Save a Ghost: A Zen Meditation for Halloween

Save a Ghost: A Zen Meditation for Halloween October 31, 2017

woman holding a devil mask





Today is the 31st of October.

In the Western calendar today is Halloween. While in my corner of the world Halloween is basically about small children, and sometimes not so small putting on disguises and hoping to extort candy from their neighbors and for some adults costume and alcohol driven parties, at the same time there is something thing more important to our human psyche being offered. This is my small reflection on that other offering.

Halloween is also called All Hallows’ Eve, and these days much less commonly All Saint’s Eve. It is the beginning of a three-day celebration within the Christian church, Allhallowtide, which leads tomorrow to All Saints Day, and then, the next day to All Souls Day.

Fall seems to inspire us to think about our connections between the living and the dead, of the veil that separates us, and how thin that membrane actually is. How, in fact, it sometimes frays and breaks and connections appear. Sometimes frighteningly. Sometimes soothingly.

Of course most all religions have something comparable. For instance, and most interesting to me, Buddhists and Daoists have similar holidays, the Ghost Festival and perhaps more familiarity Bon.

Although, I also find it interesting, neither is observed in the Fall. Me, I suspect as Buddhism becomes indigenous in the West this celebration may migrate to the fall perhaps mapping Allhallowtide. Or, not. Life is mysterious, and if we want to make fools of ourselves, one sure way is to try and predict human behaviors…

But, whatever season is best, it is good on occasion to turn to the mystery of life and death. For me what immediately comes to mind is a minor koan. It goes “Save a ghost.” Within my Zen community it is included in a collection called “Miscellaneous Koans,” and is part of a short course on how koans are used as a spiritual discipline.

The miscellaneous koans are introduced after someone has successfully engaged what is called a “first” or “breakthrough” koan, and has tumbled to the essential matter of our identity within form and emptiness. So, in the short course we are learning how to deepen and widen our encounter with the most intimate things of our lives. And, perhaps, obviously, one of those questions should be “save a ghost.”

Not only is the membrane between the living and the dead in fact as thin as gossamer, the membrane that separates us from all other things, alive and inorganic is vastly less certain than we usually think. And, it turns out this includes all the different things that weave together and create that temporary whole I call me. And you call yourself.

The koan way particularly rubs our noses in that reality. From all sorts of angles. Among these minor, or maybe I should say so-called minor koans are invitations to “count the stars in heaven” and to “go straight on a road with ninety-nine curves.” Some of the intent in these cases, as we call them, is to learn the language and to avoid conventional linguistic traps as we bare our hearts and find the contours of our minds. But, more importantly it is a constant calling to finding our true identity. Or, maybe thats identities. Many strands in that one thing, in each one thing.

And so ghosts. Ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. But, I’ve encountered them. In those two sentences I have my invitation. And, perhaps you do, as well.

Three words, each rich with meaning. “Save.” “A.” And, “Ghost.”

First. What is save? The Unitarian Universalist minister and more importantly poet 0f the true Lynn Ungar sings to us.

By what are you saved? And how?
Saved like a bit of string,
tucked away in a drawer?
Saved like a child rushed from
a burning building, already
singed and coughing smoke?
Or are you salvaged
like a car part—the one good door
when the rest is wrecked?

Do you believe me when I say
you are neither salvaged nor saved,
but salved, anointed by gentle hands
where you are most tender?
Haven’t you seen
the way snow curls down
like a fresh sheet, how it
covers everything,
makes everything
beautiful, without exception?

For me save is salve, most and all about healing.

And, then there is that magical word “a.” It’s the sillies of things, as Edward Lear tells us.

A was once an apple pie,
Nice insidy
Apple Pie!

It means “one.” It also can mean “toward.” And, it also means “not.” It’s a mess. And for me it sings. “A” is the first part of the alpha and the omega. It is the beginning that is also an end. It is our ability to parse and separate. And, it is the mother of ten thousand lies.

And, then we come to ghost. The word in English goes all the way to Old English, “gast” and means breath, or soul, or even being. Once I notice a word that ties into breath I intuit I’m moving into sacred ground.

There are primary metaphors, like standing, and walking, and, well, breathing. Humans use metaphors like birds have wings. And these primary metaphors are the common stuff of all humans. And breathing. Well, breath is the very image of life, of God, of all that allows us to be.

Of course at the same time when we use the word Ghost in English we mean something specific. We mean something left over after a person has died. We are speaking of something lingering. Something that haunts. Gary Snyder old Zen hand and another poet who sings true tells us:

Lew Welch just turned up one day,
live as you and me. “Damn, Lew” I said,
“you didn’t shoot yourself after all.”
“Yes I did” he said,
and even then I felt the tingling down my back.
“Yes you did, too” I said – “I can feel it now.”
“Yeah” he said,
“There’s a basic fear between your world and
mine. I don’t know why.
What I came to say was,
teach the children about the cycles.
The life cycles. All the other cycles.
That’s what its all about, and it’s all forgot.”

We are talking about our dreams. We’re talking about the separations and the connections. All of them. All of it.

So, how do we save that thing?


Please consider this question as something that has come to us from beyond the veil, think of something that was someone, that was me, or you, or from the past or perhaps the future. But, from the other side it beckons. It calls. It winks.

Save a ghost.

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