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!
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.
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.
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.
TLDR: ‘Right’ Effort is not always obvious. Walking the Middle Way applies – especially to our actions during the current pandemic. While it’s important to adhere to guidelines, it’s important to practice self-compassion.
In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta, the Buddha advised his son that if an action is viewed to bring harm of any sort, then it should not be done.
“If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then any bodily action of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do…”
The global pandemic is a situation where one person’s actions could harm themselves, others, or both. So it seems that the wise thing to do would be to stay home as much as possible.
Extreme #1: Going out 238423 times a week
Some people may outright ignore this advice. They may even be in denial, downplaying the dangers of the virus and thinking “aiya, I won’t get it one la”, or “I probably already got it and am immune to it already”.
When looking at the mind, it seems that the desire to go out unnecessarily comes from restlessness. Because we usually find it hard to sit with unpleasant feelings like boredom and depression, we search for distractions.
As Ajahn Jayasaro recently said, one of the most severe forms of punishment in our society is solitary confinement – putting someone in a room with nothing to stimulate the senses. The lockdowns and restrictions we are facing globally are similar but on a grander scale.
As people generally have not trained themselves to find a reliable form of happiness from within, this condition seems unbearable. So it’s understandable why people would find it challenging to adhere to guidelines.
These conditions are tough, and something we can empathise with and have compassion for.
Extreme #2: Hermit mode
Some people (*raises hand slowly*), however, veer towards the other extreme. At the beginning of the pandemic, I made it a point not to go out except when necessary – even if government restrictions allowed it. I turned into a full-fledged hermit.
When considering whether to go out, I would ask myself, “Am I doing this out of necessity or just for pleasure?” Knowing that my actions could put lives at stake, then if this came from a desire to indulge in sense pleasures, I wouldn’t really act on it.
I would miss important family gatherings like the Winter Solstice. Or when Aunty cooked her special homemade chicken noodles for the whole family. Or when a relative turned 60.
I practically never saw my friends, even though I was due for many catchups after coming back from overseas.
In Chinese culture, family, togetherness, customs and tradition are incredibly important. So what I was doing seemed pretty blasphemous.
I received remarks from my relatives like:
“Why you so long never come visit me???”
“But it’s legal what”
“Your head square square one la”
Despite all this, I stood my ground, believing that I was keeping my sīla very well. I thought people around me just couldn’t deal with being cooped up at home and were being heedless.
I called up my Dhamma friends and ranted to them, complaining that I didn’t feel understood. People didn’t bother understanding my good intentions.
I reflected that a benefit of keeping sīla is freedom from remorse. I thought to myself, in the future, I’ll feel at ease knowing that amidst all the suffering, sickness and death endured during the pandemic, I did my best not to consciously contribute to that.
That probably sounds well and good… except for the fact that I was miserable and depressed.
The Middle Way
Recently I had a series of insights that have helped me move closer to the ‘right’ effort. I realized that self-imposed isolation (on top of other things) was causing me depression and that it’s actually not a crime (literally and figuratively) to go out. As we’re social beings, we do need adequate levels of human connection, and I’ve learned that it’s especially important to me personally.
Close friends of mine know that I have a strong defilement of self-denial and borderline asceticism, which often throws me off the middle way. My behaviour during the pandemic has been a case in point.
Let’s revisit the Buddha’s advice introduced at the beginning.
This whole time, I thought I was doing the right thing because by isolating myself:
1. I’m not harming myself physically
2. I’m not harming others physically
3. I’m neither harming myself nor others physically
But I never really considered my mental health when reflecting on this. And even though I knew I was feeling depressed, I thought that it was better for me to endure that state of mind than put lives at risk.
I thought I was doing the right thing, especially when I looked to the monks as role models. Even in ordinary circumstances, my Ajahn (monastic teacher) rarely ever left the monastery unless there was a good reason (e.g. to visit sick devotees at the hospital). This sent the message that Dhamma practitioner should focus less on the external world and more on doing inner work. As long as there is food, shelter and medicine, a practitioner can remain in one place, limiting their movements and restraining the senses. This solitude is important for the practice.
Again – all well and good. If you can practice the Dhamma at that level – Great. Amazing.
But personally, I was punching above my weight. I was trying to practice like that and it was not working. I was just not at that level yet, but I was forcing this onto myself because my logical mind willed itself to do something that I was not emotionally and intuitively ready to sustain. It was an effort, but it was the wrong effort.
I’m reminded of a quote by Ajahn Chah:
“When you practice, it has to be in line with your own strength. Here you have a single cart and your ox is the size of your fist, and yet you want the cart to carry as much as a ten-wheeled truck. You see ten-wheeled trucks passing you on the road and you want to be like them. But you’re not a ten-wheeled truck. You’re just a cart.It’s sure to break down. You’re what’s called a fruit that’s ripe even before it’s half-ripe, food that’s burned even before it’s cooked.”
(In the Shape of a Circle by Ajahn Chah, translated by Ajahn Thanissaro)
So in realizing this, I tweaked my behaviour.
Now, I make a conscious effort and set aside specific times during the week to spend quality time with close friends and family.
In addition to that, I’ve also taken a gentler approach in my practice (e.g. it’s OK to be watching more Netflix), as I feel that this is just what I need at this time.
That being said though, I’m still careful not to be heedless – not to veer towards Extreme #1. I give myself a quota: two outings or gatherings a week – just enough to keep me uplifted and mentally well. I do this with the underlying intention to take care of myself, not simply out of pure, unrestrained pleasure.
I think this is ‘the middle way’ for me – although it may look different for other people.
Over the years, I’ve learned that sīla and right effort are not black and white. It’s more of a gradual training in skillfulness and understanding rather than something that you ‘get right’ or a list of ‘to do’s’ to check off. The ‘right thing’ can look different, depending on circumstances and your capacity to practice at that time. For example, the monks observe 227 rules, and some do it with great ease – but if I tried to make myself do that right now, I’d probably have a nervous breakdown.
I think what’s most important is one’s intention – knowing what our intention is when doing something, and how pure it is. You could tell yourself that you don’t have much capacity for self-restraint, so you HAVE to go out 10 times a week. But is that really true? Or are you just making excuses and being heedless? It’s therefore also very important for us to be honest and true with ourselves. Then, we can truly act with goodness in our hearts, bringing goodness to others and ourselves. I believe this is right effort.
Reflect on the middle way and ‘right effort’ for you, so that you can rest assured that you’re not being heedless and also taking care of yourself. Set up systems and take intentional actions, like setting a quota for how much you go out per week.
If you’re experiencing peer pressure from others to go out more than you’re comfortable with, practice establishing right view. Reflect wisely so as to establish goodwill and empathy in your mind. Reflect on how all beings are the owners of their actions and its results and know that your actions do matter.
Practise gentleness and self-compassion. The pandemic has shaken up the world. While we work towards cultivating an unshakeable mind amidst turbulent conditions, it’s important to have mettā as a foundation during these tough times, accepting and receiving whatever we may be going through before trying to ‘fix’ any of it.