Ghosts in Buddhism


Three lower realms

In Buddhism, hungry ghosts live in the Ghost Realm which is one of the 3 lower realms consisting of the Animal Realm, Ghost Realm and Hell Realm. These realms are undesirable places to be reborn in as they are realms of suffering and have no chance of attaining Enlightenment due to either their constant suffering or inability to understand the Dhamma.

Beings get reborn in the lower realms as a result of the unwholesome acts that was committed during their time as human beings like harsh speech, greed, jealousy and hatred.

Theravāda Buddhism

In Theravāda Buddhism, there are scriptures depicting the states of beings in the Ghost Realm1. They are called ‘Hungry Ghosts’ because they are constantly hungry yet unable to attain any sustenance nor consume them even if found. In order to temporarily satisfy their hunger, they need to rely on members of their family or clan to share the merits that are obtained from donations.2

However, these scriptures are from the Minor Discourses which contain discourses that cannot be verified as the Buddha’s teachings. Hence, there may be more types of ghosts in the Ghost Realm and hungry ghosts are only one of the many.

Hungry Ghost Month Superstitions


Opening of Hell gate

Many believe that on the lunar 7th month, the hell gate opens and the ghosts are given “leave” or “holiday” to roam the human world for one month. After that, they are to return to Hell to continue their suffering.

There are also horror stories from people who are able to see spirits to “verify” the opening of the hell gate. They claim that there are more ghosts roaming around during the lunar 7th month and the ghosts are very awful to look at. Therefore, these people will always go home straight after work and refuse to go out at night.

Not giving offerings will bring bad happenings

This is the reason why many people insists in burning joss paper, joss sticks and offering food to the ghosts. They believe that the family will run into bad luck if they do not give offerings.

The reason for burning joss paper is so that ghosts can use these “hell money” in the afterworld. This trend has become so modernised that shops even have houses, cars, aeroplanes, servants, jewellery, handphones, etc in paper form for burning. It is the belief that beings in the afterworld will be able to receive these “products” and have a good afterlife.

Kicking the ashes of the burnt joss paper will bring bad happenings

If someone walking along the pedestrian walkway happens to kick a pile of burnt ashes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it will bring the person bad happenings. It may come in the form of bad luck or accidents.

This is because those burnt ashes are the “hell money” to be used by ghosts. Kicking the ashes means destroying the “hell money” so naturally the ghosts will go for revenge at someone destroying their “wealth”.

No auspicious or major events to be held

As it is the “Hungry Ghost Month” with lots of ghosts roaming around, it is considered inauspicious. Hence, auspicious events like weddings and major events like house moving and renovations cannot be held on this month.

No sitting on empty front row of seats at open-air shows

During the “Hungry Ghost Month”, open-air shows like singing and other performances will be held both to entertain the humans and the ghosts. Rows of seats will be placed for the audience to sit and view the performances. However, the front row will always be kept empty as it is reserved for the ghosts. Any human sitting in the front row will have bad happenings.

Analysis of the “Hungry Ghost Month”

Moon phases

Opening of Hell gate

In Buddhism cosmology, although the word ‘realm’ is being used, it does not mean that all realms are separate from the one that human beings live in. In particular, Earth deities, human beings, animals and ghosts all exist on the same realm. Only hell and the other heavenly realms exist separately. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the hell gate needs to be opened in order to let the ghosts come to this realm.

Furthermore, even if ghosts exist in a realm different from human beings, there is no reason why they would be able to get a full month of “leave” or “holiday” to enjoy free food, money and entertainment. Most human beings do not get 30 days of paid leave for working every year, with 14 days being the norm, not to mention with additional benefits like free food and entertainment for taking leave. Therefore, ghosts who are supposed to be in a worse state than human beings being given 30 days of “leave” or “holiday” with all the free stuff is simply absurd.

