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Ask A Buddhist: View of Spirits

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By Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Do Buddhist schools of thought view spirit’s as a form coming from the mind consciousness or are such things only seen by an awakened mind?

In general, Buddhist cosmology holds that spirits are a type of living being, which appear in a variety of forms. They have consciousness and, as ordinary beings, are under the control of afflicted mental states and karma. As such, spirits are not imaginary; they don’t just come from the mind. They have a subtle form.

Being reborn as a spirit is considered a lower rebirth. Some spirits are helpful, having beneficial qualities, while others are harmful, showing anger and spiteful vengeance. Usually, ordinary beings cannot see or sense the presence of spirits. However, very advanced Buddhist practitioners who have developed some level of clairvoyance through concentration practice can see them.

As with many phenomena that we can’t directly perceive with our senses, a lot of superstition can be mixed in with belief in spirits. In some Asian cultures, people tend to blame things like bad luck, relationship difficulties, and even mental illness on spirits or spirit harm. However, you have to wonder if this is actually the case, or if it is the social custom in that culture to attribute difficulties to external beings.

I remember hearing one renowned teacher give advice to someone who thought she was being harmed by spirits. He suggested that she develop strong compassion for any spirit bothering her. Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering, and includes the wish to see that suffering relieved. Since compassion is a virtuous state of mind, it will benefit our own mind and will help to protect us from any harm from spirits. And if there is a mischevious spirit disturbing us, developing compassion will likely benefit the spirit, as well, through our benevolent intention and energy.

About Ven. Tenzin Tsepal

Venerable Tenzin Tsepal met Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey, in Seattle and studied Buddhism with her from 1995 to 1999. During that time, Venerable Tsepal attended the Life as a Western Buddhist Nun conference in Bodhgaya, India in 1996 as a lay supporter. An interest in ordination surfaced after she completed a three-month meditation retreat in 1998. She lived in India for two years while continuing to explore monastic life. In 2001, she received sramanerika (novice) ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

While Venerable Tsepal was in India, some Australians friends introduced her to the 5 year Buddhist Studies Program at Chenrezig Institute (CI) north of Brisbane, Queensland, where she subsequently lived and engaged in intensive residential study from 2002-2015. As the Western Teacher at CI, she tutored weekend teachings and retreats, and taught the Discovering Buddhism courses.

Prior to ordaining, Venerable Tsepal completed a degree in Dental Hygiene, and then pursued graduate school in hospital administration at the University of Washington. Not finding happiness in 60 hour work weeks, she was self-employed for 10 years as a Reiki teacher and practitioner.

Now a member of the resident community at Sravasti Abbey, Venerable Tsepal is compiling and editing the many years of Venerable Chodron’s teachings on monastic training as well as leading a review on the Buddhist philosophical tenets for the residents.

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