You Know What Ghosts Are ?

Ven. Master Hua

There are many kinds of ghosts. [Chinese] people usually picture ghosts as grotesque beings with green faces and long fangs, but this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes ghosts take on human form. You may think they are people, but they are actually ghosts. If you have opened the Five Eyes, ghosts won’t be able to deceive you. Using their spiritual powers, ghosts can also transform into animals, such as pigs, cows, sheep, dogs, fish, and rabbits. They may also change into small creatures such as ants, mosquitoes, flies, sparrows, and bees. When flowers bloom in the spring, for instance, many of the bees gathering pollen are actually ghosts manifesting as bees. There are real bees as well as phony ones. The real bees are undergoing their retribution as bees in accord with their karma, while the phony ones are ghosts in transformation who go around collecting pollen and drinking nectar from the flowers. Don’t assume that all ghosts are invisible. You face them every day; you just don’t recognize them. This is like "facing Guanshiyin Bodhisattva and not recognizing him." You meet ghosts without recognizing them.

Someone is saying, "Dharma Master, I don’t believe what you’re saying." That’s okay. I don’t demand that you believe it. I’m just letting you know the principle so you won’t encounter ghosts every day without being aware of it. Someone else is thinking, "Dharma Master, I’m so scared by what you said that I won’t be able to sleep at night!" Well, if you can’t sleep, you can cultivate the the "Standing Buddha" Samadhi [developed through not sitting or lying down for 90 days and constantly reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name.]

If I tell you the truth, you certainly won’t believe me. That’s why I hardly ever speak the truth. But that doesn’t mean I lie, because lying is not permissible. We shouldn’t say too many true words, but we should never say false words. If we say too many true things, people won’t believe us.

Demons and spirits can also change into various kinds of animals. When we first moved to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in 1976, a layman brought a bunch of turtles to be set free. One of the turtles was overturned and had its legs sticking up in the air. The layman Feng Feng, who was there at the time, saw a person wearing green come to ask him for help. When he went around to check it out, he came upon the turtle on its back. So, you see, turtles also have a spiritual nature; that’s why that turtle went to Feng Feng for help. No one paid any attention to this matter for many years. This incident shows that all living beings gather with their own kind.

In studying the Shurangama Mantra, we have learned that there are all sorts of ghosts of all shapes and forms. Their appearances depend on the retribution they are undergoing. Many of the phrases in the Shurangama Mantra are the names of kings of ghosts and spirits, such as yakshas (speedy ghosts), rakshasas (fearsome ghosts), soul-guarding ghosts, corpse-guarding ghosts, pisachas (essence-eating ghosts), kumbhandas (paralysis ghosts), large-bodied ghosts, insane ghosts, stinky ghosts, putanas (foul-smelling ghosts), heat ghosts, chilly ghosts, shadowy ghosts, musical ghosts, flower-eating ghosts, fetus-eating ghosts, grease-eating ghosts, lamplight-eating ghosts, grain-eating ghosts, and so on. Their transformations are infinite and inexhaustible.

Before hearing the Shurangama Mantra explained, we didn’t know there were so many ghosts. Ghosts are even more numerous than people. When people create offenses, they fall into the realm of ghosts and cannot escape by themselves. When the Buddha was in the world, he once picked up a handful of dirt and asked his disciples, "Is there more dirt in my hand or on the ground?"

"Of course there’s much more dirt on the ground," said the disciples. "There’s very little dirt in the World Honored One’s hand."

"The number of beings who have attained a human body can be compared to the dirt in my hand," said the Buddha, "while those who have lost their human form are as numerous as the particles of dirt on the ground." What do most people become after they lose their human form? Ghosts, of course! And so there are more ghosts than people. You could never calculate their number, even with the help of a computer—unless you used the spiritual or heavenly computer.

"Since when did you invent a ‘heavenly computer’?" you ask.

I didn’t invent it; it has always existed. If you don’t believe it, go to the heavens and see for yourself. The heavenly computer doesn’t need people to type commands into it to tell it what to do. All you have to do is think about what you would like to know, and the heavenly computer will calculate the answer without the slightest mistake. It knows immediately what is on your mind. I call it ‘spiritual’ because it’s so mysteriously efficacious. However, given the incredible number of ghosts, probably even the heavenly computer wouldn’t be able to calculate their number accurately. One second after it calculated an anwer, the ghost population would already have increased by hundreds of billions. What’s more, ghosts are always unpredictably moving from the heavens to the earth and back. It’s impossible to get an accurate count of them.

Ghosts also have their ghost retinues and ghost friends. If a ghost knows where food can be found, it will invite some friends to go with him. For instance, there are flower-eating ghosts that transform into bees or butterflies and go around eating pollen and drinking nectar.

