In this answer there is a quote from The Buddhist Monastic Code 1 - The Patimokkha Rules Translated and Explained by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, which reads in part

only when one is possessed by non-human beings

In that book there are several references to being possessed by spirits or non-human beings, such as this from page 44.

State of mind. The bhikkhu must be in his right mind. Any statement he makes while insane, delirious with pain, or possessed by spirits does not count.

My question is, who or what is doing the possessing? Is there a belief in Buddhism that some being (a hungry ghost or something else?) would actually take over the mind of a human? Is that type of cross realm interaction possible?

How literally is possession by spirits to be understood? Thank you.

  • Not all literally I would say. It's a way of speaking about psychology.
    – user14119
    Dec 1, 2018 at 12:39

5 Answers 5


Yes, various other beings can possess humans e.g. hungry ghosts, Yakṣas, Maras

Here's one occasion where a human was possessed by a Mara named Dusi and the Mara being Moggallana himself in that life.

At that time, Moggallana was Mara, chief of demons, lord of the lower worlds, and his name was Mara Dusi. He had a sister by name of Kali whose son was to become the Mara of our age. Hence Moggallana's own nephew was now standing in front of him at the door post. While being the Mara of that distant time, Moggallana had attacked a chief disciple of the previous Buddha by taking possession of a boy and making him throw a potsherd at the holy disciple's head so that blood was flowing.

Not only humans, even Brahmas can be possessed by Maras.

"Then Mara, the Evil One, taking possession of an attendant of the Brahma assembly, said to me, 'If, good sir, this is what you discern, if this is what you have awakened to, do not lead (lay) disciples or those gone forth. Do not teach the Dhamma to (lay) disciples or those gone forth. Do not yearn for (lay) disciples or those gone forth. There were, good sir, before your time, brahmans & contemplatives in the world who claimed to be worthy & rightly self-awakened. They led (lay) disciples & those gone forth. They taught the Dhamma to (lay) disciples & those gone forth. They yearned for (lay) disciples & those gone forth. Having led (lay) disciples & those gone forth, having taught the Dhamma to (lay) disciples & those gone forth, having yearned for (lay) disciples & those gone forth, they — on the break-up of the body, with the cutting off of life — were established in a coarse body.
Brahma-nimantanika Sutta: The Brahma Invitation

It's also said that Ananda wasn't able to invite Buddha to prolong his life during the last days of his life because he was possessed by Mara during that time. During the first council monks accused Ananda for not doing that and he defended himself by giving this excuse.

The fourth accusation which the monks leveled at Ananda, referred to the time when he had neglected to beg the Blessed One to remain for an aeon. Ananda defended himself by saying he had been possessed by Mara at the time, and therefore had not been responsible for his actions — how could he have otherwise failed to make this request?

So, according to Buddhist texts such cross realm interactions is possible and it seems that the victim is not responsible for his or her actions done at that time.

  • 1
    But the victim suffers the karmic consequences of the actions done: "Now, Evil One, on that occasion most of those human beings, when they died, reappeared on the dissolution of the body, after death, in a state of deprivation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell." These are the householders possesed by Mara Dusi who scolded and reviled the bhikkus.
    – user4878
    Aug 10, 2015 at 7:46
  • @UrsulRosu Where did you find this quote? Anyway it says 'most of these human beings', not everyone. So we can't really say it's due to the karmic consequence of those actions. Buddha said, "O! Bhikkhu monks, it is volition - cetana that I call Kamma, -cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami, having willed one acts through body - kaya kamma, speech - vaci kamma, or mind - mano kamma. " The victim had no will to do those kamma, so he shouldn't be getting the consequences.
    – dmsp
    Aug 10, 2015 at 8:50
  • 1
    This can be found in MN 50: "Then, when the Māra Dūsı̄ had taken possession of the brahmin householders, they honoured, respected, revered, and venerated the virtuous bhikkhus of good character. Now, Evil One, on that occasion most of those human beings, when they died, reappeared on the dissolution of the body, after death, in a happy destination, even the heavenly world." So there is kammic consequence of action, even if possesed.
    – user4878
    Aug 10, 2015 at 9:34
  • 1
    Only some went to hell/heaven because the consequences of kamma can be experienced in this life, in the next life, or in some future life.
    – user4878
    Aug 10, 2015 at 9:36
  • And from Angulimala Sutta we know that what should he experience as thousands of years in hell, he experienced as a rock thrown in his head that made him bleed, so each experience kamma acording to his actions but also acording to how much virtue one has, like in the simile of the piece of salt thrown in a great river, and the piece of salt put in a small cup.
    – user4878
    Aug 10, 2015 at 9:50

In my tradition, the Shambhala line of teachings by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, ascending to Jamgon Kongtrul and ultimately Milarepa, the "spiritual" and the "material" phenomena are understood to be two narrative explanations of the same underlying reality. So when we talk about supernatural stuff like spirits etc. we always refer to phenomena that actually happen in everyday life but lack adequate representation in the mainstream narrative.

In modern language, spirits are semi-stable configurations of information-causation that inhabit the noosphere and sustain themselves through behavioral patterns mediated by sentient beings.

To give an example you can relate to, you send your child to a summer camp and they come back intoxicated by the camp spirit. They act funny, and when you point it out, they say we don't get it and insist their gestures and attitude are their own, while you clearly see they've picked it up. After several days home the camp spirit rubs off.

...In the adult world there may be a spirit of organization that influences all employees in certain ways etc...

Another example is campaign spirit - your teen daughter goes to a Greenpeace lecture and comes back possessed by the Greenpeace spirit. She donates her money to the ecological causes, spends her summer washing the birds caught in the oil spill etc.

If you look at it this way, you will see the world full of spirits, large and small. Your husband purchases a new camera, and feels obliged to spend his weekend taking pictures - he is possessed by the camera spirit.

These all seem harmless, until you remember all harm and violence incurred by religious and political fanatics - possessed by their respective spirits.

I don't know why late Theravada's Pratimoksha discounts misdeeds done while possessed by the spirits. From my perspective, guarding the doors of the senses is responsibility of the practitioner, and it is due to incorrectly applied attention that possession by spirit occurs. In the highly competitive world, where we are constantly bombarded by ads, campaigns and other forms of spirits, we must be very selective when it comes to which ones we give our attention to. As said in that Native American folktale, whichever wolf we feed is getting stronger. So is with spirits.

We can let ourselves be driven by spirits that correlate with greed, hatred, and confused values -- or we can feed useful spirits, conducive to health, peace, harmony, and informed, educated, strategic attitudes.

Buddhism itself can be seen as a spirit, and as any spirit can only take us this far until we become its pawns. So in the advanced stages of Vajrayana practice, our game becomes to liberate ourselves from the spirit of Buddhism, just like we've worked to come out of influence of worldly spirits. Once we are past that phase, having awakened (bodhi) from the spirit dream, we can use spirits as tools to pay our student dues forward and save the rest of sentient beings from the matrix into the real world.


Apparently, the foremost Dada poet in Japan was possessed by mara, and ended up in an ayslum.

Very intriuging, I think.

  • The Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy associates this phenomenon with Zen sickness.
    – ChrisW
    Aug 14, 2017 at 0:04

Mara will sometimes disturb or harm you when you are having certain good progress in meditation. You may hear some stories about people who become mentally ill after they practiced meditation for a long period time. This is one of the reasons.


After my 6 night stay in Brahma Vihara Arama temple in Bali I lost my mind and by Gods grace and power I didn’t end up in psychic asylum… that was the worst experience in my life. I was under the influence of a very powerful demonic entity.

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