I was once asked by a Christian priest how I would approach the pastoral care of a person suffering from ‘possession’. In other words, a man, woman or child who was assumed to have had their mind and body ‘invaded’ by a demonic entity. I surprised this enquirer by stating that in Asia – this type of thing is not unknown and happens outside the influence of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Christian priest (a member of the Catholic clergy) was surprised by my answer as he thought that ‘possession’ only happened to Christians who were a) ‘baptised’, and b) ‘devout’. He explained that the devil attacks those who love god the most – or who are so innocent and pure (‘god-like’) that the devil resents their presence in the world and sends his minions to sully this purity. I was only vaguely aware of these things at the time. My understanding was distinctly ‘Chinese’ because that was the cultural milieu within which I was raised. Demons – or negative beings trapped in a hellish realm through their own accumulated bad karma – sometimes develop the ability to temporarily enter the mind and body of a living-being in this realm. This is what I knew then with any great certainty.
Regardless of how disruptive these occupations can be – they can only ever be temporary as the entity involved is already ‘disembodied’. This does not mean the ‘possession’ will not last a long-time – but it is a mistake to assume an attitude of ‘permanency’ as such an idea makes no contextual sense. The problem arises from the ‘disruption’ such an unwanted or uninvited occupation causes for the individual concerned, their family and broader community (as on rare occasions – the death of those possessed is recorded). The person ‘possessed’ tends to give-up regular life and may stop washing, dressing, proper toileting and interacting. Much of the time may involve violent or sudden outbursts of screaming, strange talking and abrupt (dangerous) actions of the body (this sudden ‘violence’ explains why many such people end-up tied to a bed for their own safety). Emitting strange guttural sounds and speaking in different voices is common – as is expressing unexpected languages. Some people appear to regress into an animal state and ‘growl’ all the time whilst walking on all fours, etc. Muscular contortion is normal – as the individual twisting his or her arms, legs and spine into unusual positions (a type of ‘instant’ yoga). Undisciplined defaecation and urination are normal as the sufferer no longer retains any control (or ‘awareness’) of their body in a conventional sense that is conditioned by social norms. Social norms no longer apply in the state of demonic possession.
The theological position involves the idea that malignant spirits (linked to a negative divine entity) enter the mind and body of a living victim – for reasons unknown (but which can be speculated). Buddhism links this to karmic entities – whilst Daoism allows for polytheistic gods and spirits, etc. The modern medical position is that none of this religious explanation is correct and that the cause of this illness is generated within the mind and body at the chemical level – conditioned by external experiences, etc. Ancient religion and modern science offer two valid interpretations of the malady and it is up to us to frequent ourselves with all the knowledge available. Belief in a particular religion is not required to study the history, culture, theology and philosophy of each religious tradition (which millions still take literally). Know your subject thoroughly and prepare yourself suitably before getting directly involved in any issues of mental health or supposed demonic possession.
The Chinese Ch’an Master does not accept any of this. He or she sits manifesting an open and expansive conscious mind that is indifferently ‘aware’ whilst simultaneously ‘embracing’ all of the universe. This consciousness is free of all vestiges of greed, hatred and delusion, and is ‘empty’ of any permanent notions of a permanent self. All physical phenomena are understood to ‘arise’ and ‘fall away’ within this Great Void. As the Ch’an Master is neither ‘attached’ to the void nor ‘hindered’ by phenomena – the supposed ‘demon’ has absolutely no way of reinforcing its delusionary manifestation in the presence of the Master. The Master may sit and quietly meditate – using a radiating ‘prajna’ (Profound Wisdom) to undermine the manifestation and return it to its ‘empty essence’ (thus ‘dissolving’ it) – or assist the ‘uprooting’ process by chanting a suitable mantra or section from a sutra. In this context, demons are overcome through the application of a disciplined ‘patient endurance’ and a ‘zeal’ for perfected practice. An ordained monk or nun might also use the ‘spiritual force’ accumulated through their practice of the Vinaya Discipline over a long period of time. This grants them the ‘moral right’ to uproot a demon, etc.