Monsters. . .

While there is no shortage of serene and benevolent buddhas, Buddhist folklore abounds with hell-raising zombies, vampires, ghouls, and ogres. But they’re not just the stuff of myth and legends. Depending on whom you ask, these ferocious monsters are thought to be as real as you or me, or serve as potent symbols of our less enlightened sides.

Since reincarnation sits at the heart of Buddhist cosmology, we are never far from becoming the monsters we fear. In tantric traditions, practitioners are taught that subjugating outer demons is really about taming inner ones. As you reflect on the creatures rounded up in this cross-cultural compendium, you’ll see that monsters do more than scare people into acting more virtuously. They also clue us in to the monsters within us, the most destructive and flawed parts of ourselves. Their role is not to harm, but to show us that our form is always changing from demon to bodhisattva and back again.

Pretas are believed to have been false, compulsive, deceitful,  and greedy people in a previous life. As a result of their karma, they are afflicted with an insatiable hunger for a particular substance or object. Traditionally, this is something repugnant or humiliating, such as cadavers or feces, though in more recent stories, it can be anything, however bizarre. Pretas and human beings occupy the same physical space and while humans looking at a river would see clear water, pretas see the same river flowing with an aversive substance, common examples of such visions include pus and filth.

Jikininki were greedy and selfish people, who, upon death, were cursed with the desire for human remains. Tragically, they have the consciousness to understand what they are, and loathe themselves for being such sickening creatures. Jikininki terrorize the living: Japanese scriptures assure us that they are so terrifying and distasteful to look at, the sight of them cripples limbs in fear and disgust.

Oni are ogre-like demons from Buddhism. Depicted as horrendous, giant beasts, Oni have brightly colored skin (usually blue or red), different numbers of horns, toes, fingers, and, sometimes, eyes. They wield massive iron clubs (kanabo), and their spirits are reborn from dead souls with an ax to grind – those who perished in famines or epidemics, jealous women, or wicked people condemned to a tormented afterlife in a Buddhist hell. They dole out punishment to wicked people, and serve the demon lord Enma. The powers of the Oni are tremendous – they can reattach body parts they lose in fights, fly, change form at will, and inflict disease, insanity, and death as they see fit. Intelligent and extremely nasty, Oni revel in causing societal breakdown, and eat and drink to excess.

Mara have a fearsome appearance and evil character to live up to his title, Lord of Death. The personification of evil and temptation, Mara, according to some scriptures, tempted and attacked Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, just before he achieved enlightenment. Mara holds the distinction of being one of the oldest Buddhist demons, and one of the first non-human beings to appear in Buddhist writings. Legend goes that when Mara met Siddhartha, he attempted to use his power of delusion to bring about the Buddha’s spiritual death, with the help of his daughters Desire, Fulfillment, and Regret. When that failed, Mara called his army of demons to attack Siddhartha. Generally speaking, Mara opposes religion and is capable of inflicting comas and illness on humans. 

Yama is one of the eight dharmapala, wrathful protectors of Buddhism. Despite Yama’s role as one of the good guys, he looks terrifying. As the King of Hell, Yama judges the dead wearing a crown of skulls, which accentuates his association with death and naraka (hell). Yama created old age, disease, and deterioration to teach humans the value of life and encourage them to behave well while they’re alive, and, as such, represents impermanence. People who do not heed his warnings will face eternal suffering. Yama is a prevalent figure in many Asian countries, making appearances in Tibetan and Southeast Asian Buddhism, as well as Japanese, Korean, and Chinese mythology. He’s of Hindu origin. 

Rolangs are Tibetan folkloric zombies. The word “ro” means “corpse,” while “langs” means “to rise up;” together, they mean “a risen corpse.” Rolangs come into existence in phases. After a person perishes, the corpse moans, then tries to sit up. Eventually, it succeeds, then starts muttering to itself, then becomes strong enough to stand up and move about. Like zombies, rolangs can turn living people into rolangs by biting them. Rolangs are mentioned in Tibetan Buddhist history, in which a Buddhist votary cuts off a rolang’s tongue, turning it into a sword, and converts the rolangs’ body into gold.It’s possible to prevent a corpse from becoming a rolangs. In one story, a Buddhist monk performs phowa, a meditative act of conscious dying, on behalf of a corpse on the verge of becoming a rolangs. Through phowa, the spirit of the corpse leaves the body, which then ceases its rising. 

There are two basic motivating forces in life: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance. We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life. so do not fear monsters or the unknown and choose instead to face the ultimate of demons and saviors – our mind.

Peace and Love, Jim

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