Hungry ghosts undergo the retribution of constantly being scorched by fire. Both the inside and the outside of their bodies are on fire. They are fried incessantly by internal and external fires, suffering unspeakable pain. As retribution for having had terrible tempers as people, they are burned day and night as ghosts, with no hope of respite or escape. However, if they get a little bit of nectar to eat, it will slightly relieve their burning agony. They are grateful for even one second of coolness! And so we can see that the consequences of good and evil follow us as unfailingly as a shadow follows its form. We had better be careful!

There is another variety of ghost that eats only fruit. All living beings need food to survive, and there are four ways in which beings can eat.

The Four Types of Eating

1. Eating in portions. All sentient living beings—those possessed of blood, breath, and material form—eat in portions, that is in distinct segments of time. For example, we eat breakfast in the morning, lunch at noon, and dinner in the evening. We don’t eat in the intervals between meals. Human beings and animals all eat in portions.

2. Eating by contact. These beings, which include ghosts, get full just by touching the food.

3. Eating by thought. Heavenly beings get full just by thinking about food.

4. Eating by consciousness. These beings don’t even have to think about food. The function of eating takes place in the eighth consciousness. Beings in the Heavens of the Four Stations of Emptiness eat in this way.


Animals all stay with their own kind. Birds of the same species live together in flocks, and those of other species aren’t allowed to join as guests. If outsiders come, fighting occurs. You may have seen the white cranes fighting with the eagles in the Forest of Ten Thousand Sages at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Last year, one of the white cranes was injured from fighting, or perhaps it fell from its nest. One of my young disciples, Guo Tuo, had been friends with this crane in past lives.


Maybe Guo Tuo used to be a crane in his past lives, but heard some Sutras and got to be born as a human in this life. It’s not for sure. He couldn’t bear to see his crane friend suffering, so he took it to the hospital. But the doctors couldn’t do anything to treat it, so he took it back and put it beneath the tree. Although the big crane tried to protect it, in the end it was caught by the eagle. From this we know that all living beings like to stay with their own kind and have their own retinues.

Coming back to the topic, all living beings need food to live. Take the fruits we eat for example. When they are freshly plucked from the tree, they are actually "double." An apple is not just one apple; superimposed on it is another apple. Someone says, "How come I don’t see it?" Well, if you saw it you would eat it! Of the two apples, one is a shadow, or you might call it the "nature" of the apple. By the same token, every person is not just one person. He or she has a spiritual nature that goes along with the body. However, a person’s spiritual nature is hidden inside of the body and doesn’t show up on the outside. If this spiritual nature came out, it would be eaten up by ghosts and demons.

Whatever kind of being one has transformed from, the shadow of that being still trails one. This shadow is also called "ghost soul" (people have three souls and seven spiritual faculties). For instance, if someone was a horse in his previous life, there will be the shadow of a horse following him. Had he been a mule, ox, sheep, chicken, dog, or pig in his previous life, the corresponding shadow would also remain behind him. People who have opened the five eyes can tell at a glance: "Oh! So this person was a dog in his previous life!" However, not everyone is able to open the five eyes, or else they might reveal all the problems of other people’s previous lives. It is said, "Heavenly secrets cannot be divulged!"

Fruits are not animals, for they lack blood and energy. But they are living things as well. Anything with a life has a nature. When fruit is offered to the ghosts and spirits, the ghosts and spirits eat the nature of the fruit. Ghosts don’t have to bite the fruit to eat it. They simply touch the fruit and absorb its nature, and that’s how they eat. Therefore, the fruit that has been offered to the ghosts and spirits doesn’t have much flavor left.

In the mountains around my hometown in Manchuria, there is a kind of big bear. When it eats, it doesn’t chew, but just swallows the food. There’s a type of pear that grows in the mountains called iron pellet pear, because it’s very hard. The bear simply gulps it down without chewing, and the funny thing is, it also comes out whole in their excrement, looking exactly the same as before it was swallowed. Although it is intact, it has lost its flavor, because when it passed through the chemical factory (i.e. digestive system), its essence was absorbed. Only the shape remains, not its nature. This can help us understand how the Buddhas, ghosts, and spirits eat fruit. Fruit that has been offered to the Buddhas cannot be kept very long, for it spoils quickly. The same is true of people; when they are alive, their souls stay with them. Once they die, their souls leave and their bodies decay rapidly. Fruit that has lost its essence rots quickly.

As to the four types of eating, ghosts only need to sniff or touch the food and they will have eaten. They are not like us people who have to go through the trouble of biting, chewing, and swallowing our food. Someone is wondering, "How come you know so much about these things?" I used to be a ghost, and I still remember. Ghosts eat by touching, heavenly beings eat by thinking, and beings in the Heavens of the Four Stations of Emptiness eat by consciousness.

The various karmic retributions of ghosts and spirits come about from causes and conditions. Every cause brings about a corresponding retribution. This is called, "becoming deluded, creating karma, and undergoing retribution." And so we should know that blessings will follow upon good deeds and calamities will follow upon evil deeds, just as the echo follows the sound. Whether we experience suffering or pleasure, it’s all our own doing and not caused by anyone else. If you don’t want to become a ghost, don’t create the karma of ghosts.

