Death: The one thing probably no one talks about on Vesak. Why?

Death: The one thing probably no one talks about on Vesak. Why?

Death: The one thing probably no one talks about on Vesak. Why?

Editor’s note: 

What do people celebrate on Vesak Day — the Buddha’s birth and enlightenment? Little is talked about his death. Does ‘death’ have to be seen as taboo when celebrating his birthday? 

TLDR: Reflecting and contemplating death can place our daily life experiences into perspective. It can give us a greater sense of purpose and makes us better, not bitter. It also prepares me for peace and acceptance when I arrive at my last breath. 

Choi! Choi![1] my friend exclaimed while flailing her hands at me as if shooing a bunch of mosquitoes away. Her response is a common expression we hear when we breach death, a taboo subject. So what if I’ve brought up death in our conversation?

I recall several elderly relatives avoided attending funerals of their kin as they genuinely believe they bring bad luck – and death – closer to us!

Many find death a sensitive topic and prefer to veil it from their perception when possible, hoping that somehow postpones its eventuality. The avoidance of this topic may stoke an undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Some would rather “be positive” and “look on the bright side of life” than dwell on the sombre thought of life-ending. 

“When it comes, it’ll come,” we say. Death seems acceptable now because underlying that thought, a sense of invincibility churns on: that energy, health and life are with us. That death is “something that will surely come, but probably not just yet”. 

The certainty of living on, of course, may not be the case. 

Fragility in the face of pandemics

The Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the fragility of human health. We hear of sickness and death taking place in our vicinity (friends or family), ringing the risk (and fears) of death in our hearts and minds. 

Times like these remind us that ageing, sickness and death are always around the corner. We can train ourselves to be acutely aware of their imminence, despite accompanying unpleasant emotions. 

How can we overcome the anxiety and fear associated with death? According to American psychologist  George Kelly, we can alter our aversion to death by building familiarity with it. It is about intentionally – more importantly, peacefully – exposing ourselves to this uncomfortable subject with daily, time-bound reflections and actions. 

Those who stick with this practice are likened by the Buddha to thoroughbred horses: easily trained and spurred into action with urgency. 

A more fulfilling life

The Buddha has long ‘left us’ after his pari-nibbana; have we ‘left’ his teachings behind? There are several benefits that we can derive from his experience of ‘passing away’:

1.  Acceptance is easier when death comes to us or those close to us.

When I was in Ubon Ratchathani, Northeastern Thailand, for a short stint, I witnessed a rural Thai funeral ritual that baffled me.

A young child was lifted into the coffin, and following tradition retrieved an object from the deceased’s head with their mouth!  

Thais I saw were acquainted with death from a very young age, unflinching in their face-to-face interactions with a dead body. However, I observed that some ethnic Chinese would turn their backs toward the coffin as it is being lifted onto a hearse. Alas, this aversion to death!

Unsurprisingly, Thais I have met in these villages tend to be more spiritually inclined. They have a more positive outlook and go about their days with few complaints.

 When speaking to the elderly womenfolk, they talk about pain in their legs with such a light-hearted demeanour: “It’s part of life, isn’t it?” 

“It’s part of ageing”, they laughed. 

Some of us would have been fraught with annoyance, and scour the land for the best physicians to remove their pain. Like Kisa Gotami who pleaded with the Buddha to remove the suffering that came from her son’s death, she ultimately realised the futility of her quest lay in her misunderstanding of the true nature of the human condition. 

Whatever arises, passes away. 

Thus, by acquainting ourselves with the nature of life and death, we are mentally prepared when it happens to us or those close to us. A calm and collected acknowledgement of the situation settles our hearts, allaying panic, shock and despair. “Indeed, death has arrived”, we will reflect, just as we have been reflecting everyday.

2.  We focus on things that really matter.

Contemplating death helps us focus on the essentials. We are not as easily swept away by our fleeting youth (doing foolish things because we are young), health (sleeping late), or life (thinking that “next year I will…”). 

Indulgences can take the form of an intoxicant. We can lose clarity of what matters in life, by pursuing fast cars, fashion bags, eating late oily suppers, and planning 10 years ahead as if life is certain.

So what did Buddha propose we do?

Spend our youth, energy and time on (1) accumulating wealth, and (2) living in accordance to Dhamma.   

