Power and Love in the Intermediate Realm: Buddhist Reflections on "Ghost"

Taigen Dan Leighton
From a proposed book of essays on Buddhism at the Movies, 2005, now not to be published except on this website


The area for which a Buddhist commentary is most obviously relevant is the experience of after-life realms. The movie avoids any specific theological context, but villainous characters are dragged down after death by dark shadowy figures into a hell realm, while the good protagonist Sam, played by Patrick Swayze, eventually floats up into a heavenly tunnel of light. Nothing in the movie explicitly counters a conventional Judeo-Christian conception of Heaven and Hell. But scriptwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who lived for a while in a monastery in Nepal, has clearly applied aspects of the Buddhist teaching about the intermediate state between death and rebirth, which is most famously elaborated in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rubin, who won an Oscar for best screenplay for "Ghost", was also the screenwriter for "Jacob's Ladder", another excellent film starring Tim Robbins as a Vietnam veteran, a movie in which the themes of realization and redemption in the intermediate realm, and the strange experiences available in that space, are even more fully explored.

Fairly early in "Ghost", while walking home to their loft in Soho in lower Manhattan, Sam and his girlfriend Molly, played by Demi Moore, are accosted by an apparent mugger. Sam initially chases after the fleeing attacker, but returns to the crime scene to behold Molly kneeling with his own bloody body in her arms. After scenes of shock, Sam turns away from the light apparently drawing him upward to an eternal heavenly realm, in order to stay with Molly. Given the movie's title and promotion, this is not too much of a plot disclosure, though I will avoid revealing other major plot twists in this discussion. Sam's initial decision to remain in this world certainly results from his attachment to Molly, and unwillingness to let her go. But it also is emblematic of the bodhisattva's aspiration to save other beings. The bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism advocates turning away from merely personal liberation from the pains of cyclic rebirth in the rat-race world of samsara. Instead, one chooses to remain in the world for the sake of benefiting others.

A major issue in the movie is how Sam must gradually accept that he is walking around as a ghost, invisible to the living. He embarks on a journey of learning how to function and to be empowered in this alternative realm as a ghost. In Buddhism, popular ceremonies such as for feeding hungry ghosts are required to help beings in Sam's situation release attachments that obstruct their progress toward subsequent beneficial rebirth.

One possible side-effect of Buddhist meditation is the widening of one's inner awareness of non-normal mental dimensions. Such awareness can support the transformative function of spiritual practice, and our ability to help others and alleviate suffering. We deepen our sense of psychic experience and possibility, including coming to be more familiar with our own mental dispositions and conditioned patterns. Through a wider perspective on our own mental states, as well as of other mental/ spiritual potentialities, we can learn to be less reactive to our tendencies, and thereby less harmful to ourselves and others. But we also are more accepting of and available to others through a widened sensitivity. One of the key goals of meditative practice is to learn to integrate one's experience of transcendence, or simply of wider realities, into one's ordinary everyday activity. Traditionally this familiarity with paranormal states is seen as useful preparation for the intermediate realms after death. This aspect of practice is reflected in Sam's emerging need to affect situations in the material world in which he is now a shadow, and that he must eventually leave behind.

Sam observes the aftermath of his own death in the emergency room and then at his funeral, encountering other ghosts with whom he can now interact. But the material objects he used to handle, and even other people, can now pass right through him. It takes a little while for Sam to learn that he also can now choose to pass through walls and other material objects. In a memorable scene in a subway car, Sam meets an extremely belligerent ghost who pushes around the living passengers, as well as Sam. Finally back in the home they had shared, Sam lingers, watching Molly as she grieves. One of the four fears in Buddhism is the fear of strange mental states. Sometimes this arises when our range of perception is widened in meditative experience. Certainly Sam must learn to cope with this fear as he adjusts to his strange new state of being.

