Hungry Ghost Nation
There is a story that I have heard which probably falls more into the category of legend rather than literal truth, yet still haunts me and seems to explain a great deal about the world we inhabit.
The story goes that during World War II, Japanese soldiers attacked a Daoist Temple in southern China. The site was most likely Dragon-Tiger mountain in Nanning, famous for being the area where Zhang Daoling, the founder of religious Daoism established himself. During the attacks, the Japanese soldiers were said to have broken open a series of jars and bottles which the Daoist priests on the mountain tried valiantly to protect. Inside, the jars were apparently empty, but the Daoists on the mountain looked at the soldiers with a mixture of dread and resignation on their faces in reponse to the deed. Little did the Japanese soldiers realized that these vessels contained Demon Spirits that Daoist priests had trapped over centuries to free humanity from their influence. Later, the priests saw the horrors of World War II and the Cultural Revolution as a result of these negative spirits walking amongst us again.
While this story can be easily dismissed by a modern audience as superstitious nonsense, we live at a very odd moment in history regarding these kinds of stories. For instance, take the simple idea that there are invisible beings that have a profound influence on our lives and that we are meant to have a relationship with such beings. This is an idea that for the vast majority of people through the vast majority of time was seen as true and was a fundamental part of their existence. The Daoist priests mentioned above are just a specific Chinese example of sucha belief.
Looking beyond cultural manifestations of this concept, such as the categories of ghosts, angels, fairies, demons, immortals, or gods, we find that a belief in entities that for the most part we do not see is widespread. It is only a recent product of a rationalist, materialistic worldview that intimates that these beliefs are not only untrue but are also unsophisticated, primitive, and actually a sign of inferiority. Yet even now, in the twenty-first century in modern America, belief in ghosts, angels, fairies, devils, and gods still hangs on. Just check out any bookstore and you will actually find whole areas of the store devoted to this topic.
When exploring the topic of Daoism, the indigenous religion of China, one comes cross some perplexing features of the system that seem contradictory to outsiders. For instance, one of the foundational texts of Daoism, the Daodejing, emphasizes the concept of wuwei or effortless action and the legendary author of the text, Laozi (literally, "the old master") is seen as an embodiement of wuwei. Yet, Daoshi (literally Daoist Teachers or Daoist Masters), the inheritors of both Laozi's and Zhang Daoling's legacy, spent at least some of their time collecting what they believed were powerful demon spirits and trapping them in spirit bottles. It is this paradoxical aspect of Daoism that seems to both repel and attract westerners. I know that it has certainly shaped my experience of Daoism.
Almost everyone I've ever met who has actual read the Daodejing (even really, really bad translations) has been profoundly struck by what it is trying to get across. I recently met a young man, who had been at a Christian university in the south finishing a biblical studies degree, who read the Daodejing in his final year of study. It moved him to such a degree that he left the program and went to China to study martial arts and Daoist meditation.
Yet, how does one reconcile the depth of Laozi with the popular depiction of Daoist priests as sword-wielding, ghost-exorcising, demon hunters as seen in contemporary movie such as Chinese Ghost Story and The Bride With White Hair? Why does America seem to want to embrace the wisdom of the Daodejing and Laozi but is afraid of Zhang Daoling and his demon-quelling, exorcist descendants? I think it's because what Zhang Daoling has to say is a little too scary for most Americans to hear.
For instance, there is a strong and ancient belief in many cultures that as we move through our lives on any specific day we are touched by the presence of many unseen spiritual entities. This is readily a part of Daoist beliefs both ancient and current. Ghosts of the dead wander amongst us. Gods may descend in broad daylight and offer healing, salvation, or teachings. Immortals live in the moutains or hidden in plain sight in the local village offering alchemical teachings to those who are willing to look past simple appearances. These are just a few examples.
In fact, Daoism holds that not only are we surrounded by spirits, but we as human beings are actually a composite of many different spiritual parts. One example of this construct is the seven parts of the Po or corporeal soul, said to dwell in the lungs. The Po is the yin pair of the three different Hun or yang spiritual souls that dwell in the liver. These two are said to separate at death with the Hun ascending to the heavens and the Po descending to the earth. If a person dies violently or prematurely, the Po may become a hungry ghost wandering around bothering the living. And this is just the beginning of the concept of the poly-soul of Daoism.
