Today is Halloween, and here’s the chilling secret: Buddhism loves ghosts. And not just the hungry kind. Demons, spirits, and other supramundane creatures abound in the Buddhist canon, and they continue to play a role in the lives of many Buddhist practitioners today.
To some skeptics, all those ghoulish beings are just psychological tropes, mere projections of an unenlightened mind. But like any good teacher, the things that go bump in the night have a way of upending our notions about what we hold to be real and unreal.
So, fill your oryoki bowls with mini Milky Ways, and descend into the hellish and haunted realms, with these four articles from our archives that highlight the mysterious roles that monsters, specters, ghosts, and zombies played in Buddhist traditions throughout history. For the easily frightened, we also include a selection of articles about overcoming fear through meditation and Buddhist teachings. Happy Halloween!
Buddhist Halloween Horrors
- The Monsters of Buddhism—Inside and Out by Julia Hirsch
An abridged guide to Buddhist monsters and the lessons they hold about the possibility of transformation—such as the child-eating Kishimojin, who eventually purifies her karma and becomes the Buddha-endorsed guardian deity of mothers and children. Alternatively, a horror movie with a happy ending.
- How to Watch a Thai Ghost Movie by May Cat
A Thai cinephile writes about the karma-fueled haunting of the 2009 Thai horror flick Novice. A young man ordains as a novice monk, but is tormented by the misdeeds of his past. In the end, the monk gets his due, and the hungry ghosts doom him to life as one of their own.
- Ghosts, Gods, and the Denizens of Hell by Donald Lopez, Jr.
Buddhist studies scholar Donald Lopez provides an introduction to the six realms—including the less than desirable sectors of existence. “There are eight hot hells and eight cold hells, four neighboring hells, and a number of trifling hells,” he writes, reminding us that even though human existence is tough, it’s still the best (and only) shot we have at freedom from samsara.
- Treasury of Lives: Halloween Edition by Harry Einhorn
Tibetan cosmology is populated with interesting paranormal creatures, like deloks—people who died, visited the lower realms, and returned to warn those in the human realm about the punishments that awaited them unless they started walking an ethical path. Also in Tibetan Buddhism is a model of fear-facing Buddhist practice in the female master Machik Labron (1055–1149), who encouraged her students to do chöd, tantric practice in burial grounds and other spooky places.
- Harnessing Horror Through Meditation by Biju Sukumaran
After getting stuck on Disneyland’s Space Mountain ride as a child, Biju Sukumaran has had a phobia of heights and small spaces. Recently, he started drawing from the Buddhist practices of vipassana (insight) and Tibetan chöd meditation to face his fears of flying, horror movies, and, yes, even roller coasters.
- A Safe Container for Fear by Josh Korda
What does fear feel like in the body? Approaching feelings of unease, anxiety, and social discomfort with questions like these, Josh Korda suggests, can help untangle the web of fear we weave for ourselves.
- Facing Fear by Lama Tsony
Coming back to the focal point of meditation (the breath, posture, or a visualization) can help us practice and move through our fears, Lama Tsony writes. Taking refuge or seeking guidance from a spiritual teacher or friend offers the support we need as we explore the uncomfortable zones of our minds.
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