From a Buddhist perspective on rebirth, in this ephemeral reality we occupy we are inevitably involved in a cycle of death and rebirth-- week to week and moment to moment, as well as lifetime to lifetime. Impermanence rules. Although Tibetan Buddhism places the greatest emphasis on a literal round of rebirth between lifetimes, in all of Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, not only Tibetan, an intermediate existence after death before one takes the next rebirth is accepted as given. The understanding of this in Japanese Buddhism is fundamentally similar to that of the Tibetans, including the forty-nine day period usually occurring before new birth is taken.

While the Western conception of heaven and hell is of eternal, unalterable bliss or damnation, in the Buddhist view there are six realms one might occupy, and they are never eternal. In addition to heavens and hells, these realms include the realms of angry ambitious titans, of humans, of animals, and of insatiable consumers known as hungry ghosts. As well as destinies to receive in next lifetimes based on personal karma, these are explicitly viewed as psychological states we might experience in this present human life. Although beings residing in the Buddhist heaven and hell spaces may expect to abide there for a very long time compared to human lifespans, these too eventually end, and hell dwellers may be rehabilitated into other realms. Similarly, even heavenly beings will eventually perish. They may then reenter human realms, or others, to help lead beings to the path of liberation (the practice of bodhisattvas), or, if they fight against their loss of heavenly status, may even end up in one of the unfortunate destinies. But all of these six realms, from the Buddhist perspective, are mere sites in the conditioned round of birth and death, or samsara, not true liberation. The usual Western depiction of the glories of heaven, including the vision at the end of the movie "Ghost", is more analogous to the Buddhist state of nirvana. Buddhist nirvana has been seen as final departure from the samsaric realm, as in the personal liberation of the early Buddhist model of the arhat, the worthy practitioner who is completely self-purified. However, nirvana also can be seen as present right in this samsaric realm of suffering, as for the later Buddhist model of the bodhisattva, the enlightening being who gladly remains amid suffering creatures to help lead all to the path of universal liberation.

In the Buddhist world-view, a person after death faces scenes from the karmic residue of his previous life. Such scenes, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, are often nightmarish or wrathful in some stages of the intermediate state. Those who cannot reconcile with the effects from their past life may be caught in the intermediate realm, haunting the persons from that life as ghostly spirits until they can admit the fact of their death and accept their new destiny. The point of reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead is to be prepared for such experiences and visions, and through spiritual intent to navigate oneself in their midst toward the most beneficial rebirth, if not complete liberation from the cycle. Sometimes this text is read to the bodies, and hopefully the spirits, of the departed for their support and encouragement. But early in the film "Ghost", Sam's spirit seems to become anchored to observing the familiar realm of his past life with Molly.

Watching over Molly, Sam learns that she is in grave danger as he gradually discovers the truth about his own death. But he is helpless to warn her, or have any effect on those still living whom he observes. Sam's frustration and desperation build. Despite the violent hostility of the subway ghost (brilliantly played by Vincent Schiavelli), Sam searches him out and insists on becoming his disciple in the art of moving objects in the "ordinary" phenomenal world that they are both haunting. In this pseudo-Dharma combat, mimicking the interaction between Zen masters and their disciples, the rage-filled subway ghost taunts and laughs at Sam. When Sam is trying to move a bottle cap the subway ghost yells, "You can't push it with your finger. You're dead. It's all in your mind. The problem with you is you still think you're real. . . . You ain't got a body no more, son. You want to move something you got to move it with your mind."

Such instruction is somewhat reminiscent of passages from the guide for enlightening beings in the Flower Ornament Sutra such as: "In noncorporeal pervasion of the buddha-fields in the ten directions, all by the attainment of nonbeing, nonabiding, and nondoing [and] by the realization of this mystic power of nondoing I walk, stand, sit, and lie down in the sky . . . I go through walls unhindered, as through empty space." This Mahayana scripture depicts the unfolding development of the bodhisattvas, and of their various capabilities for helping suffering beings. Sam too must learn how to hold his mind in the light of new realities before he can actually aid Molly.

