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Last month I offered some background info on The Saga of the Monkey King. I tried to give a sense of where the inspiration for Monkey Fist came from, how that source material has been interpreted by others over time, and what you can expect from us when our new book goes live next week on Kickstarter. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to check it out.

But “Journey to the West” isn’t the only piece of Chinese folklore that makes an appearance in this graphic novel. As in Chinatown, you’ll also find a host of allusions to other symbols, concepts, and imagery common in traditional Chinese culture and religion. And while this is often brought together as a tasty blend of cultural artifacts and pop culture influences, sometimes the reference can be seen more clearly and appear more prominently. In this case, Monkey Fist showcases what in Chinese Buddhism are known as Hungry Ghosts.

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Detail of Gaki-zoshi’s “Scroll of the Hungry Ghosts” (12th century)

Back when I was as a hospital chaplain and now that I teach at the Divinity School, I’ve had the privilege of studying and working with religious symbols. It’s work I love and am passionate about, but I am also keenly aware of the hazards that appear once we begin to tread on sacred ground. I know that attempting to summarize broadly a particular religious group (or a particular religious belief) often turns characterization quickly into caricature. A fair and accurate picture is rarely available from a short, internet blog post, especially when we’re talking about not one, but a collection of mythologies from such culturally unique places as China, Japan, Tibet, and India – to name just a few. But don’t worry, I’ll spare you a lengthy history.

Despite the obvious variance in belief and practice, I think it’s safe to say that insofar as Buddhism is concerned with desire and suffering (and the cessation of desire and suffering), the Hungry Ghost will always play an important role in its collective mythology. Though stories differ on the details, Hungry Ghosts are understood to be tortured, tragic beings, who are never permitted to find satisfaction. They often appear after a particularly violent or unfortunate death,  and sometimes as a result of being neglected or forgotten by their descendants.

However they come into being, Hungry Ghosts are depicted as gaunt and emaciated except for their large, distended bellies. Sometimes they have tiny, needle-like mouths or very long throats. In some stories, everything they put into their mouths turns to ash. Their grotesque appearance is meant to convey a sense of being always in want and never sated – always hungry, but never full.

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The Hungry Ghost Festival, as celebrated in Penang

Hungry Ghosts represent the futility of trying to fulfill our own illusory desires. But unlike common Western depictions of suffering spirits – like, for example, Marley’s ghost from “A Christmas Carol” – Hungry Ghosts are not often thought of as serving out a punishment. They’re more like lost souls trying to find their way rather than legions of the damned getting their comeuppance. Often, they are not the perpetrators of evil, but the victims.

So what are they doing in Monkey Fist? The Hungry Ghost actually fits quite well into many of the themes in our book. There is an open question, I think, of how (and why) we derive satisfaction from our existence – how we choose to engage life’s many pleasures, passions, and pains … and what happens when we feel cut off from them. Also in Monkey Fist is an ongoing theme of appearance vs. substance, which is a major theological theme in Buddhism as well (“sunyata,” or emptiness). For Monkey, slaving away behind the cash register at Fishy Burger, there is definitely something “empty” about his existence and a palpable futility about his attempt to fill it with the drudgery of ordinary life. One way to read Monkey’s struggle is to think of him as perpetually trying to ward off Hungry Ghosts … or perhaps fighting not to become one himself.

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Ready to see more? We’ve got more Hungry Ghosts, more artwork, and more behind-the-scenes photos in our Monkey Fist Gallery on Facebook, where you’ll find cool stuff you won’t find anywhere else. Check out our page to stay up-to-date on Monkey Fist and follow our progress as we launch on Kickstarter next week!