Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Hungry Ghosts

A few months ago, I awoke in pitch darkness with this dream-image: a mass of skeletons, some with dunce-caps crowding outside the massive black outlines of what must have once been a mall. Hungry Ghosts, returning to haunt me.

Ten years ago, I was in India visiting Sunderlal Bahaguna, 1980's Chipko hero and winner of the Right Livelihood Award for his successful efforts in saving Himalayan forests from loggers. Now he was fighting a huge hydrodam project on the Bhagirathi River, Ganga's chief tributary in the Garhwal Himalayas. We were in his tin shack, the kutir where he was squatting on land the Uttar Pradesh government had seized for the Tehri Dam. Plotting a sustainable world after saving Tehri, SLB claimed that converting farming from annual monocultures to fruit and nut orchards was the way to feed humanity and restore the ecosphere. I was skeptical.

"How can everyone live off the land? What happens to the huge number of city dwellers here and elsewhere if we quit the industrial model?" I asked.

"The present rate of growth of the world economy cannot be sustained. Those only will survive who adopt traditional subsistent life-styles. All others are lost," he said.

"But I don't understand how this jives with the Hindu belief that the aim of creation is to recognize - once attaining human form - that it is God, merging back into the godhead. After the great die-off, maybe even extinction of the species, what happens to all those souls and the desire of creation to join the Creator once more?" I replied.

Sunderlal smiled. A man across the room said, "It takes a very long time. Kali Yuga is the end of an era, not the end of time."

Then my new friend, Sunderlal's lieutenant the Punjabi Buddhist monk Tenzin spoke, recalling "Hungry ghosts. The Buddhists speak of them. There will be huge numbers of hungry ghosts desperately seeking bodies to incarnate in. They will circle the globe, endlessly."

The Tehri Dam has been built. The Tehri Hydrodevelopment Corporation inundated Sunderlal's kutir, along with most of the city of Tehri and the best farmland in the area. One hundred twenty-five thousand Himlalayan hill people were "displaced," and India is trying with all her might - Green Gandhians like Sunderlal Bahuguna an increasingly marginalized exception - to become just like us, the Great Mall of India on the horizon. Even many of the multifarious Indian NGO's - supposed engines of democracy and sustainability, are run by unscrupulous folks who skim donations to build themselves little pleasure palaces, mirroring those owned by local and state officials now overlooking the lake which was once Tehri.

Hungry Ghosts want bodies: embodiment in the Pleasure Palace of the Mall of Amerika/Hindustan, the Malled Planet, where television leads every tribe to the heaven of fulfilled, consummate dreams. But this world, hovering on our horizon, has no room for our billions, let alone the four-leggeds, and no oil to power it. How useful would this skeleton monument to our consumerist desires be in a world with short supply lines and local goods?

Would such a world not instead have market centers, many reachable by river traffic, like those in provincial France? What would be the use of the WTO in such a world? How will we reach France, or India, or China or Japan in this world? Will we save enough jet fuel for future bourgeois kings to make the passage?

What will traffic our huge network of roads: bikes, carriages, solar-powered vehicles, some hydrogen-powered as well? What will we make of the city infrastructures? Suburban? Can we catch the methane from the Arctic tundra before it goes into the atmosphere? Will there be new deep wells to the ocean floor to tap its methane? What will be the difference on a superheated earth between releasing the methane, which is far worse than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas, and burning it first?

When I had my first real job at twenty-four, my pension company sent a future estimate of my funds upon retirement at sixty-five, in 2011. I wrote back, asking, "What makes you think there will be a world in 2011?"
I now have five years. Where will the market be then? Even the best money managers expect the Mall of Amerika, whose consumers in dunce hats drive the world economy, to keep chugging along, albeit inevitably at lower levels of growth. My question for them now is, how safe is my money, my pot of gold at the end of the world? Like most, I still count on economic growth to prolong my lifestyle, which is gentler than many in the industrial world - but not gentle enough.

The dayworld of a possible future - a world of markets and smells and color, horse buggies featuring tall bikewheels, golfcarts with solar sails, geezers flitting around in them with grandchildren on their shoulders, methane converters dispersed through the fields - is the one we focus our dreams upon. But I remain haunted by the nightworld image of the dream that has already arrived: crowded as thick as the night enshrouding them, clamboring along the invisible borders of the black girders of the memorial mall. Skeletons in dunce caps. The old Medieval image of an Underworld Carnival. In the world of hungry ghosts, that's the only carnival there'll be.

When I first drafted this, NOLA was being battered by Katrina, creating more building skeletons. The mass of human dying, the die-back - billions to war, disease, and starvation, is still mostly ahead of us. What happens to the rule of law as things start to unravel on an unprecedented scale? It's hard to imagine, watching the images of the looting in NOLA in our violent, but on a world scale, comparatively orderly society. Having witnessed this, will we stay contentedly engaged in tiny adjustments to our lifestyles, or will we reach the tipping point of massive lifestyle change, energized and driven by a bottom-up politicial revolution?

Who will speak for the four-leggeds when the End Times come? My mentor James Hillman emphasizes the importance of our psychic images of the big mammals, for that will be the only place to find them after their extinction in our childrens' lifetimes. Hungry Ghosts is the specter of our own kind going the way of the big mammals, disembodied clamboring hordes in dunce caps our only remnant.

Next: Despair, empowerment, hope.

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this one is haunting and powerful. and it helps that i've done a little reading about the hungry ghost realm to your questions were entertaining to me. another job well done. i like how the last two have been, in my opinion, more accessible to the non-academic.
the next one too (re accessiblity) - on Joanna Macys' work - a fellow Buddhist

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