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Milky Way

Entering the Hungry Ghost Realms

September 2014

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The Bardo Phase of the Human Experiment

Aside from the increasing impact of climate change, there are other factors adding to the uncertainty of the times. It appears that humans are becoming increasingly cruel to each other, callously indifferent to the well-being of other species, and more frequently held hostage to the immense economic and political power of large corporations that are unable or unwilling to see past their own bottom line. Human greed; the perpetuation of violence, particularly against women and ethnic minorities; war, genocide, religious and racial bigotry; the loss of species and ecosystem resilience; the pollution of air, soil, and water; and in general, the cumulative degradation of the quality of life in the human and natural world seem to show no signs of abating or changing course anytime soon.

Given the cumulative impact of our collective willful ignorance in the face of Pluto’s hard shattering of worlds, we might call this new Cerean period in our history the Bardo Phase of the human experiment. Pluto brings death and destruction – and the opportunity for a brutal wake-up call. Ceres wanders in dazed uncertainty, then sifts and sorts through the rubble for broken shards of hope.

More specifically, looking around us, beyond the superficial veneer of what remains of the good life, we might recognize ourselves to be separated by a very thin veil from (if not already immersed in) what the Tibetans referred to as the realm of the “hungry ghosts,” or pretans. In the introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Huston Smith writes (1):

"Pretans [hungry ghosts] are certainly hungry and thirsty, but they are not ghosts. They are considered living beings caught in realms of extreme frustration … Greed, the desire to incorporate, is magnified and fed back to produce the pretan realms, just as hate creates the hells. Pretans undergo infinite permutations of the tortures of the Tantalas. Some have giant stomachs the size of Yankee Stadium, narrow throats miles long and the diameter of pinholes, and insatiable hunger and thirst. When they find something resembling food, it is hard to get, hard to eat and swallow, and it burns on the way down and creates inconceivable pain instead of giving satisfaction. Pretans are incarnations of hunger, thirst, craving and frustration."

Hungry ghosts walk among us. In reading Huston Smith’s description, it is easy to think of greedy corporate “persons” with “stomachs the size of Yankee Stadium” and “insatiable hunger and thirst.” Yet, in an age where 1% of the U.S. population controls more than 35% of all privately held wealth, and the top 10% control 81–94% of all business equity and almost 80% of all non-home real estate (2), a different kind of hunger exists at the bottom of the pecking order.

During the advent of the Great Recession in 2008 — two years after Ceres’ promotion to dwarf status — mortgage foreclosures shot up 81%, with one in every 54 households getting at least one foreclosure notice (3). Although the stock market has apparently recovered, and the flipping of houses (the purchase and resale of foreclosed properties) continues to be profitable for those with money, annual foreclosures are still nearly 3 times what they were in 2005 (4).

In 2005, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights issued a report on homelessness around the world, concluding that 100 million people were without any housing whatsoever, while 1.6 billion were inadequately housed. According to the report, the “driving forces behind homelessness were poverty; rapid economic globalization, which had worsened inequality in housing and land ownership; increasing trends towards privatization and land speculation; lack of affordable housing options; unplanned and involuntary urban migration; large-scale development and infrastructure projects, including dams that led to mass displacement; and ongoing conflicts around the world" (5).

Although the 2005 U.N. report does not mention climate change as a factor in homelessness around the world, Refugees International estimates that “by 2050, as many as 200 million people will be displaced by natural disasters and climate change" (6). As refugee populations around the world increase, displaced by climate change and globalization, it is not hard to imagine Demeter wandering as a planetary subculture of hungry ghosts on the move. As the venerable goddess ups the ante on our collective refusal to live in harmony and balance with each other and with the natural life-support systems of planet Earth, more and more uncertainty is infused into our collective psyche.


(1) Huston Smith, Introduction to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, trans. Robert A. F. Thurman, Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998, p. 29.

(2) G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income, and Power,”

(3) Lynn Adler, “Foreclosures soar 81 percent in 2008,”

(4) “Home Foreclosure Statistics,”

(5) “Press Briefing by Special Rapporteur on Right to Adequate Housing,”

(6) “Confronting Climate Displacement: Learning from Pakistan’s Floods,”

The next post in this series is The High Cost of Our Refusal to Change.

To read more blog posts, go here.

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