All Souls Day

by Waverly Fitzgerald

Weather Report, November 2

All Souls’, blustery and chill. I hear them before I see them, six lines scribbling across the white sky. I look up at the tiny crosses beating above me. The pain is new each year, and I’m surprised, even though I expect it the sudden cold, the geese passing over.

From Dakota by Kathleen Norris

I love Kathleen Norris’ simple but striking evocation of the mood of November 2nd. The melancholy of the geese passing overhead, warns of the arrival of winter and resonates with the image of the Wild Hunt, the horde of wandering souls that flew through the winter night sky, sometimes disguised as swans or wild geese or the wind. In Scandinavia, they were led by Odin, in England by Herne the Hunter, but in earlier times, in the Mediterranean they were led by goddesses.

The Wild Horde itself was a complex phenomenon whose origins lose themselves partly in the prehistoric past. There was the assembly of ghosts under the leadership of a female divinity, Hecate or Artemis in ancient Greece, Diana or Herodias, the mother of Salome, in the Latin West. This gathering of feminine spirits which later swelled into the crowd of evil hags at the witch sabbath was well known to the theologians of the first millenium who in vain flung their anathema against it…

As usual the effort was in vain. For as late as 1484 the Austrian Sephanius Lanzkranna reports in his ‘hymmelstrasse’ about the exploits of the Demon Dyana, whom he identifies with the local demons Frawe Percht and Frawe Holt. Herodias herself rides to the present day with the Wild Horde in large parts of Italy and in the Eastern Alps…Ritual performances meant to embody ghosts of the defunct–a feature not mentioned by writers of the first millenium–have survived over a large part of the eastern Alps under the name of Perchta, a feminine demon in whom the spirit of the Carnival is incarnated. [Bernheimer]

Bernheimer points out that the masculine Wild Horde, led by Odin, Holler, Gwyn ap Nudd, etc. is a more or less Teutonic phenomenon while the feminine one seems to be of Mediterranean origin. It may be the northern male-led horde grew out of the Southern female-led one.

In his book, Ecstasies, in which he explores the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, Carlos Ginzburg describes evidence for an early shamanic cult, centered around a goddess of abundance and the dead. She was known by many names: Herodiade, Diana, Habondia (Abundance), Richessa and the Good Goddess (Bona Dea whose festival the Romans celebrated on December 1st). Her devotees said they flew with her through the night sky, entering the houses of the rich to feast; Ginzburg suggest these journeys were undertaken in trance.

The Cathars, who developed a unique Christian religion which flourished in Southern France in the 11th and 12th centuries until wiped out as heresy by a Crusade in the 13th century, believed that this was the day when the souls of those who died during the year entered into a place of rest. Before this day, they wandered around the earth, from church to church. Angels chose from this flock those ready to be admitted to the place of rest. The living could influence the selection by saying Masses for the dead, paying off their debts and giving gifts to the poor.

This is similar to the tradition of English tradition of going from house to house, gathering ingredients for soul-cakes. Sometimes these were left out for the poor to eat, sometimes given to the priest to pay for Masses for the souls of the dead, sometimes they were given to those professionals who took on the sins of the dead, as in this passage quoted by Kightly:

In the County of Hereford was an old Custom at Funerals, to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the Sins of the part deceased. One of them I remember (he was a long, lean, lamentable poor rascal). The manner was that when a Corpse was brought out of the house and laid on the Bier; a Loaf of bread was brought out and delivered to the Sin-eater over the corps, as also a Mazer-bowl full of beer, which he was to drink up, and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him all the Sins of the Defunct, and freed him (or her) from Walking after they were dead.

John Aubrey, Remains of Gentilism 1688

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church tried to replace the idea of ghosts wandering around the night sky with that of souls who went straight to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory upon death and thus could not be contacted by those spiritual practitioners whose role it was to pass along messages from one world to another. With this development, the link was broken between people and their ancestors, who could no longer be prayed to or invited to return to provide advice.

Instead, wealthy patrons bestowed money on monasteries for the privilege of having the monks pray for their souls after death. In 998, the abbot of Cluny, Odilo, dedicated the day following All Saints Day as a day of psalm-singing and alms-giving, in memory of all who had died. One legend says he was spurred on in this action by a report from a traveler who had been told by an African hermit that the monks of Cluny were famous for saving souls. Another legend, related by the thirteenth century canonist, William Durandus, recorded the fate of a certain abbot who forbade saying Masses of the dead on Sundays. The souls of the deceased “afflicted him for this with very hard blows” and so he revoked his prohibition.

