The first ghost’s tale

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 11.42.59 AM

Copyright Tang Chhin Sothy, Getty Images

The path of reincarnation is determined by the state of the conscious mind at the moment of death. This is why the dying man surrounds himself with monks, achars and proper ritual. Through these he dies with a collected mind and goes to the ‘peaceful place’, where his stay will be short and followed by rebirth good into a good family.

Pity those who die without the chance to compose their minds, the suicides who take their own life, the victims of murder and traffic accidents, women who die in childbirth, and all others like them. They are doomed to become kmouch.

Kmouch aren’t even aware that they’re dead. They stay in the world of men and come to the living in dreams, bewildered and confused, asking what’s happened to them and why they can’t continue with their lives as before. The sun freezes them, the moon burns. They become malicious, haunting the place where they died, trying to trick pregnant women into giving them rebirth, causing accidents and disasters that will bring a similar fate on the living.

The ghost is a being with a huge distended belly, a tiny mouth and a long thin throat like a straw. It is constantly hungry. It feeds on pus, blood and filth, but can swallow almost nothing, and what does get into its mouth turns to ashes and dung. This is not punishment for past sins but because it continues to cling to the world. In a metaphysical sense the ghost is hungry for the conscious mind’s stream of awareness.


Hungry ghosts at Wang Saen Suk, Thailand

The First Ghost’s Tale

The Hungry Ghost for Sandwiches is a modern story for young adults by Dawn Dim.[1] It tells of 16-year-old Davan, ‘a stubborn and lazy boy’, not fond of study and addicted to pleasure. He takes drugs, hangs around in shopping malls with his friends, and rides his motorbike fast and without a helmet. One day just before Pchum Ben, riding dangerously as usual, he has an accident and is killed.

For six days his soul whirls around looking for food, growing hungrier and hungrier. On the seventh day he returns to his house and sees his mother crying. The Guardian of Hell (the god Yama) is waiting. “Boy!” cries the Guardian. “What are you doing here? Time you went to hell!”

Davan tells the Guardian he misses his parents, and he’s hungry.

“Hungry for what?”

Because Davan is a modern boy he has modern tastes. “I want to eat sandwich! I’m dying for sandwich!”

The Guardian takes pity on Davan, who never intended to hurt anyone and was foolish rather than wicked. “Very well, I’ll let you stay on Earth and you can ask living people for food. But there is one condition: you must never seek pleasure!”

Pchum Ben begins and Davan sees his parents preparing food. He follows them to the monastery and finds the preah vihear filled with candles and incense and the smell of noodles, curries, cakes and soup, but there are no sandwiches, because nobody offers sandwiches at Pchum Ben.

Davan leaves the preah vihear and sits weeping by the boundary wall, the place where ghosts gather, remembering his happy hours at KFC and feeling sorry for himself. He thinks of the friends in life who have deserted him in death, and then of Lekhena, a kind girl who had always advised him to be good.

Davan goes to Lekhena’s house. The dogs start howling, because dogs can see ghosts, and Davan howls with them, calling Lekhena’s name.

Lekhena comes to the window. “Davan!” she cries, not realising he’s a ghost. “What are you doing here? Your clothes are ragged and you look so thin and hungry!”

Kind-hearted Lekhena takes Davan to the kitchen, where the lids fly off the pots, the refrigerator opens by itself, and a plate and spoon and fork tumble out of the cupboard and land on the table. Lekhena is oddly unperturbed and starts preparing a snack. “You can eat if you’re hungry. What do you want?”

“Sandwiches!” says Davan. “I want sandwiches!”

“I don’t have the ingredients, but I’ll prepare it for you tomorrow, just let me know what time you’ll come.”

Davan agrees to come back the next day. “Don’t forget me,” he says as he walks out the door – and Lekhena sees that he has no feet. “I’ll be back!” – and Lekhena sees a skull instead of a face.

“Kmouch! Kmouch!”

Lekhena’s mother comes running. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“It was Davan! He died two weeks ago! He came to me in a dream and told me he wants sandwiches!”

Lekhena’s mother knows what to do. “Tomorrow morning you have to prepare food and buy sandwiches. Take the food to the monks, and in the evening put the sandwiches in front of our house on a banana leaf with three incense sticks and make an act of volition to offer it to him. That’s what you must do.”

Next morning Lekhena takes the food to the monastery, where she prays for Davan and a monk ties a cotton thread around her wrist, then she goes home and offers the sandwiches and incense as her mother told her.

