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We often look to buddhas and bodhisattvas as the heroic protagonists of the Buddhist cosmos. But even the most wretched creatures can teach us a thing or two about the dharma. Andy Rotman, a scholar of South Asian religions at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, is one of the few academics researching the history of hungry ghosts—the denizens of hell who suffer from greed and envy cultivated in past lives.

Rotman and Tricycle’s editor-in-chief James Shaheen discuss ancient ghost stories in today’s episode of Tricycle Talks. Together, they reflect on how these cautionary tales and nightmarish images reveal not only some of the fears and concerns of early Buddhist communities but also many of our own. What these tormented souls are meant to do, according to Rotman, is to shock us out of selfish complacency and delusion and wake us up to a more compassionate way of being.

Tricycle Talks is a podcast series featuring leading voices in the contemporary Buddhist world. You can listen to more Tricycle Talks on Spotify, iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and iHeartRadio.

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Sponsored by the Rubin Museum of Art

Hungry Ghosts, by Andy Rotman. Wisdom Publications, May 2021, $22.95, 224 pp., paper.

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