Accumulating wealth

As a means of surviving the mundane world, building wealth can be broken down into several parts including (1) being diligent in our education to acquire necessary skills, (2) further education to apply critical thinking, collaborating with others and other such soft skills, and (3) building our careers to earn a living.  

We can avoid squandering away our wealth by avoiding constant drunkenness, refraining from roaming the streets at unseemly hours that expose us to theft, habitual partying, compulsive gambling, foolish companions and laziness

Living the virtuous life

My spiritual practice revolves around the cultivation of skillful habits of the body, speech and mind. I have found that splurging my youth on chasing illusory sensuality tends to be unfulfilling. I would rather spend my energetic days, building my resolve and strength to overcome challenges and build positive habits.

Considering how precious rebirth as a human is (the probability of being born as a human being is extremely small in Buddhist cosmology), I seize every moment as an opportunity to grow wholesomeness and skillfulness.

3. We don’t take things for granted

If today were my last day, what would I say to my family and friends? Take every opportunity to express gratitude and appreciation. Resolve conflicts. 

Ask for forgiveness as soon as you can. Avoid saying or doing anything to others that we would later regret.  

Having no regrets or remorse is one of the greatest treasures that we can acquire. As the Buddha described, “one without regret need not wish ‘may I have joy, may joy arise in me’. It is natural that joy arises in one without regret”.

A deep quiet sense of joy that is solid and unperturbed by the vicissitudes of life.

At the end of a busy day, I dedicate time to settle my mind and pay my respects to the important figures guiding my life:

Buddhaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Buddha.

Dhammaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Dhamma.

Sanghaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to the Sangha.

Achariyanaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to my teachers.

Mata-pitunaṃ vandami

My deepest reverence to my parents, both in this life and in the past.

As I  bow low to these important figures in our lives, I reflect on the day that I have spent. If I have spent the day usefully, filling it with goodness, I can go to sleep with a deep sense of ease.  

Vesak, Death, and beyond

Every year when we celebrate our birthday, an anniversary or an important event like Wesak Day, we have the opportunity to reflect on his passing.

We can ponder “As death approaches us day by day, why do we not water the seeds of spiritual growth in our hearts?” This phrase helps to stir urgency for me to focus on what is crucial and discard what is not.

By bringing death closer to us, may we all live a more purposeful and meaningful life.

[1] A Cantonese expression to ward off bad fortune, a coarser resemblance of the expression “touch wood”.


Wise Steps:

  • Find a mantra to anchor you in the present (it need not be death related but something that clears procrastination.)
  • When I witness the death/funeral of strangers, I can remind myself of the spiritual urgency of living a life with purpose.
Faith In Buddhism: Which Of These 3 Faith Types Do You Belong To?

Faith In Buddhism: Which Of These 3 Faith Types Do You Belong To?

This is an abridged chapter from Buddhist Scholar Sylvia Bay’s Book on Faith. You may find the book here


TLDR: Buddhism is nowadays taken to be ‘scientific’ with little need for faith. Have we got it wrong? Which type of faith do you identify with? Blind, Knowledge, or practice? Sylvia shares more

Faith is not a static mental state. Faith can strengthen (or fade). Right knowledge and clear understanding will strengthen faith. 

1. ‘Blind’ Faith 

When we first declared ourselves to be Buddhists, the odds are that at that time, we didn’t really know much about Buddha or his Teaching. What little we knew then was probably hearsay or as tradition dictated. 

We were likely to be caught up with the dos and don’ts of the rites and rituals. What to do at the temple or monastery? How to bow? How to chant? What offerings to make? And so on. Our faith might or may be transactional. 

We “pray” to Buddha and show our devotion by making offerings so that we will be blessed with success or be able to ward off misfortune. We may have all kinds of wrong understanding: ‘Buddha is god’, ‘Buddha can save me’, ‘just pray to Buddha and all will be fine’. 

Even worse, we may be afraid of asking questions because we think that it is ‘bad kamma’ to do so. Blind faith is superficial and fragile as it rests on ignorance and fear. This type of faith cannot withstand life’s inevitable disappointments and setbacks. It will be at constant risk of falling away. 

2. Knowledge-based Faith 

The faith that Buddha spoke about that is critical for spiritual growth is grounded on knowledge and a thorough understanding of the teaching. 