The ghost of Davan, fed at last, is happy and freed from his whirling. After Pchum Ben he reports to the Guardian, who takes him to hell and teaches him to give up pleasure and drugs and to study and have a good character, and in due course Davan is ready for rebirth.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Samsara: birth

An unborn baby is an old soul. A woman might dream that a man asks her if he can come to stay, or she might be visited by her dead grandmother asking to be reborn. She should generally say yes, unless she has witnessed a fatal accident recently, in which case the visitor is probably a ghost trying to be reborn before its time.

When she becomes pregnant the village midwife and elders advise her about diet, medicines, and activities. She should avoid spicy foods, as they make the baby aggressive and bad-tempered. Goose eggs will make the baby intelligent, and rice wine, herbal medicines, coconut water and beer, will all make it healthy. She should not drink milk or bathe at night, as these make for a fat baby and a difficult delivery. As a cure for morning sickness she should step over her husband, with his permission, which transfers the sickness from her to him. (For a woman to step over a man would normally be a major breach of protocol). The gender of a yet-unborn child can be predicted by standing another baby on the pregnant mother’s stomach and watching the reaction, or by the morning sickness (bad sickness predicts a boy).

Nomad RSI -

Nomad RSI – “90% of [women] give birth at home as health facilities are usually too far away, too expensive or unfriendly. Traditional midwifes, though highly regarded in their communities, are not recognized by authorities [and] are therefore denied access to training and knowledge, such as to recognize complications, and so maternal/child mortalities are far above [inter]national rates.

Most Cambodian babies are delivered at home by the village midwife, assisted by female relatives and friends – men and unmarried girls are not allowed to be present at a birth. For a period after the birth, varying from a few days to a full month, the new mother will lie on a bamboo bed with a fire constantly burning beneath her in a clay pot. This is because she is “cold”, and her heat must be restored. Drafts, which would be cooling, are excluded, and a heated tile or stone is placed on her stomach. During this period she also eats “hot” foods, which were avoided during pregnancy. A wet-nurse will feed the baby for the first three days, but after that breast-feeding is favoured as this makes the baby intelligent and strong.

Great care is taken to ensure that the baby, its mother, and the midwife, all have their full pralung (souls). Prior to the birth a popil will be turned around the pregnant mother to call the baby’s pralung, and after the birth the mother and midwife tie cotton threads to each other’s wrists and ankles to attach their own pralung to their bodies. After the baby is born the midwife will “open the eyes” and “cut the wild hair” of the newborn and call its pralung to leave the forest and enter its body, after which she will tie a cotton thread with a gold ring to one wrist and a plain thread to the other – again, this is to tie the pralung to the body. After this is done the proper offerings will be made to the ancestor-spirits and the child can be given its name.

Nigel Dickson, - Yu Sokna and her baby undergoing

Copyright Nigel Dickinson, (for his website click on the image) – “Yu Sokna and her baby undergoing “Ang Pleung” – Postpartum heating procedure: After giving birth a woman is carried by her husband to a wood or bamboo bed under which a fire has been built. The women has a bag of ice on her navel. Meanwhile a Traditional Healer or Birth Attendant recites Buddhists texts while walking around the bed to protect the woman from evil spirits. In the past it was considered important to use a certain mix of woods to protect against supernatural forces and produce a smoke that eased the pain of childbirth. …[M]ost women appear to prefer to use charcoal as it is smoke free, but may be more toxic.”

If the birth takes place in a hospital the newborn will be given a spirit-kit of scissors, knife and other objects, and incense will be burnt to call the spirits. When the new parents take the infant home they can draw an X on the wall or on the baby’s forehead to deter evil spirits. One or two weeks later they will take it to the wat, where the monks will say prayers and sprinkle it with holy water and tie a red thread round its wrist, all for its protection. If the infant becomes sick the parents will take it back to the monastery for further blessings and perhaps an amulet to be worn round its neck. This will be in addition to, not in place of, taking it to a doctor or clinic. In both villages and cities the infant’s fontanel will be painted with rice-flour for several months after birth to close up the skull.

World Vision -

World Vision – “Better and more readily available prenatal healthcare in Cambodia has led to a significant drop in deaths from childbirth.”

