Commentary by Master Hua
Translation by Bhiksuni Heng Yin


Further there were ghosts,

Their bodies very tall and large,

Naked, black, and thin,

Always dwelling therein,

Emitting loud and evil sounds

Howling in there quest for food.


These lines represent the first of the Five Quick Servants; the view of a body. Further there were ghosts/ not only are there yakshas but also many other strange type ghosts: fat ghosts and thin ghosts, black ghosts and white ghosts, and naked ghosts. Their bodies were tall and large/as big as those wang Liang ghosts we talked about before. Naked, black, and thin/wearing no clothes. Their skin is black, but there is no flesh on their bones at all. Always welling therein/in the burning house.

"Tall represents the assumption of a self which pervades vertically through the three periods of time past, present, and future. "Large" represents the assumption of a self, which pervades horizontally through the five skandhas. "Naked" means they feel they are very free and don't cultivate good dharmas; they have no shame. They don't feel that they are wrong because they lack a sense of shame. People without shame are as if naked. Only a shameless person someone who didn't realize how ugly he was would run around without any clothes on. "Black" means that they "adorn" themselves with offenses and evil. Because their entire being is pervaded with offenses and evil they are said to be black. "Thin" means that they have no merit or virtue whatsoever to help them. One without virtue is as if very 'thin. "Always dwelling therein" means they stay in the Triple Realm and don't get the idea they should try to get out. They never get out. They always remain there.

Emitting loud and evil sounds/This represents those of non-Buddhist religions who proclaim their doctrines concerning various appearances of self. They never abandon the concept of a self. They cultivate various non Buddhist ascetic practices, and so they are emitting loud and evil sounds, because their appearance of self is too heavy.

Howling in their quest for food/Howling, they cry out for food. The black ghosts have nothing to eat. Those skinny, black, naked ghosts with a view of a body are starving! They scream out with loud and evil sounds for people to give them something to eat. This represents their false assumption that there is a self, which can attain Nirvana. Having an appearance of self, an attachment to self, they want to attain Nirvana. So they howl in search for food, the food, here, being Nirvana.

And what is Nirvana? It, is what is not produced and not destroyed and it has the Four Virtues of permanence, happiness, true self, and purity. With an appearance of self, they try to attain Nirvana. This is just false thinking! As long as you have an appearance of self you cannot attain Nirvana. If you wish to attain Nirvana, you must break through the attachment to self.


Further, there were ghosts

With throats like needles;


These lines represent the fifth of the Five Quick Servants, the view of grasping at views. These ghosts have throats as skinny as needles. But their stomachs, let me tell you, are as big as bass drums! Do you think with a shape like this that they can ever get full? No matter how much they eat they can never get full because their stomachs are too big and their throats are too small. In fact, it takes a tremendously long time for them to even drink a mouthful of water. Would you say that is suffering or not? Ghosts like this represent the view of grasping at views. With such little needle throats, their very lives are in danger, but they are constantly looking after their lives, running around looking for things to eat. This represents those who have attained to the heaven of neither perception nor non perception and assume that it is Nirvana. Basically this heaven is impermanent, because even though the lifespan of one born there is eighty thousand great aeons, when that time is up, one still falls. But those in the heaven of neither perception nor non perception, think that they have attained Nirvana. They are like ghosts with needle throats.


Again, there were ghosts,

With head's like oxen,

Now eating human flesh

Then devouring dogs,

Their hair disheveled,

Harmful, cruel, and dangerous,

Oppressed by hunger and thirst,

They ran about shouting and crying out.


      These lines represent the second of the Five Quick Servants, that of extreme views. Again there were ghosts/With heads like oxen/These ghosts have heads like oxen, with two horns on top. Their faces also look like oxen. You may wonder, "How can ghosts have faces like oxen?" Well, not only do some look like oxen, ghosts have all kinds of faces. They're like every kind of animal there is. There are ghosts who look like dogs, pigs, chickens, and in fact, there are tiger head ghosts and lion head ghosts. The ghosts mentioned here have horns on their heads, like oxen, and this represents extreme views. The horns grow atop the head in the same way extreme views rely upon the view of the body. With the view of a body, the extreme views of annihilation and eternalism spring up like two horns. These two views are very harmful because they can sever one's transcendental good roots, and this is represented by the lines Now eating human flesh/Then devouring dogs/The human flesh is likened to one's transcendental good roots, and dog flesh is analogous to one's mundane good roots.

What are transcendental good roots? They are the merit and virtue created by diligently cultivating morality, samadhi, and wisdom and destroying greed, hatred and stupidity as well as cultivating the Four Truths, Twelve Causal Links, Six Perfections, and Ten Thousand Conducts. What are mundane good roots? They are the merit and virtue created by cultivating the five precepts and the ten good deeds. The extreme views of annihilationism and eternalism sever both transcendental and mundane good roofs.

