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The path of reincarnation is determined by the state of the conscious mind at the moment of death. This is why the dying man surrounds himself with monks, achars and proper ritual. Through these he dies with a collected mind and goes to the ‘peaceful place’, where his stay will be short and followed by rebirth good into a good family.
Pity those who die without the chance to compose their minds, the suicides who take their own life, the victims of murder and traffic accidents, women who die in childbirth, and all others like them. They are doomed to become kmouch.
Kmouch aren’t even aware that they’re dead. They stay in the world of men and come to the living in dreams, bewildered and confused, asking what’s happened to them and why they can’t continue with their lives as before. The sun freezes them, the moon burns. They become malicious, haunting the place where they died, trying to trick pregnant women into giving them rebirth, causing accidents and disasters that will bring a similar fate on the living.
The ghost is a being with a huge distended belly, a tiny mouth and a long thin throat like a straw. It is constantly hungry. It feeds on pus, blood and filth, but can swallow almost nothing, and what does get into its mouth turns to ashes and dung. This is not punishment for past sins but because it continues to cling to the world. In a metaphysical sense the ghost is hungry for the conscious mind’s stream of awareness.
Hungry ghosts at Wang Saen Suk, Thailand
The First Ghost’s Tale
The Hungry Ghost for Sandwiches is a modern story for young adults by Dawn Dim. It tells of 16-year-old Davan, ‘a stubborn and lazy boy’, not fond of study and addicted to pleasure. He takes drugs, hangs around in shopping malls with his friends, and rides his motorbike fast and without a helmet. One day just before Pchum Ben, riding dangerously as usual, he has an accident and is killed.
For six days his soul whirls around looking for food, growing hungrier and hungrier. On the seventh day he returns to his house and sees his mother crying. The Guardian of Hell (the god Yama) is waiting. “Boy!” cries the Guardian. “What are you doing here? Time you went to hell!”
Davan tells the Guardian he misses his parents, and he’s hungry.
“Hungry for what?”
Because Davan is a modern boy he has modern tastes. “I want to eat sandwich! I’m dying for sandwich!”
The Guardian takes pity on Davan, who never intended to hurt anyone and was foolish rather than wicked. “Very well, I’ll let you stay on Earth and you can ask living people for food. But there is one condition: you must never seek pleasure!”
Pchum Ben begins and Davan sees his parents preparing food. He follows them to the monastery and finds the preah vihear filled with candles and incense and the smell of noodles, curries, cakes and soup, but there are no sandwiches, because nobody offers sandwiches at Pchum Ben.
Davan leaves the preah vihear and sits weeping by the boundary wall, the place where ghosts gather, remembering his happy hours at KFC and feeling sorry for himself. He thinks of the friends in life who have deserted him in death, and then of Lekhena, a kind girl who had always advised him to be good.
Davan goes to Lekhena’s house. The dogs start howling, because dogs can see ghosts, and Davan howls with them, calling Lekhena’s name.
Lekhena comes to the window. “Davan!” she cries, not realising he’s a ghost. “What are you doing here? Your clothes are ragged and you look so thin and hungry!”
Kind-hearted Lekhena takes Davan to the kitchen, where the lids fly off the pots, the refrigerator opens by itself, and a plate and spoon and fork tumble out of the cupboard and land on the table. Lekhena is oddly unperturbed and starts preparing a snack. “You can eat if you’re hungry. What do you want?”
“Sandwiches!” says Davan. “I want sandwiches!”
“I don’t have the ingredients, but I’ll prepare it for you tomorrow, just let me know what time you’ll come.”
Davan agrees to come back the next day. “Don’t forget me,” he says as he walks out the door – and Lekhena sees that he has no feet. “I’ll be back!” – and Lekhena sees a skull instead of a face.
Lekhena’s mother comes running. “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“It was Davan! He died two weeks ago! He came to me in a dream and told me he wants sandwiches!”
Lekhena’s mother knows what to do. “Tomorrow morning you have to prepare food and buy sandwiches. Take the food to the monks, and in the evening put the sandwiches in front of our house on a banana leaf with three incense sticks and make an act of volition to offer it to him. That’s what you must do.”
Next morning Lekhena takes the food to the monastery, where she prays for Davan and a monk ties a cotton thread around her wrist, then she goes home and offers the sandwiches and incense as her mother told her.
The ghost of Davan, fed at last, is happy and freed from his whirling. After Pchum Ben he reports to the Guardian, who takes him to hell and teaches him to give up pleasure and drugs and to study and have a good character, and in due course Davan is ready for rebirth.
Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.