The deeper the knowledge, the stronger is the faith. 

Now, we must all start somewhere in terms of gathering knowledge. Buddha’s advice was to approach a teacher that you have respect for. Because of that positive chemistry, you will be willing to keep an open-mind and give him the benefit of the doubt. Because of your attitude, your mind is pliant, receptive and attentive. 

That helps you to register the Dhamma properly and remember it. What you can remember, you must reflect thoroughly and compare the teachings against your observations about life’s experiences and your mind. 

Only when the Dhamma makes sense, because it is consistent with what you have observed, will you embrace the teaching fully and confidently.

From the above, it is clear that Buddha had expected his followers not to just accept his words at face value but to have an enquiring mind and ask questions, challenge assumptions, think critically, and make thoughtful conclusions. These are high order cognitive processes. 

He said that they should accept his teachings only after they are satisfied that Dhamma makes sense from their own observations about their mind and life’s experiences. 

3. Practice-based Faith 

Ultimately, Buddha’s Dhamma is not an intellectual exercise. It helps the practitioner to understand the true nature of the mind such that he can overcome feelings of dukkha and is able to live more happily. 

It is not easy to get to a state where one can see the mind’s true nature. It may require fundamental changes to one’s habits and behaviour. One must make a serious effort to overcome one’s negative instincts and obstructive habits. 

Hence, the next level of faith development is practice. You must be ready to deliberately and thoroughly weave all aspects of his teaching into your daily life. And you keep applying the training discipline until your mind settles into a new equilibrium, with new knowledge about itself and its habits. 

When that happens, the practitioner would find himself becoming a kinder, gentler and wiser person, more content, happier and less caught up with ego and desires. 

As your understanding of the Dhamma deepens because of the practice, you will experience more periods of peace in your waking moments. Once the Dhamma is not just an abstract concept but a way of life, faith will grow exponentially. 

You have confidence that you know how to shape the mind because you understand how it works. 

You feel empowered. 

You no longer feel helpless in the face of changing external or internal conditions.

Img Alt text:

  • Blinded Sapa for blind faith
  • Reading sapa for knowledge
  • Meditative sapa for practice


Wise Steps:

  • Pause and reflect. Where do you currently stand now in your Buddhist faith? Are you comfortable with where you are right now?
  • Ask yourself, ‘How can I go from understanding the teachings to realising them?’. Take active steps to grow your circle of spiritual friends to support your journey
  • Associate with wise teachers, explore and find teachers to learn from. Those who are worthy of respect and conduct themselves similar to how the Buddha or disciples would behave.
Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

Cultivating Faith In Fearful Times

This is adapted from Sylvia Bay’s bulletin for Buddhist Fellowship written in March 2020. This is a great reminder for us as we greet each new year. This pandemic throws all the curveballs we could never expect. Here is how we can l

TLDR: These are unprecedented times. The past few months have been very hard for us as the world gradually descends into a Covid-19 pandemic and we watch an accustomed way of life slowly disintegrates. Here is how we can develop faith in fearful times

Every new day seems to bring worse news and we are seized by worry and fear for the safety and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.

It doesn’t help that nobody knows how long this pandemic will drag on. What more damage will it inflict on society and the economy before it passes? Will it even be over? Will ‘normal’ life as we know it ever return?

Why Must We Not Give In To Fear & Worry?

It brings out the worst in us. In our practice, we must learn to recognise racing thoughts driven by worry and fear.

Recognition, seeing rightly, is a necessary first step to breaking away from being trapped in an endless, vicious cycle of anxiety and panic proliferating frightful thoughts which in turn heighten the overall sense of doom.

Fear and worry are powerful akusala (unwholesome) mental states that can and often do bring out the worst in us. We become selfish and self-centred. We do silly and illogical things. We hoard food, masks, sanitisers, washing detergents, toilet papers! Fear and worry drain our goodness and humanity.

Our capacity for metta, compassion, generosity, empathy and so on dissolve under the deluge of worried and fearful thoughts. Even our noble aspirations to be good Buddhists and to do the right thing for ourselves and for others are terminated in mid-stream.

That is why it is critical that we try our utmost not to give in to fear and worry. It is not easy, but it can be done.

When you see those two mental states arising, take a deep breath and acknowledge their presence.

Call them out by name: “That is fear. That is worry.”

But don’t get defensive.

