Petas are beings from one of the three Woeful States the other two being Niraya (Hell) and Tiracchanayoni (Realm of Animals1). The Petayoni is less woeful than the Niraya but more woeful than the Tiracchanayoni.
The word peta is not synonymous with hungry ghost, but a hungry ghost for what it means in Hokkien as go-kui is only one type of peta. The word hungry ghost lacks formal documentation, whereas the word peta was documented by The Buddha as one type of beings from one the 31 planes of existence in the universe.
Stories about petas were connected with real life situations during the lifetime of The Buddha. On some occasions The Buddha directly explained the cause for attaining the existence of a peta having encountered them himself; while the other occasions were reported to The Buddha by his bhikkhus and people who had come across petas. Please refer to the Petavatthu in order to see what evil actions that bring about birth as petas.
A good portion of the stories of petas have been grouped into the fifth Nikaya, the Khuddaka Nikaya, under Petavatthu, or the Stories of Petas. For more details please refer to the Paramatthadipani nama petavatthu-atthakatha, of the Pali Text Society, London.
Hungry Ghosts ?
As told in the Petavatthu, some petas are incessantly hungry because their mouths are as small as a needle point; however, they do not die of hunger as their unwholesome kamma ripens in a peculiar way to make them suffer immensely from an insatiable hunger. This type of petas is perhaps the go-kui referred to in Chinese beliefs. Not all petas suffer in this manner. Some petas can be released from their suffering by receiving the merits dedicated to them by the next-of-kin who are living.
While some 'lucky' petas have next-of-kin (who believe in the Triple Gem) to depend on for their end of their woe, the 'not-so-fortunate' petas have to wait for an almost impossible chance for someone to help them. [A peta who gains rebirth in a happy realm, the human realm or a celestial realm is only a temporary state of affairs just like any being has to go through in Samsara.
Upon cessation of life in any realm, beings take rebirth in another realm depending on their kamma.] As the Sangha with the Tathagata as its head is the unsurpassable field of merit (in all the worlds), the performance of alms-giving to The Buddha and the Ariya Sangha is the most efficacious for the transference of such merits to the petas for their release from suffering.
Nowadays, alms-giving to the Sangha represented by four Higher Ordained Bhikkhus is the way to reap the merits to be passed to the departed next-of-kin who have been reborn as petas. Petas who are 'desperate' for merits will usually approach their next-of-kin who are still living in the human realm (though the minority may approach strangers; such 'strangers' now could have been their relatives in the incalculable past); making eerie noises, appearing in their dreams during sleep and even cause themselves to be visible to them.
Thus, these class of Departed Relative Petas (nati); and they can recognize their living next-of-kin, their former abodes, and the past deeds which caused them to be such. All petas know by what evil deed they had carried out immediately before their current life that caused their woe and they can even give a lesson or two to humans.
Take for example the story of a group of traders from Savatthi who had done their business at Uttarapatha and were returning to their city; they camped a night at a place where a hideous peta was around. The peta revealed himself to the traders. When asked who he was, the peta related by what specific deeds he had done that made him thus.
The peta said that if the traders pertormed an alms-giving to the Buddha and dedicated the merit to him, he would be released from the wretched condition (else he would have to wait until the evil kamma wears off). The traders observed precepts and gave alms to The Buddha and the Sangha. Later The Buddha taught Dhamma connected with the Law of Kamma. The audience abandoned thoughts of evil and took delight in meritorious deeds (Dhanapala Peta Story)
It has to be borne in mind that only The Buddha, by virtue of his Sabbanu Nana (Omniscience) was able to recount the past lives of beings without limit and know the inter-relationship between the kamma of beings. Thus, whenever an encounter with a peta was told to The Buddha, past events related to the peta dating back to many kappas ago could be recounted by The Buddha.
Petas are free to roam, but within boundaries wrought by their kamma. For example, if they are attached to a certain house or an heirloom at the moment of death, they may be reborn as a peta in the vicinity of these assets. Most petas are dreadful to the sight. For various reasons peculiar to the ordinary human, the presence of petas are at times 'detected' via any of the five sense objects: sight, sound, odour, bodily feeling, and thoughts; for example a sudden horrible smell at a place with no possible source of this odour; an indescribable fearful bodily feeling of a 'presence.' The 'worst' case is they reveal themselves.
