– what they might be and how to relate to them
I have a view about what a ghost might be. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I have developed a way of looking at ghosts, spirits and such things that seems to work both in my own mind and in relating to people to come to me to ask advise or help with their ghost experiences – these are a common thing for a forest monk to be asked about, especially by Asian Buddhists. This view of mine is not so easy to grasp so I do not always explicitly share this view, rather I relate to people’s stories based upon the view.
My view is based on the Buddhist view of dependent origination, of a particular view of causality which sees a relationship that goes both ways between consciousness and the world. In this context I would put the view like this: just as people remember a place, a place can remember a person, in the form of a ghost. This ghost will arise whenever the conditions in that place are similar to when the person was there. It is as though someone or something is partially arising again – not in material form but as an image. Other aspects of an event from the past may re-arise also. So to me ghosts represent evidence of some kind of memory there in the more subtle fabric of the world. This view seems to be substantiated by the fact that ghosts appear in the same places at the same times and often repeating the same acts over and over. There is also the possibility of a more refined species of spirit arising within the mind rather than in a material place. These, I would believe, are a manifestation of the minds of people not attached to the material world, of the mind of samādhi.
Let us try to refine this view further: Memory here is also not seen here as consisting of some kind of stored material or information representing a continuity of existence. Because it can be that our understanding of what a memory is means that we try to conceive of some kind of store consciousness or spiritual realm. Then, if this realm cannot be found, we dismiss the possibility of some different kind of memory and of ghosts at the same time. However, if we can understand memory instead as the re-arising of a phenomenon (either fully or partially) when the conditions come together to cause that phenomena. It can also be just a perception or partial perception that is recurring, a glimpse of something.
This different understanding of memory underpins my ‘memory view’ on ghosts. We see how they arise and cease based on conditions rather than having a continuous existence. The difficulty comes in distinguishing a ghost of this kind from simply our imagination. Because such a ghost is so close in its nature to an imagined ghost, this discrimination can go so far as to need two people to see the same ghost at the same time (which is not so uncommon). A good meditator with a very calm mind can also see the difference because they know that while their mind is calm it is not creating or imagining anything and can judge this to some degree in others. Hence one role of meditating monastics is in advising people on their experiences in this domain.
Such a ghost theory as this is not an alternative to the idea of life after death but rather a way of talking about what life after death might be that does not presuppose the survival of a being or self. We may also see rebirth not as the survival of an entity but as something re-arising in another being’s mind in some other way. This may be as a perception, memory or thought as we may commonly understand it – simply remembering someone who has died. Or perhaps this can occur in another way through some other kind of memory or realization in the case of the ghost.
So here we have a way of seeing and understanding ghosts that does not create a self in what we see. This will also be the way of seeing that is natural to someone who has through meditation abandoned the illusion of self. Philosophically this view is not supernatural nor materialist but between the two. As a practical approach this view seems to succeed in acknowledging and relating to our experiences of ghosts or the experiences of others without making too much out of them. In particular such a view does not induce a sense of being continuously haunted or physically vulnerable to a ghost which is perceived as having a material or energetic existence. It can be the case that, with an incorrect view, we can invest ghosts with more power over us than they really have, just in the same way we might empower our dreams or imagination, or even our negative emotions, through the unconscious action of our own minds.
Remembering all the stories I have been told over the years, I feel sure that Asian people will tend to believe too much in ghosts, often interpreting experiences in their own minds as ghosts, making them real (and getting very scared). Western people tend to be the opposite, reluctant to believe in ghosts they will interpret their experience as psychological. The perspective I have explained here can offer a middle way to these two extremes, not making the ghosts too real, not dismissing them either.
Perhaps most interestingly – when we begin to see ghosts as a kind of memory we can begin to see our memories, in particular our traumas, as a kind of ghost. We can see memories as having a bit of a life of their own and the potential of relating to them afresh in the present moment. When memories and ghosts come together in this way in the same sphere of our experience, we need not initially try to discriminate between them (a reaction we can have that can end up paralyzing our ability to respond) but instead look for a skillful response.
I offer this for your reflection
Looking around, I can think that a lot of people practising yoga are first of all out to stay healthy. I don't see anything wrong with this, as far as it goes. This I see as simply benevolence and I can have a lot of muditā (sympathetic joy) for the health and well-being of Yoga practitioners. It can be a shame, although, to not take the practice a bit deeper and add the meditation to it – where you can be as benevolent to your minds as you are already being to your bodies. It is also the case that problems can arise if we attach to being healthy – we are simply very unhappy when we get sick. The wisdom of the Buddha's teaching, brought alive through meditation, can help us to prevent this attachment without limiting our enjoyment in the moment.
So let us consider how Yoga fits with Buddhist practice philosophy. Yoga was already a highly developed science in the Vedantic tradition at the time of the Buddha. As I understand, the Buddha incorporated the meditation practices of the yogis into his own practice and teaching. Within Buddhism we can see the physical practices of Yoga as a preparation for the meditation and as representing an overall discipline of benevolence in relation to the body, the body being the first,mfundamental, foundation of mindfulness.