Today I’ll tell you something that happened in one of my previous lives when I was a ghost. If you are still interested, then in the future I can tell you about when I used to be an ant, a mosquito, a hell-being, an animal, and so on. I won’t hold back anything.

All kings of ghosts and spirits have great awesome virtue. They can slay demons, eradicate disasters, and subdue externalists. They use Dharmas of Subduing to subdue all deviant cults, ghosts, and spirits. They can subdue any being that has deviant knowledge and views, or practices deviant crafts and methods. They can inspire virtue, get rid of vice, overcome evil, and destroy demons. Evil demons are like unruly people.People who are unruly and unreasonable are the reincarnations of evil demons. No matter how well you treat them, they don’t appreciate it. Even if you sacrifice your own blood and flesh for them, they are ungrateful and insatiable. Why? Because they have been steeped in bad habits for many eons. Their habits are deeply and firmly rooted, and their bad characters are formed from being stubborn and unwilling to change.

The kings of ghosts and spirits in the Shurangama Mantra lead their respective retinues such as heavenly generals and soldiers, heavenly officials, and vajra spirits. All of them guard the ten directions, protect cultivators and help Way-places to thrive. We mentioned many different kinds of ghosts and spirits, and their respective retinues. All living beings have their own "souls". Dogs have dog souls; cats have cat souls. Large beings and small beings all have their souls. Although people are afraid of ghosts, there isn’t any real separation between people and ghosts. Ghosts live in the yin realm, while people live in yang realm. However, yin and yang are basically one entity. There’s no difference and no line of demarcation. Ghosts have heavy greed, anger, and stupidity. In comparison, people have more precepts, samadhi, and wisdom. Therefore, ghosts are masses of yin energy, while the energy of people and animals allows them to assume physical forms. Why do they have physical forms? They have all kinds of attachments, so they crawl into into the cage of five skandhas and can’t escape from the realms of form, feeling, thinking, formations, and consciousness. The net of the five skandhas covers up our own nature, just as dark clouds cover up the sun. Yin and yang are basically one substance, separated only by the "clouds" of the five skandhas. People are trapped by the array of the five skandhas, and ghosts are also entangled by the dense forest of the five skandhas, so they bob up and down in the sea of karma, being born and dying over and over again. They are born human, but at death they turn into ghosts. However, with cultivation they need not become ghosts. If they are successful in cultivation, they can become Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or attain the fruition of Arhatship.

If one upholds five precepts and cultivates the ten good deeds, one can be reborn in the heavens and become a god. The five precepts are no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no taking of toxicants. Not killing is compassion. Not stealing is righteousness. One who doesn’t commit sexual misconduct is a person of propriety. One who never lies is trustworthy. One who abstains from intoxicants will not be crazy and confused. People who kill receive the retribution of being short-lived and suffering many misfortunes in their next life. People who steal receive the retribution of a life of poverty and hardship. People who commit sexual misconduct may be reborn as sparrows or pigeons.

Birds like to go off into wild flights of fancy. This is the manifestation of the karmic retribution of people who committed adultery and injured their virtue in their previous lives. I always teach you about this, but some people still don’t pay attention. So, I’m taking the trouble to repeat it once again: Don’t kill! All living beings from countless eons in the past have been my parents, friends, and relatives. My parents from previous lives committed offenses and thus fell and were reborn as pigs, horses, cows, and sheep. If you kill animals at will, you are just indirectly killing your parents.

Stealing: It’s said, "Don’t do to others what you don’t wish to have done to yourself." If you don’t desire to have your wealth robbed or stolen, then first of all you shouldn’t steal others’ property.

Sexual misconduct: In terms of causes and effects, sexual misconduct is the most serious offense. It’s punishment is the most severe. If a married couple gets divorced and each one remarries, then according to the law of cause and effect, their bodies will be cut in half after they die. This is because when they were alive, they had two relationships. So after they die, their karmic retribution manifests. A huge saw slices people in half from head to toe. Their bodies are sawed into as many pieces as the number of offenses they committed. If they were married a hundred times, they are sawed into a hundred pieces, so each of their former partners can have a tiny share of them. What’s so bad about being divided into pieces? If the soul becomes fragmented like that, it’s very difficult to make it whole again. Probably those people won’t regain a human body again for billions of eons. When their nature is split and their souls are incomplete, they become dull and insentient, like plants. When their inherent nature is scattered, it’s hard to become a sentient being again. Even if they became a sentient being, they might be a mosquito. But one human body can transform into 84,000 mosquitoes, and it’s not easy to get all those mosquitoes back into one being. Most of the time, mosquitoes are reborn as mosquitoes. So they bob up and down in the cycle of birth and death, not understanding how to turn away from the dust and unite with enlightenment, or how to renounce confusion and return to the proper. It’s said, "Once the human body is lost, it cannot be regained in ten thousand eons." If you truly understand this principle, how could you not be afraid?


A talk given on February 5, 1981

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