Sometimes not getting what you want can be a blessing. Pete Cherry explores some of the lesser-known strands of Buddhism and finds some reassuringly familiar messages
Westerners drawn to Buddhism are often intrigued by a religion that seems to eschew most of the trappings of traditional faith. There is no god (with a capital G at least), reasoned common sense features heavily, and the cultivation of mind chimes well with on-trend buzzwords from neuroscience and mindfulness based therapies.
More importantly, the jukebox is unlikely to fall silent if you mention that you are going to a Buddhist retreat in the pub: a raised eyebrow perhaps but no stampede to the exit in fear of you brandishing your religious text of choice. In other words, this is a religion which modern man can get on board with and requires of us the most minor of lifestyle adjustments.
Like all good half-truths, however, there is little appetite for deconstructing the part of the story that falls apart under scrutiny. Even the briefest of looks at the history of Buddhism, reveals a wildly varied landscape of beliefs and superstitions, with deities, miracle workers and demons playing their role as merrily as any tale from medieval European Christianity.
There are many reasons why this inconvenient fact is downplayed – due in part to the works of reforming Japanese intellectuals who presented an austere secularised Zen to the Beat Generation of 1950s America – but one of the major factors is that most of us simply have not been exposed to this side of Buddhism.
When we show up for a meditation class, we are not expecting to be taken through an exhaustive history lesson and start to fidget as the teacher’s earnest academic intro eats into valuable chill time. However, amongst the more fantastical elements of the tradition, there is a treasure trove of ethical and practical teaching which has been used for centuries to bring to life the problem of human suffering. These allegories are just as relevant now as they ever have been and one in particular seems tailor made for the young frustrated urbanite: the hungry ghost.
The Buddha is said to have taught that there were six realms of existence within which one could be born: the realms of hell, animals, hungry ghosts, humans, asuras and finally the gods. Unlike in Abrahamic religions, however, heaven and hell are not permanent fates but only temporary (if lengthy) stations to arrive at according to karmic destiny. In theory then, you can die in hell yet eventually work your way back up to human level for another crack at nirvana.
Amongst these fates, the hungry ghost is a most unfortunate creature. Cursed with an insatiable hunger, he (or she) is depicted with a long neck and swollen belly, doomed to wander the earth as a wraith, existing in the hinterland between humanity and the hells below. Buddhist communities around the world have many ceremonies designed to help these poor souls, the most famous being ‘The Ghost Festival’ celebrated throughout much of east Asia, and compassionate monks are often engaged in rituals to alleviate their suffering.
However, one does not have to die to feel a burning sense of hunger and longing. It is not necessary to believe in Buddhist cosmology to feel that life is an endless procession of frustration and disappointment.
As a professional musician for many years, I remember the torment of watching my contemporaries succeed where I had failed, outstripping my achievements with ease and leaving me stranded in their wake. As my career stalled, I had felt very much like some spirit pressing my nose against the window and seeing someone else in my chair, enjoying the party, unaware of my misfortune.
The Buddha in fact often talked of longing as thirst or tanha, a thirst which fuels suffering even as we believe it is doing quite the opposite. At that time, nursing my grievance was the best solution I had for making it go away, however crazy that sounds. This period of my life was marked also by a feeling of exhaustion. All my mental energy was tied up with feelings of recrimination and a burning sense of injustice. Why is everything turning against me? Why am I not getting what I deserve? In this mind state, every experience was coloured with a sense of wanting and nothing could square the imbalance between what I felt I deserved and what my life had in truth delivered me.
In this place you almost become half human. Your body, your eyes, the way you speak, everything becomes a manifestation of this internal angst. Unsurprisingly, some of my friends began to distance themselves. Like all ghosts, I had become something to pity and also something to fear.
Pain of attachment
This sense of dissatisfaction is a potent force and most of us have probably experienced some form of it. At its worst it can render you inert, emotionally drained and depressed. A little higher up the chain, it is that stolen and hate filled glance across the water cooler at your better looking and more talented new colleague.
Ultimately it stems from the same source: “My happiness in this world is dependent upon my conditions being met”.
When we feel under-appreciated or cheated, the burning eyes of the ghost can appear all too easily. Paradoxically, it is only through feeling the pain of attachment and obsession that we find the drive to end it. It is rather like grieving over a broken romance for months until one morning something shifts in your head and you feel a weight has been lifted. A future which seemed non -existent without that person suddenly opens up and life once more takes on that most precious quality: playfulness.
It was only when I realised that life had other things in store for me beside music that I began to enjoy myself again and what I gained by that was precious insight. Insight into how all my longing for things to be perfect had caused me tremendous suffering and also insight into how profound a shift of perspective can be.
So spare a thought for the hungry ghost the next time you are consumed with envy or find yourself hurtling to the ground in career freefall. He is hungry because he is sad and what will really help to feed him is love, love for yourself and love for all the people standing in your way. The more you open up to the world and what it holds for you, the more its blessings begin to appear. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama: sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful thing.
Pete Cherry is a yoga and meditation instructor and founder of theclearmindcompany.com