Hungry Ghosts 4: Temple for Spirit Imprisonment

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There is an ancient moss-covered Buddhist temple, set deep on the ridge of a densely forested mountainside in Bắc Ninh, a city in the northern section of Vietnam.  It is called Hàm Long Temple (寺含龍) due to the fact that it is located inside the mouth of Núi Thần Long (Dragon God Mountain).  Hàm means jaw.  Long means dragon.  The literal meaning then, is this:  The temple is the jewel that the dragon holds in its jaw.

khong-gian-tam-linhHàm Long Temple is over two-thousand years old, but was designated as an official temple in 1158 by the king of that time, Lý Anh Tông.

It is a historic landmark, a living museum, and visiting it is like going back in time to see how things were, a thousand years ago.

This temple is old, and it looks it.  Other than the general maintenance and upkeep of the place so that it is kept free of damage and degradation, nothing has been done to change it dramatically from its original look and feel.

It is kept this way on purpose, so that the past can be preserved as much as possible.

Conservationists comply absolutely with the principles of conservation of monuments, and you truly feel as if you have stepped back into the past, when you visit this place.  It is also famous for one other thing.

It is the largest repository of incarcerated spirits in the country.

Incarcerated Spirits

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The temple has been keeping roaming spirits here continuously and dutifully for over a thousand years.  In this long and tumultuous time period, it has gone through many wars and so many deaths that the spirits kept here must number in the hundreds of millions.  These spirits are not hungry ghosts precisely because they reside here.

In previous posts, I defined hungry ghosts as those spirits who have died, either suddenly or through nefarious means, usually before they are aware or willing to accept the fact that they are dead.  They cannot rest, and so wander around, wreaking havoc and causing undue stress on everyone.

Wreaking havoc, however, is the least of the damage that hungry ghosts can do.  In some cases, hungry ghosts are said to cause others in their immediate family to suddenly die for no reason, usually within the first few hours or days of their deaths, but sometimes up to three years.

blonde58This is the explanation that is generally given for the fairly common occurrence of spouses who die within a short time of each other, but there is no explanation for families that have ten or more healthy people who pass away for no obvious reason, within the three year time frame.

It is said that the spirit of the wandering ghost caused the deaths due to the fact that, as new ghosts, they wander around and then are bullied by the older spirits until they are forced to point out their families.  This then causes the living members to become prey to the older, more vengeful hungry ghosts.

The other answer is that these lost souls hook themselves onto the living and drag them into death, so that their family members can join them.  This way, they will not have to wander as a lost ghost, alone and without company.

It is within the context of these sudden inexplicable deaths, in rapid successions that decimate what was once large thriving families, that turns Buddhists as well as people of other faiths, to this temple for assistance.

People come to this temple, not because of traditions or beliefs, but because of desperation.  They are trying to prevent more deaths from happening within their family.  This is called trấn trùng tan and it literally means to prevent coincidental deaths.

How to imprison a spirit

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To begin the process takes a bit of planning.  To take the wandering spirit to the temple, and to do it successfully, it has to be done quietly.   There is to be no discussions amongst the family members because if the spirit knows that the family plans to incarcerate them, the spirit will refuse to come along.  In fact, the best bet is to ask a friend of the family or someone from the maternal side of the family to do the actual commit deed, as they are not considered part of the official family.

girl624Understand that doing this is something that is not taken lightly by the Vietnamese family.  It is akin to casting out a family member from the ancestral memorial altar.

This is only done to members who have been expelled from the family tree due to some terrible heinous deed, like marrying someone against the family’s wishes (mostly in women’s cases), or killing other members of the family (mostly men).

On the appointed day, a photo of the deceased is surreptitiously taken, along with pertinent information such as name, age, time of death, time of shrouding, and time of burial of the deceased.  These personal effects are handed over to the temple monks, who then record the information and take the items to a special area of the temple where the spirits are kept.

Then, the monks give a special protection lá bùa talisman to each family member.  They must wear this talisman for 3 years to avoid calamitous negative fallout that may occur due to this incarceration event.  The monks also hand to each person visiting the temple, a human-shaped lá bùa to prevent any spirit to attach itself to one of the visitors and escape from the temple grounds.

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This is a lá bùa that is folded and placed inside a small plastic sleeve to be worn by each member of the family.  It is also affixed to the front door, to keep the spirit from returning.