Lastly, do not forget that beings are reborn as ghosts due to their unwholesome acts. This is similar to people getting jailed for breaking the law. Let’s imagine letting all the prisoners in the country out of prison for 1 full month of “leave” or “holiday”. What is going to happen to society at large? Do you think the prisoners will be so obedient and return to prison after the month-long “leave” or “holiday”? Most likely, most of the prisoners will attempt to escape to another place or country where no one can find them the moment they are out of jail. The same can be said for ghosts. Who would want to stay in the hell realm when the human realm is so beautiful and most importantly free from hell’s sufferings? Furthermore, it will be a logistics nightmare when the time comes for ghosts to return to hell. The amount of manpower, time and effort required to track and apprehend escaped ghosts will be mind-boggling.

Therefore, this superstition is simply not true. As mentioned previously, ghosts live in the same realm as human beings. They are most likely staying in dark places like carparks and storage areas where the sun seldom or never reaches. On the other hand, the Hell realm is meant for beings who have committed heinous acts that far surpasses the limit to be reborn as a ghost. It is also not a place where “leave” or “holidays” can be given or enjoyed. It is unfathomable what will happen to human beings if the “Hell gate” ever opens and the beings inside are let loose onto this realm. All the pent-up emotions due to the sufferings will make the beings extremely hostile and destructive. It will really be doomsday for humans if that day ever comes. Therefore, “Hell gate opening” is equally absurd.

Having said that, why do people claim to see more ghosts during the ‘Hungry Ghost Month’? Before answering this question, let’s do a thought experiment. If you want to make this into a real experiment, you are welcome to but beware of the consequences.

Place food outside your house for 30 days, once a day. Any type of food will do, even leftovers. Observe who is attracted by the food. After 30 days, stop doing it. Then, continue doing so for the next 5 years on exactly the same dates as the previous years. Every time you do this, observe what happens.

The result: The food will be eaten by strays, birds and insects. As the food offering continues each year, the beings in the Animal realm will know the exact dates that food is available and they will swarm to the location. After 30 days, they will all disappear because they know that no more food will be available. On top of that, the number of animals and insects will grow every year.

Now, apply this finding to what is happening during each year’s “Hungry Ghost Month”. The exact same situation with the exact same result. Ghosts hiding in all the dark places will gather at the places where food and entertainment are available. After everything is over, they simply return to their dark “homes”. Hence, just because there is an increase in the number of ghosts does not mean the “Hell gate” has opened.

Not giving offerings will bring bad happenings

Lunar 7th month occurs every year to every country in the world. It is not limited to only Southern China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. If not giving offerings will bring bad happenings, it would have been such a widespread phenomenon that the people in other countries would have followed the practices of offering food, entertainment and joss products to the ghosts during the lunar 7th month to avoid bad happenings.

However, the fact is that nothing has happened to them and they are living their lives as normal even during the lunar 7th month.

Bad happenings can happen to anyone at any time even outside the lunar 7th month. This is the workings of your environment, personality, actions and kamma. Attributing any bad happening during the lunar 7th month to ghosts is unfair to them as there is no way to prove that they did it. This is the same as every country’s law whereby a defendant is ‘Innocent until proven guilty’. Therefore, unless there are academic studies determining unusually high rates of bad happenings to people who do not give offerings during the lunar 7th month, it is all purely superstition. Also, if there is a spike in unnatural accidents happening in any country, I am sure the government will be the first to take action instead of letting their citizens deal with it independently.

Kicking the ashes of the burnt joss paper will bring bad happenings

The worst act to be done during the lunar 7th month is to burn joss products. Singaporeans and Malaysians are already badly affected by the burning of forests in Indonesia once a year, and their own citizens add to this by mass burning of joss products for a month.

Back to the subject, there is nothing wrong with kicking the ashes of burnt joss products but doing so will make the job more difficult for cleaners so it will be more considerate not to do it. In Singapore, the government has provided metal bins for people to burn their joss products so as not to destroy the grass or leave ugly burnt marks on the cement floor. So, the chances of kicking the ashes are extremely small.

