Spiritual Self-Defence

Venue: SBS

Just as there are various stances found in the self-defence techniques of Chinese kungfu e.g. The Praying Mantis, The Drunken Master, and so on, there are 5 techniques available to us in the art of Spiritual Self-Defence, i.e. in defending oneself against spirits or unseen beings, who can be troublesome and disturbing at times.

The 5 techniques are:

  1. Scarecrow
  2. Hard Heart
  3. Soft Heart
  4. Open Heart
  5. Clean Heart


  1. Scarecrow

    A scarecrow is an external device used to scare away pests. Similarly, it is quite a common practice for people to seek external help when they encounter uncanny experiences. Most people go to the temple and ask for holy water, holy strings or talismans, amulets and Buddha images, some of which can be quite powerful and efficacious.

    A study by some Japanese scientists who obtained highly magnified photographs of the molecular structure of water before and after chanting, showed a change from a haphazard pattern to one that is ordered and harmonious in structure.

    In 1999, I was living alone in an orchard in Air Kuning. On one occasion, the caretaker there felt an eerie sensation and broke out in goose pimples. He became sick and went home. Soon he dreamt of a bald woman dressed in white who said she wanted to go up the hill to visit the monk living there but could not do so and requested his help to take her up. The next day, he related the incident to me. I asked him to collect some coconut leaves and 2 bowls of water (one for drinking, the other for washing). I chanted some parittas and sprinkled a little of the water on him. The moment the water touched his skin, he felt better.

    In Thailand, there are many types of talismans. Some are used to ward off black magic or bring blessings while others are used to ‘charm’ people. In Burma, there also exist spiritual cults. During their initiation ceremonies, an initiate is usually inoculated with a herbal concoction that is supposed to allow the guardian spirits of the cult to recognize him as a member. Once done, the initiate is believed to possess certain magical powers such as the power to exorcise spirits.

    It is sometimes not very good to collect talismans because of their links to spirits. In 1998, when I was in Sarawak, a devotee told me that frequently when he meditates, he experiences strange phenomena such as cockroaches biting him or seeing a giant standing beside him. Upon further enquiry, I found that he was an avid collector of talismans. The spirits of these talismans get jealous when a meditator achieves samadhi as this will make the meditator more powerful than them. The spirits will therefore try to disturb and distract him. I advised him to return the talismans to the original owners. Subsequently, he could meditate without any further disturbances.

  2. Hard Heart

    This means to make your heart hard by chanting. Chants can be short like “Buddham saranam gacchami…” or long for e.g. “Itipiso Bhagava Araham…”

    In the commentaries, there is a story about a boy who was so tired he fell asleep in a pavilion of a charnel ground. He was awoken in the middle of the night by a yakkha who wanted to devour him. He was so frightened that he shouted “Buddho, Buddho…” Upon hearing this, the yakkha fled.

    About 25 years ago when I was a samanera at MBMC, Penang, Venerable Chamriang and I were sitting in the hall when a girl walked in, looking very dazed. She told us that when she was walking along the road, a person had given her a packet wrapped in leaves to hold and now she felt ‘in a daze’. She asked for our help. Venerable Chamriang took the packet from her, passed it to me to throw away, and asked her to recite “Namo tassa…” followed by the 3 Refuges. Once she had recited the verses, she said she felt better. When I returned to my kuti, I felt goose pimples all over and was very agitated. I quickly recited the 3 Refuges repeatedly and the awful sensation passed.

    Once in Kuala Kubu Baru, How Eng Keong (a layman who can chant as well as a monk) and I were taking a walk in the jungle area. As we passed a particular bush, he suddenly felt prickly sensations all over his back. I asked him to do some chanting and he did so silently. The feeling passed. I was not disturbed probably because I was a monk. Therefore, do not underestimate the power of chanting. When you are feeling afraid or in fear, you can derive strength from chanting.

  3. Soft Heart

    This refers to radiating metta through meditation or chanting with an understanding of the meaning of the words you are chanting. To understand this, you have to know the story of the origin of the Karaniya Metta Sutta.

    Once during the time of the Buddha, a group of monks stayed in a particular forested area for a month. They found it to be extremely conducive and decided to stay there for their 3 months vassa. During the initial month, the guardian Devas of the area obligingly accommodated these virtuous and celibate monks. However, when the monks decided to stay on for the vassa, the deities felt that the monks had outstayed their welcome, and proceeded to try to drive them away by creating havoc in the form of funny noises, screams, bad odours and unpleasant visions every night. The monks could not endure such continuous disturbances to their practice and decided to leave.