Don’t self-flagellate.

Don’t blame yourself for their presence.

Just be aware of them and other akusala mental states trailing in their wake: greed, anger, resentment and so on. Then consciously and deliberately choose not to give in to all the mental negativities.

We must not because if we are decent people and especially if we want to be good Buddhists, we will regret any unkind word said and selfish action made while caught in the grip of fear and worry.

What Do We Turn Our Minds To?

Turn our minds to Faith

Instead, turn our minds to faith (saddhā). As Buddhists, our faith is in the Triple Gem: the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The stronger our faith, the more we will feel fear and worry dissipate. Faith is so powerful that it can bring up intense joy and immense gratitude.

If you don’t believe, try this: take a deep breath and say slowly, mindfully and with conviction, “My faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha will protect me.” Don’t think. Don’t over-analyse. If you do as instructed, you will see faith surge. Joy, gratitude and humility will wash over you.

Like all mental states, faith has to be cultivated. Therefore, set aside quiet time to pay homage to the Triple Gem. More importantly, use that time to reflect on the meaning of the ancient words.

Right reflection is necessary to strengthen faith and protect the kusala (wholesome) in the mind.

Buddha

We start by recalling the Buddha’s virtues as follows but in a language that we understand and can appreciate: “The Blessed One is an Arahant, perfectly enlightened, accomplished in true knowledge and conduct, fortunate, knower of the world, unsurpassed trainer of persons to be tamed, teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.”

What stands out here is the fact that the Buddha was the epitome of wisdom (vijjā) and goodness (carana).

He had realised entirely on his own how his mind works and how suffering can cease.

And then out of compassion for all sentient beings, Buddha devoted the rest of his life to helping others to the same intuitive realisation. Buddha was an incredible teacher: ingenious and creative, uplifting and inspiring, with boundless compassion, drive and energy.

He taught Dhamma literally to the end.

As he laid dying beneath the Sal trees in Kusinara, Buddha reminded his students to strive on and to realise Nibbāna for themselves.

Buddha’s life was profoundly inspiring.

In these difficult times, we must remind ourselves to bring out that ‘Buddha’ potential in us and not give in to our darker instincts, namely, greed and anger. We must believe that we too are capable of great wisdom and goodness. We only have to stay committed to the practice and not lose faith.

Dhamma

Reflect on the virtues of the Dhamma as follows: “Well expounded is the Dhamma by the Exalted One, directly visible, immediately effective, calling one to come and see, leading on, to be personally realised by the wise.”

This is a reminder to ourselves to not get caught up in the running commentaries in our heads. Thought constructions are often unhelpful but they can be downright destructive if fuelled by fear and worry.

Instead, live in the present moment or as the Buddha had put it: “sandiṭṭhiko” (visible here and now) and “akāliko” (timeless). Learn to enjoy the NOW.

Be aware of how our mind can stay in the present, without chattering, at least for a while before it drifts off again. Be grateful each time you are aware of this present moment where the mind is quietly watchful.

Treasure this moment in the Dhamma. Feel blessed that with the guidance of a 2500-year old teaching, we too are enjoying this wondrous experience

Sangha

To recall the virtues of the Sangha is to remind ourselves that we must stay kusala and not willy-nilly stray into akusala. As the first part of the homage recitation goes, “The order of the Exalted One’s disciples is practising well; … is of upright conduct; … has entered the right path; … is practising correctly.”

Indeed, the noblest of Buddha’s disciples were all paragons of virtues. If we profess to be Buddha’s disciples, the least that we can do is to restrain our akusala instincts and to conscientiously cultivate kusala ones.

We learn to speak kindly and gently. In this trying time, where everyone is anxious and agitated, we should not add to another’s pain.

We shall act with consideration. We take (or buy) only what we need for survival and not clear the shelves because we can. We must be giving (cāga). For those of us with means, this is really a chance to cultivate generosity because there are very real and desperate needs out there. If we find our mind resisting to give, tame that stain of miserliness by giving more.

What must we do?

Be empathic.

We must be empathetic. Covid-19 obviously does not respect national boundaries. There is no one race or religion immune to Covid-19. The entire human race is in this together.

So we will not point fingers and look for convenient scapegoats. Instead, we should embrace all and help all alike. And finally, we will be grateful for our blessings to be living in a country where we have good people and resources to contain Covid-19 outbreak and save lives.