The subway ghost tells Sam to focus his energy. When Sam asks "how?" the ghost sounds like a Zen master as he says, "I don't know How to focus. Just focus." The ghost then tells Sam to bring his energy and all his anger and emotions into his belly, indicating the hara, used as a focusing point in Japanese Zen meditation. When Sam, in spite of himself, finally succeeds in pushing a can, his ghost master bursts forth with a grudging but sincere "Way to go, kid." But Sam must still practice more and learn patience, a key Buddhist practice. The ghost says, "Give it time. What else have you got." But Sam is a quick study. As the subway ghost seems to warm up and become almost human, Sam asks how long he has been there and what happened to him. The ghost again descends to furious rage about how he was pushed, that it wasn't his time, and he flees Sam. This figure not only teaches Sam how to take his own power in his new ghostly realm, but also demonstrates the endless futility of regret and anger at his fate.

More importantly than the small though pivotal character of the subway ghost, Sam also elicits the assistance of psychic Oda Mae Brown. Played by Whoopi Goldberg, who won a well-deserved best supporting actress Oscar for the part, Oda Mae is a fake psychic con-artist who actually does have "the gift", much to her own surprise. Looking for help, Sam stumbles into her "Spiritual Advisor" salon, and comments sarcastically on her fakery. Both are surprised that she can actually hear Sam. Whoopi Goldberg is marvelous throughout the film, much of its often hilarious humor revolving around her resistance to Sam's various efforts to enlist her aid in warning and protecting Molly from danger. Oda Mae can hear but not see Sam. At one point Sam secures Oda Mae's assistance by keeping her up all night singing (badly) the monotonous "I'm Henry VIII, I am".

Sam must convert Oda Mae to faith in the spiritual realm beyond the material world. With special irony, Oda Mae expresses the motif for all the main characters of overcoming skepticism, as she must come to accept her own psychic gifts that she had previously mocked with her fraudulent conning of na´ve believers. From a Buddhist perspective this irony is appropriate. Buddhist understanding and faith is fundamentally not about attaining some new realization or state of being, but about uncovering the underlying Buddha Nature, or innate kindness and wisdom, which is usually covered over by the obstructions of our conditioned patterns of greed, hatred, and ignorance. As Oda Mae tries to cope with the voice she is hearing, she muses to her sisters (accomplices in her con-games), "My mother had it; my mother's mother had it. They both had the gift. They always said I had it, but I never did. ? They told me all about it, but now that I got it, I don't think I want it." Oda Mae must conquer her own ignorance and doubt to claim her true spiritual powers, which she had long mocked in a fraud that only betrayed her underlying awareness. Even when she has accepted her psychic gifts, Oda Mae mugs and grimaces as she persists in resisting Sam's schemes to revenge his death (and save Molly). Oda Mae's interactions with Sam are usually highly amusing, even in the face of danger and tragedy, but her transformation from doubt to underlying trust reflects a key aspect of Buddhist practice.

Within Buddhism there are a range of responses to the spiritual powers that sometimes arise as side-effects of meditation. As the ninth of the ten transcendent practices, or paramitas, the practice of powers is at the service of prajna paramita, or the perfection of insightful wisdom. In bodhisattva practice, special powers, or even our own best natural powers or capacities, are dedicated to furthering awareness of spiritual reality and to alleviating afflictions. Once she has accepted her special powers, Oda Mae must learn to use them beneficially, first to help Sam and Molly. Upon successfully assisting Sam in a part of his revenge scheme, Oda Mae is excited to find herself with a large sum of money. But Sam insists that she relinquish it; such powers are not for the purpose of personal gain but only for the benefit of others. The Zen tradition takes a particularly critical view of spiritual powers, as epitomized by the slogan of the great Chinese adept Layman Pang, who said that his spiritual power was chopping wood and carrying water. Just to take care of ordinary everyday affairs is the true spiritual power. And Sam cannot effectively engage his powers until he accepts them as just an ordinary, everyday aspect of his new situation. One of the biggest challenges for Oda Mae and Sam is to persuade Molly of the truth of Sam's presence. Demi Moore's performance is subtle and poignant as she wavers between her longing for Sam and her incredulity at the possibility of his nearness after his death. Molly initially insists that she does not believe in life after death. But as Oda Mae, coached by Sam, relays intimate details of their life together that only Sam could know (the green underwear that she wrote her name in; the sweater she knitted four sizes too big), Molly goes back and forth between overcoming her doubts, and by being swayed by the dismissal of those around her, including information about Oda Mae's unseemly past provided by the police. These plot elements reflect the need for Molly to develop faith in the spiritual, in something beyond the material realm, in wider dimensions of reality.