However, it is advisable not to kick the food offerings on the floor. Cleaners who clean up in the morning will not have anything happening to them but to kick fresh offerings may bring bad happenings to the person.

To reiterate, ghosts are beings reborn in the Ghost Realm due to past unwholesome acts. In the Ghost Realm, they need to suffer the consequences of these acts.

To do good requires much more effort than doing bad. If the simple act of burning joss products can let ghosts live a life of luxury, there is no point in doing good anymore. Just do whatever acts you want, then burn as much joss products as possible during your life time to accumulate “wealth” for yourself in the afterworld. Then, after you die, you can enjoy your “ghostly life” much better than human life and you can enjoy a month of “holiday” every year including free food, free entertainment and get even more wealth through the burnt joss products. This will be a much easier way to attain a long and luxurious life than being a human being or a heavenly deity.

Therefore, you do not see anything in the scriptures of any religion in the world proclaiming that burnt products can be enjoyed by ghosts in the afterworld. It is not a good doctrine for encouraging people to do good and can cause chaos in the human world. The only people who benefit from this are the joss product manufacturers and shops. This is also the reason why you see more and more variety of joss products available for sale. They go along with the superstition and manipulate you through your fear and ignorance. After you fall for their marketing gimmicks, you will burn even more joss products for your deceased family members. This will make you waste even more of your money while they line their pockets with more profits.

No auspicious or major events to be held

This is the same as the 2nd point discussed above. All countries in the world have to go through the lunar 7th month and if there is no widespread phenomenon of bad happenings in this month, it means that it is fine to hold auspicious and major events. If you have done nothing to anger the ghosts there is no reason to be afraid of them. Even outside of the lunar 7th month, they are still all around us. The only difference is that they will be more scattered instead of congregating at certain locations.

No sitting on empty front row of seats at open-air shows

Since it is a tradition to leave empty seats for the ghosts at performances during the lunar 7th month, the ghosts expect those seats to be available for them. Therefore, it is advisable not to sit on the front row seats so as not to rob the ghosts of their priority seats.



If we carefully analyse the workings of the “Hungry Ghost Month”, we will find that there are much better ways to carry out the tradition without harming the environment at lesser costs.

Many people fall prey to the superstitions due to fear, compassion and ignorance. People are afraid of the unknown and most of us are unable to see ghosts. So, any myths or superstitions about ghosts are bound to be more easily accepted especially when they are hundreds of years of tradition. There are also people who participate in the “Hungry Ghost” activities out of compassion for the ghosts, hoping that they can get out of their misery as soon as possible. However, without proper knowledge from the Buddhist discourses, people can be easily manipulated by businesses.

To make the lunar 7th month more meaningful and not lose tradition, there are 2 suggestions below:

Proper offering of food

If a person still wishes to offer food and entertainment for the ghosts, there is nothing wrong with it. However, the proper way is to offer the food to needy people and people in spiritual training like Buddhist monks and nuns. In this way, you gain merit for the offerings and will be able to share the merit with the ghosts while at the same time, you do not waste food, which is getting more expensive with the Russia-Ukraine war and inflation.

Proper use of money

Instead of “burning” your money away by buying joss products, you should be donating this money to worthy causes and sharing the merits. This is a much more meaningful way to help deceased family members who are unfortunate enough to be reborn in the Ghost Realm.

Best way to gain merit

The best way to gain merit and share them with beings in the Ghost Realm is to meditate. Meditation can accumulate a lot of merit in a short amount of time even if you are just a beginner. This is because you are actively trying to reduce your desires and hostility in the time that you are meditating. It is this act of bringing your mind to the state of equanimity that is the essence of merit generation.

Hence, join more Dhamma and meditation classes during the lunar 7th month. For proactive people, there is no need to wait till the lunar 7th month to start sharing merit. Make meditation a daily affair and share merit every day. This will not only improve your mental health, it will also make ghosts become friendly with you as you are sharing merit with them every day. This is the best way for both parties to benefit and not be worried about the “Hungry Ghost Month” superstitions.

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