The fact that we remain hopeful despite the body blows to the economy and complete disruption to our social lives, shows that instinctively we trust the people in the forefront know what they are doing.

We must not add to their burden. Instead, we will be humble and wholly support them. We must think positive, stay optimistic and believe that this pandemic will pass.

May we all emerge from this defining challenge of our time, stronger in our faith, kinder in our words and conduct, and wiser in our thoughts. May your faith in the Triple Gem keep you well and at peace

Our Minds Are Always Searching for a Refuge, What Does Yours Seek?

Our Minds Are Always Searching for a Refuge, What Does Yours Seek?

This is a reflection piece as contemplated by the author based on the Buddha’s teachings. As such, it may not contain the truths as taught by the Buddha. The author hopes the reader takes away useful bits that may resonate and discard whatever parts that make no sense without any aversion. 


TLDR: Our minds are seldom at peace. Peace means having lasting contentment and not being piqued by the smallest things. Yet our mind seems to know there is something peaceful beyond our mundane experiences. For this reason, our minds are always searching for a refuge.

For many years my mind searched for a refuge. Refuge means a place of safety and protection from dangers according to the Oxford dictionary. When it comes to the mind, dangers would point to non-acceptance, anger, indifference and insincerity from others. A refuge for the mind would be friendship, acceptance, love and honesty instead. The mind also seeks good repute and wealth, so that it indirectly receives respect, love, admiration and acceptance from others. Observing myself and others, I found there is not a time when our minds are not seeking refuge.

Why does the mind seek refuge?

Looking back into a faraway past, I remembered when my mind first gained consciousness of its senses.

When I was around three or four years old, I remember sitting at the threshold between the living room and the kitchen drinking a bottle of hot milk. Although I do remember glimpses of consciousness, such as being wrapped in a cloth tied to a spring attached to the ceiling. I was being bounced up and down and I think I hit my head and cried.

From the time of ‘waking up’ to the awareness of this life, I remembered being an observer to most events around me. I did not know anything except enjoying playing with the neighbours. A distinct memory of my mother crying and packing to leave home was etched in my mind as my sister tried to stop her. My sister was maybe six years old? I am three years younger than my sister, and I was at the table drinking my hot cup of milo for breakfast. I only observed and felt no emotions.

The time my mind began searching for love and safety was when my father began verbally abusing me.

He would scare me into a corner and cane me too, especially if I fell ill. I was prone to asthmatic cough and was barred from certain foods. My father’s family has a history of asthma. He scolded me because seeing a doctor would eat away his already low pay as a hawker.

My awareness of the lack of approval from my parents and their relatives was the start of the mind seeking refuge from someone or something to balance this suffering. 

Back then, academic ability was highly prized and perhaps they hoped I would do well and bring them pride but I’m not a scholar.

Other reasons for seeking refuge

I was speaking of what I perceive to be my early cause for seeking a refuge for the mind.

The truth is, the mind seeks refuge due to a host of other causes too. Causes such as boredom, loneliness, belonging, disappointment, or just do something to find meaning in life. 

If we look deeply, it seems the mind is incapable of being at rest for long. Action is primed in our system. Our entire system on earth – the weather, the animals and people are all acting upon one another so that not taking action, or not making a choice is not an option at all. Weather changes can disrupt our day, animals can cause us harm – in today’s terms, the harm comes from a virus. Even when nothing is disturbing the mind, it seeks a goal to feel secure.

Be wise about the refuge you seek

In The Noble Search Sutta (MN. 26), the Buddha talked about two types of refuge we seek. He called them the ignoble and noble search.

He said the ignoble search is someone seeking a refuge in what is birth, death, sickness, sorrow, defilement and ageing when he himself is not spared from these things. 

The objects of ignoble refuge for the mind include spouse, children, possessions such as animals, land, the house and slaves. During the time of the Buddha, most laypeople were married with children and they were either kings, farmers, merchants or slaves. Society during that time is not very much different from our time today. We still seek a sense of security in a partner, in our children, our jobs, savings, possessions and friends. 

