Hungry Ghosts and Rational Faith

Detail from the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts showing ghosts devouring corpses in a graveyard. Click to see the full image.

A few years back, I took a graduate course called “Japanese Ghosts.” It was a fascinating blend of cultural, folklore, literary, feminist, political and religious studies. One article argued against the common assumption among academics that the pre-modern world view was somehow less rational than our own and brought in hungry ghosts (Japanese: gaki 餓鬼, Sanskrit: preta) to support this assertion. (I’ll try to track this articlke and provide a reference.)

In medieval Japan, there were many influences on cosmology, but the Buddhist concept of the Six Realms of rebirth (rokudô 六道) was a powerful one. Depending on your karma in this life, you could be reborn into anything from paradise to hell, including the in between states of animals and hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts had a pretty bad lot. It wasn’t quite as bad as the many Buddhist hells, which included the familiar Christian themes of fire and brimstone and demons jabbing poor souls in the groin with pointy things, but one-upped them with creative tortures like drowning in pools of menstrual blood (apparently all women who reached puberty qualified for this punishment) and getting devoured from the inside-out by disease and insects (reserved for merchants who watered down their sake). Hungry ghosts got to hang out in our world, trying to force organic garbage, fecal matter, and dead bodies through impossibly thin throats into bellies swollen with hunger.

Buddhism dominated the intellectual world of medieval Japan. It was of great antiquity, had been transmitted to Japan through the long established Chinese and Indian civilizations, and had a huge canon of complex philosophical and theological support. Given this intellectual framework (and the apparent lack of microscopes), it’s not surprising that some Japanese speculated that hungry ghosts were responsible for nibbling at feces, corpses and last week’s bad tofu. This happened even when you protected the repugnant stuff from insects. Something had to be eating at it, and Buddhism provided yet another convenient and entirely rational explanation for the unseen world.

Detail from the Scroll of Hungry Ghosts showing ghosts consuming human feces. Click to see the full image.

You westerners out there, don’t laugh–hand-washing by surgeons was mocked until well into the second half of the 19th century. This was almost 200 years after Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria.

When I converted to Mormonism, my new belief was based more on experience, evidence and rational argument than on any kind of blind acceptance of religious dogma. I was told, that if I prayed about the Book of Mormon, God would tell me (in my heart) that it was true. If the Book of Mormon was true, then it followed that it’s translator was a prophet and the church he established were also of God (but I could pray about these things as well). I had never prayed or meditated before, and the mystical experiences I had were so powerful and new that they were difficult to argue against. In my case, Mormonism provided the explanation and context for them; from my perspective at the time, there was a clear cause and effect.

As I began to doubt, I found my that my questions had been posed by intelligent theologians and religious philosophers over and over again. For a long time, their well thought out, carefully reasoned explanations convinced me. When the Dawkins and Hitchens gang s assault religion, they usually pick out the easy targets; they don’t go after the Niebuhrs, Tillichs, Barths, and other theologians who have fought to keep Christian belief relevant in the modern world.

The story of my religious belief ended when I collected enough material (which I had to seek out, discover and study, a luxury that many in this world do not have) to explain the world in a way that made more rational sense to me than what my Mormonism and Christianity could offer. Believe me, this was no casual dismissal here, but a long, hard fight–we’re talking Gandalf versus the Balrog.

I’m not saying that all religious faith is rational.  I am arguing that faith can be rational and that the full context of a person’s belief needs to be considered.  When atheists make blanket arguments against the rationality of religious belief, they ultimately hurt their own cause among the most rational of believers.

15 Comments

  1. Enjoyed your post, especially “Something had to be eating at it, and Buddhism provided yet another convenient and entirely rational explanation for the unseen world.” 😉 I’m in the middle of editing a documentary on hungry ghost month rituals in Singapore. http://www.Mythopolis.com/hungryghosts if you’re interested.

  2. Charlotte Ruiz

    hi i am researching hungry ghost, just wanted to know if you could recommend any books on the subject ??

  3. Charlotte – I’d recommend “The Ghost Festival in Medieval China” by Stephen F. Teiser. Probably the most comprehensive book on the subject. Extensively covers the story of Mulien and with more variations on the tale then you’ll ever need! There may be other decent modern books out there on the subject, but they are probably just citing Teiser’s work.

  4. I’m not saying that all religious faith is rational. I am arguing that faith can be rational and that the full context of a person’s belief needs to be considered. When atheists make blanket arguments against the rationality of religious belief, they ultimately hurt their own cause among the most rational of believers.

    Whenever anyone makes blanket arguments – be it militant atheism denying rationality in religion; or fundamentalist religion demanding everyone assume their belief – it is because there is a basic lack of faith. Yes, even Atheists have faith of a sort. But that rigid, dogmatic attitude in the extreme on either side comes from fundamental fear.

    If someone is confident enough in their belief in a God of their own understanding, or in their Atheism, they don’t need to inflict this on the rest of the world.

  5. Hey John – I finally finished my movie A MONTH OF HUNGRY GHOSTS. We are getting a small theatrical release in Singapore in August and then hopefully hit some film festivals around the world. The movie site is http://hungryghostsmovie.com …If you or anyone reading your interesting post would like me to try and screen in your area, please let me know. Otherwise, maybe DVD in about a year.

  6. Diva Jood said

    If someone is confident enough in their belief […], they don’t need to inflict this on the rest of the world.

    Amen!

  7. Suberernni

    RE: If someone is confident enough in their belief in a God of their own understanding, or in their Atheism, they don’t need to inflict this on the rest of the world.

    YES WE DO!!! If the world is going to EVOLVE and UNIFY, it needs to GROW UP and leave the CLOSED MINDED, infantile, hostility provoking “My god is better than your god!” TRIBALISM behind.

    Religious books are all written in metaphor and are all refering to the SAME THINGS, but most religious people have not studied all the other books and are not aware of this or are too brainwashed with dogma to see this. Seeking awakening does not require the childish, potty training dogma that has been responsible for so much hatred, war and intolerance. TRIBALISM IS FOR NEANDERTHALS!!!

  8. Maria

    Regarding the class you took on Japanese ghosts, do you have a reading list for this class? I am trying to write a paper on female ghosts in the Edo period. I want to take a feminist p.o.v., but I am finding surprisingly little literature on the subject. Do you have any suggestions?

  9. John

    One more thing: I looooove this topic. Let me know if you’d like to brainstorm via email, and I’d love to see your final paper if you’re willing to share. Good luck!! 🙂

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