The Hungry Ghost

Earl R. Smith II, PhD
DrSmith@Dr-Smith.com
Dr-Smith.com

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We all create virtual realities as we attempt to come to terms with the world as we find it. Our virtual world is populated by conceptual interpretations. These symbols are shorthand for the detritus of our living experiences. It’s not a unique sentient being, it’s a tree. It’s not the residual of a life prematurely ended, it’s a table. And amongst these manufactured ornaments, we place our self-image; a virtual representation of the being we assume that we are. It’s this self that I refer to as the hungry ghost. Indeed, in a fundamental way, it’s that self that the foundational teachings of Buddhism are directed towards.

So, let’s return to the fairytale that I began interpreting in Bucketing Out. (http://www.dr-smith.com/bucketing-out/) In brief reprise, a hunter enters a forest and comes upon a pond. A hand reaches up and snatches his dog; drawing him under. When a hunter looks into the pond he sees a large hairy man at the bottom. He buckets out the water until he reaches Iron John. So, what does the hunter do with this hairy Wildman? Let’s go back to the story and see.

When the hunter encounters Iron John he has two choices. The first is to get to know what this strange person is all about. (Remember the suggestion that the hunter and Iron John are two parts of the same being. So, ‘getting to know’ might usefully be interpreted as deepening self-knowledge.) The second option is to let his hunter’s instinct kick in and see the Wildman as captured prey. As the story goes, the hunter remains a hunter.

Another way of looking at it is that the ‘hungry ghost’ reasserts itself. The virtual self that ‘desires’ and ‘grasps’ for permanence in a world of impermanence retreats to the manufactured reality of ‘hunter’. Rather than experiencing the present moment of contact with the Wildman, the hunter retreats into a virtual representation of who he is. “I am a hunter. My purpose is to capture prey and bring it back.”

Robert Bly, in the poem Snowbanks North of the House, puts the question this way: 

The toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust …
And the man in the black coat turns, and goes back
down the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away,
and did not climb the hill.

But we know, or at least suspect, why the hunter does what he did. Let’s say there is a man walking along a dirt road and he encounters Buddha. He has the same two options that the hunter has. “Walk on by” is the default option. The second  is accepting the opportunity to pause under the cooling shade of a nearby tree and open up to the possibilities. Possibilities that the virtual world which our traveler is insistent upon, defining who he is, constitutes a manufactured reality. How many of us simply walk by without offering even a superficial greeting and then breathe a sigh of relief?

When we think of the hunter and his actions, we cannot avoid thinking about lost opportunities. This Wildman makes the hunter nervous. It’s almost as if the mere existence of Iron John poses a major threat to his interpretation the world as he has defined it. The hunter doesn’t know what to do with this strange fellow so he decides to deliver him to one who is the symbol of mature wisdom. The hunter takes his captured prey back to the castle and hands them over to the King. He then departs our story and is heard from no more. There will be no reunion.

The King has an equally strange reaction to the delivery of this Wildman. As he is not a hunter, he can’t treat him as captured prey. But his ego will not allow him to accept the fact that he is, as King, incomplete without freeing and getting to know Iron John. He is, after all, King. And, in his mind, complete as he is. Besides, this Iron John is a very disturbing fellow. If he has much to do with him, the tranquility of the kingdom might be upset. And beyond that, there is the relationship with his wife the Queen and their young son; who idolizes his father. There will be no reunion.

So, what does the King do with this Iron John? Well, he locks them in an iron cage in the courtyard. And then he does something strange and important. He gives the key to his wife the Queen.

We are now at a turning point in the story. Two have encountered Iron John. The first treated him as prey to be delivered into the hands of authority. The second saw him as a threat to be imprisoned. The story seems to have reached a dead-end. But the King and Queen have a young son and he will be the focus of the action from now on.

Stay tuned for Chapter 3

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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