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: The encounters with an unseen being leads to a reflection on human nature and how we relate to other beings in Buddhist cosmology.
One Fateful Night
At barely 6.30pm, the women’s compound of Wat Boonyawad was almost pitch dark within the forest. I hastened my footsteps after finishing walking meditation near the main gate – tempo accelerando. There was no one else. In that solitude, I wished someone was with me — just not the unseen sort, whatever it wanted with me.
My torch was barely strong enough to see beyond one metre from my feet. Leaves crunched beneath me, like in The Slender Man.
Near my kuti (small practitioner’s hut) after I had washed my feet, leaves rustled and a breezy presence weaved through the surrounding forest. Yet, my skin pricked with heat. Panicking, I ran up the steps to the door.
Meeting the Ghost of my Mind
I fumbled for the key, with the torch gripped in between my teeth. Jaws tightened. The fear of being caught up by a menacing force crescendoed as each attempt to slot the key into the lock pad failed. Mosquitoes hummed impatiently beside my ears. Quick. Quick.
Finally, the lock turned and I slammed the door tightly behind me. All that hooting and howling from the forest grew claustrophobic; their sources unbeknownst to me. The forest has its ways to play tricks on the mind. This meditation retreat was my first ever to stay alone in a forest hut within a Thai monastery. So much unknown to fear for.
The relief of getting into the kuti (meditation hut) did not last, I hurried to the little altar to light up the candles, the heart-throbbing at my throat.
Buddha, help me. Bow. Dhamma, help me. Bow. Ajahns, help me. Bow. The candles flickered in the twilight.
I inched my way to unwind the huge windows for ventilation; my eyes averting the ominous world outside. What if a ghastly face stared back at me? At that thought, my hair stood on its ends as a chill ran down the spine. Spinning out of the sensation, I plunged to the floor into a half-lotus position for sitting meditation.
Buddho buddho buddho.
When hyperventilation evolved into a smoother and more refined breath, I saw clearly all that fear about ghosts was merely the sensitive mind misdirecting its alertness. I believed in ghosts’ presence within Buddhist cosmology.
At that time, I also assumed their nature to seek me out in avenging my past karmic misdeeds and sucking my energy dry with evil trances.
That such a hateful encounter was bound to happen kept my heart from sinking into the peace. It wasn’t the forest that was playing tricks. My defiled mind was the culprit puppeteer, pulling strings on a ghost puppet.
The First Encounter
No, I would not let that made-up ghost rob me of the peace that can develop from retreating thousands of miles away from home. The fear mis-manufactured from baseless perceptions and thoughts can stay. But I did not wish to indulge its willfulness, despite not understanding it fully.
With that determination to set aside fear, the heart finally found its resting spot in even more refined breaths: a clear quiet space opened up within my mind. The candles at the altar had gone out by then. The nocturne calls of animals were distant. This was one of the rare peaceful moments in the retreat, truly. A deep state of focus, tranquil, alert.
Soon, a face showed itself in my mind’s eyes. No vengeful entrance — gradual, weightless.
Just a head dripping in blood, rotten flesh, long hair; her round bloodshot eyes stared into me. The body trailed off. A very… sorry plight; nothing threatening.
I couldn’t explain how I knew this presence to be true but I did. The fear that I experienced earlier did not arise again. No goosebumps. No chills. I steadied the mind on the being, looking right back. I did not wish her away, neither did she seem to want to go away. Not yet.
Here, memories of reading Mae Chee Kaew’s biography where she communicated to ghosts using her heart surfaced within my mind. I was definitely not Mae Chee Kaew, but maybe I could try communicating to the ghost too.
What do you need from me? What is helpful for you?
Share merits. You have been practising the Dhamma.
I will wish you well. Hope you can receive them.
Eyes shut tight still. My heart turned inwards further and channel whatever wholesome bits it could find towards the being in front:
May you receive all the blessings from the goodness I had cultivated since the start of my life. May you have the merits you need for a fortunate rebirth. May you seek safety and refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. May you be free from all sorts of suffering in the future. May you be well and happy.
These phrases repeated in my mind like a playlist on loop, religiously as if my life–her life–depended on them. The sphere of goodwill (metta) radiated outwards to imbue her presence within it. Not long after a few cycles, the unseen being took her leave –gently, gradually, lightly–much like how she appeared but with more ease. The meditation came to an end too.
Do I know you? I wanted to ask but I didn’t. A sense of familiarity lingered, although I could not quite put a finger to it.
