You may have thought that the big story out of Hong Kong last week was the slumping Hang Seng Index or continuing pressure from Beijing to crack down on the Falun Gong. But no, something much more fascinating was going on, and it was going on right inside one of the places that break, but don’t usually make, the big stories — a newspaper office. In this case, the suddenly reluctant newsmaker was the English-language South China Morning Post.

According to the Post’s own account, Buddhist monks were brought in Tuesday to conduct a traditional ghost-cleansing ceremony in the newspaper’s new premises, after staffers became convinced that an unquiet spirit was haunting the “ladies’ toilets in the north wing.” One of the monks confirmed staff fears that something or someone from “the nether world” was inconveniencing the conveniences. “There is . . . an absence of life in that room, like a vacuum,” he said. The ceremony, in which top management people participated, included ritual chanting, the burning of incense and repeated bowing to a Buddhist deity. In a stroke of masterful neutrality, the paper reported that Post staff observed the rites “with keen interest.”

Now this kind of ceremony is not at all unusual. Ghost-appeasing rituals were common in traditional Chinese society, and the Buddhist master called in by the Post said that, though they are becoming rarer, 40 to 80 such ceremonies still take place in Hong Kong every year.

Nor is it just a Chinese thing. We are all familiar with similar rituals designed to appease or keep at bay powerful unseen forces that might not have our best interests at heart. Christians have their exorcisms and their baptismal renunciations of “the devil and all his works.” Muslims fear incurring divine wrath with graven images, as was shown in an extreme and unrepresentative form this month when Afghanistan destroyed its ancient Buddhist statues. And here in Japan, there are numerous customs directed toward the same end of placating the gods of misfortune and warding off supernatural evils, from the throwing of salt before a sumo bout and the expulsion of demons at Setsubun to the spirit-consoling ceremonies of Bon and the ritual blessing of new buildings.

On Tuesday, the very same day that the South China Morning Post was trying to lure an unhappy ghost out of its ladies’ room, Japan observed Higan, the vernal equinox, a time when people visit their family graves, clean them, and leave flowers, incense and food to please their departed ancestors. Everybody does it; nobody thinks twice about it.

Yet the odd thing is that the assumption in all these cases is the same — that there really is a “nether world,” populated by beings with an active, and not always benevolent, interest in human affairs. So why do the customs of Higan, for example, seem perfectly normal and the Post’s ghost-busting episode bizarre to the point of high comedy? If a belief system commands respect at the shrine or in the graveyard, why does it suddenly look like the rankest superstition when it pops up in a newspaper office?

The answer lies in an aspect of modern life that we don’t ordinarily think about: its radical compartmentalization. Religion, which used to suffuse and inform the whole of life, has long had to compete with the legacies of other, more rationalist intellectual traditions. Where they conflict, as in the belief in life after death (of which the belief in “ghosts” is just a primitive expression), an educated person will often subconsciously put them into separate boxes — religion here, the rationalist, secular, multicultural or “real” world there.

The result, very often, is that the things in the religious box quietly atrophy, becoming little more than cultural habits, colorful and comforting but devoid of substance. Society accommodates this separation, but only as long everything stays in its box. The great newspaper tradition to which The South China Morning Post (or The Japan Times) belongs, for example, is avowedly secular. A paper can publish church-service times or report on religious affairs or even, as in Japan, have priests bless the site of its new building; but it does not itself advocate or embody any religious belief. What happened last week in Hong Kong was that, for a moment, such a belief broke through into a world from which it is usually rigidly walled off. It got the newspaper’s sanction. The result? It appeared as weird and out-of-place as, well, a saffron-robed monk in a ladies’ restroom.

It is possible that Post management took this step pragmatically, rather than out of conviction, in an effort to calm alarmed staff. But whether or not it succeeds in capturing the errant ghost, it has certainly succeeded in letting loose some haunting questions.

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