Saturday, October 31, 2009

Buddhism, Halloween, and Ghosts

Seven Jaini and Ashley Wells (Wisdom Quarterly)
Jackolantern with brilliant Buddha carving (

Buddhists certainly have ghost stories. These restless or "hungry ghosts" (pretas) have an entire section of the ancient texts devoted to them called the Petavatthu. These ghost stories (a counterpart to stories of celestial planes called the Vimanavatthu) tell tales of karma and its result. They will be recognizable to the Western as rewards and punishments for well and ill done deeds.
A peta is a person who has been reborn on the ghost plane, an unfortunate subhuman destination. Ghosts are not technically "disembodied"; they have subtle bodies varying in transparency and density. While they may be creepy, grieving, and clingy, they are not generally "evil." They are hungry and desperate. This is because when they died, they were very confused as happens when the death is untimely, unfair, sudden, or violent. Furthermore, excessive attachment to relationships or property leads to rebirth on a plane not far removed from this one. They are not adapting to the loss. Most significantly, violating one or more of the Five Precepts is karma (action) that, if it ripens at death, leads to an unfortunate rebirth.

Mara on the "Day of the Dead," LA 2007

Rather than coping with what has been lost, hungry ghosts are clinging to the past. Much like humans who live as hungry ghosts, they find themselves stuck in spite of wishing to move on to a better state. Grasping at and clinging to lost treasure, a lost loved one, or unfinished business keeps them stuck, no longer human but lingering here. The Buddha found the Indian term peta (Sanskrit, preta) appropriate. For although hungry ghosts have departed, they linger and loiter around the perimeter of houses, outside the walls, at thresholds, gates, and doorposts waiting. They are neither fully in the human world nor completely separated from it. Yet, while they lack the karma to participate in it, they can be helped by humans.

Japanese depiction of a wretched "hungry ghost" with a large empty belly, naked, thirsty, voracious, and miserable (

How to Help the Departed
The danger of making contact with ghosts is that they are very needy and clingy, even parasitic. To interact with them is somewhat like feeding a cat and expecting it to go away afterwards. To help, as for example to benefit lost relatives one misses and worries about, an offering may be made in their name. This skillful karma is the doer's alone. However, if the ghost approves and applauds the act, that very act of approval is a mental deed that benefits the doer, that is to say, the ghost.

If the deed is very good -- such as giving to the Sangha or feeding and clothing many people -- the approving, lauding, and praising of it will be very profitable, very karmically beneficial. It is as simple as exclaiming "Well done!" ("Saddhu!") In some cases, such approval will be enough to immediately liberate them from their miserable state. In any case, it will certainly benefit the doer. It even has the potential to profit other unseen beings (such as devas) who, aware of the wholesome deed, make the mental karma of approving of it. This is why Buddhist ceremonies and group meditations end with the "sharing of merits." It gives other beings the opportunity to share in the good karma. Far from costing those who share merit, it compounds the benefits.

Profitable karma -- specifically, keeping the Five Precepts -- ripens either in the human or lower celestial planes. Unskillful deeds that come to fruition do so in the animal, ghost, titan, and unspeakably woeful destinations. Hungry ghosts do not come from planes we would call "hell" (naraka) nor are they "demons." They can nevertheless be unpleasant, "unclean," upset poltergeists, who are noisy, disruptive, and terrifying. While potentially more active around Halloween, their activity depends on human activity. (Not only ghosts, but inimical earthbound devas -- corresponding to wood nymphs, faeries, elemental spirits, and entities in Western lore -- may not necessarily want humans interrupting their sporting ways, celebrations, and play).

That having been said, for the most part exonerating ghosts, there are malevolent beings:

  • Ogres/beasts (yakkhas)
  • Reptilians/serpents (nagas)
  • Dwarfs/gnomes (kumbandas)
  • "Killers"/demons (maras; Scandinavian, Mares)
  • Titans (asuras or former devas, "angels" who were cast out of the Tavatimsa celestial world or "heaven," whose general antagonism is towards the remaining devas and their king-of-kings Sakka rather than humans).

Whereas later schools often simplify Buddhist cosmology down to six worlds (depicted in this Tibetan thangka), the Buddha in fact detailed 31 Planes of Existence.

That all of this echoes Christian themes is in no way an accident or coincidence; these ancient Eastern mythologies may very well be the root of the descriptions found in European lore. Greek culture and mythology, which marks the beginning of "Western" civilization, was strongly influenced by its contact with India (see Bactria). And all of the mythological and hybrid creatures mentioned in Buddhist cosmology are pre-Buddhist Indian legends.

In Buddhism the difference (and this is a central yet woefully neglected point that non-meditating scholars fail to appreciate) is that this pantheon of "mythological" creatures is verifiable. The same is true of entities in Buddhist physics and psychology (Abhidharma), such as:

How? With the power of jhana one turns attention toward them and the unseen becomes visible. Because these things are so far removed from normal awareness, however, they are hard to believe in. Therefore many scholars and most Western Buddhists choose to regard all such things as quaint myths and philosophical speculations rather than real and literal things that can be known directly.

Pagans and Pegabus observe solstices and other pre-Christian celebrations like All Hallow's Eve (AP).

Anyone who refuses to believe in "ghosts" and hair raising things that go bump in the night might consider visiting a farm house, a haunted house, or weakening one's natural defenses by consuming sugar from artificially colored goop to commercial chocolate to alcohol. If one wishes to be frightened at Halloween, there are unseen beings to frighten one. But sugar, which is visible and ubiquitous, cripples the body, weakens the aura around it, and exposes the subtle bodies and fields, making one susceptible to all manner of harm. While the immune system is knocked out for hours at a time whenever sugar is ingested, it seems Halloween calls for inordinate consumption of candy and spirits.

Asia has Obon, a tradition of expressing filial piety by remembering the dead. Similarly, Latin America observes a holiday called the Day of the Dead. It is wonderful that North America has at least one night a year to acknowledge death, darkness, and discomfort. So step out of the comfort zone and address what's in the closet. It's not likely to be nearly as scary as it is while it rattles around in there ignored.

On the other hand, (attention Goths) anyone morbidly obsessed with sadness, suffering, loss, or pessimism would do well to avoid wallowing in negativity for a day to dress up as a bright faerie, a loving bodhisattva, or even a repugnant Teletubby.

Halloween has become an all-American celebration expressing our:
  • fetishes
  • anxieties
  • impulses
  • shadows
  • trickiness (when we don't get treats)
  • obsession with celebrity
  • fear of disease and death

But Halloween is actually nothing more than the eve before the ancient Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos, November 1st). It may be nothing more than a chance to vent and grapple with issues most of us would rather not deal with but which impinge on our consciousness anyway:
  • war
  • crime
  • sex symbols
  • social transgressions
  • wild revelry
Not coincidentally, these five all-American obsessions correspond to Buddhism's Five Precepts we otherwise live by when we refrain from:
  1. killing (even under the banner of war)
  2. stealing (defrauding people and institutions)
  3. sexually misconducting ourselves
  4. lying/slandering/perjuring or speaking harshly/divisively/idly
  5. intoxicants that abuse the body and lead to negligence
Halloween has morphed from a childish pastime to a sexy and psychologically significant adult event. So play dress up and pretend. Don a costume of whatever you dream or dread you might become -- and get out there. This is the best soon-to-be-holiday on the calendar next to Vesak, which is still the coolest.

Frightening landscape in of the Great Waste, a euphemism for the many woeful but impermanent planes of existence beneath the human realm.