After the spirit has been detained at the temple, family members are warned not to set up an altar for the detained spirit at home.  They are not even allowed to burn incense or hell notes at the death anniversary of the festival, because burning incense and reading out loud the name of the dead, is considered the key to open the temple dungeon, and in that manner, the spirit is able to escape.

pinkcat2I cannot blame the spirits for not wanting to be there.  These imprisoned spirits live like ascetic monks.  They are only served monk food (bland vegetarian food) and must pray (or listen to prayers) most of the day.

They are unable to wander around at will, and have to do what the monks dictate.  This enforced behavioral adjustment period is very similar to the Catholic’s idea of purgatory.  They cannot leave until they graduate from the three year grace period.

There have been cases where spirits have had to be sent back over and over again because family members, worried for the well-being of the spirit, decides to feed the spirits at annual death anniversaries or during the month of Hungry Ghosts.  This causes the spirit to be released, and the entire cycle must be restarted.

Daily Temple Rituals

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Every morning, the monks chant special prayers for the edification of the incarcerated spirits residing at the temple, and twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, the monks cook a large pot of rice porridge so that the ghosts have something to eat.

There had been a few times, especially at the height of the mid century war, monks were unable to maintain the twice daily rice porridge pots, which caused the sudden deaths of every duck, chicken and pig that the villagers kept, in and around the village.  It has happened so regularly that the twice-daily rice porridge is continued religiously, without fail.

Villagers say that this is because the sheer number of imprisoned spirits are so high that if not fed at the proper time, they leave the temple grounds and cause mayhem to the surrounding areas.

But this leads me to the uncomfortable idea that these spirits are hardly ‘contained’ and are only hanging around the temple out of expediency and free room-and-board.  It’s as if the monks cannot contain the spirits very well.

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The local villagers will also attest that at sunset, when the sky is the color of twilight haze, countless fireflies as huge as a human thumb, will rise up from the temple and fly into the dark dense forested mountain ridge.  Then, abruptly, at 7 pm, when the sky is completely dark, the fireflies disappear without a trace.

It is rumored that dusk is the time when the spirits are allowed to roam around outside the temple grounds, but the spirits have to return to the temple after dark, because the temple is afraid that if the spirits remain too long in the yang world, they could inadvertently harm the people living in the area.

It could also be that these are only a few of the caged spirits that have been allowed limited freedom due to good behavior, and also as a test to ensure that they have absorbed enough of the monks’ teachings to move onward to their next destination.

I don’t know, but there are many other stories of strange happenings in and around the area of this temple.

Tales of strange happenings

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Head Monk Venerable Thích Thanh Dũng

Venerable Thich Thanh Dũng is the residing head monk at Hàm Long Temple.   He oversees all the activities for the temple and also trains monks on how to deal with the care and feeding of the incarcerated spirits.

He has revealed: “there are some strange things that I cannot explain. I have to take it as a coincidence. For example, very often, our temples welcome people who are crazy.  According to their relatives, they were “possessed”.

Venerable Thanh Dũng determined that these people were not mentally ill, but they struggled as if they were schizophrenic. They ripped their clothes and screamed like wild animals, he said. In many cases, family members had to tie them up, then take them by car to the temple.

Strangely enough, as long as the temple performed a specific type of ceremony for them, they returned to normal.  “I guess those people were revived by the peaceful atmosphere and the tranquil landscape of the temple ” he said.

Hardly.  I think they just knew that the temple was far superior to being homeless.

My thoughts…such as they are

blonde81This is my thoughts on the whole subject.

To say that this is all hogwash and utter rubbish superstition is to state in sanctimonious terms that we have all the answers and that there is nothing out there that we do not know.

I have no doubt that I am the least capable person to reason out anything of importance because I found out a long time ago that the more I research and dig, the more I realize—I DON’T KNOW SHIT!!!

I don’t know shit because there are people far more qualified and capable than I am, who are also shaking their heads and are unable to explain any of this.

I now reserve all judgement of things like this, and I dutifully record what I learn, in hopes that in the future, I can return to these writings and add further clarifications so as to demystify or clarify that which cannot yet be explained.

Up next is the post that started it all.  Possession of the Frightful Kind.  I started with this post, but had to work up to this point.  It’s now just about time to talk about the frightful kind of possessions.

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