The Realm of Hungry Ghosts

A Second Fall: Notes from a Wounded Culture




“It is scientific to say you don’t understand.  To rashly deny those things you don’t understand is unscientific.  That kind of person is what I call a second-rate scientist.  Concerning such things as matters of the spiritual world and supernormal powers as well, they simply conclude that such things are superstitious.”

 Zen Master Hakuun Yasutani – Commentary on Zen Master Dogen’s “Genjokoan”. 


The Realm of Hungry Ghosts


It is for these reasons and much, much more, that I believe we have become barbarians, which means, ‘those without culture’, in a true sense, doing what no animal would do, unless mortality wounded, terminally sick or deranged – shit in our own nest.  And while numbers is obviously of the greatest importance, where over-population is most commonly cited for a lot of our environmental ills, archaeological evidence shows that centres of high population in cultures that were holistic, for example in the cities of the Pre-Colombian Tairona peoples in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada in Colombia, while obviously having a certain anthropogenic influence, were not detrimental to the environment, because the way of life was one that was symbiotic with Nature.  It is simplistic, and missing an essential point, to assume that numbers alone present the problem, when it is the manner of the life led, and the consciousness of the people, that is so crucial.

With regard to ecology and conservation, the most profound of holistic philosophies and cultures, as we have said, teach us that humankind, and all of the natural environment, from the smallest subatomic existence to the highest mountain and the most vast supernova, are part of a shared kinship in a natural flow of interdependency, with reciprocation as its tidal breath.  Which means that in the wisdom of this all-inclusive, non-dualistic and non-hierarchical, holistic vision of Reality, the natural environment is also fundamentally ourselves, and that due to our ignorance, it is here ‘within’ us that the pollution and desecration began, and here that the healing must take place before we can even consider true ecological/environmental ‘solutions’.  In fact, this healing of the ‘inner’ would ultimately result in the healing of the ‘outer’ in a natural symbiotic process, if only there were time, and the necessary aspiration.  As William James, the American psychologist and philosopher said, in the lobby of the twentieth century, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind…If you change your mind you can change your life.”  And I am also reminded of a saying of an old teacher and friend of mine, the late Dr. John Layard, an anthropologist, and eminent pioneering Jungian psychologist, who would often repeat, “What we need is not common sense, but uncommon sense,” pointing to the fact that what had once been simple common sense, has now become uncommon and degraded in meaning and understanding.

It is my belief, that we in the West enter the hallway to the twenty-first century, having been betrayed by philosophy, science and religion.  And hold the responsibility for having blindly led the rest of humanity down a lost and mostly lightless cul-de-sac.

It is common still, for people who consider themselves sophisticated and modern, to view the indigenous, Japanese religion of Shinto and similar animistic belief systems, as superstitious and anachronistic.  But is not this animistic mind-set, still a far more profound way of recognising and relating to the natural environment – to consider it sacred and numinous, requiring respect and humility from us, rather than as animated matter, and something to be exploited, manipulated and modified in as many ways as possible, according to the dictates and desires of this ultimately illusory and ignorant self?

As I have previously described in my book, Village Japan, in the village on the Japan Sea Coast where my wife, Masako, and I used to live, an old woman told us how, when her son was sick with a high fever, she consulted the village wise woman who said to her, “You’ve been burning cedar branches at the shrine of the waterfall, haven’t you?”  When she replied that she had, the wise woman told her, “That’s why your son’s got a fever.  You must go and beg the kami’s (the deity of the waterfall) pardon with great respect and sprinkle sake over the ground.”  This she immediately went and did, and when she returned home, her son had fully recovered.

To dismiss this story simply as coincidence or mere superstition is I believe, to miss the point entirely.  Even if it is difficult for most of us to accept this story at face value, might not this tale be teaching us something of the greatest importance about the relationship between the burning of the cedar at a sacred place, and the burner’s child suffering a high temperature?  What kind of burning at the shrine of this planet have we been doing?  And what kind of sickness and high fever may our children expect from global warming?  It poses the all-important question – how on earth are we going to beg this planet’s pardon?  The earth that was once prayed to, and is now preyed on – an act of desecration we are only now, slowly, beginning to have cognition of, and as yet, have failed to recognise the true implications.

