The topic of demons, ghosts, and evil spirits came up recently while in conversation with some friends. The talk moved to topics like exorcism and hauntings, but everyone was surprised when I pointed out to them that our local sangha makes offerings to ghosts and spirits every Wednesday evening.

Since that revelation, I have been the butt of no few jokes, but I think it says something very important about the way of Buddhadharma that we make offerings the way we do.

While most spiritual traditions respond to hauntings, ghosts, and evil spirits in an adversarial manner by trying to cast them away, followers of the Buddha respond with compassion. I like to think that
we generalize this position and behavior to all living creatures.

In the cultural tradition of historic Buddhism, there are three “unfavorable rebirths.” Now, reincarnation is a topic for another day, but it is enough now to look at it historically. The three unfavorable rebirths are:

  • To be reborn as an animal.
  • To be reborn as a ghost (whether an hungry ghost or an angry spirit).
  • To be reborn as a denizen of hell (or demon).

In the final analysis, the problem of evil is really a problem of suffering. The three favorable rebirths are: god, celestial being, and human being. Of these, the most favorable for Awakening is human birth. Why human? Because while the three unfavorable rebirths entail too much suffering to be conducive to raising the will to Liberation, the celestial rebirths entail too little suffering to raise such intent. This is why we pray for “those who suffer - those who suffer too much and those who suffer too little.”

But, back to ghosts and evil spirits…

These are they who suffer too much. The answer, for Buddhists, is to do whatever we can to alleviate their sufferings. We make offerings, and hey, let’s be honest, shall we? Who knows whether they actually eat and drink the rice and water we offer them? But maybe it is possible that they are able to appreciate the intention.

Instead of shutting ourselves off from them, or driving them away, we work to remain open to their suffering. That is compassion, and that is what they lack both within and without.

A long time ago, a monk had a dream in which his mother visited him. She was suffering in hell. Now, the obligation to one’s parents in his society was pretty intense, and she revealed to him that she could benefit and receive some relief from his offerings and prayers. He immediately began to share this and the compassionate monks around him took up the work of trying to relieve the sufferings of spirits as surely as those of animals (through vegetarianism) and humans (through promoting the dharma and good works).

In addition, our tradition tells of the Great Earth-Store King Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha. He is also known in the Chinese tradition as the “Hell King Bodhisattva, Dixang Wang Pusa.” He made a great vow that, until the hell-realm was completely empty, he would never enter into unparalleled Awakening. He is a patron to addicts, those in prison, and… get this… children. His statues are found in Japanese playgrounds, women’s clinics, etc. He is called the “Hell King,” not because he rules Hell, but because he has compassion on all and is resolute in his intention to save even the demons.

All of this is why we keep up the practice. Do we believe in ghosts? Some do and some don’t, I’m sure. It’s not as important, in my opinion, as embracing a discipline that cultivates compassion and generosity to all living beings, especially those we so casually reject as a culture.