UNIVERSAL DHARMA

Your Questions, My Answers ~ THE PHANTOM OF THE TEMPLE

QUESTION:

"I’m rather ashamed to admit it, but all my life I’ve been afraid of ghosts. I know it’s irrational, but until now, I dare not sleep alone. It is a problem that I would like to resolve. Are there really ghosts, and can they harm us?"

ANSWER:

Although few people in urban society today would admit to believing in ghosts—or at least, to being scared of them—this class of beings continues to fascinate us. More horror movies are churned out today than ever, and many of them are ridiculous in the extreme, but it does indicate a big demand. Is it because daily life is so dull and boring that people turn to the fantastic and horrific for entertainment? Or is it because the veneer of our civilization is very thin, and we have not shaken off the fears and superstitions of our primitive past? I must confess that when I was a teenager, I used to enjoy such movies, too, but now I marvel that I ever did so; is this evidence of my evolution?

How strange we are! We seem to take a perverse delight in being scared, as if the painful realities of life are not already enough for us! Does this imply a streak of masochism in us? There are many things in our minds that we know little of!

At times, during a talk, I ask people if they believe in ghosts or not, and many answer ‘Yes’. When I ask those who say ‘No’ if they would go with me to a cemetery at night, however, there are visible shudders and refusals, which shows that, in spite of their stated disbelief, they actually do believe in ghosts! We cannot disbelieve something unless we first believe it!

Then I go further, and ask those who do believe if they have ever seen a ghost. Almost no-one says ‘Yes’. "So," I continue, "if you’ve never seen a ghost, why do you believe? From where did you get your ideas about ghosts? Probably, when you were young, someone said things like: ‘Don’t go outside at night; the ghosts will get you!’ Thus, the idea of ghosts was implanted in your minds at a very early age, and will probably stay there—subconsciously, at least—until you die, even though you might never see a ghost! Not only this, but you might also transmit your fearful beliefs to others!"

How peculiar it is; we are the victims of fear, and surely do not feel good about it, but think nothing of scaring others in the same way, instead of helping them avoid things that we ourselves found unpleasant! It is thoughtless and stupid to scare little children with talk of ghosts and bogey men! They need to be educated to understand and see things clearly, instead of being indoctrinated with baseless fears and cruel superstitions.

Children are very impressionable; I was no exception. While my elder brother took delight in scaring me, my father was a wonderful yarn spinner, and I loved to listen to his tales, especially at a time when we did not yet have a TV set. I recall him telling my younger brother and I about the time he ‘killed a gorgon’ (a gorgon was a monster of Greek mythology, with a tangled mass of writhing snakes instead of hair, at the sight of whose horrible visage people were turned to stone; but at that time, I imagined a gorgon to be some kind of fearsome dragon or dinosaur). A few days later, in school, the teacher spoke about heroes, and began by asking the class: "Who knows what a hero is?" Proudly, and without hesitation, I raised my hand and said: "I know! My dad’s a hero! He killed a gorgon!" The teacher was tactful, and the other kids in the class were just as naïve and impressionable as me, so no-one laughed, and I was left with my illusion intact for a while.

I’m not saying there are no ghosts, but wish to illustrate here how we come by our beliefs, fears and superstitions from others, and adopt them as our own without question (which is the same way that most people get their religion. It was so—note the past tense, please—in my own case).

I was born in a haunted house, so it was easy for my elder brother to terrify me with ghost talk. I was scared of the dark, and of the disembodied footsteps that could at times be heard climbing the stairs and going from room-to-room when there was no-one there to make them; this happened in broad daylight as well as at night, and our dogs and cats would react visibly to it. One night, when I was lying in bed with the light out, suddenly, in the open doorway, something appeared. Whether it was male or female, young, middle-aged or old, I couldn’t tell, but it was man-sized, man-shaped and like smoke —that is, it had no distinct outline or features. Other than that, I remember nothing, as I became petrified, unable to move, speak, or cry out. Whether the specter—for such I am convinced it was—was threatening or not, I cannot say, nor for how long it remained there, for I was not aware of time in that condition.

This was my first encounter with a ghost, and the only time—as far as I know—that I’ve seen one (although I suspect that ghosts do not always appear as we imagine them to be). Some years before my sighting—so she told me later—one of my sisters, in the same room, too, had heard those ominous footsteps coming up the stairs and turning towards her room; but when the thing entered, she had the presence of mind to cover herself with the bedclothes, hardly daring to breathe. After what seemed like an age, when nothing dreadful happened to her, she slowly drew back the clothes and peeped out, and it had gone.