However, do not be mistaken that all petas are ugly, foul-smelling creatures. Some petas are endowed with merits and even have their own vehicles, for example a horse (as in Ambasakkhara Peta Story), living in mansions (in the air, oceans, forests, deserts, etc.), and possessed supernormal powers but all of them have some defects that make them suffer greatly, for example nakedness, defective bodies, insatiable hunger, off-sized bodies, and loneliness.
As mentioned in many stories in the Petavatthu certain types of petas capable of having intimate relationships with humans.
The earth-bound (terrestrial) spirits (or called earth-bound devata) are classed together with the petas, though they are more 'fortunate' in certain ways than the woeful petas. They reside in trees, caves, gateways; and even in occupied houses where they are called house devata. Some of these beings may at times exude pleasant odour akin to flowers or cause themselves to glow with light. They can render certain favours to worldlings (who choose to communicate with them) in return for specific rituals and sacrifices; and vent their wrath on whoever (intentionally or unintentionally) annoy them.
Some description of petas mentioned in the Petavatthu ·
The Buddha had confirmed that the dedication of merits resulting from a wholesome deed to the departed next-of-kin petas is the true and effectual way of helping them overcome their defects and later gain a good rebirth. [It directly proves that the wrong practices of burning this-and-that, sacrificing livestock, chanting of mantras, etc. are ineffectual for the helping of these petas.]
Some petas already know that their only quick release (depending on conditions) from suffering is to receive a dedication of merits resulting from a great wholesome action; and they learn this truth from other petas as mentioned in the Tirokudda Sutta.
Pertormance of alms-giving to the unsurpassable field of merit, i.e. the Sangha formed by The Buddha is the best way for the cultivation of merits necessary to bring the most effective results to the departed-next-of-kin petas. The efficacy of this practice was proven many a time during The Buddha's time as documented in the Petavatthu.
Here the Tirokuddapeta- vatthuvannana is discussed. The Khuddaka Patha also carries a Sutta about this incident, the Tirokudda Sutta.
TIROKUDDA SUTTA ('OUTSIDE THE WALLS' SERMON)
After Buddha Gotama gained Perfect Enlightenment in Bodh Gaya under the Bodhi Tree, he spent seven weeks in the Bliss of Emancipation. At the end of the seven weeks he wanted to teach the Sublime Dhamma to the two old ascetics (who had taught him meditation up to the Arupajjahanas only when he was yet a Bodhisatta): Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. But seeing that they had passed away, he turned his attention to the five ascetics who had once fared with him (but later forsook him).
Thus, at Isipatana Deer Park, the Buddha expounded the Dhammacakka- pavatana Sutta to the five ascetics and they became the first disciples in the Sangha with Anna Kondanna Maha Thera as the first. Later, the Buddha went to Gaya and converted the three matted-hair ascetic brothers, Uruvela, Nadi, and Gaya Kassapa and their one thousand followers with the Aditthapariyaya Sutta.
While proceeding to Rajagaha, King Bimbisara [who had tried to offer his kingdom to the Bodhisatta earlier] went to visit him with thousands of brahmins. King Bimbisara was established in the fruit of Sotapatti on that very day and he invited the Buddha to a meal in the palace the following day.
During the alms-giving, the departed next-of kin petas of King Bimbisara stood outside the walls of the palace thinking, "The king will dedicate the merits of the alms-giving to us."
However, after the alms-giving, King Bimbisara did not dedicate the merits of the merit-making to his departed next-of-kin petas but instead his mind was thinking about where to site the vihara for the Buddha. Not receiving the merits, the petas made dreadful cries and wailings outside the palace walls in the dead of night.
The king heard these 'unearthly' noises and became very frightened. At daybreak, the king told the Buddha about his dreadful experience and asked what would become of him. The Buddha explained to the king: "Former relatives of yours who have been reborn as petas have been going round for an immeasurably long time since the last Buddha kappa [Buddha Phussa's time, about 92 kappas ago] expecting to be released from their suffering.
They had expected you to dedicate the alms-giving done yesterday to them but you did not. They were extremely distressed by this and lamented their lost hope." The king said, "O Blessed One, would they receive the merits, if I give alms today and dedicate the merits to them?"
The Buddha was affirmative. "Then let the the Blessed One accept my invitation of alms-giving today." The Blessed One censented by his silence. During the alms-giving to the Buddha and his Order of Ariya Sangha, strange things happened. The Buddha, using his supernormal powers, caused the petas from outside the walls of the palace to be clearly seen by the king.
As the king gave the gift of water saying, "Let this be for my relatives!" At that moment, lotus ponds appeared around the petas. The petas bathed in them and their weariness and thirst was allayed; their body became the color of gold. The king gave rice gruel and both hard and soft food and dedicated these action.
