Save a Ghost: Reflecting on Halloween and a Zen Koan

Save a Ghost: Reflecting on Halloween and a Zen Koan October 31, 2022

woman holding a devil mask





Today is the 31st of October, in our Western calendar Halloween.

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 the neighbors.

And, yes, for some adults costumes, as well.

And for a subset of them, alcohol driven parties.

But I believe there’s something mysterious and wonderful about Halloween that allows children and adults and excesses of several sorts. But is in no way limited by those things. That and more.

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 after to All Souls Day.

While seasons are pretty attenuated here in Long Beach and Los Angeles, that’s not true for most people. Fall, the real unattenuated Fall, with the changing of colors, and fall of leaves, with the warmth giving way to tendrils of cold, seems to inspire us to think about our connections between the living and the dead.

It certainly calls me, and I notice, often us to recall the veil that separates us, living and dead. And a bit more, of how thin that membrane actually is. And, how, in fact, it sometimes frays and breaks and connections appear. Sometimes frighteningly. Sometimes soothingly.

Of course most all religions have something comparable in the ways the mark the cycles. For instance, and most interesting to me, Buddhists and Taoists have similar holidays in East Asia, the Ghost Festival and perhaps more familiarity in Japanese Bon. Although, I also find it interesting, neither of these festivals is observed in the Fall.

I have noticed among convert Buddhists these events are sometimes collapsed, usually moving aspects of Bon into Halloween. Maybe this is a trend line. 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,” earlier version of the booklet were titled “Miscellaneous Koans After Kensho.” That is the short course into the koan way that follows our first deep or shallow intimations into the play of, for lack of a more gracious term “form and emptiness.” After we’ve noticed who and what we really are is rather more mysterious and strange and weird than a straight forward view of I am here and I am different than you and the whole rest of the world.

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. Sometimes they’re hungry. Often.

I don’t believe in ghosts. But, I have encountered them. On more than one occasion…

In those sentences I have my invitation. And, perhaps you have yours, as well.

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

As I mentioned before, what follows you may have seen before. Let’s see if we can get it right this time…

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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