It is not wrong to seek these things, except don’t expect them to last or be stable for a long time. They are all subject to the ravages of impermanence. What is born, will die. While alive, we inflict upon one another our defilements (greed, ill will, confusion), as what I had experienced from my parents and friends. What we possess will one day decay and become others’ belongings. It is not to despair over the lack of stability in life, but rather to know and be wise about them. Our own body and mind too are insecure things that do not last.

A noble refuge for the mind

The opposite of an ignoble refuge would be a noble refuge for the mind. In the words of the Buddha:

“Suppose that, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, I seek the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna. Suppose that, being myself subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, sickness, death, sorrow, and defilement, I seek the unageing, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nibbāna.” 

– The Buddha, MN. 26

Nibbana is the release of the mind from always wanting (craving). Not wanting something is wanting something else. The mind, in wanting, is never at peace. There is something within us that is unageing, unailing, sorrowless, birthless and deathless. As it already exists, there is no need to crave for it, but to discover it like an archaeologist digging to find a treasure.

What is outside of us, is subject to ageing, ailments, sorrows, birth and death. We crave refuge from what is outside of us because we are ignorant of the gem within us. 

Is the noble search open to lay people?

Since the permanent peace we seek is already within us, it is open to anyone who is curious, who seeks real security and stability whether one is a lay person or a monastic.

Of course, unlike a monastic, a lay person cannot devote 24 hours a day to perceive and experience this unageing, unailing, sorrowless and deathless gem in us. 

What is seen is easy for the mind to believe in its existence. What is subtle and unseen, is difficult for the mind to believe in its existence. Therefore, there are a lot more lay people than monastics. However, being a lay person does not mean we cannot put the practice into our everyday lives.

How to seek the noble refuge as a lay person?

A lay person who wants to experience the peace within learns to tread The Noble Eightfold Path. The path is the practice of reflection, cultivating virtue, tranquility and wisdom. A lay practitioner can have family, possessions and a job. 

Depending on a person’s seriousness in the practice, s/he can reduce outer activities, unnecessary speech and spend time meditating everyday. Also to be mindful of one’s actions and thoughts in daily life. To show patience and love whenever unpleasant experiences arise. Also, to learn not to cling to goals but to enjoy living each moment as it is.

It may sound like a tall order. But fortunately, the practice gets easier and more fun to do each time. We can become bored after attaining worldly skills such as computers, language and technical knowledge. But when it comes to living a virtuous, wise and calm life, there is no end to learning until one reaches lasting contentment, or what the Buddha said, Nibbana, which takes lifetimes.


Wise Steps:

  • Spend time relaxing without needing to do anything
  • To relax, intentionally tell your mind and body to let go and just breathe in and out 
  • Meditate without a goal or intention
  • Go about your daily life relaxed without a goal, being aware that goals can easily be changed so you can flow with it.
If You’re Scared Of Ghosts, Read This

If You’re Scared Of Ghosts, Read This

Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.


TLDR: Cultivating a harmless and blameless way of life gives you internal confidence in the face of fear. We can also try to practice compassion towards supernatural beings, in place of fear.

If you clicked on this article because you read the title and thought “that’s me!” – there is no shame. I feel like most people have some level of fear around the supernatural – even those who claim to believe in scientific evidence, who say they don’t believe in ghosts. Put anyone in a graveyard in the middle of the night and all rationality goes out the window!

I'm trying to get over my fear of ghosts - Meme by KnightOfCydonia :)  Memedroid


I’m nowhere near the level of Ajahn Chah who literally overcame fear itself, but I’ll try to share some of my own tips for dealing with fear of ghosts.


Sīla Protects You


When I was a kid, I was definitely afraid of ghosts.

When I told my mum this, she said something like: “If you never do anything bad, why would they need to come after you?” She always said this with such conviction and fearlessness. 


Her statement was a teaching in sīla (morality). It’s the idea that when we take care of our speech and conduct, we offer the gifts of harmlessness and fearlessness to ‘limitless numbers of beings’. In return, we gain a share in this freedom from harm and danger (see AN 8.39).


I once heard a story from my Ajahn, a monk from the Thai forest tradition, who said that one shouldn’t practice in the forest if one’s sīla is not well-kept. He told of an incident where an Ajahn brought a group of monks to stay in the forest for a few days. In the end, all the monks made it out except two who had died during the journey. When asked why this happened, the Ajahn replied that it was because they did not have good sīla.