Their hair disheveled/Basically, one's hair should be kept neat, but these ghosts' hair goes every which way. This represents those of non Buddhist religions who sometimes put forth views of annihilation and at other times put forth views of eternalism. Sometimes they say that everything is eternal. The saints in heaven, they say, are now and ever will be saints in heaven. The human beings will always be people. The animals will always be animals. It's all fixed. It doesn't ever change. Gods are gods; people are always people. Grass and trees will always be grass and trees. There is no possibility for change. But then sometimes they have reservations about this doctrine and they switch to a view of annihilationism. "People won't be people forever. Then they die they disappear entirely. Horses, cows, sheep, chickens, pigs, and all will disappear. It's like cutting down a big tree, there's nothing left of it. It's gone. They have a lot of doubts about things, and so sometimes they hold to eternalism and other times they switch to annihilationism. The two views are directly opposed to one another, so these people end up in quite a paradoxical situation, but they continue to run back and forth between the two extremes. They never stop in the middle, at the Middle Way. They just go from one extreme to the other. It's like someone trying to go from the West Coast to the Midwest via New York, they miss it altogether because they don't know the way. Or perhaps they want to go from San Francisco to the East Coast and think about it all the time but never take a single step in that direction. They never get there. Those attached to eternalism or annihilationism are like that. They go back and forth, caught in the paradox, bouncing back and forth, and this is like having their hair all tousled, sticking out here and there.

Harmful, cruel, and dangerous/Their hair is a mess, and this means they don't clearly understand real principle. They don't have the wisdom to discriminate the views of eternalism and annihilationism. They don't understand the principles the Buddha taught about impermanence and conditional arisal. When they assume their views of eternalism, they do so to try to destroy the Buddha's true teaching of all things arising from conditions. The Buddha taught that everything comes about through cause and effect. Their view of annihilationism tosses them into the pit of annihilationism and their view of eternalism tosses them into the pit of eternalism. Such views are "harmful, cruel and dangerous" like two pits. Once you have fallen into these pits, it's hard to get out again. In other words, it's hard to understand genuine principle and become a Buddha.

Oppressed by hunger and thirst/They ran about shouting and crying out/ Hunger means they have no food; thirst means they have no tea! Is that misery or not? The more they run the hungrier and thirstier they get. Hunger is a bit easier to bear than thirst. Thirst is terribly hard to bear.

      In China, during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, there was a famous general named Ts'ao Ts'ao (died, AD 220.) who was remarkably clever. He and Chu Keliang were enemies. One time Ts'ao was marching his troops, over a hundred men, through the desert. For a hundred miles, there was no water at all. They hadn't had any water to drink for several days. All the men, were, besides being hungry, were so thirsty they could not even walk. They just lay down, as 'if sick, to rest, they were so weak. Ts'ao Ts'ao asked them, "Why are you lying down?" and they told him that they were just too thirsty to go on. Ts'ao Ts'ao said, "Oh? Is that all? Thirsty? Don't worry about it. About ten or twenty miles up ahead there is an orchard of sour plums. When we get there we can eat them and quench our thirst." As soon as Ts'ao Ts'ao said the word "plums" the soldiers mouths started watering. Since their mouths were watering, they weren't thirsty anymore and they started marching again. They marched about twenty miles and kept on walking right out of the desert. So if you are ever thirsty, just think about sour plums!

When people are really hungry they like to eat oil cakes. But to make oil cakes you have to have flour. If you haven't any flour or oil, what are you going to do? Well, you might get a piece of paper and draw a sketch of an oil cake. Still, since you realize it's just a drawing, it is not going to satisfy your hunger, while thinking about sour plums can quench your thirst.

So hunger and thirst can be extremely fierce. The hunger and thirst referred to in the text here is the lack of the food of wisdom. Those who cultivate the Way must eat the food of wisdom. Without it one gets hungry. Cultivators also need to drink the water of Dhyana Samadhi. This means you need to meditate. When you sit in meditation, quite naturally your mouth and belly will be filled with sweet dew. When you have drunk of Dhyana Samadhi, you will no longer be thirsty. Cultivating the Way, you need Wisdom food and Dhyana Samadhi drink. But for these creatures, there is neither one. Why not? Because they do not cultivate the Way. They don't come to listen to the Sutra lectures. Lectures on the Sutras are wisdom food. Having listened to the lectures and understood the principles, then you should return and take time from your busy life to meditate and investigate Dhyana; that's drinking Dhyana Samadhi. If you don't lis­ten to Sutra lectures, you'll get no wisdom food; if you fail to sit in Dhyana Samadhi, you'll have no Dhyana to drink and you will be as the line of the text states, "Oppressed by hunger and thirst."

Then ran about shouting and crying out/They were screaming. "Arghhhh! I'm staaaarrrvvinng to death!!" And they were running around like madmen, from one place to the next in search of food. Their shouting and crying out represents broad proclamations of eternalism and/or annihilationism sort of like that Bob Dylan song where he shouts,

"God said to Abraham,

‘Kill me a son.’

Abe said,

‘Man you must be puttin’ me on.’"

They shout, "It’s all annihilated; there is nothing eternal! My principles are totally correct!" Or they scream at the top of their lungs, "You’re wrong! It’s all eternal! It’s not annihilation!!" They cry out one or the other of their deviant doctrines, with their deviant understanding and their deviant views. The twisted, deviant doctrines they proclaim are represented in the text by "shouting and crying out."

      When they are done yelling, they run around. Where do they run to? Right into the six-path wheel of birth and death. The phrase "they run about" represents continuous birth and death on the wheel of rebirth in the six paths birth, death; death and birth; birth, birth; death, death without cease. That’s called "running around." Because they never stop turning in the wheel of birth and death, they are said to be "running around and around and around on the wheel." But no matter how much they run, they never get very far, they never get off the wheel.

-Continued next issue-