The dead saints replaced the ancestors as the subject of prayers and other-worldly assistance. The only dead still presumed to have contact with the living were evil spirits who still roamed the earth. They were not the sort you wanted to encounter on a dark night, thus the association of All Hallow’s Eve with ghosts and terror.

An excerpt from my Halloween holiday e-book which can be ordered at the Living in Season store.


The first painting is called All Soul’s Day and it was painted in 1910 by Alader Korosfoi-Kriesch. The second painting is called Asgardreien and was painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.


Bernheimer, Richard, Wild Men of the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology, Octagon 1970

Ginzburg, Carlos (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Pantheon 1991

Kightly, Charles, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987

Ladurie, Roy (translated by Barbara Bray), Montaillou, George Braziller 1978

Norris, Kathleen, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Houghton Mifflin 1993.

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Spiced Pumpkin Bread

Photo by K. May-Price

by Kathryn May-Price

In late October, the earth is strewn in fallen leaves, spread like skirts around the bases of trees to die. Their slow breakdown will nourish another season’s growth. This is when the end leads to a beginning in nature.

I’m especially reflective in the autumn and I hunger for foods that are nourishing to the soul as well as the belly. I love this time of year so much, I got married in late October. And no, I don’t miss the significance of my marriage (a new beginning) falling around the time when we celebrate the Day of the Dead or Halloween.

Like any celebration, there are food traditions – and Halloween is much more than king-sized candy bars (though delicious). In the Day of the Dead tradition, we cook for those loved ones we have lost.  This can mean laying out altars (ofrendas) of favorite and fragrant foods meant to entice the old souls with a wafting supplication – “Come and visit for few days.” When we feast on such foods in our loved ones honor, we are reminded that not only are we nourished by the food, but we were (and continue to be) nourished by the presence of those loved ones in our lives.

“The Secret to Marital Bliss,” AKA Spiced Pumpkin Bread

Adapted from the Bon Appetit recipe

2 cups sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 16oz can pumpkin

2 cups all purpose flour

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 tsp of each – cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda

½ tsp each – salt and baking powder

½ cup each – chopped walnuts and chopped dried dates

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter and flour two 9x5x3” loaf pans.  Beat sugar and oil in large bowl to blend.  Mix in eggs and pumpkin.  Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt, and baking powder in another large bowl.  Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions. Mix in walnuts and dates.  Divide batter evenly between pans. Bake until fork inserted into center come out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes.  Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes.

This is one of our favorite recipes to usher in the autumn season. Eat one loaf immediately, wrap the other in aluminum foil and freeze for up to one month.

Kate is an educator, artist, gardener, and cook carrying on her family’s culinary history by following her nose. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Her websites are Pen, Trowel, & Fork and Mozart’s Nose.

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An Ancestor Shrine

by Erin Fossett

When it comes to decorating our homes this time of year, our thoughts often turn to pumpkins, black cats and fake cobwebs. I enjoy decorating for Halloween, but also feel a call to observe the deeper meaning of the holiday.

The feast of Halloween originated with the festival of Samhain (sow’un), the Celtic new year, in which the veil between the worlds was said to be thinner. Samhain Eve was an opportune time to contact the spirit world, often through scrying, that is, seeking a vision in a mirror or a bowl of water. It was also a night to honor those friends and relatives who had passed onto the next world themselves. For this reason, I like to include a shrine to my own ancestors among my Halloween decorations.

My shrine is a small table that sits in my living room, near the piano that belonged to my great-grandmother. I cover the table with a silk cloth, and then lay out photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents and any friends or family members who have passed on. Other ideas for decorating your shrine might include a copy of your family tree, or favorite items that remind you of your loved ones. I include a brooch that my Grandma Mary gave to me when I was a little girl, a pen my grandfather used and an offshoot of an asparagus fern plant that sprouted from one at my grandmother Anna Mae’s house. I also decorate my shrine with candles and flowers, especially marigolds, considered the flowers of the dead in Mexican culture.

Each night in late October, before going to bed, I light the candles and spend a quiet moment thinking of my family members, those I knew and those whom I never had a chance to know. I thank them for all of their hard work and dedication, the struggles many of them underwent to come to America, to raise their children and provide for their families. My great-grandparents were ethnic German refugees who fled the steppes of Russia just before World War I and settled on a farm in eastern Colorado. One of their sons married my Irish grandmother Anna Mae, whose own mother had sold flowers on street corners in Denver when she was only twelve years old. My Grandma Mary, on the other hand, grew up in an Oklahoma orphanage where her Hungarian immigrant mother worked as a seamstress, and she lived through the Dust Bowl. Thinking of their struggles, and their resilience, I honor them for all that they sacrificed, and for how they influenced who I am today.

