Thursday, May 20, 2010

Angry ghosts of Vietnam

At night, Sam shakes so violently in the bed that his girlfriend is thrown out. He screams in a language not his own, "Give it back, give it back, give it back, motherfucker, or I'll eat your mother's soul." He isn't willing to believe what he becomes in his sleep until his girlfriend tapes one of these screaming nights. He listens to another man's voice coming from his vocal chords. He knows the stranger's language only slightly, but he has a notion what this is about.

Back in 1968, he was a combat G.I. in Vietnam. After a firefight in which he lost an arm, he was flown out of Khe San. As he was carried onto the plane, one of his buddies pressed a souvenir into his remaining hand. It was the blood-spattered ID card of a Vietcong fighter, retrieved after he was gunned down at the perimeter of an American base; the name has been scratched off.

For decades after the war, Sam holds onto this grim memento. through the nightmare years when he is thrown back, night after night, into the hot savagery of the war and is tormented by the searing pain of a phantom limb that - strangely - is not his missing arm but what feels like an extra leg. He takes the Vietcong ID card with him when he returns to Vietnam as a tourist in the mid-1990s, falls in love with a Vietnamese girl and decides to settle in Hanoi with her and work as an electrician. In Hanoi, his nightmares are no longer inside him; they are spilling over into the waking life of his bedmate.

Her culture has prepared her to recognize this kind of problem. Her Texas boyfriend is bi benh ta, "made ill by a ghost." There is a name for this type of ghost in Vietnam. It is called con ma or "angry ghost". There are a lot of them. Five million Vietnamese died in the several phases of war in Indochina, and a further 300,000 are missing. Many of the war dead were never buried, let alone accorded the traditional funeral rites and food and honor at family altars. There are bodies that were literally obliterated by B-52 carpet bombing. The result is many restless, raging souls that envy the living and take out their frustrations in ways that cause illness, depression, crazy behavior and temporary possession.

Where do you go if you are bothered by angry ghosts? Traditionally, in a country where animism is strong, you would go to a diviner or medium to get a correct diagnosis of who is causing your problem, and to a shaman or exorcist to send it away. Though the Communist government has outlawed all forms of spiritual practice, it's still possible to find a medium or a "spirit priest" if you go about it discreetly.

Sam and his girlfriend agree they'll go to a medium whose day job is as a fish vendor in the central market. They travel to her houseboat at night and wait for her all clear signal, a flickering light. In the session, Tuyet covers her face with a white cloth. She uses a scratchy tape of clicks and drums and a weird horn to get herself ready to receive. She starts speaking in a high, eerie voice. "He is Van Nguyen," the voice begins. It describes the death of a 19-year-old Vietcong soldier, killed at the fence of a U.S. base in a welter of blood. Something was taken from his body before it was thrown in a hole and bulldozed over. "Is this him?" Sam holds out the ID card. "Yes, he is very angry." She tells Sam what to do. He must take the card to the boy's mother and make his peace with the family. After Sam does to the mother with the identity card and offerings, his nights are quiet; the ghost no longer needs to scream through his vocal chords.

This is one of the cases recounted, as first-hand testimony and observation, in War and Shadows, a remarkable new book on the war ghosts of Vietnam by Mai Lai Gustafsson. [1] She details no fewer than 190 cases of spirit possession or obsession (a useful old Church term she doesn't actually use). All the others are the experiences of Vietnamese, mostly in Hanoi or the immediate vicinity. She attributes the willingness of so many Vietnamese informants to share their intimate secrets with her to two factors. She is half Vietnamese and (at the time of her fieldwork) she was enormously far (over 300 pounds); she states that the Vietnamese regarded her obesity as a sign that she was a fellow-sufferer from ghost sickness.

“The Vietnam War has had an effect on both this world and the next," writes Gustafsson, memorably. "Long after the peace treaties were signed, the war rages on in both realms: the battlegrounds are living human bodies; its warriors, the enraged ghosts who invade and assault them.” She finds an official high up in the Ministry of Health in Hanoi who is prepared to concede the extent of the problem, contrary to Communist orthodoxy. The war ghosts, he tells her, are "a national health menace." Contrary to its own laws, it seems that the Vietnamese government now employs a select band of psychic mediums to locate missing dead and diagnose and treat egregious cases of ghost sickness.