    However, with his psychic power, the Buddha foresaw that these monks would be able to achieve enlightenment if they stayed put and continued with their practice. He therefore decided to teach them the Karaniya Metta Sutta and advised them to practise accordingly at every waking moment. Instead of teaching methods of admonishing or fighting off the spirits, the Buddha taught them to radiate metta or loving-kindness instead. Consequently the devas’ hearts were softened. Instead of disturbing the monks, they came forward to help them in various ways. At the end of the vassa, all the monks achieved arahantship. This shows how metta can be used to overcome all enmity.

    Many years ago, Ven Sujiva stayed at an orchard in Air Itam. The owner forewarned him about the presence of civet cats in the area which made odd noises at night. When he had settled down, Ven Sujiva began to practise Samatha meditation on the 32 parts of the body. Soon however, he heard horrible screeching, howling sounds but decided to ignore them as advised by his host. However, the screams intensified and he knew that these were not the civet cats but something else. He then decided to switch to radiating metta to all beings instead and wished them all to be well and happy. The screaming soon ended. When he tried to continue with his Samatha practice, the screaming would start all over again. In the end, he ended up radiating metta the whole night long.

  4. Open Heart

    This stance refers to sharing merits with every being. 5 years ago, before starting SBS, a group of devotees and I travelled to Wat Pa Nanachat in Thailand to study the Ajahn Chah forest monastery tradition of training monks. 2 devotees who were sharing a dormitory woke up in the middle of the night and saw a female spirit clad in white with a baby in her hand. They radiated metta towards her but that did not work. So they decided to try something else and offered instead to share their merits with the spirit. The spirit went away soon after that. Sometimes these beings appear to us because they are in need of our merits to ease their suffering.

    On another occasion, a few monks stayed at the Balik Pulau Buddhist Hermitage in Penang, which is situated in a durian orchard. There was one kuti which was supposed to be haunted. At around midnight, the monk who stayed there saw an apparition. This young monk had the presence of mind to advise the spirit to visit a more senior monk in the kuti further up the slope instead. Strangely, the ghost actually complied with the request. Soon the senior monk also saw the apparition. He radiated metta and shared merits with it and it soon left.

    Once, a Burmese monk who regularly practised the sharing of merits stayed at the monastery of Sayadaw U Jotika (author of Snow in Summer). One night, he came back to his kuti late and being tired, went straight to sleep without sharing merits. In the middle of that night, he was awoken by the sound of heavy footsteps stomping away outside his verandah. He realized that he had forgotten to share merits with the beings around there and upon doing so, the stomping sounds began to recede and soon disappeared altogether.

  5. Clear Heart

    Clear Heart (“Cheng Sim” in Hokkien) refers to Vipassana meditation. A person who is mindful of all mental states and sensations when meditating will not be harmed or scared off by spirits. When his mind is strong and clear, he is aware of everything, even the feeling of fear, as it arises. If he then watches it, that will disappear on its own accord eventually.

    One young engineer, who had been a meditator, died of cancer and was reborn in the spirit realm. He probably had a karmic affinity with another young man and would sometimes possess him and teach him the Dhamma, such as the 5 precepts and the practice of metta and vipassana. Although the young man was grateful for the Dhamma he received, he was, of course, not too keen on being possessed constantly. At such times, he was no longer in control of himself. He went to seek Ven Sujiva’s help (it was the same spirit who ‘introduced’ him to Ven Sujiva). Bhante taught him mindfulness meditation and told him to be fully aware each time he feels the spirit coming. In this way, he learnt to control the situation and the spirit could not enter him anymore.

    Once, Ven Sariputta, who had achieved jhanas and enlightenment, was meditating in the open on a full moon day when 2 yakkhas flew by. The first yakkha insisted on hitting the shiny, freshly shaven bald pate of the Venerable even though his partner tried to dissuade him from doing so. As he hit the Venerable’s head, Ven Moggallana (the monk foremost in psychic power in the Buddha’s retinue) heard the sound, as loud a thunderclap, with his divine ear and saw the yakkha hitting Ven Sariputta’s head. Later Ven Moggallana approached Ven Sariputta and told him what he had seen and heard. However, Ven Sariputta replied that all he felt was a slight headache at that time. Any ordinary mortal would have had his head smashed to smithereens if attacked thus. Such is the power of meditation—that a person who is totally absorbed in jhanas cannot be harmed even when attacked by spirits.


