Hungry Ghosts (Paperback)
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Classical stories and depictions of hungry ghosts not only tell us a great deal about Buddhism in the ancient world—they also speak to the modern human condition.
The realm of hungry ghosts is one of the unfortunate realms of rebirth in the Buddhist cycle of existence, and those reborn there are said to have led lives consumed by greed and spite. Hungry ghosts are often described as having enormous stomachs and tiny mouths, forever thwarted in their search for food.
One of the earliest sources about hungry ghosts is the ten stories about them in the Avadanasataka (One Hundred Stories), a Buddhist scripture from the early centuries of the Common Era, and these ten stories are elegantly translated in this volume. These hungry ghosts know the error of their ways, and they sometimes appear among humans, like the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer Scrooge, as augurs of what may await. Their bodies trigger disgust, but their aim is to inspire in us a disgust with the human thoughts that lead to such wretched bodies. Hungry-ghost stories are meant to shock us out of our complacency.
Artistic depictions of the travails of hungry ghosts are found throughout the Buddhist world, and Hungry Ghosts reproduces some of the best examples with detailed descriptions. The volume also begins with a meditation on meanness (matsarya), the mental state that engenders rebirth as a hungry ghost. We discover how the understanding of miserliness, cruelty, and bad faith found in the stories illuminates the human condition, offering insight and inspiring compassion for readers both in ancient times and in the world today.
About the Author
Andy Rotman is a professor in the Department of Religion and Buddhist studies program at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He received his PhD in South Asian languages and civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2003. His research concerns the ways in which narratives and images in South Asia function as a part of social history and material culture. He is the translator of the inaugural volume in Wisdom’s Classics of Indian Buddhism series, Divine Stories: Divyavadana Part 1, and of Divine Stories: Divyavadana Part 2.
“With elegant simplicity, Andy Rotman has here translated the ten short chapters on hungry ghosts from the Avadanasataka anthology. Mr. Rotman not only explains in very readable terms how hungry ghosts look and feel, and what caused their present pain, but also points to the deeper Buddhist teachings that show the power of wisdom, practice, generosity, faith, and devotion to liberate beings from that painful state. Rotman’s contemporary references remind us how incredibly relevant and applicable the Buddha’s teachings are to our own time and era. May this book help liberate us from our own miserly habits and awaken our innate generosity.”
— Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
“In this delightful study of hungry ghost stories and imagery, Andy Rotman illuminates Buddhist psychological insights and social commentary on ‘meanness’ in ways that resonate with our own time. His vivid translations spring this ancient wisdom into life.”
— Maria Heim, professor of religion, Amherst College, and author of Voice of the Buddha: Buddhaghosa on the Immeasurable Words
“Andy Rotman’s elegant translations of the Divyavadana established him as the foremost English translator of Buddhist narrative literature. Here he turns his attention to the ten tales of pretas, or hungry ghosts, in the Avadanasataka. Rotman’s deeply insightful commentary and lucid, precise translations open these stories to the modern reader, revealing a profound exploration of what it is to be mean-spirited and the consequences of being mean. This beautiful volume is a masterpiece of translation and commentary, a gift that is literary, historical, and most importantly, ethical.”
— Jay Garfield, Doris Silbert Professor in the Humanities, Smith College, and the Harvard Divinity School
“It is a particular delight for me to see that another book with Rotman’s excellent translations is now available to all those interested in the Buddhist intellectual world. As always philologically accurate and enjoyable to read, this book brings to life the messages of the old narratives about pretas who, eaten away by meanness in their human life, now lead an existence of continuous pain and perpetual hunger. At the same time, Rotman provides a most insightful discussion of the development of the hungry ghosts in both literary and visual sources and their importance even for modern Buddhism. This volume is undoubtedly a must-read for students of Buddhist thought and art.”
— Monika Zin, Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Leipzig University, author of Representations of the Parinirvana Story Cycle in Kucha
“In this wonderful gem of a book, Andy Rotman offers us a compelling translation of a set of ten Sanskrit Buddhist stories about ‘hungry ghosts’ (preta), taken from the Avadanasataka (“One Hundred Stories”), an important early anthology of Indian Buddhist narratives. Rotman has brought them into the limelight and shown how important they are for Buddhists and for all of us. Hungry Ghosts will become a standard work on the subject.”
— John Strong, Charles A. Dana Emeritus Professor of Religious and Asian Studies, Bates College
“Hungry ghosts, with their misery of insatiable desires, are ever lurking in the shadows of the Buddhist world and, perhaps, in our own shadows. With his deft translations of their stories—at once funny, disturbing, and insightful—and his reflections on a broad range of narratives and visual art, Andy Rotman invites us to explore the teachings of hungry ghosts, especially on the destructive power of meanness and the transformative possibilities of charity and kindness.”
— William Edelglass, director of studies at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies and associate professor at Emerson College