For me, this moment with my memories and my gratitude is a way of tying into the cycle and continuity of life, and of dealing with some of the emotions that the falling leaves and grayer skies may inevitably bring forth. This shrine also provides a wonderful opportunity to talk to my own children about my grandparents and other family members they never had a chance to meet.

I also like to honor my relatives by making old family recipes or favorite foods from our traditions. These might include corned beef and cabbage in honor of my Irish grandmother, or potato dumplings in remembrance of my German-Russian great-grandmother. One year I even undertook a homemade pumpkin pie, even making the pie crust from scratch as my Grandma Mary used to do. Food is a wonderful way to share memories and carry on traditions, and as the smells fill the house I can almost imagine I will find my own grandmother at work in the kitchen, telling stories and giving treats to the children.

Erin Fossett is a freelance fiction writer and editor living in Colorado. Her fiction has been awarded by the Colorado Council on the Arts. She provides writing coaching and editing services through wild Word Writing and can be reached at wildwordmedia AT msn DOT com.

All photos by Erin Fossett.

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Making a Turnip Lantern

The turnip lantern was probably the Celtic predecessor of the American Halloween pumpkin. In Ireland and Scotland, on Halloween children went souling with turnip lanterns or kail-runt torches (a candle stuck in the hollowed-out stem of a cabbage). In Somerset, on Punky Night (October 25) children paraded with lanterns made of hollowed-out mangel-wurzels (a type of beet), with the shells carved into faces and other designs.

Folklorist Ronald Hutton believes the lit lanterns represent the flickering lights seen in marshes which are believed to be the souls of unbaptized children.

Supposedly these vegetable lanterns were once used to guide people home from a fair in a neighboring village but it seems also possible that, like candles in windows, they were used to welcome the souls of the dead, returning at this time of the year. Folklorist Ronald Hutton believes the lit lanterns represent the flickering lights seen in marshes which are believed to be the souls of unbaptized children. In eastern England, Jack O’Lantern is another name for the marsh flames, which are called “spunkies” or “punkies” in Somerset.

Marian McNeill provides instructions on how to make a turnip lantern in The Silver Bough:

  1. Choose a large, round turnip. (The turnip chosen for carving was probably the rutabaga or swede, not the smaller round turnip that is usually sold under that name in the United States.)
  2. Cut a thick slice–about a quarter of the whole–off the top.
  3. Scoop out the inside, preferably with a spoon, taking care not to break the skin but making the shell as thin as possible. Leave a stump at the bottom and hollow it out to serve as a socket for the candle.
  4. With a fine, sharp knife, etch a design on the turnip. Be careful not to cut through the skin. Suggested: a man-in-the-moon face, a skull and cross-bones, etc.
  5. Get a candle and set it firmly in the socket.
  6. Make two holes near the top, one on each side of the face.
  7. Thread a piece of string or wire through the holes to act as a handle. It should be long enough to prevent any risk of burning one’s hand. A forked stick can also be used with the lantern suspended from the two branches of the V.

According to McNeill, the lit lantern emits a soft, luminous glow and the device you have carved stands out clearly. It is definitely more eerie, and certainly more unique, than the traditional jack o’lantern and would be a new challenge for those of you who have mastered the art of pumpkin carving.

Margaret Oomen describes how she created an artistic version of a turnip lantern at her blog, Resurrection Fern. Her lantern is much more like those carried on Punky Night in Somerset as described by Christina Hole: “Instead of the simple holes for eyes and nose of the usual Hallowtide ‘face,’ quite intricate flower-, ship-, or animal-patterns are cut on the outer skin of the mangold.” Punky Night is still celebrated in Hinton St. George on the last Thursday in October. After the procession, the carved vegetables are displayed and judged. See this blog entry for an account of the festivities in 2008.

...definitely more eerie, and certainly more unique, than the traditional jack o'lantern

Here’s a funny link with good photos of turnip lanterns from someone who complains about the terrible stench of a burning turnip. Another reason to choose a pumpkin. He also suggests using a pepper, while Oomen mentions the possibility of carving a potato. They would certainly be easier to carve. And probably smell better.