I lived in that house for 18 years and saw it only once, though I heard it many times. The previous tenant had died there, and he was reputed to have been a miser; maybe it was his ghost; I don’t know.

Later, when I began to travel, I had to confront my fear of ghosts and the dark, because over the years, I have stayed in quite a few eerie places, and seem to have some sensitivity about places with an ‘atmosphere’.

I once spent several months in a temple in Malaysia which was reputedly haunted, although I didn’t know this when I first went to stay there; but at that stage of my life, I was not worried about having to stay all alone in the colonial era mansion-turned-temple, which was locked up, from the outside, when people went home at night. There were all kinds of noises, of course, like the creaking of timbers contracting from the drop in temperature, birds, bats, mice and other things that could not be identified. One night, however, there was a knock on the door of my upstairs room, and someone called my name, twice. Now, I knew there was no-one else in the building, but got up and opened the door anyway. No-one/nothing there. Perhaps it could be said I had been dreaming or imagining things, but the same thing happened on another occasion when two monks from Sri Lanka were staying there. One was awoken by a knock on his door and someone calling his name. "Yes?" he said. No answer. He got up and opened the door, but there was no-one there, so he crossed the hallway and knocked on his friend’s door. "Yes?", his friend said, "What do you want?" "What do I want?", said the first, "What do you want? Why did you knock on my door and call me?" "I didn’t", said the second. The mystery remained, and some people said it was the ghost of an old woman who had died there many years before, and who seemed to be ‘stuck’ in the place.

Yes, this is how I see it. Some people are so attached to things—family, house, possessions—that when they die, their spirit, ghost, consciousness—call it what you will—gets stuck and unable to go further. A similar thing also seems to occur in cases of people who die—or are killed—suddenly and unexpectedly: they don’t realize they are dead but think they are still alive. There are numerous cases of people being resuscitated and brought back to life after being declared clinically dead, indicating that the spirit or consciousness of the ‘deceased’ can see and hear things on this side, but cannot be seen or heard except by people with clairvoyant ability. Thus, it must be a most miserable and frustrating condition. The Tibetans recognize this. When someone dies, they carry the body out of the house to the cemetery, and say things like: "Don’t come back! We don’t want you here anymore! You must go on with your journey!" This is not from lack of affection for the dead person, but, on the contrary, because they love him/her, and are concerned about his continued welfare, not wanting him to get stuck here. They feel that, to show grief or affection towards the deceased would encourage the spirit to remain near, and get stuck in limbo—not here and not there, as it were.

Christian art has vividly depicted ghosts and demons as ferocious enemies of Man. The Temptation of St. Anthony—a desert hermit of the 4th century—was a favorite theme of Renaissance artists, who painted him surrounded by and pinned beneath nightmarish figures. Satan, the Devil, was shown as a malicious, goat like personage, with horns, cloven hoofs and a long, pointed tail; people spoke about being ‘tempted by the Devil’ (many still do). But surely, a figure like that would terrify instead of tempt or persuade! People are tempted, persuaded and seduced by the pleasant and alluring, not by the terrifying, which is why it is so hard to resist! We want pleasure and beauty, not pain or ugliness, and our desires lead us astray.

Buddhist art has portrayed Sakyamuni beneath the Tree of Awakening surrounded by the demon army of Mara, the Evil One, but many Buddhists see Mara as the personification of evil instead of an actual person. The appearance of these phantasms is looked upon as the ‘last ditch stand’ of Sakyamuni’s ego before his attainment of Buddha hood. Christ’s temptation in the wilderness could be viewed in a similar way.

To conclude: Personally, and according to my several experiences with ghosts (there were others besides those I have told of above), I feel that they come to us not with the intention to harm us, but in search of help; theirs is a fearful condition, and there is no need for us to be afraid of them. If we understand this, as our fear decreases, our capacity to help them increases. Now, in what way might we be of assistance to such ‘hung up’ spirits? Obviously, our food, money and clothes are of no use to them, but our compassion and positive thinking might be, just like a caring parent might comfort and reassure a young child who has just awoken from a bad dream in the night; it means a great deal to the child to have someone near who cares.

Thus, turn your fear around. It is not necessary to get rid of your belief about ghosts—you couldn’t do so anyway, because the more you were to try, the more you would believe. But, by understanding, you could learn to think of ghosts in a different way, and might possibly be of some assistance to some of them. Try looking at it this way, and see what happens. It could make a lot of difference.

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