So, which method of defence should one choose when faced with disturbances by spirits? Just as in the art of self-defence, a person must learn all the different stances to enable him to apply the correct one when required.

One yogi who was practising at the Mahasi Centre in Burma was frequently disturbed by screams in the wee hours of the morning. She radiated metta but that did not work. After 4 nights of this, she reported to the teacher during her interview and he advised her to transfer merits instead as the spirits probably needed them. That worked for her because merits, especially those generated during meditation, are very powerful. In this instance, the Open Heart stance worked for her.

There is the story of another lady of Taoist/ Buddhist faith from Melaka who used to be ‘visited’ by a Christian spirit who would instruct her to do some church work. Initially she obeyed but eventually when the spirit kept pestering her to become a Christian and to preach to her own family and friends, she wanted out. Someone advised her to seek help at the Brickfields Buddhist Temple in Kuala Lumpur, so she decided to visit the chief reverend there. However, for 2 days, she was unable to meet up with him. She eventually spoke to a samanera who did some chanting and gave her the holy water to drink. That helped for a while but when her supply was depleted, the spirit returned. She had to return to Kuala Lumpur for replenishment. After a few rounds of this, she became very fed-up and decided to be more self-reliant. She asked around and some friends advised her to chant “Amitofor”. That solved her problem. In this case, this lady chose to use the Hard Heart stance.

In 1984, Sayadaw U Pandita and I visited the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, USA, which is situated at the edge of a forest. For some reason, our sleeping quarters were not ready, so as a temporary measure Sayadaw slept in the attic of the garage and I, in a caravan parked at the edge of the forest.

Sayadaw frequently heard scratching noises emanating from the ceiling of the attic, which was also used as a kitchen for Burmese food preparation. Once, when the cook’s wife was alone preparing food in the kitchen in the afternoon, she saw the table legs suddenly fly off and she ran for her life. Sayadaw asked one of the founding members of IMS whether they believed in ghosts. She told him that apparently, there were some ghosts earlier but they were supposed to have been exorcised by some Christian priests. In fact this place was formerly a Christian seminary. It would seem that the earlier attempts to remove the ghosts had not been successful as they were still lurking around.

One moonlit night, I suddenly awoke and felt something moving around. “It” banged on the roof of my caravan. I looked outside and heard something thumping the fiberglass canoe, which was placed overturned on the grass nearby, from one end to another. Under the bright moonlight, I could see nothing around the canoe. I chanted ‘Itipiso…’ but there was no effect. I shared merits but still nothing happened. Thinking maybe it was a Christian ghost, who probably does not understand Buddhism, I radiated metta, the universal language of loving kindness, and that solved the problem. When I stopped and tried to go back to sleep, the thumping started again. I ended up radiating metta the whole night through.

Once, when I was staying in a solitary kuti in the Sarawak jungle, I had a misunderstanding with the natives there and they used to get their children to surround my kuti and disturb me by making odd sounds when I was doing walking meditation outside my kuti. But that did not bother me. One day, when I had collected my food, I had severe diarrhoea and vomiting which left me very weak and totally exhausted. I do not know whether it was due to food poisoning or whether I was “charmed”. I could not even do my regular evening chanting as I was thoroughly exhausted by then. So there I was, sprawled on my back, trying to recite mentally.

Soon, I heard a sound like a battle cry and something was thrown at the side of my kuti. Then came the sounds of some whispering. Initially, I thought the natives were coming after me in my weakened state but I always locked my kuti door as a precaution. However, I soon realized that the sound was not coming from outside but near my ear and it sounded more like group chanting in a foreign tongue with the background hiss of a tape recording. At that time I wanted to do a Hard Heart stance but my whole body felt paralyzed and my tongue and lips could not move. Something had started to playfully pull and tug at all parts of my body. I radiated metta, thinking always – “May you be well and happy. I wish you no harm, please do not harm me…” and so on. That sensation lasted only about a minute. Suddenly, the voices shouted “HAH” loudly and everything stopped. Metta truly works!

In conclusion, a person should be versatile and learn all the 5 steps in the art of Spiritual Self Defense in order to keep himself safe and secure. So do come and practise diligently so that we can always protect ourselves, our family and our friends.

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