Hungry Ghosts

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

From a talk given in London January 2012
 on the Nature of the Soul
Question: Recently you said that at this moment in time there is a danger that the soul cannot evolve.1

Llewellyn: This is an important question. In creation there is a certain sacred substance that enables the experience of this world to be sacred and thus to be able to interact with our own sacred nature, our soul. In Sufism it is called the secret of the word “Kun!” (“To Be!”). This sacred substance in creation enables the soul to have an experience here that is sacred, because if it is not sacred, it doesn’t touch the soul—then our experience of life does not help the soul to evolve. And this substance is going out of creation.

The sacred substance in creation enables experiences in this world to be real, to be meaningful, to be part of the evolution of the soul. This is why in traditional cultures there were the rituals of every day life—of baking bread, of weaving, of planting—that kept this sacred substance in creation alive. This was, and is, central to all indigenous cultures, and it means that life was sacred. And because life is sacred then the soul could have a meaningful experience—and if the soul can have a meaningful experience it can evolve from lifetime to lifetime.

Now because of our forgetfulness of the sacred and our desecration of creation in the way we treat the environment, this sacred substance in creation is getting less and less accessible—it is almost becoming lost. I think this can also be seen in the way people find less and less meaning in the simple things in their life, and are more addicted to materialism and to the surface glitter of things, because there is nothing deep that resonates. Now, what actually happens if the sacred substance in creation is lost or it becomes buried so deep the soul can’t interact with it, is that we become what the Tibetan Buddhists call “Hungry Ghosts.” Traditionally the “hungry ghost realm” is one of the six realms, whose creatures have empty bellies, small mouths, and scrawny, thin necks. They can never get enough satisfaction. They can never fill their bellies. They’re always hungry, always empty. Our civilization’s insatiable consumerism, which cannot fulfill our real nature, has made us live as “hungry ghosts,” constantly desiring what cannot nourish us. And now on the very deepest level this is what our whole culture is moving close to—as our souls crave the sacred nourishment they can no longer access.

For me the real tragedy about this is that it is completely unnoticed, unreported. We have distanced ourselves from the sacred in creation for so long that we don’t even know that it’s there, and we don’t even know that it’s not there! We don’t even know that it is needed to nourish our soul. It is as if we have forgotten the whole purpose of incarnation—the whole reason we are here.

For example, I find it very interesting about the Mayan calendar—not whether there is one day this coming December when time might end—but that they had an understanding of the spiritual dimension of time, that there are moments in cosmic time that have specific meaning, that have a spiritual meaning and purpose. Our culture has forgotten that there are these deeper rhythms of life and time, and all we are left with now is 24-hour cable news-cycle of things that only exist on the surface.

For thousands of years the purpose of different civilizations was to look after this sacred substance through rituals, ceremonies, prayer, and sacred music—so that the souls of people could be nurtured, they could have a meaningful life and their souls could evolve. But now we are coming to the time that our collective culture has forgotten there is a sacred purpose to life—has forgotten that life has a sacred substance. We no longer look after this substance in creation—in fact we no longer even know that it needs to be looked after. A few cultures remain, like the Kogi in Columbia, whose collective purpose is to keep this substance—this remembrance—alive. These “Elder Brothers” gave a warning to us, the “Younger Brothers,” that due to our treatment of the environment there is a great danger—because we don’t know the damage we are doing.2

If this Sacred Substance becomes lost the soul will no longer find nourishment here. The worst-case scenario is the whole planet becomes a Hungry Ghost.  Children will still be born, souls will still come into the world, but they will not be able to have a meaningful experience, as Shakespeare describes so eloquently in Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
Life’s but a walking shadow…a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

This is what happens when the Sacred Substance in Creation is lost and any real purpose has gone. This is the cusp we are on at the moment—which is why it is not just an ecological crisis, it is a spiritual crisis. But the real danger of the spiritual crisis is that it is unreported, unrecognized and we do not seem to be aware of what is really happening or its consequences.

Image: Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto National Museum, late 12th Century

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D. is a Sufi teacher and author. In recent years the focus of his work has been on Spiritual Responsibility at a time of Global Crisis, and the emerging subject of Spiritual Ecology. His most recent books are Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, Darkening the Light, Witnessing the End of an Era, and For Love of the Real, The Story of Life’s Mystical Secret. See his work at, and

Read more about Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee


1For complete talk on spiritual ecology, see dvd.:
2“Up to now we have ignored the Younger Brother. We have not deigned even to give him a slap. But now we can no longer look after the world alone. The Younger Brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die.” - Kogi Mama

23 October 2012

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sacred, Sufism, Buddhism, soul, life, ritual,
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