Hungry Ghosts – Agwi (아귀)

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A couple of monstrous-looking Agwi.

Hello Again Everyone!!

You’ve probably seen an Agwi, or Hungry Ghosts/Spirits, in English, a hundred times at a temple but just didn’t know exactly what it was supposed to mean or represent. So what is an Agwi? Where can you see one? And what are they supposed to mean?

An Agwi is a ghost or spirit that is perpetually hungry. They were a former human who now suffers from hunger and thirst as karma for their greed, selfishness, or jealousy (or a combination of the three), while they were alive. They have bulging eyes, open mouths, their giant bellies exposed, and they have hardly any clothing on their bodies. Their eye-brows are angry and rigid, while they are either bald or losing their hair. Additionally, they wear a lot of jewelry like ankle and wrist bracelets, and their ears are typically pierced by gold earrings. But probably the easiest way to identify them is that they have red wings behind their ears.

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A couple of Agwi from an ancient painting at Seonamsa Temple.

Buddhist scriptures describe Agwi as beings with throats as small as needles and having bloated bellies. They are called “Preta” in Sanskrit, which in ancient India simply meant spirits of the dead. In East Asian Buddhism, Agwi are called “burning mouths” because when they put food in their mouths, the food bursts into flames so that the Agwi can’t consume the food.

The realm where the Agwi live is believed to be located far beneath the earth’s surface, but above hell. Agwi are reincarnated in one of the three evil destinies. This belief comes from the “doctrine of the ten worlds and their mutual possession.” Because they lived a past life as someone that consumed with insatiable desires or were tormented with relentless cravings, they have been reborn as an Agwi in one of the three evil realms.

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A couple mischievous Agwi.

So who are these Agwi? Well, they were once humans. And technically, they could even be a deceased member of your family. A good example of this is a Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha), Mokgeollyeon (Mahakalika), who saved his own mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. Ceremonies are performed at Korean temples to “feed” Agwi. They are held by lay-people for their own deceased family members, or they can be held by monks for all those spirits that are suffering. This ceremony is typically held inside the main hall or the Myeongbu-jeon Hall in front of a Gamno-do painting. Typically, the ceremony involves chanting and the performing of Buddhist instruments like a drum, hand bell or cymbals, so as to comfort the Agwi.

So the next time you’re at a Korean temple or hermitage, have a look around to see if you can spot a suffering Agwi. They’re pretty easy to spot in a painting, but it can be very hard to find a painting that depicts them.

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