetan: Yidak, Sanskrit: Pretas) are fed in a ritual called the Hungry Ghost Festival, after the Ullambana Sutra. The ceremony often falls in line with Vaiśākha, (or Vesak, Wesak, Buddha Purnima or Buddha Jayanti in India; Saga Dawa (sa ga zla ba) in Tibetan) informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment (nirvāna), and death (Parinirvāna) of Gautama Buddha. The Hungry Ghost Festival can be quite elaborate, especially in years where it coincides with Vesak. I once experienced a Western Soto Zen version of this practice, including among the hungry ghosts all those beings that society rejects and those parts of ourselves that we forget or abandon or try to hide.
But how are we to feed the hungry ghosts? Early Buddhist tradition describes the use of spells and also service to the living. In Tibetan Buddhism, hungry ghosts have their own realm depicted on the Bhavacakra [symbolic representation of samsara (or cyclic existence) found on the outside walls of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries and in thangkas or paintings] and are represented as teardrop or paisley-shaped with bloated stomachs and necks too thin to pass food such that attempting to eat is also incredibly painful. Some are described as having “mouths the size of a needle’s eye and a stomach the size of a mountain”. This is a metaphor for people futilely attempting to fulfill their illusory physical desires.
Last week I was blessed to sit with my Teacher, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and to also participate in humanitarian discussions at a private United Nations event. After I had tea with an extraordinary Indian man named Kailash Satyarthi, I realized that the greatest nourishment we have to offer, the salvation that we ordinary mortals can extend to one another, is the light of our own caring attention.
The Founder of a major NGO, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA); a Senior Delegate and member of a High Level Group formed by UNESCO on Education for All comprising of select Presidents, Prime Ministers and UN Agency Heads; and a worldwide campaigner and the architect of the single largest civil society network for exploited children, the Global March Against Child Labor, Kailash Satyarthi glowed with kindness as he looked at me, inviting me to see how everyone can make a difference, can be a force for peace and oneness rather than suffering and separation. He described feeling surrounded by hungry ghosts in his homeland of India after surviving many attacks and death threats, and questioning his place….how he could be a light to the darkness of the ghosts. “When we see our role in society as servants, we will light up the sky together like countless stars on a dark night. Don’t think of society as the sky on a full moon night. The moon’s harsh light blinds us to the true and humble work of the stars. But on a moonless night, the true servants shine forth, as though they are connected invisibly in the vast and infinite cosmos.”
“Sati,” the word for mindfulness in Pali, the ancient language of the earliest Buddhist scriptures, means to remember. To re-member is to pull together or re-collect all our parts, all our members, to be one in all our diversity (including our inner diversity). “Metta” or loving kindness has the quality of sunlight, shining on all without exception. “Bodhi” mind is heart and mind together, no separation. May all beings, living and dead, inside and outside, be embraced by the sunlight of our own kind attention. May all beings be seen, be met, be free.