How an Ascetic Monk overcame his fear of Ghosts

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun

Our perceptions or interpretation of external events may sometimes not be a true representation of the actual situation. All of us would have at one time or another misinterpreted the intentions of others, resulting in unnecessary ill feelings. We then feel foolish, but somewhat relieved, when we find out later about our error. This story from the autobiography of Ajahn/ Ãcariya Mun (1870 – 1949), an enlightened Buddhist monk, shows why we must always question our perceptions and not blindly and arrogantly accept all our thoughts true.

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Ãcariya Mun related the story of a dhutanga monk (ascetic monk) who inadvertently went to stay in a forest located next to a charnel ground. He arrived on foot at a certain village late one afternoon and, being unfamiliar with the area, asked the villagers where he could find a wooded area suitable for meditation. They pointed to a tract of forest, claiming it was suitable, but neglected to tell him that it was situated right on the edge of a charnel ground. They then guided him to the forest, where he passed the first night peacefully. On the following day he saw the villagers pass by carrying a corpse, which they soon cremated only a short distance from where he was staying. As he looked on, he could clearly see the burning corpse. He started to grow apprehensive the moment he saw the coffin being carried past, but he assumed that they were on their way to cremate the body somewhere else.

Still, the mere sight of the coffin caused him considerable consternation, as he thought ahead to the coming night. He was worried that the image of the coffin would haunt him after dark, making it impossible for him to sleep. As it turned out he had camped on the edge of a charnel ground, so he was obliged to watch as the corpse was burned right in front of him. This sight upset him even more, causing him severe discomfort as he contemplated the prospect of having to spend the night there. Feeling very uneasy from the first sight of the corpse passing by, the feeling gradually intensified until he was so terrified that, by nightfall, he could hardly breathe.

Once all the villagers had gone home, leaving him alone, his torment began in earnest. He could not keep his mind focused on meditation because whenever he closed his eyes to meditate, he saw a long line of ghosts moving toward him. Before long ghosts hovered around him in groups, an image which frightened him so much that all presence of mind deserted him, throwing him into a panic. His fear began in mid-afternoon, at the first sight of the corpse. By the time darkness fell all around, his fear had become so intense he was just barely able to cope.

Since ordaining as a monk, he had never experienced anything like this long struggle with visions of ghosts. At least he was mindful enough to begin reflecting: The fear, the ghosts – all of it may simply be a delusion. It is more likely that these haunting images of ghosts are creations of my own mind.

As a dhutanga monk he was expected to be steadfast and fearless when facing death, ghosts, or any other danger. So he reminded himself: People everywhere praise the fearless courage of dhutanga monks, yet here I am shamelessly afraid of ghosts. I’m acting like a total failure, as though I’ve ordained just to live in fear of ghosts and goblins without any rhyme or reason. I’m a disgrace to my fellow monks in the dhutanga tradition. I am unworthy of the admiration of people who believe we are noble warriors fearing nothing. How could I let this happen?

Having reminded himself of the noble virtues expected of a dhutanga monk, and roundly criticizing himself for failing to live up to these high standards, he resolved that he would force himself to face the fear directly from then on.

The corpse that smoldered before him on the funeral pyre being the cause of his fear, he decided to go there immediately. Putting on his robe, he started walking straight for the funeral pyre, which he saw clearly glowing in the darkness. But after a few steps his legs tensed up, and he could hardly move. His heart pounded, his body began to perspire profusely, as though exposed to the midday sun.

Seeing that this was not going to work, he quickly adjusted his tack. Starting with small, deliberate steps, he placed one foot just in front of the other, not allowing his forward motion to stop. By that time, he was relying on sheer strength of will to push his body forward. Frightened to death and shaking uncontrollably, he nevertheless kept his resolve to walk on – as though his life depended on it.

Struggling the entire way, he eventually reached the burning corpse. But instead of feeling relieved that he had achieved his objective, he felt so faint he could barely stand. About to go crazy with fear, he forced himself to look at the partially burned corpse. Then, seeing the skull burned white from long exposure to the fire, he got such a fright that he nearly fainted straightaway.

Bravely suppressing his fear, he sat down to meditate just a short distance from the burning pyre. He focused on the corpse, using it as the object of his meditation, while forcing his terrified heart to mentally recite continuously: I’m going to die – just like this corpse, there’s no need to be afraid. I’m going to die someday too – there’s no point in being afraid.

Sitting there grappling with his fear of ghosts and forcing his heart to repeat this meditation on death, he heard a strange sound just behind him – the sound of approaching footsteps! The footsteps stopped, then started again, slow and cautious as if someone were sneaking up to pounce on him from behind – or so he imagined at the time.

His fear now reaching its peak, he was poised to jump up and run away, crying “Ghosts! Help!” But he managed to control this impulse and waited, listening nervously as the footsteps slowly drew nearer then stopped a few yards away. Poised to run, he heard a strange sound – like someone chewing, loud and crunchy. This sent his imagination racing: What’s it chewing on around here? Next, it’ll be chewing on my head! This cruel, heartless ghost is sure to mean the end of me.