In a hot debate about the relative merits of the turnip or the pumpkin at this Manx web site where Halloween is called Hop tu Naa, there’s a mention that in Peel on the Isle of Man, the turnips carved are the swede turnips (rutabagas in America) which have a long root you can hold in your hand, like a torch, rather than suspending the turnip from a string as in the directions above.

Photo of turnip lantern uploaded by Geni at

Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs
Hutton, Ronald, The Stations of the Sun
McNeil, Marian, The Silver Bough, Volume 3

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Days of the Dead

The Tzeltals of Mexico celebrate the Feast of the Dead for thirteen days, beginning on October 25th. Graves are decorated with pine needles and tusus (yellow wild flowers).

In Puebla, the accidentados (the souls of those who died in accidents) return on October 28th, followed by the angelitos (the souls of dead children) who show up at noon on October 31, to be followed by the souls of dead adults on November 1. This sequence probably derives from the Aztec calendar which devoted two months to the dead: the ninth month to dead infants, the tenth month to dead adults.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life.

The Aztecs did not fear death like European Christians, for whom it was a time of judgment. The Aztecs saw death as a phase in a cyclic journey. In fact, to die was to wake from the dream of life. In the Yucatan, the Maya bury their dead with food, drink, clothing and other things they will need on their journey to the place of the dead.

The combination of the indigenous reverence for death with the Catholic holidays of All Saints and All Souls brought to Mexico by the Spaniards in 1521 produced a flowering of ritual and art in Mexico around the time of this holiday. Vendors sell skeletons made of paper mache or clay and wire with cotton wool hair, dressed as postmen, revolutionaries, street vendors, wedding couples and musicians and macabre toys, like clay skulls with movable lower jaws or skeletons that dance on a string. In Oaxaca, you can turn a handle and watch skeletons in small painted wooden theatres rise up in their coffins or drink from a cup. Printers make special editions and comic publications, satirizing famous people both dead and alive, who are depicted in skeleton or skull form with satirical obituaries, describing the person and his (mis)deeds.

Children beg for “a funeral” or “a death” and are given treats like bones made of milk chocolate and sugar skulls with maraschino cherries for eyes and grins of syrup and rows of fine gold teeth, sometimes bearing their name. One visitor to Mexico in 1884 remarked on figures in the shape of guitars, sheep, angels, souls in purgatory (I’d like to see this!) and animals “of every species, enough to form specimens for Noah’s ark.”


Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar.

The Days of the Dead are a time of reunion. People travel home. Altars are set up in houses, and decorated with flowers, leaves, fruit, incense and candles.  Sometimes flower petals are scattered in a path from the altar to the open door to guide the returning dead.

Ofrendas, offerings, to the dead of food and drink are placed on the altar. The dead derive nourishment from the smell of the food and drink so it should have a strong aroma. Starr mentions liquors, cigarettes, mole, pulque and tamales. Anita Brenner in Idols Behind Altars mentionfoodonaltars beans, chili, tortillas, and other ordinary dishes plus the specialties of the season: “pumpkins baked with sugar cane, pulque or a bluish maize-brew with a delicate sugar film, and Dead Mens’ Bread. For the children, candy skulls, pastry coffins, ribs and thigh-bones made of chocolate and frosted sugar, tombstones, wreaths, and pretentious funerals.”

Everyone goes to church. Masses are said. Genealogies recited. On the night of November 1, people gather in cemeteries and spend the night with “the little dead ones.” A priest might come and sprinkle the graves with holy water. Candles burn on every grave which are decorated with offerings and flowers. Brenner mentions heavy purple wild blossoms and the yellow pungent cempoalxochitl (marigolds). In Zinacantan, the graves are covered with pine needles, pine boughs and red geraniums and offerings. In Jimenez, people bring the bed in which the person died to the cemetery, hung with lace and curtains, white for children and black for adults. Those who have no beds take tables and place them over the grave instead, decorating them with gold and silver paper stars, paper flowers, etc. Sometimes bands serenade the dead with songs and music. In other places, people dance. Refreshments are sold at the gate.cemetery2

In San Augustin, the children gather at the church early in the morning of October 31st. From there, they walk to the graveyard, carrying a banner depicting the Eucharist, bread angels and green branches, accompanied by a prayer-maker and a few women and a band. In the graveyard, they say prayers and then return to the church, bringing back with them the souls of the angelitos, the dead children. After praying a second time, they go home to feast with their parents on mole, tamales, bread, squash, fruits, pumpkin prepared with brown sugar, maize cobs and other foods. At night four dishes are put on the floor of the house, together with candles, flowers and food for the dead. Bread and fruit are put on a “sun-and-water” bed made from maize stalks. Candles and tiny angels are left on the dry stone walls and fences so that the village children can come and carry them off. Animals are watched to make sure they don’t eat the offerings; dogs are sometimes muzzled during this holiday so their barking doesn’t drive away tcemetery3he dead. In the morning, the family eats the food left out for the dead and prepares another feast for the dead adults. On the third day, November 2nd, the children, along with the prayer-maker and the band, take the dead back to the graveyard.