Moonlight shone through the canopy; their piercing beams reflected off the forest floor, lighting up the pitch dark from before. I took three candles outside, keen to place them along the earthen path for walking meditation. Finally, I was brave enough to venture out after nightfall. Before this night, moonlit walking meditation was completely unfathomable.
Affinity Knows no Boundaries
In my subsequent stays at various forest monasteries, trips to Kuala Lumpur, even at home, when I was alone in meditation and there were particular still moments of clarity at night, unseen beings of similar profiles would appear in my meditation. Each time, they asked for merits. Each time, I tried to maintain my compassion to share merits. Afterwards, they would leave quietly.
The restless mind was still afraid of the dark and jumpscares, but the fear was more manageable than the very first encounter.
These encounters were at least half a year apart so I thought that the beings were different individuals.
It was not until my India pilgrimage that I realised a trend.
Final Encounter in Pilgrimage
The hotel we stayed in at Vesali was haunted. According to Thai Forest Venerable Luang Por Piak, tens of thousands of hungry ghosts hung around the hotel. At the worst of my cough, I felt nauseous on the first night, after returning from a day of breakdowns. A Thai female doctor with the tour suggested treating me with acupuncture, which I desperately accepted. Anything to get me out of that bodily hell.
Moments after the acupuncture began, I slipped into unconsciousness while I was trying very much to be mindful of the needles. Soon, I fainted on my bed.
That night, I woke to a persistent furious hammering on the windows. Calling out to my Thai roommate from my crippling fear of angry ghosts, I hid under the covers, still weak from earlier. She went up to check the curtains and found monkeys. Nothing to be afraid of. Go back to sleep. How? I could barely feel safe.
On the second evening in Vesali, a second acupuncture session occurred in another hotel room, in which its inhabitants complained of paranormal activities from the night before. Despite the crowd receiving treatment, I caught a waft of ‘off-energy’. While sitting in meditation at a dimly lit corner, the mind gathered into stillness.
Soon enough, a familiar image of a bloody head and wispy long black hair came into view – the same request ensued.
This time I finally recognised her although she was hovering at the corner. An insight struck: this was the very same unseen being who sought my attention at Wat Boonyawad and thereafter.
She had followed me to India! She had been following me all this while! In sharing merits, I recollected about the wholesomeness from visiting the key Buddhist holy sites thus far and wished her to rejoice in the rare occasions arising from that pilgrimage. That night, I slept soundly.
At the last stop of the pilgrimage – Varanasi, my tour group disclosed that my Thai roommate (gifted with supernatural vision) had seen a ghost sitting on my bed that very night in Vesali. That was definitely goosebumps-inducing. Rounding up the trip at a final chanting session in Deer’s Park, I made a determination to dedicate all the merits from the pilgrimage to the unseen being.
Since then, she has not visited me in meditation. I would like to think that she has gathered sufficient merits to be reborn in a better place.
How Can We Live Better in this Cosmic World?
My unseen encounters left a lasting effect on my practice. They taught me to face my fear of darkness and to respect the presence of unseen beings. Now, I make a point to share merits every morning chanting and when I offer meal dana to monks. Sharing merits help to cultivate generosity in the immaterial world.
I have not mentioned the unseen encounters to my spiritual friends openly, for fear of coming across as boastful. The intention of sharing my encounters here is to help readers reflect that there are deprived states, where unseen beings exist in our cosmic world.
They exist out of their attachments and/or hatred to this material world, which they were not able to relinquish upon their death as humans.
(While I have not met malicious beings, I have heard stories of where ghosts have party hangouts in rooms for extended periods.)
Reflecting on the deprived states of ghosts, can we then work on our attachments, anger and hatred in this human life?
Perhaps, as much as I have encountered the manifestations of an unseen being, the visualization mirrored the hatred contained within my heart. Using the same Dhammic approach of awareness and acceptance, I can introspect on what the heart needs and what is beneficial for it. Then, apply the balm of loving-kindness and compassion.
To the being and myself: wherever you may be, I wish you well and hope you benefit from the Buddha’s dispensation, always.
- Casper the friendly ghost is not untrue — ghosts primarily want sharing of merits when they manifest to you.
- If you encountered ghosts as malicious, share even more merits. Done from a mind of pure generosity, offering a Sangha Dana can generate merits for unseen beings who could receive them for long-term welfare and fortunate rebirth.
- With compassion towards the deprivation ghosts exist in, we may contemplate our strong attachments and begin to let go of the hatred we experience within our hearts.