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If you’ve ever looked close enough, especially around the Myeongbu-jeon Hall, perhaps you were lucky enough to see the image of an “Agwi – 아귀,” or “Hungry Ghost/Spirit” in English. Or more likely, you’ve probably seen this demon-like creature, but you weren’t sure what it was. So what exactly is an Agwi? Where can you find them? And what are they supposed to represent?
Physical Description of an Agwi
An Agwi, or “Hungry Ghost” in English, was formerly a human who is now suffering in the afterlife from hunger and thirst as a part of their karma for their bad deeds. These deeds can include killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, desire, greed, anger, and ignorance, while they were alive. As a result of their actions, their appearance reflects their misdeeds.
Agwi are human-like in appearance. They have sunken, mummy-like skin. They also have small limbs with bulging eyes, open mouths, distended bellies, and a long narrow neck. Also, they are hardly wearing any clothes on their bodies. Their eyebrows are knitted in anger, while they are either bald or losing their hair. Additionally, they typically wear a lot of jewelry like bracelets or anklets. Also, their ears are typically pierced with gold earrings. But perhaps the easiest way to identify Agwi is by the red wings that appear from behind their ears. Their overall appearance, especially the large belly and narrow necks, are meant to symbolize their insatiable appetites that are never satisfied.
History of the Agwi
Agwi appear in Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and local folk religions. They have their origins in Indian religions; however, there are many myths surrounding the origins of Agwi. Agwi were later adopted into Eastern religions by way of the spread of Buddhism eastward. In Sanskrit, they are called Preta. Preta means “departed or deceased”, and it comes from “pra-ita”, which literally means “gone forth/departed.” The Chinese translation for the word Preta is Egui (餓鬼), which literally means “Starving Ghost” in English. Agwi is a transliteration of the Chinese Egui. In East Asian Buddhism, Agwi are also called “burning mouths.” The reason for this very literal name is that when Agwi put food to their mouths; the food bursts into flames so that the Agwi can’t consume the food.
Agwi are believed to live in the afterlife in the Agwi Realm. This is believed to be located far beneath the earth’s surface, but it’s located above hell. Agwi are reincarnated in one of the three evil destinies. This belief comes from the idea of “The Doctrine of the Ten Worlds and Their Mutual Possession.” In Korean, this is known as “Sibgye – 십계.” Of these ten realms, there are four upper realms and six lower realms. They are distinguished by the degrees of enlightenment that an individual has achieved. The four upper realms are 1. Śrāvaka (Disciples), 2. Pratyekabuddha (lone Buddha), 3. Bodhisattva, 4. Buddhahood (fully enlightened being). As for the lower realms of enlightenment, they are known as the Six Realms. And these Six Realms are: Hell (Naraka), The Agwi Realm, Beasts, Asuras (demigods), Humans, and Heaven (or realm of the deities). So because these individuals lived a past life as someone that consumed with insatiable desires and/or cravings, they have been reborn in the Six Realms in the Agwi Realm. In this Realm, and according to Buddhist sutras, there are thirty-six different types of Agwi.
More specifically, Agwi were once humans. In fact, they could even be a deceased member of your family. A good example of this can be found in the Nahan (The Historical Disciples of the Buddha). Of the sixteen Nahan, one, Mahākālika, or “Gariga – 가리가” in Korean, saved his own mother from the Agwi Realm. Ceremonies are performed in Korea at Buddhist temples to help “feed” Agwi. They are held by people for their own deceased family members, or they can be held by monks for those spirits suffering as Agwi in the afterlife. This ceremony is typically held inside the main hall at the temple or inside the Myeongbu-jeon Hall in front of a Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Mural). Typically, the ceremony involves chanting and the performing of Buddhist instruments like drums, bells, or cymbals in front of the Gamno-do to help comfort Agwi.
Agwi in Buddhist Texts
One of the most common places to find Agwi is in the “One Hundred Fables Sutra,” which is from the early third century. Here are just a few examples of stories related to Agwi found in this sutra:
One tale from the “One Hundred Fables Sutra” is about a rich man who travels selling sugar cane juice. One day, a monk came to the rich man’s house looking for some juice to help cure his illness. The man had to leave rather abruptly, so the man instructed his wife to give the monk a drink of juice, while he was gone. Instead of doing this, the wife secretly urinated in the monk’s bowl, added a bit of sugar cane juice, and gave it to the monk to drink. The monk was not easily fooled, so he poured out the contents of the bowl. When the wife eventually died, she was reborn as an Agwi.
Another tale is entitled “An Operation of the Mouth.” In this tale, there is a man who visited his wife’s home. There he saw people removing the husk of the rice. He stole some of this rice and hid it in his mouth. When his wife came to talk to him, instead of opening his mouth and confessing to the rice he had stolen, the husband remained silent. She said, “On his way over, my husband suddenly got a swollen mouth and is unable to speak,” so immediately the wife’s father called a doctor. When the doctor arrived, he said “Very serious is your illness. It will be cured by an operation.” The operation was completed and the husband’s theft was revealed. The conclusion of the tale says, “In doing evil deeds it breaks the pure commandments and hiding sins, people descend to the Three Evil Ways of hell, beasts, and Hungry Ghosts.”
Yet another tale from the “One Hundred Fables Sutra” describes a man who was giving and kind. One day, he was about to leave his house when a monk came begging. The man told his wife to give the monk some food. After the man left the house, his wife was overcome with greed. The wife decided she would teach the monk a lesson, so she locked the monk up inside an empty room all day without food. When she eventually died and was reborn, she was reborn as a Hungry Ghost [Agwi] for an unlimited amount of lifetimes.
There are some wonderful examples of Agwi spread throughout the Korean peninsula at Buddhist temples and hermitages. Here are just a few of these examples. First, there’s a pair of 17th century Agwi murals inside the historic Daegwang-jeon Hall at Sinheungsa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. There are other historic murals of Agwi that can be found in Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Mural) at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. There is also a beautiful collection of Siwang (The Ten Kings of the Underworld) in the museum at Girimsa Temple in eastern Gyeongju that have amazing images of Agwi. For more contemporary Gamno-do images, you can find them at Boseongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do and Naewonam Hermitage near Unmunsa Temple in Cheongdo, Gyeongsangbuk-do. And finally, there are images of Agwi adorning both the interior and exterior walls of temple shrine halls like at Seongjusa Temple in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do and Nammireuksa Temple in Gangjin, Jeollanam-do.
This tortured creature often appears around temple shrine halls at Korean Buddhist temples, especially in paintings. The most common place to find these desperate spirits is around the main hall and the Myeongbu-jeon Hall especially in Gamno-do (Sweet Dew Murals). Typically, you can find monks and/or descendants making offerings to the deceased to help pacify and aid these Hungry Ghosts. So the next time you’re at a Korean Buddhist temple or hermitage, have a look around for these red-winged Agwi that are in constant torment. And if you can, say a little prayer for their well-being.