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597Of Ghosts & Other Unseen Beings

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  • NamoAmituofo
    Mar 16, 2005

      Of Ghosts & Other Unseen Beings

      Is the "Festival of Hungry Ghosts" a Buddhist custom?

      Usually, this above-named festival refers to the traditional Chinese folk belief that all hell literally "breaks loose" with the opening of its gates during the seventh lunar month. The supposedly freed "ghosts" then take a holiday in our world, often causing supernatural mischief. Lavish celebrations are thus held to appease them. This is not a Buddhist festival. Misconcepts are also abound with regard to unseen beings in conducting this festival.

      What is the Buddhist Practice in the Seventh Month?

      Buddhists celebrate Ullambana Day, which falls on the full moon day of the seventh lunar month. It is a day of making various offerings to the Sangha (community of monks and nuns)and dedicating the accumulated merits to our parents. A day of joyous merit-making, it is essentially a practice of thanksgiving to the Sangha for their spiritual guidance and filial piety to our parents. On this day, offerings of food, robes and other necessities are made to the Sangha, as we remember gratitude to them and our parents.

      What is the Origin of the Practice of Ullambana?

      Mogallana ("Mu Jian Lian" in Chinese), the Buddha's disciple foremost in psychic ability, was surverying the world, looking for his deceased mother to repay her kindness, when to his dismay, he found her as a hungry ghost. Due to her strong negative karma, she could not eat any offerings. 

      Mogallana asked the Buddha for help, and was advised that merits greater than Mogallana's alone was needed to help her. He taught him to make extensive offerings on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month to the Sangha, who customarily gather on that day after three months of rains retreat, to report to the Buddha on their spiritual progress. This day is called "Pravarana Day". It is on this day that the Buddha greatly rejoices in the myriad merits and attainments of His many disciples.

      Making offerings to them during this rare congregation thus creates a vast field of merits, which can be dedicated to our past parents of seven lives and our present parents for their welfare. As a result of Mogallana's offering, his mother was released from her unfortunate state, and attained a better rebirth. 

      What Kinds of "Ghosts" are There? 

      There are actually four main categories of unfortunate unseen beings - hell-beings, hungry ghosts, wandering spirits and "beings in the bardo state". Much confusion arise from mixing them up.

      What are Hell-Beings? 
      The realm of hell is distinctly different from the realm of hungry ghosts. Hell is a realm of constant suffering due to the fruition of extremely negative karma created in one's past life. Hell-beings do not get "holidays", just as those imprisoned in jail for heavy crimes do not get freedom from the "big house" till their sentence has been fully served. With only acute suffering, there is no release for hell-beings until the negative karma for "deserving hell" is "burnt up." The beings in hell are referred to as "hell-beings"; they are not hungry ghosts or any other unseen beings. The hell realm also exists in a plane of existence different from ours. Hell-beings thus cannot be seen by humans unless under psychic conditions.

      What are Hungry Ghosts?

      Hungry ghosts, wandering spirits and "beings in the bardo state", share the same world as us, even though they are relatively rarely seen. Hungry ghosts are phantom-like beings tormented by the terrible inner emptiness of unfulfilled craving. This condition, caused by their intense greed and/or stinginess in the past, is exemplfied by their constant physcial hunger and thirst for what they might not be able to consume. Many of them have long thin and raw throats that gives rise to burning sensations during swallowing. Their bloated empty bellies are a result of inability to digest or be "fulfilled". Their ghost-like appearance represents their attachment to the past.

      Examples of humans who exhibit the mind-state of hungry ghosts are misers who amass wealth selfishly, drug addicts who live only to crave for their next fix, and starving third world children. Actual hungry ghosts are seldom seen by most humans due to vastly differences on the "spectrum of karma".

      What are Bardo-Beings? 

      When one passes away, one might take on an intermediate state of being between one life and the next called the "bardo state" for up to 49 days (or 7 weeks). Beings in the bardo state are not technically considered ghosts, though they are often collectively considered so. They also do not take on a human form, existing in the form of shape-shifting energy. Likewise, these beings are also seldom seen by most humans.

      What are Wandering Spirits? 

      Usually, the ghosts that most ghost stories refer to are "wandering spirits". T
      hey are the ones more readily seen in real-life ghostly encounters. "Beings in the bardo state" who are stongly attached to their previous life do not take rebirth even after the 49 days, and end up as wandering spirits with their last human form. They wander because they are homeless and existentially out of place. However, they still have the opportunity for better rebirths when they relinquish their attachment, which is usually out of love for ones left behind, or the thought of exacting vengeance on enemies still alive. Usually, it is the latter who "give trouble". All other unseen beings are generally harmless and not evil, as most exist in states so unfortunate that they are unlikely to think of stiring trouble for humans.

      Do Ghostly Disturbances Increase in the Seventh Month?

      Though there are no agreed statistics which answer this question, we can imagine how it might be true. Think of a football stadium filled with fans excited over a match. It is natural that during such an occasion of mass congregation, riots might occur due to some ugly aspects of human nature. Likewise, when humans create occasions for the congregation of hungry ghosts (and wandering spirits, who might join in), it is natural that there might be more "disturbances". Even so, they are generally harmless. What's more, they are actually already around us now.
      What Should We Do When We Encounter a Ghost?

      There is no need to have fear when we encounter an unseen being. Stay calm, radiate loving-kindness and wish him/her well. In fact, strong loving-kindness is your best defence against any malevolent being. When an angry spirit senses your sincere compassion, it will tend to calm down and not harm you. You can create merits by chanting and dedicating merits to the being for his/her well-being, to urge him/her to let go of his/her attachments and take a good rebirth, especially in the safe sanctuary of Amitabha Buddha's Pureland, where he/she can directly learn the Buddha's teachings and practise them, steadily leading towards liberation in Enlightenment.

      The simplest practice is simply to continually chant "Namo Amituofo" (Homage to Amitabha Buddha), and wishing the being to do likewise single-mindedly. This is because Amitabha Buddha vowed that any being who is able to be continuously mindful of Him can be received by Him for birth in His Pureland. When uncertain or unconfident, it is best to consult a trained Sangha member
      to assist in relieving the being of his/her suffering. 

      Happy Ullambana, Father's & Teacher's Day

      With the approach of Ullambana Day, Father's Day and Teacher's Day, may we, on these days, as on every other day, conceive a heart of gratitude to our parents and teachers for the blessings of love they shower upon us. Mindful of how our parents are our first teachers of our worldly life, and how our teachers are the parents of our spiritual life, may our parents live spiritually fulfilling lives, and may our teachers live long and benefit many. Just as we had been reborn countless times, we have had countless mothers and fathers. May we then see all beings to be as precious as our mothers and fathers. May all beings be well and happy.

      -Shen Shi'an