So the Buddha is encouraging us to meditate and explore our bodies with a calm, benevolent and accepting mind. In doing so, we discover that there are many ways in which the body and mind are woven together, so we find this also yields methods to gain emotional and psychological benefits. In particular there is the awareness of the breathing cycle. Here, on the simplest level, there is the possibility of a physical means for breaking cycles of stress. Stress tends to push the respiratory process into chronic overdrive. We can learn to arrest these patterns and reset our body's alarm systems. Combined with stretching we can also release the chronic muscle tension associated with stress. Furthermore we can greatly enhance our awarenessof our bodies, particularly in relation to posture. We can avoid the physical problems associated with poor posture and introduce a positive poise and grace to our lives that can take our hearts and minds in a similarly upright direction. Mindfulness of the body, if it thus becomes continuous, provides the ideal basis for the skill of mindfulness as a way of life – there is a lot of evidence for the value of this in preventing mental problems such as anxiety and depression.
We can discover that our attitude towards our own body is formative of so much or our mental and emotional life, of our view of ourselves and others. Not only is a healthy body in many ways a healthy mind, but a healthy view of the body is also in many ways a healthy mind. In this respect the Buddha also teaches us to recognise and then both accept and see beyond the limitations of the body in a way that these limitations need not dampen a positive attitude to life. It can be important to realise that the sickness of the body is not necessarily a source of suffering in life if we have the right attitude, one formed by the correct view of the body and our relationship to it.
On the deeper and more subtle level, through meditation we can learn to deeply energise the body and mind. This is associated with the deeper benefits of long-term meditation practice – the possibility of the peaceful and blissful mind states of samādhi, which come with heightened awareness of the body and breath together. These can transform our lives –we will never be the same again. If you have not experienced such things yourself it is well worth meeting people who have experienced them, to learn to know these people: they are likely to be the happiest people you have ever met. Yet these states of mind are only experienced by those whose Yoga represents a broad and dedicated spiritual path, including the keeping of moral precepts – only then can our mindfulness be clear enough to go this deep. Being part of a spiritual community is of enormous help in establishing and maintaining this kind of dedication. If we have discussed so far principally the place of Yoga in Buddhist practice, this is perhaps the most important place for Buddhism within the practise of Yoga.
I offer this for your reflection
When I became an anagārika I had taken a sabbatical from my research PhD in psychology at Southampton University to spend a year at Chithurst monastery. All my work colleagues thought I was crazy, my career was really taking off. I had spent seven years training first as a psychologist and then added on physiotherapy with the aim of doing research in the area of neurological rehabilitation.
Yet, all along my personal agenda, as a practising Buddhist, was to develop my contemplation of body and mind. I was not really sure what to expect from monastic life but for the first few weeks it was just good to give my brain a rest and do the simple work of cooking and driving and so on.
Then one night, out of the blue, I had an extremely lucid dream which was to change the course of my life. I dreamt that I was rushing around the wards at the hospital, as I had been for so many years – but instead of patients in the beds there were just organs. In one bed a liver, in another lungs, in another a pile of intestines. I had no idea what to do. The situation seemed completely hopeless.
I just kept running around saying to myself,
“What am I going to do, what am I going to do?”
When I woke up I sat up in bed and my first thought was,
“Oh no, all that work!”
I realised that my hospital career was at an end, and here I am still in a monastery twenty-five years later with no thoughts of going back. Looking back I can think that perhaps the taste of freedom, of letting go, I had experienced a few years before after a trip to the morgue had gone deeper than I had thought.
How would it be if someone gave you a big bag of bones and told you that your job would be to carry them around for your whole life? What about if, on top of that, you had to be very careful not to break one. This does not make life in the body sound too good does it? Actually having a body, if you really pay attention, is at times a very humbling thing to have. The innocent honesty of children in relation to the body can be a lovely light reminder also of how embarrassing the body can be.
And yet looking after the body with mindfulness can be just like looking after another person’s body – except that we can directly feel what is happening.
In developing such mindfulness it can be enormously valuable to nurse others. When we look after another person’s body the absence of direct feeling can show us the bodily predicament very clearly and make caring for another a deeply contemplative experience. We can reflect on what it is like to have a body without the feeling element that tends to affect the mind so much one way or the other. We get a very neutral sense of the body as distinct from feeling. This can really help the mind to calm down over the bodily experience yet, of course, we are concerned for the feelings of the other person at the same time. We are concerned for feeling but not directly effected by it.
This can also mirror the ideal in terms of our relationship to our own bodies, training us to care in a calm and peaceful way.
Also, from such a calm perspective, we can find that looking after another person and looking after their body can be two very different experiences that we shift between. This helps us to see the mind and the body as two different things although they are dependent on each other. This deepens our sense of a healthy, caring detachment where we can look after ourselves or others with compassion but without suffering.
Dreams are thought and feeling generating images in the absence of sense input. Normally you have the present moment mind watching the past/future stream of consciousness. This is action being informed of past result. In dreams there is no present moment mind, just this stream moving from past to future.
