Your Questions, My Answers ~ THE
PHANTOM OF THE TEMPLE
"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?"
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
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
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
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.