There is also the shen which dwells in the heart. The shen means either spirit or spirits and is associated with the heavens and often means god or goddess. In the body it refers to the aspect of consicousness connected to the heart. However, sometimes a human's shen is spoken of as having five parts: the aforementioned Hun and Po, as well as the shen of the heart, the yi or intellect/intent of the spleen and pancreas, and the zhi or willpower of the kidneys. It's a wonder that we have any room inside for all of these spirits.
To complicate matters further, in the Maoshan tradition of Daoism, also known as Shangqing Daoism, which is a major influence on the Daozang or Daoist Cannon, there are common meditation techniques to call down into the body over a dozen deities to protect the body from death and illness (See Isabelle Robinet). In fact, this whole tradition is characterised by this kind of calling specific deities into the body both for meditation purposes and as an important part of Daoist ceremony or ritual. And what is one of the main purposes of these meditations and rituals? To protect the practitioner and his or her community from all of the ghosts, demons, and untamed spiritis that roam the world around us.
How is it that the world is so full of spirits? One simple explanation is that everything has a spirit. Therefore, if we simply open up our senses we realized that there is a spirit of the forest, of our house, of the ancestors, of our car, etc. This worldview is often condescendingly called animism by scholars, especially if it comes from an indigenous culture. Simply understood, everything around us, including what we consider to be inanimate, actually has a spirit that can be perceived and communicated with under certain circumstances or by people with those capabilties. Again, while this is a worldview that causes rational materialists to writhe in their seats, it is something that the majority of the world's people have believed through the majority of world history, and if you think that worlview is dying just check out the New Age section of any bookstore.
We are surrounded by many different realms, some of which we might consider heavenly and others more like hells. The barriers between our world and these other worlds are a lot thinner than we might suppose. Immortals may step from the lands of the Queen Mother of the West or the Purple Heaven and appear to a lucky mortal to grant a boon or wish. Or, conversely, Ghost Kings of the land of the dead may grab unsuspecting mortals who stray outside at the wrong time. Similar beliefs pervade Tibetan Buddhism, Medieval Catholicism, and Native North American traditions, though all of them have their own unique terminology and cultural categories (i.e., saints, angels, and devils).
Finally, we come to the dead. According to Daoist soul cosmology, at the time of death, what normally happens is the Hun and the Po separate. The Hun ascends to the heavenly realms and the Po descends into the earth and eventually falls apart. However, other things can happen. For instance, in the case of certain kinds of immortals, the Hun and the Po actually merge at death producing a spiritual body for the immortal to continue existence. Or, if the death is sudden, violent, or tragic, a ghost is produced. These ghosts wander existence perpetually hungry, feeding off our qi or life-force. Depending on who you ask, they are either extremely dangerous and detrimental to humans or more of an irritation and minor hazard. Every year, Daoshi or Daoist Priests, are supposed to conduct a ceremony to help these wandering, hungry ghosts be appeased. The ghosts are ritually fed and then a gate is opened to allow them to move on to a better place. These kinds of ceremonies are still carried out in Taiwan today.
As a modern-day explorer of Daoism living in America, what I found so fascinating about these ideas is that they are way off the radar screen for almost everybody living in this country. This is considered superstitious nonesense of the highest degree, but what if this basic belief of Daoism, of a world full of spirits, is not only possible but is actually completely true?
What I find extra compelling about these ideas is that Daoism is far from being the only tradition that suggests that these kinds of ceremonies of removing ghosts and placing spirit beings back where they belong is a vital aspect of a complete spiritual system. For instance, I've not only had the opportunity to study with Daoist teachers living in America, I have had the great fortune to study with Native North American teachers who carry on powerful lineages of traditional ceremony.
One such teacher (who will remain anonymous and who has passed on to the spirit world himself), taught that one of the primary purposed of the Lakota inipi ceremony (sweat lodge) and chanupa ceremony is to clear away all of the common spirits or trapped ghosts! In fact, regular inipis were considered very important to clear up the spiritual well-being of the participants and help beneficial spirits descend (for the duration of the ceremony) to the site of the ceremony in order to rid the land of ghosts and to place negative spirits in their correct place. Futhermore, I have had two other teachers from other Native American traditions say very similar things, though their specific cultural teachings were different. Basically, they also said that we are in danger of being exposed to ghosts and negative spirits, but they had different ways of clearing these things away. One of the main ways was the burning of aromatic herbs including cedar, juniper, and sage.