Brenner, Anita, Idols behind Altars. Beacon Press 1970, quoted in Sayer
Sayer, Chloe, ed, Mexico: The Day of the Dead, London: Redstone Press
Starr, Frederick, from a catalogue for the Collection of Objects Illustrating the Folklore of Mexico, produced for the Folkore Society in London quoted by Sayer

The beautiful photographs were taken by Judy Maselli in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Taken from my Halloween holiday e-book which contains recipes for sugar skulls and bones of the dead, plus more information on other cultural variants of this holiday including I Morti in Italy, Samhain in Ireland, Nos Galan Gaef in Wales. You can order it and get an instant download link at my store.

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Gathering of Ghosts & Demons

A Gathering of Ghosts and Demons: Generosity and Realization in Tibetan Buddhism

by Karma Norjin Lhamo

Show me a culture without ghosts and spirits, and I’ll show you an alien culture—something not of this Earth—because stories of things spooky and strange, seen and unseen, are found everywhere, in all belief systems. And the explanations of such haunting phenomena are as varied as the cultures that give birth to these magical stories.

The banshees of Ireland and the Scottish highlands, who warn families of impending death with otherworldly cries and laments, are thought to be the ghosts of women who died in childbirth. The Japanese yurei, also female ghosts, are trapped by powerfully gripping emotions in an intermediate state between life and death. In the Voudon tradition of Haiti, zombies are acknowledged to be reanimated corpses brought back to a kind of life by skilled magicians. And of course, there are the countless stories of vampires who suck the life force from their victims—perhaps a reflection of the universal experience of being around people who drain us of our energy?

So it comes as no surprise that the world of Tibetan Buddhism is populated with its share—if not more than its share!—of ghosts, demons, ghouls, and otherworldly beings. What is different in the Buddhist tradition, however, is the explanation of these phenomena.

One of the best windows into the sometimes-spooky world of Tibetan Buddhism was opened to us by the Tibetan woman, Machik Labdron (or Machig Lapdron), who lived in the 11th century.  Machik, whose name means “One Mother,” fused the Indian Buddhist tradition of chod with her own visionary experiences to create a special practice, the Chod of Mahamudra.

The most spectacular part of the practice, lu jin or “charity of the body,” is an eerie visualization that involves offering one’s own body as food for worldly and otherworldly beings—an extreme, supreme act of generosity. The aims of the practice, however, are eminently practical:  to benefit other beings and to overcome the self-fixation that Buddhists hold to be the source of so many of our problems.

MachikThangkaSmallMachik herself is a magical being, a wisdom dakini—a human embodiment of the essence of enlightened mind. And her popularity in modern times begins with a ghostly story. Here is how Tsultrim Allione, the author of Women of Wisdom who has recently been recognized as an emanation of Machik Labdron, describes one of her first experiences with this dakini.

…I was in California at a group retreat given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. One night we were doing the Chod practice, and at a certain point, when we were invoking the presence of Machig, visualizing her as a youthful white dakini, a wild-looking old woman suddenly appeared very close to me. She had grey hair streaming up from her head, and she was naked, with dark golden-brown skin. Her breasts hung pendulously and she was dancing. She was coming out of a dark cemetery. The most impressive thing about her was the look in her eyes. They were very bright, and the expression was one of challenging invitation mixed with mischievous joy, uncompromising strength and compassion. She was inviting me to join her dance.  Afterwards I realized that this was a form of Machig Labdron.1

Machik advises us that the best places to practice chod—also known as severance, as in severance of self-fixation—are the wild and haunted places that create an atmosphere of isolation and fear. Among the guests we invite to the practice are more than a few terrifying apparitions.

The best places to practice chod—also known as severance, as in severance of self-fixation—are the wild and haunted places that create an atmosphere of isolation and fear.