When the baby is a little bigger its mother from its former life will probably come to play with it. She will be invisible to the new parents, but when she’s present the baby will laugh and smile at nothing, and when she leaves the baby will be sad and cry. The former mother is generally harmless, but sometimes she loves her baby too much and makes it sick, and the new mother will need to make a prayer and ask her to spare the baby because she loves it. If the illness continues or worsens it might mean the previous mother wants to take the baby back to the spirit world; in this case the parents can hold an adoption ceremony with a third party, tricking the former mother into thinking that the infant is not hers after all. This period of supernatural visits and dangers ends at about the twelfth month, and the child enters the next phase of its life.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Old traditions are cute, but not necessarily desirable. From the World Vision site: “Sreymao Kun, a midwife at the health center where Sreynin delivered, explains what used to happen without care by a skilled provider.

“Before, most women followed old practices,” she says. “They showered their newborn baby with beer and put paper wasp nest dust on the baby’s navel. And the women were kept warm after delivery with hot coals. And what scared our pregnant women is that there are some women in the community who died because of improper delivery practices from traditional birth attendants at home.”

She continues with a sigh of relief. “But now, pregnant women are more keen to access services at the health center.”

– See more at:

The reincarnation of Penh the beggar boy

agent-orange1Penh is a beggar on the Penh Penh Riverside, but a beggar with a certain claim to fame, because when he was very young the Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths included his picture in a book about Agent Orange. The photo was taken in 2000, long after the Vietnam War ended, but Agent Orange lingers through generations.

Griffiths says Penh is 14 in the photo but he looks younger, gazing up at the camera with big eyes, a handsome and intelligent little boy with no future and no arms or legs, because Agent Orange causes mothers to give birth to monsters.

Penh was born in Takeo province on the Vietnamese border, and his parents brought him to the capital at an early age because there was no support for his condition there. There’s very little in Phnom Penh either, but an NGO provides a wheelchair and he begs along the Riverside, taking cash between the stubs of his flippers and pushing it into a special pouch sewn into his shirt.

Some years after that photo I interviewed Penh for a magazine, and asked him if he could explain his deformities – I was looking for evidence, in the form of family memories, of American planes spraying the village with defoliant. What he told me was quite different:

“I don’t know why I was born this way. I never did anything wrong, never harmed anyone. People in my village say I must have done something very wrong in my previous life, but I don’t remember my previous life. I used to try to remember when I was little, but I never could. I don’t think about it any more. I try to be good in this life, and I hope I can be reborn to a good body in my next.”


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds – the interview was conducted in about 2006 for Southeast Asia Globe magazine. Philip Jones Griffiths’ photo of Penh appeared in his 2004 book Agent Orange.

Past lives: Kinship Beyond Death: Ambiguous Relations and Autonomous Children in Contemporary Cambodia

Past-Life-Regression1On Imagining the Real World, the blog of professor Erik W. Davis, I stumbled across this very interesting account of a child who remembers her past life as her own uncle. Since it’s his story you’ll have to read it on the link, but it’s quite fascinating. (Prof. Davis has it as a downloadable pdf, and I gather he’s allowed 50 free downloads before, I assume, people have to start paying, for which reason here’s a second link, to the page on his blog where the download lives).

As I said, I won’t summarise or quote, but a few points strike me as especially interesting. First, the little girl’s parents found her memories of her past life with them quite disturbing, to the extent of trying to get her to forget them through magical means; second, although Buddhism as a religion gives space for memory of previous lives, it’s supposed to be adults (specifically monks) who have such memories, and they’re supposed to come through meditation; and third, the reason that the little girl’s family found the previous life so disturbing was that its remembrance (and therefore its present reality) posed a threat to its bonds to its current family: destroying the previous-life memories is necessary if the child is to become fully integrated into its present life.

The Cosmic Mountain


 01Mount Meru surrounded by heavens and hells

Meru stood at the centre of the world, square, vast, and so high that the sun and moon and stars circled round it. In the gardens and palaces on its summit lived the gods, including Indra their king, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, together with the divine apsara dancers and gandharvas musicians and the innumerable devada handmaidens, nagas, garudas, and many others. Spread out below Meru was Jambudvipa, the world-continent, home of humans, which they shared with animals, and also with spirits and ghosts and demons, and beneath Jambudvipa were the many worlds of hell, and surrounding it was the boundless cosmic ocean.

About a thousand years ago, in the land of the Khmers on the continent of Jambudvipa, a king built a temple in the shape of the universe.