There are some startling results that come from these ideas. If ghosts and other negative spiritual entities tend to accumulate over time due to untimely deaths, war, violence, and so forth, and they tend to be attracted to and feed on humans, and we are no longer performing rituals or ceremonies that appease these restless dead spirits and demon-like forces, where does that leave us?
Some of the same teachers from whom I learned about the aspects of Native North American ceremony and Daoist ritual that pertained to releasing trapped spirits and ghosts will in private with close students openly talk about how we live in a world full of hungry ghosts. These are the unappeased dead and other spirits attracted to violence and greed and destruction. Not to mention all of the pissed off spirits of the natural world whose realms have been so ruthlessly torn apart. Not only do we live in a world of hungry ghosts, we are a Hungry Ghost Nation.
When I say Hungry Ghost Nation, there is a mutiplicity of meanings implied. One, as suggested above, is the idea that we are continually walking through a world filled with the unappeased dead, upset nature spirits, and generally dark-intended spirits who feed on us, especially on our negative emotions. Another aspect of being a Hungry Ghost Nation is that we are literally turned into Hungry Ghosts by our very culture and civilization. What better epitaph for a culture where we consume a third of the world's resources (food, oil, material goods) and yet have less than a tenth of the population? How can we not be a Hungry Ghost Nation when everyone is overworked and continually stimulated by electronic goods and no one is comfortable being alone? Finally, perhaps the most chilling aspect of this idea is the combination of the two. There is an old Daoist belief that perpetually exhausting oneself through improper management of our qi or vital energy through overwork, too much sex, constant stimulation, or addiction opens us up to the possibility of being posessed by hungry ghosts or malevolent spirits.
While it may seem as if we've crossed over into the fictional realm of a movie or novel for some readers, I would ask them to consider the following ideas which support the above suppositions.
As a practitioner of Chinsese medicine in modern America, I am faced with the clash of cultural paradigms all the time. This is further complicated by the fact that the form of Chinese medicine we our taught in American Chinese medical schools often very purposively leaves out any older aspects of the medicine that could hint at superstitious or religious beliefs. This is due primarily to the influence of the Communist and cultural revolutions and the influence of the Western scientific paradigm.
However, Chinese medicine is full of examples of famous doctors who wrote classics in the field that are full of exorcistic prescriptions for clearing dead or evil spirits out of their possessed patients. Sun si-miao and Hua To, two of the most famous Chinese physicians of all time, both included this kind of remedy in their works. While it might be easy to dismiss these writings as part of an older paradigm, the problem is that these kinds of remedies are still being used today. And they still work.
I'll give an example. Sun si-miao developed a formula of acupunture points known as the Ghost Points. For the most part, this is a combination of regular acupuncture points used on the body that are given special "ghost names" and then combined together. The names seem to refer to the kind of "ghost illness" they treat, such as the name of "Ghost tongue" or "Ghost Path". There are also a couple of additional points on the underside of the tongue that are included in the traditional list of the thirteen Ghost Points. In many references here in the West, the Ghost Points are dismissed as being traditionally used to treat epilepsy or mania, or simply to calm a person down.
Here's a couple of stories that dismiss that vast oversimplification: a patient in China was showing up to work everyday covered in dirt and mud and looking as if he had been in a street fight. When asked about what had happened, the patient wouldn't say what happened. After this had occurred regularly for some time, co-workers and family members became quite concerned, and so some family members followed him to work one day to see what was happening. It just so happened that this patient happened to pass a graveyard every day on his way to work. As he passed the graveyard, the family members (who were watching from a distance), saw him suddenly start to violently attack the air around him. He was swinging his arms and kicking and punching at something that was "not there." He ended by running past the graveyard and heading to work. Later, the family confronted the patient and found out that every day he was indeed seeing ghosts who attacked him outside the graveyard.
After seeing this happen, the family members did not take the patient to see a Chinese psychiatrist. Nor did they take him to a Western-style M.D. Rather, they took him to what to them was a perfectly accepted norm: a Chinese medical doctor. There is a long tradition of doctors of Chinese medicine being able to handle this kind of problem (and there is a serious lack of practicing Daoists in China these days thanks to the cultural revolution).
The doctor they took the patient to listened to the story, took the patient's pulse, looked at the patient's tongue (a traditional diagnostic technique), and then proceeded to give the patient an acupuncture treatment by using Sun si-miao's ghost points. After one treatment with the ghost points, the ghosts went away. The patient continued work at the same place, walked the same route, and never was bothered by ghosts again. The practitioner who saw this patient is a very famous doctor who practices in Seattle today and has been on the faculty of two major Chinese medical schools in this country.