Who among us would not be frightened by the antagonizing enemies, those “unembodied gods and demons who manifest sights and various weird apparitions to the eyes and cause fear and terror and then alarm and horror, with trembling and hairs standing on end”?2

Who wouldn’t feel intimidated by the body demon, an entity that connects with us in the womb and remains with us until our skin and bones separate after death? “It is the lord or owner of this outcaste body made of flesh and blood, a vicious inhuman spirit that says, ‘This is I,” Machik explains. “That bad spirit leads us around by the nose and makes us engage in bad karma.”3

Which of us would not be chilled by contact with nagas, snake-like animals who inhabit waterways and springs, or the eight classes of gyalsen, male king spirits and female demonesses who together symbolize attraction and aversion, two of the Buddhist poisons?

Who wouldn’t be scared silly by the sight of various male and female devils, planetary spirits, death lords, harm-bringers, belly-crawlers, personifications of types of disease, lords of epidemics, and black magic spirits?

And perhaps many of us have felt the unease that comes from bad spirits of haunted places, those spirits who dwell in unsettled places where we may visit or live.

But if we could help them, who among us would fail to offer sustenance to all sentient beings, from beings in hell where they experience unimaginable torture, through the realm of the hungry ghosts—with their huge bodies and tiny throats that deny them the sustenance they crave—up through the animal and human realms to the realms of the gods?

All these frightful and awe-ful beings, and more, are the guests Machik Labdron urges us to invite to the feast of severance.

This emphasis on demons and ghouls in Machik’s practice is no accident—it’s quite deliberate, because directly facing what terrifies us is one way we can awaken from our ignorance, one way we can realize the unbounded wisdom and compassion that are our birthrights as beings who possess, hidden deep in our hearts, the very same nature as the buddhas.

There is a famous story about Milarepa, another Tibetan Buddhist saint who was, coincidentally (or not!), a contemporary of Machik Labdron’s.

Tseringma and her four sisters were female deities. When they first met Milarepa they tried to scare him and they did all kinds of magic tricks to try to frighten Milarepa, but Milarepa was never frightened. He knew that these demons were like demons in a dream when you know you are dreaming. He did not take them to be truly existent and so then they were so impressed with Milarepa that they developed faith in him. They became his students; they became his Dharma Protectors, the protectors of his teachings and they also offered Milarepa siddhis, special powers…

But that is the difference between demons when you don’t know their true nature and demons when you do know their true nature. They go from being malicious to being protectors.

In the end, in fact, there is no such thing as a demon. That is what you recognize in a dream when you dream of a demon and you know you are dreaming. You recognize that there really is no demon there. That is the ultimate nature. There is neither any deity that helps you nor any demon that harms you. Sometimes these supernatural beings are called god demons because if they like you they are like a god and if they do not like you they are like a demon. They can decide. But when you recognize you are dreaming it does not matter what they appear to be. You know their true nature.4

So in the Vajrayana—the form of Buddhism taught in Tibet—we learn that the appearance of demons and ghouls, when not seen through, is a mara or obstacle to enlightenment. Seen through—when we experience our minds directly—these same demons and ghouls become protectors (dharmapalas) and sources of spiritual powers (siddhis) and realization.

Apparitions of male and female demons and ghouls
For as long as your guise has not been seen through are maras.
Obstacle-makers who nothing but trouble spell
If their guise is seen through obstructors are dharmapalas
A hot bed of siddhis of such a variety
In the end, in fact, there are neither gods nor goblins.
Let concepts go as far as they go and no more.
This is as far as they go and no more, he said.5

The appearance of demons and ghouls is, finally, revealed as nothing other than the self-projection of our own minds.

How precious now the idea of seeing a ghost.
It reveals the unborn source, how strange and amazing

So this Halloween—when numerous ghouls and devils and demons and ghosts appear at your door—recognize these frightful sights as reminders of your own mind’s clarity and spaciousness. And then—in the generous spirit of Machik Labdron and Milarepa—offer them some candy.


1Women of Wisdom, Tsultrim Allione, Snow Lion Publications, 2000, pp. 28-29.
2Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chod, translated by Sarah Harding, Snow Lion Publications, 2003, p. 141.
3Ibid., p. 141.
4Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Tampa, Florida, Halloween 2005 (private transcript).
5“Distinguishing the Provisional from the Definitive in the Context of Mahamudra,” a realization song that was taught by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche in Tampa, Florida, Halloween 2005 (private transcript).

Karma Norjin Lhamo is a student of teachers affiiliated with the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage. She has recently had the good fortune to attend a series of teachings about Machik Labdron given by her refuge lama, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. Halloween has always been her favorite holiday. Writing as A Word Witch, she blogs at: She urges people who are interested in learning about Buddhism to seek out a qualified teacher.

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