I always thought I’d see a ghost at Wat Pa Sukato. Something about the crushing darkness of the red dirt paths of the forest monastery and the stars and moon wiped away by monsoon clouds made the vines and trees feel cavernous. The white beam of my headlamp would swing back and forth every night, searching for possible demons along the path back to my hut.
An Ohioan girl, I lived in Thailand for a summer when I was 11. Thai Buddhists believe that everything, alive or not, has a spirit. I listened aghast as the abbot, Phra Paisal Visalo, put his hand on a gnarled tree trunk and described how there was a spirit inside. Too nervous to ask this benevolent man in saffron orange robes whether the spirits were good or bad, I found myself apologizing to plants I stepped on, asking their spirits to forgive me. I thought seeing a ghost might be interesting, but asked, respectfully, that the spirits keep themselves hidden from me. I’d probably pass out if they materialized.
One day, I was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with my feet hanging over the wooden boardwalk crossing the lily pond. “I love that book,” a soft voice said behind me. Phra Paisal stood over my shoulder, smiling slightly. I couldn’t believe he read Harry Potter. He sat cross-legged a few feet from me and we chatted about the book and the scary scene I was reading about the Forbidden Forest.
“It’s not too different from the forest here,” I said. “At least at night.”
“Ah, but nothing here is planning to hurt you,” he said. “Maybe we have some snakes, but they’re usually afraid. The last tigers and elephants left years ago.”
“What about the spirits?” I asked. He seemed puzzled.
“You said everything, every tree has a spirit,” I replied.
He chuckled. “Yes, but they aren’t evil. They are not good either, they simply exist. A spirit is just a . . . how do I say . . . life force. It’s what makes the tree a tree.”
We looked out over the green water and firm lotus pads. Phra Paisal was quiet, and I heard the slow beat of his breathing keep time with the cicadas’ hum. “People are afraid when they choose to be afraid,” Phra Paisal continued. “When they are not being in the present moment, realizing that a tree is just a tree, they allow the tree to look like a man with a knife or a tall snake.” This made me a little angry—sure, I was afraid to walk back at night, but I wasn’t choosing to be scared. And I wasn’t hallucinating either. I glanced over and noticed how thin he was, with a collar bone like folded paper.
“It is the same by day, or outside the woods,” he said, his thin lips pursed into a small smile. “If you are always full of worry for something in the future or regretting something in the past, you begin to see that worry all around you.” He narrowed his eyes in concentration, and as little lines fanned away from the corners of his lids I wondered if the wrinkles came from smiling or from contemplating too much. He chose his words carefully, his tone lilting like waves. “If you worry someone does not like you, you may see anger in their voice that is not actually there.”
At this, I recalled the times I’d worry for hours about a “look” a girl in my math class gave my new haircut, or when I ate food I didn’t order because I was too nervous to tell the waitress. Later I’d recognize those fears as social anxiety, a misery made completely in my head.
“If you are not mindful, you will create nightmares that are not real, even in the day,” he said.
A gong rang in the distance and Phra Paisal rose. The boards creaked slightly under his bare feet as he walked down the bridge. Suddenly I realized I’d forgotten to bow to him as he was leaving; I hoped he wouldn’t hold it against me.
A few hours later, I was stumbling out of my hut at 3 a.m., late for morning chanting. I took a deep breath and followed the vibration of low voices through the earth beneath my feet. Each step felt familiar. I had walked this path many times. I focused solely on not tripping, and not until my butt was numb on my meditation cushion did I realize I had left my headlamp in the hut and been just fine. I was more afraid when the light gave me the freedom to imagine what was in the darkness than when I only had time to feel out every movement and not fall.