As a visitor to Angkor Wat you start at a moat, representing the cosmic ocean. Crossing a causeway lined with naga-serpents, you pass through a colonnaded boundary wall representing the circling mountain ranges of Jambudvipa and enter the outermost sacred area. When Angor Wat was first built it would not have been permitted for ordinary people to go further than this. Nor would they have wanted to: their gods were family and village spirits, the ancestors who protected them from ghosts and demons. But they would know that at the top of the temple there was a chamber, that this chamber was visited by the god Vishnu, and that important rituals took place there involving the kings and priests.

Time passed, Buddhist monasteries and monks replaced Hindu gods and Brahman priests, and the spirits, the gods and the Buddha became the faith of the modern Khmer people.

Buddhism introduced only a few changes the Brahmanic cosmology. Extra heavens were added above Meru, divided into three realms of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Beings in the Realm of Desire are governed by the senses and are therefore subject to illusion, even the gods on Meru, who take pleasure in music and dance and sweet scents. The beings of the higher heavens of form and formlessness above Meru are not subject to the senses but are still the victims of illusion. They live for immensely long periods, but even they eventually die and are reborn.

The Roots of Buddhism

 Buddha04.0Buddha in meditation

 Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a man, not a god. He lived in the foothills of the Himalayas some two and a half thousand years ago, and through inquiry and meditation he came to understand the nature of things. For this reason he is called the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and because he came from the tribe of the Sakyas he is called Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakyas.

The Buddha’s teaching was a reaction to Hinduism, the religion of India at his time. The historical Siddhartha would not have been aware that he lived in India. India in his time was called Bharat; our modern name comes from the word Sindhu, meaning simply “the river,” the modern Indus River in Pakistan.

In ancient times the Persians, close neighbours to the Indians, changed Sindhu to Hindush, and the Greeks adopted this as Indos (for the river) and India (the land). The Romans inherited the name from the Greeks, and Europe inherited it from the Romans. The Arabs called the country, its people and its religion al-Hind, and 19th century European scholars, wishing to discuss the religions of India, invented the term Hinduism.

In Buddha’s time religion was dharma. Dharma was not then, and is not now, a single belief. It encompasses the role and teachings of the Brahmans, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the spirits of nature and the ancestors  worshiped by the villagers, and much else. There was no such concept as Hinduism until scholars tried to draw all this together. For this reason modern scholars talk about Brahmanical religion, a term that includes “Hinduism”, (the inverted commas are because of the difficulty of defining the term), cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which come close to being religions in their own right, Jainism, and many other traditions of which Buddhism is only one.

Three Gems, Four Truths, and the Eightfold Path

 buddha1Buddha teaching

Buddhism begins with the Three Gems:

  • Buddha: The aim of human life is enlightenment, as was reached and taught by the historic Buddha;
  • Dharma: Enlightenment can be attained through understanding dharma, the law of cause and effect that propels the world forward; and
  • Sangha: Dharma can be learned through the sangha, the monkhood.

Having grasped the Three Gems, the student moves on to the Four Noble Truths:

  • Human life is dukkha;
  • The cause of dukkha is craving;
  • There is a way to end dukkha;
  • That way lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.

Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It does refer to the ordinary sufferings of life, but dukkha is also latent in pleasure, because pleasure is transitory. So long as we crave pleasure, we suffer. It is therefore desirable to end craving through the Eightfold Path, whose eight steps, grouped into three categories of wisdom, virtue and awareness, are:

  • Right understanding (wisdom)
  • Right intention (wisdom)
  • Right speech (virtue)
  • Right action (virtue)
  • Right livelihood (virtue)
  • Right effort (concentration)
  • Right mindfulness (awareness)
  • Right concentration (awareness)

Wisdom is found in the Pali scriptures, which must be studied under a teacher, and meditation is also best done under the direction of a teacher. Both are best followed within the monkhood, but virtue is open to all. The essence of virtue is set out in the Ten Precepts.