Gustafsson includes a fascinating table at the end of her book summarizing the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of her informants. Symptoms include head pains, depression and hearing voices to glossolalia, self-mutilation and violence against others. In most cases, the suffererers sought physical treatment - both traditional herbal remedies and Western medicine (when they could afford it) - before seeking a spiritual cure. The ones who found relief from their symptoms, according to Gustafsson's data, are those who found effective ways to placate the angry ghosts and/or relocate them. Appeasing the restless dead might involve making offerings or changing personal behaviors. Methods of relocating souls might include staging a symbolic burial ceremony or "installing a spirit in a Buddhist temple". My favorite example is of a man whose life was blighted by the presence of a deceased friend until he was finally guided to perform a ritual by which the energy of the dead man was transplanted to a bonsai tree.
Gustafsson's information about the laying of ghosts in this second sense is limited because she made a point of not visiting the ritual specialists in the Buddhist pagodas or the gatherings of the popular cult of the Mother Goddesses (called Tu phu, the Religion of the Four Palaces) and does not appear to have had contact with anyone who could properly be termed a shaman, capable not only of channeling or dialoguing with the dead but of taking them where they need to go. She had her reasons - including the valid fear of encounters with the police - in not going further along this road, and must be commended for the great amount of fresh material she was able to collect.

However, the book is flawed by her failure to discuss the anatomy and variety of Vietnamese spirits. She contrasts the con ma (angry ghost) with the to tien (ancestral spirit) that is traditionally honored and fed at family altars, but this is not explored in detail. In Vietnamese animism - as in Chinese traditions, especially Taoism, which have greatly influenced Vietnam - multiple aspects of soul and spirit are recognized. They are identified with different parts of the body and have different destinies after death. For example, in Chinese vocabulary, the po soul, associated with the liver, is a lower entity that must be safely contained after death or it may trouble the living by joining the ranks of the kuei, the wild and hungry ghosts. By contrast, the shen spirit may ascend to higher realms and can function as a benign family helper.

Such distinctions are vital to our practical understanding of how to heal relations with the departed. You can't negotiate with the lower aspect of the dead; you need to get it off the living by other means and put it in a safe place. You can negotiate with a higher aspect of the dead, and in practice this is what is going on in some of Gustafsson's success stories. Making and working such distinctions is the traditional province of the shaman, and we need to revive the shaman's way of identifying, guiding and relocating the spirits because the problem of war ghosts is not confined to Southeast Asia. I chose the example of Sam, the one American in Gustaffson's book, to suggest that dealing with war ghosts may be central to healing the wounded warriors among our vets in the United States and other Western countries.

I know this to be true from personal experience. Many years ago, a Vietnam vet came to one of my workshops. He had been a combat lieutenant and he lost every man in his platoon in a firefight, He had been haunted ever since by terrible dreams in which the ghost soldiers wanted to kill him, screaming at him that he had abandoned and betrayed them. In order to free him - and them - I had to lead and escort him in shamanic lucid dream journeys in which he dialogued, one by one, with the dead soldiers and made peace with them. He then agreed to perform a ritual of symbolic "second burial" to lay to rest the wild and unreasoning lower aspects of the dead.
Mai Lan Gustafsson has performed a distinct service in showing us how the ghosts of a collective tragedy can weigh on an entire people. I congratulate Cornell University Press for publishing this important study by an anthropologist who was not afraid to go "bicultural" twice over, in reporting from two worlds, in two senses.
[1] Mai Lan Gustafsson, War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009)


Wanda Burch said...

I read this book as well and can't add much to your excellent synopsis. Mai Lai offers one lengthy example of a chonology of a haunting, which illustrates the fear the victims feel in accessing old ways of dealing with angry ghosts.
Bui The An - 20 years old - first experiences physical symptoms in the summer of 1979 when deteriorating muscle strength endangers his job as a tiler. He loses his chance to marry his true love, Kim, because his waning strength is seen as immaturity in the view of his future in-laws. Depressed, he moves. The physical symptoms multiply. A new wife dies. Children are born to another wife. An loses jobs, and his new son screams and speaks in a language no one understands. The problem has crossed over to his child. Praying too frequently at a shrine attracts the notice of the police, so An leaves. In a series of misadventures in his wife's attempt to get him physically to the door of a medium, his maladies intensify. Safety is an overwhelming issue, and his family is falling apart. Finally his wife secures the children outside the home and returns to An's side, not giving up. More fear prevents a meeting with the medium. Finally, his health completely wrecked, An needs assistance or he will die. Finally, the medium agrees to come to An's house. There - in a trance - the medium reveals the story of a best childhood friend who had died in a storm, fleeing Vietnam. The solution involved a visit to the site of the death and bringing water back where it was used to nurture a bon sai plant, now carefully tended. This journey to dislodging the ghost of his friend took 20 years, most of the time eaten away by fear of being discovered visiting a medium.
An proudly shows Mai Lai the healthy bon sai - and demonstrates his own good health: "He is in there, you see" - pointing to the tree and equating the health of the tree, daily nurtured, with his own.

Can you imagine what could be done for this country's soldiers if they felt self-permission to explore what they needed to do spiritually in order to free themselves from the ghosts of war!

Robert Moss said...

Wanda, Thanks so much for adding that very instructive case of the man who succeeded (with a medium's counsel) in lifting the ghost sickness that blighted his life and that of his family by getting his dead friend's spirit into a bonsai tree. This is an excellent example of the relocation and safe containment of the leftover energies of the dead that may be essential to healing by the living and the deceased.