Unable to stand the suspense any longer, he decided to open his eyes. Should the situation look drastic, he was prepared to run for his life – a far better option than just letting some terrible ghost devour him. Escaping death now, he reasoned, will give me the chance to resume my practice later with renewed diligence, whereas I gain nothing by sacrificing my life to this ghost. With that he opened his eyes and turned to look in the direction of the chewing, crunching sounds, all set to make a dash for his life.

Peering through the darkness to catch a glimpse of the terrible ghost he had imagined, he saw instead a village dog, casually eating the scraps of food left by the villagers as offerings to the spirits as part of the local custom. It had come scrounging for something to fill its stomach, as hungry animals are wont to do; and it wasn’t the least bit interested in him sitting there.

Suddenly realizing that it was only a dog, the monk laughed at his own folly. Turning his attention to the dog, which showed no interest in him whatsoever, he thought: So! You’re the almighty specter that nearly drove me crazy. You’ve taught me the lesson of my life! At the same time, he was deeply dismayed by his own cowardice:

“Despite my determination to confront my fears like a warrior, I was thrown into a panic as soon as I heard the sound of this dog scrounging for food – a mad dhutanga monk fleeing frantically for his life! It’s a good thing I had enough mindfulness to wait that fraction of a second longer to discover the real cause of my fear. Otherwise, it would probably have driven me mad. Gosh! Am I really so grossly stupid as that? If so, do I deserve to continue wearing the yellow robes, the emblem of courage, for it denotes a disciple of the Lord Buddha, whose superior courage transcends all comparison? Being this useless, should I still walk for alms, and thus desecrate the food that the faithful offer with such respect? What can I do now to redeem myself after such a despicable display of cowardice? Surely no other disciple of the Buddha is as pathetic as I am. Just one inept disciple like myself is enough to weigh heavily on the sãsana (the teachings of the Buddha) – should there be any more, the burden would be enormous. How am I going to tackle this fear of ghosts that’s just made me look so foolish? Hurry up! Take a stand, right this minute! It is better to die now than to postpone this decision any longer. Never again can I allow this fear of ghosts to trample on my heart. This world has no place for a monk who disgraces himself and the religion he represents.”

With this self-admonition fresh in his mind, the monk made a solemn vow:

“I will not leave this place until I’ve overcome my fear of ghosts. If I have to die trying, then so be it! If I can’t defeat this fear, then I don’t deserve to continue living in such disgrace. Others might follow my bad example, becoming useless people themselves, thus further increasing the burden on the sãsana.”

So he vowed to himself that, from that moment on, he would remain in that cemetery day and night as a way of dealing sternly with his fear.

He focused on the corpse before him, comparing it with his own body, seeing that they were both composed of the same basic elements. As long as consciousness is there in the heart to hold everything together, then that person, or that animal, continues to live. But as soon as consciousness departs, the whole combination of elements begins to disintegrate, and is then referred to as a corpse.

It was clear that his notion about the dog being a ghost was shamefully absurd; so he resolved that he would never again lend any credence to thoughts of being haunted by ghosts. As this incident clearly showed, his mind simply haunted itself with ghostly apparitions, and his fear was the outcome of this self-deception. The misery he suffered arose from such faith in this delusion that a mere dog, harmlessly scrounging for food, almost became a matter of life and death.

Recalling how deluded he had been for so long, trusting the self-deceptions that his mind constantly churned out, he thought:

“Although they’ve always been at work, this is the first time they have brought me so close to catastrophe. Dhamma teaches us that saññã (cognitive perception) is the master of deception, but until now I’ve never clearly understood what that means. Only now, inhaling the stench of my own living death, do I understand its significance: My fear of ghosts is nothing more than saññã’s deceptive trickery. From now on, saññã will never again trick me as it has in the past. I must stay put here in this cemetery until the ‘master of deception’ is dead and buried, so that the specter of ghosts will not continue to haunt me in the future. Only then will I agree to leave here. Now it’s my turn to torture to death this cunning, deceitful conjurer, then cremate its stinking corpse like that fleshly corpse I’ve just seen cremated here. Dealing a decisive blow to saññã’s insidious trickery – this is the only pressing matter in my life right now.”

The monk took up this challenge with such earnest resolve that whenever saññã caused him to suspect a ghost was lurking somewhere around him, he immediately went to that spot, exposing the deception. Forgoing sleep, he kept up this vigil throughout the night, until finally saññã no longer had the strength to assert its assumptions.

In the early hours of the evening, he had been engaged in a struggle with external ghosts, in the guise of the village dog which had nearly been his undoing. Later, when he understood the situation and became conscious of his error, he turned his attention inward, battling his inner ghosts into submission. Beginning from the moment he became aware of his folly, his fear of ghosts subsided and ceased to trouble him for the rest of the night.

On subsequent nights, he remained alert, ready to confront any hint of fear using the same uncompromising stance. Eventually he transformed himself into a monk of incredible courage – in all circumstances. This whole experience had a profound and lasting impact on his spiritual development. His fear of ghosts gave rise to an outstanding lesson in Dhamma, thus converting him into a truly authentic monk.

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