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12:47 AM August 9th, 2013

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By: Michael L. Tan, August 9th, 2013 12:47 AM

We usually associate magical practices and “superstitions” (quotation marks to be explained shortly) with people who live out in the boondocks, with little formal education. But I’m realizing now that the most sophisticated urbanites, with graduate degrees, can be even more superstitious.

I’m referring to the way the local stock market has been taking a nosedive for the last few days.  The downward trend began weeks ago for different reasons, including too much speculative trading resulting in overvalued stocks. But last week there were predictions the stock market would recover, even slightly, because corporations were releasing their reports, which would generally be rosy and encourage more stock trading. The glowing reports did come out but the stock prices continued to dive.

Staid business reporters and stock market analysts were one in blaming the gloomy stock market on the “ghost month.”  That’s the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar, which this year began on Aug. 7, although it looks like the stock market was literally spooked as early as last week.

Fears of the ghost month used to be limited to ethnic Chinese, and was reflected in a fear of anything risky: travel, marriage, surgery, a new business, or, as we see with stocks, investing money.  Now the fear seems to have spread to non-Chinese as well.

So what exactly is this ghost month, and why does it spook so many people?

 

Hungry ghosts

The proper term for this ominous month is that of the “hungry ghosts,” referring to the ghosts of people who have been forgotten by their relatives. Other versions talk of hungry ghosts as those who are paying for evil deeds, condemned to live in an underworld where they are constantly being tormented, and are always hungry.

During the seventh lunar month, it is believed that the gates of the underworld open up and the ghosts are allowed to roam our world, where they wreak havoc, causing accidents and disasters. There is nothing humans can do except to avoid risky activities or situations that may invite the hungry ghosts.

As an anthropologist, I look at the month of the hungry ghosts as having social functions. One is to remind people to remember the dead. In the local Chinese cemeteries you will find food in front of tombs, sometimes accompanied by liquor and cigarettes. I don’t think any of the Chinese actually believe that the dead will come out and eat, drink and smoke. (Hmm. I just thought of a tongue-in-cheek photo that antismoking activists can use: a picture of cigarettes in front of a tomb and a caption that reads “Smoking’s safe… only if you’re dead” or something like that.)

But even younger Chinese keep up with the custom. Sometimes the offering is made in homes where there are altars for the deceased. The objective is to remember the dead, even pay them homage, but in the end it’s the living who eat the food.

Having the home altar laden with food is also a way of telling fellow Chinese visitors that the household observes filial piety by remembering and honoring the dead. Sometimes there’s a display of status as well, with the offerings consisting of imported canned goods and expensive liquor, for example.

The seventh lunar month extends the remembering to all the other dead, with some ethnic Chinese (but not those in the Philippines, as far as I know) leaving food in front of their houses for the roaming hungry ghosts.

 

Risk

Besides this function of remembering the dead, I have a second theory about the month of the hungry ghosts: reminding humans about how risky life is. By putting us on the defensive for an entire month, we learn to value prudence, to be more introspective about our decisions.

Unfortunately, the superstitious element has dominated, a superstition being false correlations. Because of our fears of the hungry ghosts, we remember any adverse event that happens during the seventh lunar month. All year long we have all kinds of disasters but we don’t remember what month they happened. But for many Chinese, any disaster that happens during the seventh lunar month will be remembered—and blamed on the hungry ghosts. The same self-fulfilling fears apply to deaths in the family, to accidents, and even to stock market dips, and people forget that the plummeting values came out of the irrational fears of nonexistent hungry ghosts.

I suggest we play with those ghosts, maybe even attempt to exorcise or banish them. The past few months, the stock market has been very unstable because of all the speculation going on, plus all the uncertainties about the economies in Europe, the United States and Japan. Every time negative economic reports come out of a western country—a rise in unemployment, for example—our stock market tumbles. How does that happen? We get the jitters because unemployment means reduced income, which means fewer people spending for products that will include stuff we export to them. It’s a crazy domino effect.

Anyway, now comes the seventh lunar month and we project our fears, anxieties and uncertainties on the hungry ghosts, and turn paranoid as we attribute anything unpleasant, anything negative, to the malice of the ghosts.

We should learn to manage those ghosts, recognizing that ghosts are “materializations” of our fears. Tibetan Buddhism has wonderful exercises that teach people to convert their negative emotions—fear, anger, or envy, for example—into demons. One exercise teaches people to sit on one chair and to ask a “demon” to sit on an adjacent chair. You create the demon by projecting your negative emotions, letting them take whatever form, as hideous as your imagination wants them to be. But rather than running away scared, you confront and negotiate with the creature, including feeding it more of your fear, or anger, or whatever negative emotion you have.  The demon or ghost disappears as you do this, and you realize how irrational your emotions are… and you don’t even have to shout “Puera multo!”

We can do that, too, with our fears of the month of the hungry ghosts. If you’re smart, you can even take advantage of the month by buying stocks, on the principle of buying when prices are low. A disclaimer: I, and the Inquirer, will not be responsible for any of your losses if you buy low, only to find the prices going even lower. But if that ghostly—oops, ghastly—disaster happens, then confront the ghosts: You know that the prices will recover with time. Take it from me, I’ve sat with many of these ghosts and demons, and many of them now come and go like friends, visiting and leaving.

I wrote last Wednesday about our concept of “alangan” and how the only certain thing in life is uncertainty. We look for ways of dealing with that uncertainty, invoking magical mantras and talismans and amulets. Hungry ghosts are part of cultural coping, a way of explaining our risky existence on earth. Let’s take that coping a step further by inviting the ghosts in for a friendly conversation.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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