Now, it is a very strong and reasonable argument to say that this man who had this experience is centered in a very specific cultural paradigm. This paradigm includes the efficacy of Chinese medicine, as well as possibly stories or legends about ghosts that might produce the above situation. A discerning reader might argue that the story's effect is lessened due to the differences in culture between modern China and modern America. What relevance has this story really to those of us who live here in America, in the 21st century?
Well, I think I have a pretty good response. It's another story. While I was practicing Chinese medicine in Tucson, Arizona, an acquaintance of mine decided to see me for some acupuncture. It is always a little awkward to have friends or acquaintances come and see you for medical issues as there are challenges around privacy and creating a space in which the friend-now-patient can truly be at ease and answer some intense personal questions. What complicated this situation further is that this particular young woman clearly had some pretty serious mental health issues. Modern psychiatry might have diagnosed her with moderate to severe anxiety and in Chinese medicine she clearly suffered from what we call Shen or spirit disturbance. The patient had come in for help with some eating issues and with lack of energy. She basically ate very little food except chocolate.
Now, on a side note, anyone who has weird appetites and doesn't eat regular meals or has very strange cravings, in a traditional Chinese medical paradigm, is considered pretty unhealthy and in the world of Sun si-miao and Hua To may be suffering from a serious spiritual issue. She sometimes ate almost a pound of chocolate a day, but she didn't seem to make a connection between what she ate and her lack of energy. The other thing that was very clear to anybody who spent some time talking with the patient was that she was not mentally clear at all. She could not really stay focused on the conversation and her eyes would often look off in a strange direction.
During her initial visit, we talked quite a bit about diet and about her rather traumatic medical history. Finally, I took her pulse and looked at her tongue and put together a treatment plan. The acupuncture point prescription I came up with actually contained a few of the ghost-points. This wasn't intentional on my part. It was just happenstance.
I placed the needles in as gently as I could and left the patient to rest. I came back and adjusted the needles a few times, and the treament lasted somewhere between 20-30 minutes. After the treatment was done, I went it to check on the patient.
She looked quite puzzled as I asked her how she was doing. Then she related the following:
"It was really, really weird. I saw this face of this old man floating on the ceiling. He was looking down at me and he was really mean looking! He kept yelling at me and saying mean things to me. I realized he had been inside me for a long time saying mean things to me. Then he just started to fade away and his face disappeared."
I wasn't sure what to say, but I tried to reassure the patient that this was probably a positive thing. Later, she came back for a few more treatments. After the first treatment, her appetite had completely changed. She was able to eat more regularly and had more energy. Eventually, she was unable to continue treatments due to financial and time constraints.
Now, since she was an acquaintance, I did see her once in a while after the treatments. She still seemed to have quite a bit of anxiety, but several people that we both knew seemed to recognize that something quiet profound had shifted for the patient. It was a lot easier to have a conversation with the her, and I noticed she no longer looked away in random directions while talking.
So, what does this all mean to the reader? It's hard to say. I am reminded of a series of chants that are performed morning and night in Daoist monasteries even to this day. These eight poems or songs are designed to protect the practitioner from spiritual harms caused by the kinds of scenarios described above. They have names like "Purify the Heart-Mind Spiritual Invocation," "Puirfy the Mouth Spiritual Invocation," "Purify Heaven and Earth and Release the Unclean Invocation," and "Golden Light Spiritual Invocation." One effect of consitently chanting these texts is that everything returns to its proper place. The dead stay amongst the dead. The negative spirits are contained. The spirits of earth and heaven become properly aligned. The majestic spirits of the eight directions surround and protect the adept. While the chanting of these invocation has important benefits for the chanter, the benefits brought to the community and the rest of the world may be even more important.
It seems to me that in our current age, while there is great value in the deep wisdom of Laozi's Daodejing or the quirky philosophy of Zhuangzi, perhaps what we really need to is the power of the Zhang Daoling's exorcistic talismans, the ancient power of the Ghost points, and the psycho-spiritual alignment that results from the eight spiritual chants. Until we can really embrace this side of Daoism, I'm not sure there can really be Daoism in America.
Image by dckf_$êr@pH!nX, courtesy of Creative Commons license.