Saving Ghosts: A Zen Tale


Master Wuzu asked one of his students, “The woman Chien and her spirit had separated. Tell me, which is the true Chien?”

Wumenguan, The Gateless Gate, Case 35.

The Zen teacher Wuzu loved to formulate spiritual questions out of folklore. This koan is based in a much loved tale from old China. Like the best of ghost stories, no one knows from where it originally comes. I gather there are at least three traditional versions floating around. Here’s a fourth as I’ve heard it.

Once upon a time, in a distant province of the great Middle Kingdom, there was a kindly man, a widower, named Changkien. He lived in a lovely village on the shores of a small river that fed into the great Yellow. He had been a hard worker and was lucky and had become a merchant of some repute. Changkien had a single daughter, her mother having died in childbirth. Her name was Chien.

Changkien adored his daughter and assured that she was given every best he could, even teaching her to read at a time when that was not done. Also, he had taken into his household an orphaned boy, a distant relative. His name was Wangchou. Changkien raised the boy as his nephew, which in that time and place meant a great deal.
The children were both bright and lively and quickly became inseparable. One day, observing their intent play together, Changkien joked that they were a perfect couple and would have to marry some day. Now, in this place and time, childhood betrothals were the norm. So, the two children believed they were committed to marry someday.

Well, the years passed, and Changkien decided it was time to find a good marriage for his daughter. He had no memory of what had been meant to be a small joke long before. He went to the village marriage broker and found another successful merchant whose wife had died the year before, and was now looking for a spouse. He knew the man was a bit of a sharp trader and nearly his own age, but if his daughter married this man, a comfortable life would be assured for her. So, he entered into negotiations. As a kindly man, as soon as he came to a satisfactory arrangement with the merchant, he told his daughter. His nephew was there as well.

Chien and Wangchou were stunned. Changkien took their silence as we often do, as a canvas on which to paint whatever message we want, and he felt they were both pleased with his good work on behalf of his daughter. He also realized he had not yet thought about his young charge and began to think about another family in the village who had a daughter that might make a good match. He wasn’t too worried about Wangchou’s future because early on the boy had shown an amazing talent with woodworking. In fact, the boy had made nearly half the household furniture.

That night Wangchou packed up his meager belongings, threw them into a canoe and was about to launch into the night, but before he could push off he heard his name called. It was Chien. She ran up to him and they kissed, kissed as lovers for the first time. Silently she threw her own small bundle into the canoe and they slipped away downstream.

Years passed, they had married, Wangchou had become a successful furniture maker, and they had three children of their own. But Chien never forgot her father and her love for him. The truth be told, Wangchou also missed the old man who was the closest he would ever have to a father. Finally they decided it was time to return up stream to their home village and, if at all possible, to make peace with Changkien.

They left the children in the care of a local family, packed the old canoe with some presents, and made their way back to the village. It was evening when they arrived near the family house. Wangchou asked his wife to wait and to allow him to go up to the house and make sure that Changkien would receive them.

He walked through the quickly darkening evening, each tree and the path itself sparking memories. Even the smells were familiar and somehow comforting. Finally he came to the door and for the first time in his life instead of just walking in he knocked. It took a while before Changkien came to the door. He was clearly older, a little more bent over, but his eye had the same sparkle Wangchou remembered from his childhood.

The old man took a moment to recognize his former ward, let out a great laugh, and against all the protocols of their culture, embraced Wangchou, holding him tightly. “Boy, boy, I’m so glad you’re home. I’ve never stopped thinking about you since you disappeared that night all those years ago.”

“So, you’ve forgiven us?” asked Wangchou, hesitantly.

“All is forgiven! I’m just so glad you’re back.” Then a pause. “What do you mean, us?”

Wangchou felt a shiver run down his back. “Why Chien and me.”

There was a horrible silence. “I don’t know what you mean, Wangchou.” Another pause. “The night you left Chien took to her bed, fainted away, and has been in a coma ever since.” He took the young man by the hand and they walked up the stairs to Chien’s old room. And sure enough lying asleep in the middle of the bed was a deathly pale Chien.

More silence. Who knows what stories the two men were telling themselves within that silence, but finally Wangchaou said, “Dear uncle, I have to show you something.” And with that they walked downstairs and out of the house, down the path toward the river. They were about halfway there when Chien appeared, dressed in the clothing she had worn from that morning, but wild eyed and running. However, as she came to them she didn’t pause but instead continued on past them toward the house.

As the men turned they saw the other Chien, dressed in a white nightgown also running toward them. They quickly realized she was not in fact running toward them. Instead the two Chien’s ran right up to each other, grabbed each other, hugged each other, and gradually each melted into the other.

That’s the story. And out of it the Zen teacher Wuzu asks us, “Who is the true Chien?”

Now there’s another koan, question, riddle, invitation to encounter who we are at the deepest levels that has no backstory at all. It goes, “Save a ghost.” So, for all of us, how do we save a ghost? And who is that ghost that needs saving? Within that question we are asked who is the true Chien? And what has Chien got to do with our lives?—and I mean that as intimately as possible, your life and my life.

It doesn’t matter if there are ghosts in some objective sense. At least it doesn’t matter for the question we’re being asked here. What are the ghosts of your life? What has torn you apart? What longing? What angry moment? What idea do you hold onto no matter what contradictory information you get? What fragment of your heart is following its own current into the graveyard, plucking at the shirtsleeves of passersby, whispering not quite fully formed sentences of longing or anger?

It’s not “save a ghost.” It’s “save this ghost.” Bring that fragment of your heart, whatever it is, this ghost, to wholeness. So, of course another question is buried within this statement. What is wholeness? Is it some smooth unity that admits no disruption? Or is it a fullness of many fragments brought together within the skin bag that is our sense of self? Let’s just say for the moment we’re woven out of many things, some good, some not so good, but it is all of them taken together that makes us. If that is true, what would the whole look like? Like home?

Where are the various parts of the Chien that are you and me? And what brings them together into a wholeness that does not deny our fullness? Home? Is this our true home? Think about that and then how it is possible to not call out to all those hungry spirits wandering the world. Call them home.

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