An's healing was delayed by the Communist prohibition of spiritual practice. In the West, our healing of similar problems may be a matter of self-prohibition within a culture of denial of the psychospiritual forces relevant to our health or dis-ease. In Vietnam, they know this stuff works but people are frightened to try it because they could run foul of the police. In the West, we've forgotten that it works, but if we try it, we risk only ridicule from those who don't know any better.

You are absolutely correct: there is tremendous healing available to our wounded warriors if they can be assisted to identify and heal the spiritual legacy of war. "Sam" (all of Gustafsson's names are psudonyms) is not the only U.S. soldier who brought something other than a physical keepsake home from a foreign battlefield.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Robert, are you familiar with the work of Edward Tick? I read half of his book, "The Practice of Dream
Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern
Medicine" which dealt with Asklepian dream healing, with an emphasis on his work with Vietnam vets.

On another note the angry ghosts and restless dead remind me of one of the themes you touched in our radio conversation last month: How the aluna around our world has been polluted by the restless dead, and also by the machinations of what the Kogi think of as (evil) sorcerers. As you mention the war ghosts are not confined to Southeast Asia. The problem is pandemic from Kosovo to Baghdad to the Great Plains of North America and into the jungles of Central and South America, etc. etc.

In a culture of mass distraction (from the bigger stories that are hunting us) it also seems possible that even civilians who have left themselve open and vacant might be prey to these discarnate entities and beings who might then latch and feed through various addictions.

All that being said it is very clear that strong dreamers and shamans are needed to spread the dream revival to every corner of the globe. All we have to gain is increased vitality, well being, and a larger scope of purpose.

Robert Moss said...

Justin, Yes I know Ed Tick and respect his work with vets. His book "The Practice of Dream Healing" evokes the Asklepian sites quite vividly.

Yes, every day seems to bring confirmation of the Kogi diagnosis of the pollution of the Aluna (the psychspiritual ecosphere in which we live) by toxic energies and thoughtforms, especially those of unforgiving and often unacknowledged dead.

Worldbridger said...

I can't help but think that much of the trouble in the middle east is due to angry ghost behaviour. No wonder none of the peace road maps have worked.

Robert Moss said...

Worldbridger, I think your comment is spot-on. It seems more than likely - to touch on just one aspect of the problem - that suicide bombers may be driven by the vengeful spirits of previous "martyrs". We need a serious cross-cultural study of the psychospiritual effects of all the collective tragedies relevant to our times. The list will be long.

Wanda Burch said...

I didn’t say enough about the problem with soldiers, such as the ones in this country, who have no direction or established ritual, modern or ancient, to help them dispel ghosts. As you pointed out - and as Ed Tick addresses in his work - it is only recently that this country’s military has begun to acknowledge that a problem exists but are still conflicted and confounded by old macho “values” which will not permit them [the men] to identify and address on a spiritual level. And the male military sets rigid limits on access female soldiers have to spiritual support. Their fear of acknowledgement and release is not the same problem, also as you noted, as that recorded in Mai Lai’s research, but it is fear nonetheless isn’t it? There are small positive changes in this country, baby steps toward recognizing the need to arm the warrior with spiritual tools before he or she goes into battle and providing ritual and spiritual support for coming home.
If we don’t find ways to address these issues and return ritual and dreamwork to those returning from war, then we are dooming our ability to move forward as healed nations. This is a worldwide cultural dilemma – I could imagine a team of people – in a university setting possibly if that kind of confirmation is needed - taking on a project of identifying the belief systems worldwide, identifying the wars affecting the culture and familial relationships in each area, identifying the kinds of ritual and visioning used in the past to release the victims of the ghosts of war, and then, finally, identifying what needs to happen to bring the wounded soldier home and give him/her the ritual and tools for spiritual healing. Would a worldwide study break through the political fear and prohibition of spiritual ritual? Probably not, but it might at least bring forward a world awareness.

Robert Moss said...

Wanda - Yes, absolutely. We are failing as a sociey, quite terribly, if we cannot help our soldiers to fins the "spiritual tools" they need.

I love your suggestion of the need for a worldwide study of this problem, which affects and afflicts our common humanity. Your own work, both as a dream teacher - especially in introducing Active Dreaming techniques to returning vets and as an historian - in researching and reporting on the dreams of Anerican soldiers of the Civil War era - is already an extraordinary contribution that will reach and inspire many.

Let's go on surfacing the best data we can, and offering our Active Dreaming techniques to all who are ready to try them, and grab every opportunity we can to link to others who are active in this field and to broaden the discussion.

Unknown said...

I really enjoy your story. It remind me another ghost story happen in Vietnam,"Love of the Dead", a true story about young exorcist in Vietnam. He recounted the process using his magic to fight and neutralize the guilty souls, to help them have a optimistic view of the afterlife to integrate and regeneration… It can be downloaded here : Through that book, you can understand more about Vietnamese psychic culture...