"Ghost" is fundamentally a powerful love story, a tale of love that transcends death. Sam's murder happens in the middle of a conversation with Molly in which she has told him that she wants to get married. She asks if he loves her. But he can only say "What do you think?" He has heretofore only been able to say "Ditto" when Molly has declared her love. (This word, from Oda Mae, will help convince Molly of Sam's presence later on.) Sam protests to Molly that "People say 'I love you' all the time and it doesn't mean anything." Throughout the movie he seeks the true spiritual meaning of love. Tragically, it is in the midst of this mutual questioning and doubt about their love that Sam is killed.

Yet even if Sam and Molly have difficulty acknowledging their love to each other, the audience believes it. In an early scene, Molly, who is an artist and potter, is working at her potter's wheel in her studio while Sam sits behind her, and helps guide her hands over the wet clay with his. The ensuing scene, featuring the song "Unchained Melody", is highly sensual, but also very persuasive about the deep emotions the couple shares.

Sam's hesitation in the scene just before he is attacked seems to reflect self-doubt, a disbelief that he is truly worthy of receiving love from Molly, whom he clearly loves. Through his persistent efforts as a ghost, Sam proves to himself as much as to Molly that he truly loves. Through his renunciation of rest in peace, and his resolute determination to protect Molly, Sam the ghost learns faith in his own ability to love. He proves to himself that love can transcend life and death. He even is able to finally say it straight to Molly. In some ways the movie succeeds most fully by appealing to the best hopes and aspirations of the audience. At his final departure when all is revealed, Sam verifies the power and persistence of karma as taught in Buddhism when he says to Oda Mae and Molly, "It's amazing Molly. The love inside, you take it with you." Although the story is in many ways a tragedy, inasmuch as Sam and Molly irrevocably lose their life of love together, their love, and the transcendent possibility of love, is cathartically affirmed in the end.

In part, Sam in his journey as a ghost is motivated by revenge, like the ghost of Hamlet's father calling out, "Revenge my death." However, unlike the ghost in Hamlet, Sam carries out his own plans, with the assistance of Oda Mae. But Sam finally lets go of his vengeance and realizes compassion. He even sympathizes with his enemy, who, too late, has a brief innocent realization of the spiritual reality of the afterlife before receiving his own just karmic reward, again affirming the Buddhist idea of the inevitability of karma.

The movie's conclusion in some ways might easily be seen as a too-perfect, schmaltzy Hollywood ending. But the ending works for the audience because of the major characters' hard-won transformations to faith and acceptance, and also because it presents a clear teaching of karma, in accord with Buddhist principles. All the characters receive their appropriate rewards. In the Buddhist view of karma, everybody ultimately receives what their actions merit, but often not in this current life. So sometimes, as we all know, bad actions bring material rewards, and good people suffer horribly and unjustly. The Buddhist teaching is that eventually, sometimes perhaps in the distant future, everybody is given their just due. In "Ghost", it happens before the end credits, to the audience's satisfaction.

Perhaps the main spiritual issue of the movie is faith. In Buddhism, faith is not belief in some doctrine, but the activity of trust and the willingness to just take the next step. In "Ghost", Sam, Molly, and Oda Mae each learn to find inner trust, and to proceed as they must to fully express their love.