In case you didn’t know, the Thai forest Ajahns are super hardcore. They live in deep forests with nothing material for protection, putting their lives on the line to do the practice – that’s the depth of their faith in the Buddha and his teachings. 


That may have made you go ‘sure anot’, but I resonate with it because I’ve seen the impact of practising sīla in my life. When I was younger, I had a lot of fear around the idea of supernatural beings. But I found that as I grew up and started practising Dhamma, that fear began to reduce and a sense of confidence began to grow. In situations where fear arises (e.g. alone in my apartment at night, in a dark forest on a retreat), I recollect my sīla. Knowing that I have done my best to keep my precepts well and to live a wholesome life helps to soothe that fear.

Since I consistently put in effort not to harm other beings, I have no reason to be harmed or to fear being harmed. It’s reassuring, and not in a ‘wishful thinking’ kind of way – it’s a sense of real confidence in my actions and their results.


Good Vibes Are Important


I believe that cultivating wholesomeness creates wholesome energy. OK, this may sound a bit like hippie flower child stuff but hear me out.

Have you ever been to a monastery or church and the energy there just feels serene and safe? I think it’s because the activities and intentions carried out there are peaceful and wholesome, and this translates into the energy of the place.

In 2019, I stayed at Wat Buddha Dhamma (WBD) in New South Wales for a retreat. This monastery was located deep in the forest of a national park and there were times where I felt fear walking from the meditation hall back to my hut in the dark of the night, with only my torch and the moon for some light. But I realized that this fear was all in my mind; there were probably no beings around that would harm me. That’s because I could feel that the energy of the monastery was light and wholesome, given that all activities there were aimed towards peace.

The forest at Wat Buddha Dhamma


I think wholesome energy is important because energy attracts and influences, a bit like how we attract or gravitate towards like-minded people. If one constantly aims to cultivate wholesomeness in thought, speech and conduct, this is bound to permeate one’s surroundings. A good example is a friend of mine who has had many (sometimes aggressive) encounters with ghosts throughout their life.

Recently, they noticed that since performing more acts of generosity and wholesomeness, they haven’t been visited by such beings lately.

Perhaps a good landmark example of the importance of “good vibes” can be found in the teachings of the Buddha: In the time of the Buddha, there was a group of monks who were disturbed by certain beings when they tried meditating in a particular forest. When they went to the Buddha and informed him of this, he taught them the Discourse on Loving-Kindness (Metta Sutta) for their protection.

The monks then went back to the forest, practised this instruction, and radiated thoughts of loving-kindness, so much so that the beings were subdued by this and allowed them to meditate in peace.


What are Ghosts Really?


I think movies and stories throughout human history have created a universal perception of ghosts as scary beings that pop up out of nowhere and want to kill you for some reason. But actually, what is a ghost?


The Hungry Ghost Festival is celebrated every July of the Lunar calendar in Chinese culture. It is believed that during this time, ghosts are allowed to come to earth for a visit… In my mind, the concept that ghosts wait all year to ‘come out’ only to hang around for one month and then obediently ‘go back’ to where they came from is pretty funny. I think ghosts are everywhere all the time since they’re just another type of being in one of the 31 planes of existence according to Buddhist teachings.

They are born into this lower realm because of past unwholesome deeds or the lack of wholesome deeds. They are in a state of constant deprivation, equivalent to beggars or homeless people in the human realm who need help because they don’t have enough to fend for themselves.

Based on the principle of rebirth, these beings could even be people we knew, such as departed relatives and friends, who may come to us looking for help.

If we keep this in mind, then we don’t need to be afraid – what they need from us is compassion and merit.

I have another friend who often has supernatural encounters at home. It’s come to a point where we no longer speak about these beings in a taboo or fearful way; they are like any other being in need of help. Following the Buddha’s advice, my friend makes offerings on behalf of them and shares the merit with them as an act of generosity and compassion.

The Bottom Line

If you took nothing else away from this article, just remember this: continue cultivating wholesome qualities and abandoning unwholesome qualities, and trust in the strength of that for protection.


Wise Steps:

  • Mindfully watch the fear in your body. For me, fear arises in the heart space like a sharp, cold sensation. Centring your attention on bodily sensations can help you focus on the reality of the fear rather than the narratives in your mind being fueled by it.

  • Recite the Metta Sutta and emit thoughts of loving-kindness.

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