All at once, the petas had food to eat and their faculties were refreshed. The king gave robes and lodging and dedicated these actions. Instantly, the petas were richly adorned and they had well-furnished palaces to live in. The king was extremely delighted by what he did and saw the effects. When the Blessed One had finished his meal, he expounded the Tirokudda Sutta.
The reason why these petas in the story of Tirokudda Sutta suffered greatly for an immeasurably long time dates back to the time of Buddha Phussa.
It came to pass that during that time, the father (a king) of Bodhisatta Phussa did not allow anyone else to perform alms-giving to the Buddha. The king's three younger sons (by another mother) devised a stratagem to elicit from their father a chance to give alms to Buddha Phussa.
They made as if there was a disturbance in the border and the father send the three sons to solve the problem. The king was pleased and granted them a boon saying: "Take whatever you wish." "We wish to give alms and attend to the Buddha. The king refused and asked his sons to choose another boon.
They pleaded for seven years to attend to the Buddha but was refused; and negotiated successively for six, five, down to three months. At last, the sons finally succeeded in getting three months to wait upon the Buddha (during Vassa season). They planned what they wanted to do and had many thousands of helpers carry out the various duties.
A vihara was also built for the Buddha and the disciples to stay. Many thousands of devotees gave gifts to be offered and everything had went on smoothly if not for an untoward incident.
One fateful day, some utterly depraved people intercepted the alms and ate them themselves; and set fire to the dining hall. The incident did not obstruct the good deeds of the people and three months soon passed by.
After the Pavarana ceremony marking the end of the Vassa, Buddha Phussa and his disciples went their way. Whatever evil actions perpetrated by the evil people had to be reaped by them. The good people were reborn in heaven and the evil went to hell.
Ninety-two kappas passed and during this auspicious Buddha Kappa (a Baddhakappa), at the time of Buddha Kassapa, the same evil people who had been reborn in hell ceased their life in hell and rose to gain rebirth as petas. One day, these petas saw with their very own eyes certain other petas who gain excellence as a result of the dedication of merits from their living next-of-kin who performed alms-giving.
They approach Buddha Kassapa and asked: "How, O Blessed One, may we attain such excellence too?" Buddha Kassapa answered the petas: "You will not attain it now2. However, in the future there will be a Perfectly Enlightened One called Buddha Gotama.
At that time a king called King Bimbisara who is your relative 92 kappas ago, will give alms to that Buddha and dedicate them to you and you will attain excellence." Time passed by and during this Buddha Sasana, King Bimbisara arose and thus the story of the petas wailing outside the walls of the palace of King Bimbisara had come to be.
When the role of Sakka is taken up by a being who had performed the requisite good deeds while in the human realm and aspired to become Sakka, and upon cessation of his human life and is reborn in Tavatimsa Heaven, he does not wish to share Tavatimsa with the unseemly gods.
Sakka and his 33 gods will, with celestial weapons and warheads, drive them away from Tavatimsa Heaven. These gods remember their past glory and aspire not to be intoxicated by strong drink which has caused their downfall.
They take up abode at the foot of Mount Sineru and downwards depending on their merits. They can inhabit as low as the human realm in deep oceans. Some of the Asuras are grouped together with the nagas, garulas, supannas, kumbandhas, and yakkhas -- among the lowest beings in the Catummaharajika Loka.
The lowest class of Asura is the Kalankajaka Asuras who have fearsome looks. The powertul ones, dwelling at the foot of Mt Sineru, wage an incessant war with Sakka to regain Tavatimsa, but each time they are defeated by the armies of the Catummaharajika Heaven (stationed by Sakka, who is also the Lord over Catummaharajika Heaven).
These 'higher' Asuras have similar wondrous powers and glory of the Tavatimsa gods and their abode is similar in glory and beauty as the Tavatimsa gods and it goes without saying that the 'higher' Asura maidens are beautiful too. During battles, the Asuras transform themselves into hideous forms.
2. It can be seen here that not all petas (those who know that they can be released from their woe by being dedicated with the merits resulting from an alms-giving to the Sangha), can even enjoy this privilege at any time they want.
They still have to wait for an appropriate time, due to the degree of their unwholesome deed. In this particular case, their evil deed of intercepting and eating the alms-food meant for Buddha Kassapa and his Sangha and then burning down the dining hall had made wait for an 'appropriate' time.
Important points on theTirokudda Sutta