There is no action, only result.
In order to yield insight the mind has to get beyond thought. This can be purely through the meditation process or we can also use other skilful means to train our minds towards this goal. Two ways of taking the mind toward silence are through contemplative poetry or art. To appreciate certain poetry one has to read or listen quietly, in a way that does not analyse the words but allows the mind to form a picture. Art of a more abstract nature is similar – we look with an attention that is not too tight nor too loose. A mind that is relaxed and open, yet attentive, allowing an impression to form.
This ability to allow a picture to form in the mind based upon sense impressions is part of the insight process. There is also a degree of sense or sensual restraint, a composure of the senses, that does not get into detail, grasping or fondling or criticising. It is a way we can begin to open the mind. This is a refined aesthetics rather than a coarse level of appreciation. In my opinion, however, such refined aesthetics can get us stuck. It is looking for the best of both worlds – the sublime form and the space – not realising the greater pleasure and purity in the completely open and free mind and heart, which is at one with space.
Our next step in this direction is to recognise through mindfulness that beauty is not just in the object, it is literally in the heart and eye of the beholder (mindfulness is therefore also a natural creator of art or poetry). In fact the appreciation of the mind itself can give a stronger impression than the object. In this way we find a source of enjoyment at least semi-independent of the sense world. There is a kind of refined sensuality to do with light and space where the line begins to blur between the light of the world and the brightness of the mind, for example. This becomes like heaven. If we can see heaven on earth in this way, it is like the gradual path where the Buddha teaches us to see the advantages of the refined heavenly realms as a way to let go of coarser, worldly sense pleasures.
This lightness of touch prepares us for the experience of entering samādhi through contemplating the suffering of the world. Here the experience of the emergence of the mind itself overwhelms us as we further let go of our attachment. This is a very different kind of pleasure, the bliss of the mind opening rather than sensually grasping or fondling.
I offer this for your reflection.
It was February, 2012. It had been a cold winter that year to be on retreat. I had been meditating a lot and exercising as well to keep myself going. Then one day I heard that there was a funeral approaching in the monastery and the body had arrived and was laid to rest in the temple. As was my usual practice I went to see and to practice mettā meditation for the deceased. When I arrived I realized that I had met the man a few times. He was well known as an exercise fanatic, there were pictures of him in local newspapers on display were he was doing various extreme things for charity and so on.
There had been, I had heard, some strange events since his death. Apparently the Buddha figure in his home where his body had previously been had mysteriously fallen from the shrine and broken. The same had then happened in the temple. I also knew that he had had a slow and difficult passing with some awful neurological condition. My mind came to wonder whether this man had lost faith through all that and then found some way to show it after he had died.
I returned to my hut in the forest to continue practising and for a moment felt despondent. I thought of all the exercise I was doing and of the dead man and found myself thinking, with a big sigh, “Oh, what’s the use.” After all the meditation and contemplation of the body and death I had been engaged in over the last months, something in me immediately found that thought funny, but as soon as I smiled at myself a massive wave of bliss took over my mind completely. My body was filled with light and an unbelievable rapture. This ecstatic feeling lasted a few minutes, I think, I am not sure and then I had a very clear vision of my teacher, Ajahn Anan, smiling very broadly. Then I surprised myself with another thought, “I wonder if that means he feels like that all the time.”
Two years later I was in Thailand and finally had the chance to ask Ajahn Anan about this experience. I wanted to know if he really did feel like that all the time. He said yes. I was and am still completely amazed by that. He then leant forward and with an extremely penetrating look in his eyes he said,
“Kalyano, that’s the highest.” From that time to this I have kept returning my mind to that. This is a difficult practice, I need all the encouragement I can get.
March 20, 2014
This teaching was originally offered during the inauguration ceremony of The Hope Cathedral in Fredrikstad, Norway.
I am a forest monk living a very simple meditative life in the forest in Norway. This life very much deepens my relationship to nature. In Buddhism we develop our awareness through meditation and allow nature to teach us. Many Norwegians have said to me that their time in nature is almost a spiritual experience. I don’t know what they mean with ‘almost’ – through deep contact with nature we develop spiritual qualities in the mind. Ultimately, if it goes deep enough, this can lead us to spiritual enlightenment, where our mind enters into a very stable, natural state. For this reason Buddhism is full of practices to help us connect more with nature and develop these spiritual qualities to the full. In nature, as maybe we all know, the mind can become very calm, peaceful, humble and grateful for all that nature gives us. We can naturally develop love and respect and feel inspired to help nature. We become wise too, seeing our real place and role in the world.
To me this is a spiritual way forward for mankind that also, naturally and without pressure, leads us to behave responsibly with respect to the environment.
I offer this for your reflection
Words by Ajahn Kalyāno
Paintings by Helle Johannessen
Hearing winter call
Golden leaves fall
Into a heaven of the heart
A heaven not apart
Here on the ground
In heaven and above
In an above beyond words
Where sky is made of birds
And birds are made of sky
Here above a heaven
Where the heart shall learn to fly
This creation is also available as a PDF.