The Way of Virtue

Monks-in-front-of-the-Royal-PalaceMonks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Ten Precepts are divided into three groups, of which the first, the Five Precepts and their converse the Five Virtues, form the basic moral code for every Buddhist. The Precepts are formulated as undertakings (“I undertake to…”):

  1. Refrain from destroying living creatures;
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not given;
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct;
  4. Refrain from incorrect speech;
  5. Refrain from intoxication;

Like the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. The First Precept forbids the taking of life – not just human life, but any life at all. Yet fish is the national dish, chicken runs a close second, and every villager keeps cows. How are the facts of life to be reconciled with religion? Sin lies in the act of killing, and to eat meat is not itself against religion. City people buy their fish and chicken in the market, which exempts them from guilt; villagers, closer to the realities of life, will say if asked that the fish that swims into the net has not been killed by the fisherman, that the little boys who wring the necks of chickens are too young to be held morally accountable, and that pigs and cows are slaughtered by non-Buddhists such as Chinese and Cham Muslims Despite the casuistry, there is widespread respect for life and for the welfare of animals.

The second and fourth precepts prohibit stealing and lying, and this raises major problems in a country where teachers expect daily “tea money” from even the youngest pupils and firemen will not begin to put out fires until they’ve been paid. This is endured but not approved. A young food vendor who was interviewed in the course of a study into Cambodian social values said that a good man is one who neither lies nor cheats and takes only good and legal employment, but that there were not many good men in Cambodia.

Precepts three and five prohibiting sexual misconduct and alcohol are widely broken, but as with the second and fourth there is a general recognition that this is not good behaviour.

Corresponding to the five precepts (undertakings to avoid) are five virtues (undertakings to practice). These are:

  1. Practice compassion towards living creatures;
  2. Practice patience in right means of livelihood;
  3. Practice contentment in married life;
  4. Practice truthfulness in speech;
  5. Practice watchfulness (intoxication prevents the mind from being watchful).

The Five Precepts plus the following three are mandatory for monks and are followed voluntarily by many religiously-minded lay people, making a list of the Eight Precepts:

  1. To refrain from eating between midday and morning;
  2. To refrain from dancing, music, singing, and other such pursuits;
  3. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds. (The last can be interpreted as the avoidance of luxury in general).

Monks observe two additional precepts, making up the Ten Precepts:

  1. To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and other things used to beautify and adorn the person;
  2. To avoid handling money.

Karma & Reincarnation

 _DSF4124Coffin at Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

In the opening verses of the Book of Job we find the upright Job blessed with sons and daughters, possessing sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants, “the greatest man among all the people of the East.” His friends take his blessings as the outward sign that God has rewarded him because he is a righteous man. God puts Job’s righteousness to the test, killing his sons and daughters, robbing him of his wealth, and afflicting him with loathsome diseases, and his friends now advise him to look into his heart and discover what evil he has committed that has caused God to replace blessings with suffering. The assumption, in short, is that good fortune is the divine reward for good deeds, while suffering is the outward sign of inner corruption.

The concept of karma is similar, up to a point. Karma means the way actions determine outcomes – good deeds lead to happiness, bad deeds to suffering. Where karma differs from the Old Testament is in the absence of God or gods – karma is as impersonal as the law of gravity.

Reincarnation is the idea that there exists a kernel of individual existence – a “soul” – that survives death and is reborn. When this concept is linked to the workings of karma, it becomes clear, or at least plausible, that the good and bad deeds of this life will have their rewards and punishments in the next.

Enlightenment and Nirvana

Nirvana-BuddhaDeath and Nirvana of the Buddha

The Buddha taught that the conscious mind forms an an impression of its existence as a unique self, but this is based on a misapprehension. This misapprehension is the cause of craving, and thereby of the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth. This cycle, called samsara, is what the Buddha’s teaching promises to end.

Even the gods are not immortal, although their lives are immensely long, millions and millions of years, but they too are subject to the workings of karma and rebirth. The ultimate goal is not to be reborn as a god, but to move beyond rebirth and the three realms and reach the state of nirvana.

In Pali nirvana is called nibbana. The word means “blowing out”, as in extinguishing a candle, and fire imagery is frequently used when the scriptures describe nibbana. The fires to be extinguished are those of attachment, lust, and ignorance. We are attached to the things of this world through our senses; because we are attached to them we lust after them, wanting those things we don’t have, fearing to lose the things we possess; being ignorant of the means of escape we remain attached, and the world continues to be dukkha.

Dukkha is the result of attachment to things which are not-self, attachment arises from the illusion that self and not-self are separate. Dukkha can be overcome by understanding the nature of the illusion.

Every act, good or bad, will sow a seed in the mind, and this seed will bring its appropriate crop. Most karma will keep the individual bound to the wheel of rebirth, but some will accumulate merit and lead to nibbana. The monk, and indeed the religiously awakened layperson, will therefore strive to accumulate merit.