In Buddhist cosmology, there is a class of beings known as pretas, or hungry ghosts. The translation is not a perfect one, as hungry ghosts are not actually “ghosts” in the usual English sense of the word, referring to disembodied spirits of the dead. Rather, hungry ghosts are the reincarnations of humans who, while not necessarily ill-intentioned, spent their entire lives in the pursuit of temporary pleasures (food, wealth, status, sex, etc.) without ever striving to improve themselves as individuals or make a lasting impact in the world. Reborn as hungry ghosts in the lower regions of the cosmos, they possess enormous stomachs, representing their endless appetites for pleasure. But they can never quell their hunger, for their throats are too thin to swallow food, just as in their human lives they struggled in vain to find any lasting satisfaction.
In a Christian context, one might compare the hungry ghosts to the Lustful of Dante’s Inferno. Though not for the most part deliberately wicked, the Lustful in life allowed themselves to become carried away by desire, unrestrained by reason or morality. Their punishment in the afterlife is to be blown about mercilessly by a great wind, without anything solid to cling to for relief.
A couple of summers ago, I visited Las Vegas to attend an animal welfare conference there. Although I did not intend to participate in its signature vices – most especially gambling and legal prostitution – I did expect that I might at least be tempted by their ready availability. After all, is Las Vegas not known, by its own advertising and general reputation, to be a haven for hedonists, a decadent hybrid of Disneyland and Sodom and Gomorrah, powered by an economy of material pleasure?
At first, Las Vegas did indeed seem, for better or worse, to be a land of excess pleasure. In a single evening walking down the Strip, I ended up collecting nearly fifty coupons for prostitutes, handed out in bulk at every street corner. At first, these provided a source of distasteful humor for me and my companions. “Spicy Latina twins for $30!” “Exotic Arab 50% off – your wish is her command!” The sexism, racism, and sheer objectification was so over the top I could only laugh… at least at first. But not long after I returned to the quiet solitude of my hotel room, I found myself on the verge of tears.
Who, I wondered, were these women, whose bodies could be bought at discount using the coupons I had collected? In my own life, the pleasure of sex has always come not just from its physical sensations, but also from the emotional experience of bonding with another individual. Were these women not individuals too, with personalities, dreams, fears, virtues and flaws all their own, irreducible to mere flesh? Could a monetary transaction possibly provide anything even faintly as gratifying as connecting with another person? Even the possible interpersonal pleasure of providing them a source of income was undermined by the language of the advertising. Most of the coupons advertised the women not as professionals providing a service, but commodities to be bought – at discount no less, or even for free, denying compensation for their dehumanization. They were even carried around in delivery trucks, like boxes of cheap pizza.
All this assuming, of course, that the women advertised were even willing participants earning an income in the first place. In theory, I’d like to imagine that the same logic of ending prohibition and legalizing marijuana, in order to bring those industries under regulation and curtail associated crime, would apply also to prostitution, and that legalizing it might help to eliminate sex slavery and other human rights abuses. But in reality, I know that a legal sex industry can also provide cover for such crimes, and that a fair number of the women featured in the coupons may well have been slaves.
Suppose, then, that rather than becoming overwhelmed with sadness and disgust and immediately disposing of the coupons, I had obeyed only my lust and used them to summon some discount prostitutes instead? What would I have felt most ashamed of the next morning? Surely not having “indulged” in “excess pleasure,” for romantic sex is far more pleasurable than I can imagine purchased sex possibly being. Rather, I would have been disgusted at myself for having sacrificed deeply held values – respect, compassion, and interpersonal connection – and a fair sum of money (even at discount) in exchange for the passing sensation of an orgasm.
Walking through the casinos, on the ground floors of my hotel and many others along the strip, I experienced a similar disillusionment. For all their hedonistic trappings – flashing lights, colorful screens, copious alcohol, topless dancers, and the promise of fabulous wealth at the pull of a lever – the casinos seemed utterly devoid of actual happiness. Straining my ears against the mechanical din, I couldn’t hear a single laugh. Gazing at the faces of gamblers, I didn’t see a single smile. As I learned while in Vegas, the casinos actually have to pump in oxygen to prevent customers from collapsing in exhaustion. I realized that it was not pleasure that kept them glued to the machines, but desperation in the pursuit of reward. A reward which, as anyone familiar with basic statistics knows, they were astronomically unlikely to obtain, no matter how much actual money they sacrificed to the slots.
Visiting Las Vegas, I realized that hungry ghosts don’t just dwell in some remote region of the cosmos. And it is not simply the enjoyment of pleasure that creates them. Rather, it is the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of overall well-being, physical and spiritual, that turns people into ghosts. Go to Vegas and you will see, the Land of the Hungry Ghosts is right here on Earth.
(Traditional Chinese image of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of mercy, intervening on behalf of hungry ghosts)