Picture a life in which your every waking moment is spent searching for food. Your belly is distended and your limbs are emaciated like a starving child’s. Your hunger is ceaseless and painful, but your throat is no wider than the eye of a needle. When you find food, you can’t swallow it. Not even a bite. The hunger persists, and your search continues. Such is the fate of pretas in Buddhist tradition—the hungry ghosts.
These poor souls were reborn this way because in past lives they were driven by desire, greed, anger, and ignorance. While you might find yourself checking a few of these boxes on any given day, in Buddhism you have to take such vices to the extreme to end up with such a tortured existence—like committing murder in a jealous rage. So no need to panic.
It’s a tradition in many Asian cultures to leave offerings of food for the hungry ghosts. But this doesn’t really help. It turns out these ghosts aren’t really searching for food. Or they are, but their search is misguided. Hunger for the ghosts has nothing to do with food, and everything to do with what they did in their previous time on earth. There’s plenty of food for them, but they can’t eat it. Like every religious parable, there’s an important lesson here: it’s not food they really need.
Back here in the human realm, we still look to food to do much more than nourish our bodies and satisfy our hunger. We turn to food in times of great joy and great sadness. When something wonderful happens, we celebrate with a dinner out. We drink champagne, we eat cake, we splurge on nice meals. Food becomes part of the rejoicing. And the opposite is true, too. There’s a long tradition of providing food to those who are grieving. We band together to provide meals to friends in crisis—you may, at some point in your life, have signed up on a spreadsheet or email thread to bring meals to someone mourning, someone recovering, someone struggling. In times of sadness, we instinctively want to provide comfort in a tangible way. And very often, we do that with food.
Food is there for all of it—the good times and the bad. And to some extent, it makes sense. It’s fun to go out and celebrate a raise, an anniversary, or a graduation. And it feels right that when people are truly suffering, the last thing they should worry about is putting together a meal. In these moments of tragedy or triumph, food is a worthy and welcome ally.
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