– 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