Buddhist eschatology describes an intermediary afterlife state called the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.  Afterlife states in Buddhism are transient and express and manifest an enlargement of conditioned, psychological and habitual behavioural patterns, and other karmic traits, carried over from the last and previous lives, and yet to be resolved in future lives in the rounds of birth–death–and-rebirth.  In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the inhabitants are described as having monstrously huge bodies, but tiny mouths, and as suffering insatiable appetites that they can never satisfy.  This is an acutely accurate picture of consumerism.  Consumerism has consumed the human spirit.  We have spiritually died, and already dwell in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.



“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us,

To see oursels as others see us!”

Robert Burns – To a Louse



Mirror, Mirror…


An essential part of the healing of a person in the Western psychotherapeutic path, is for them to see clearly into their delusions by encountering, recognising and accepting the dark, unacknowledged side of their own nature – their shadow side.  In our collective madness, let us come clean with ourselves and each other, and confront and acknowledge our own collective, cultural shadow, and that typical psychological act of projection where ‘the pot calls the kettle black’.  It is we who are, and have been for centuries, ‘The Axis of Evil’; ‘The Evil Empire’; ‘The Rogue Nation’, where I understand ‘evil’ as meaning the profound ignorance of the true nature of existence, and the thoughts and actions which result from it.  We need to examine what has always been behind our vainglorious hymns to ourselves, based on the sanitised histories that we tell ourselves – the “Rule Britannia” of Great Britain; “…we’ll conquer again and again, and again!” of England’s “Hearts of Oak”; the “Wha’s like us?” of Scotland, and “The Land of the Free”, and “Home of the Brave” of America – countries whose inflated and collective egos are apparently “blessed” by their divided and wounded god.  We need also to recognise and question why most of our cultural heroes have been revealed to be psychopathic and homicidal maniacs, whose lives we celebrate with nationalistic, jingoistic fervour and pride, regaling ourselves in our respective national flags – the common shroud of the innocent-young-become-cannon-fodder.

The world that the West has dominated for so long was subjugated through all the agencies of criminality and psychopathy that one would expect of true barbarians, in contradistinction to those we denigrated in the past as ‘barbarians’.

All the indications, signs and portents for the future, point towards a bleakness that we probably have not yet imagined even in our most dystopian of nightmares.  By that, I do not mean that the planet itself will inevitably become inert, nor that human existence will necessarily come to an end.  But having now poked our profoundly ignorant and dirty fingers into the very cockpit and crucible of our genetic code, there is the certain risk that human life will become modified and transformed disastrously and irrevocably, through this apparently benign and compassionate human intention and intervention, into something Mary Shelley has warned us of, long ago, and the results of which will be potentially even more cataclysmic than the damage we have already caused to the biosphere.

We will have crossed a Rubicon and opened another of Pandora’s boxes; stepped beyond a threshold to a place from where we can never return.  Too many areas of our cultural and daily lives have now acquired their own autonomous momentum, of which we are no longer in control, and whose development we can neither curtail nor arrest.  It is not simply that our methods of agriculture, fishery, forestry, and use of natural resources generally are unsustainable; it is our very cultural mind-set itself which is unsustainable.

However, there are all the signs and indications that would suggest that our Western civilisation, with its capitalism, global markets, and war machines, is itself already in a terminal stage and has reached the condition of initial decay, which in a corpse is called ‘autolysis’.  Autolysis is the condition in which, superficially from without, nothing appears to have changed, but presents the illusion of the status quo.  While however, within and unseen, microbic activity has already set in motion the processes of decay – the agents of entropy are already in full employ.  Unfortunately and tragically, due to our having already transmitted our cultural carcinogens to places like India, Africa and China, where they have been eagerly contracted, there will most likely be a disastrous continuity in direction of the crooked path we have already cut.

I believe that whatever we in the West touch, or have touched, no matter how apparently benign initially, generally withers.  And as we can now finally see, we are indeed reaping the harvest of the dark seeds we ourselves have sown.  Unfortunately, this hellish harvest is also being visited upon those we were taught we should love – our neighbours.  And find ourselves, indeed, doing unto others what we have already done unto ourselves.


Malcolm Ritchie
Montage: Claire Palmer


Malcolm Ritchie’s essay A Second Fall – Notes on a Wounded Culture is published in six parts on International Times.





























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