Why do people sit around the camp fire with flashlights under their chins telling ghost stories? As well as the shudder that takes us to another realm, ghosts bring romance and yearning, they account for incompleteness, the person you loved but who died or changed her mind, the uncontrollable residue of everything we do. When I was in the North Queensland fishing fleet and we were far out on the Barrier Reef towards the Solomon Islands, people used to hear the ghost of a submarine. It was still trying to get home from the Battle of The Coral Sea decades before; all we heard were the engines. A diesel engine was usually a friendly sound but this one got on people’s nerves. If you steamed off to a new anchorage, the rumble from beneath would follow you.
Some years ago I began assembling an alphabet of metaphors for koans. For example, B is Banana Peel, as in you go head over heels, C is Can Opener. The koan this week fits under G — it is both Game and Ghost story. A ghost story is a world we enter that mirrors a neglected aspect of our own.
The Koan This Week:
“Save a ghost.”
Let’s start out thinking of it as a game.
Q: Is this a stand alone koan or a sequel?
A: It is basically a stand alone koan, though it comes from a family of koans. Like ‘Stop the War’, this is a classic miscellaneous koan, given to a student after the light begins to dawn. Apparent simplicity is employed to take you on a plunge into murky territory, dungeons, forest paths, the past, darkness filled with flickering lights, secret teachings and so on. The koan often features escapes and rescues.
Q: Who will I see when I enter this koan?
A: It’s different for everybody because the koan changes its nature just for you. People who have caused you pain, people you have given pain to, incidents of remorse and forgiveness, forgotten people from childhood, people who were never born, the dead, animals, ships adrift in mid ocean, people you do not expect to meet.
Q: How should I use it?
A: Try it on your own ghosts and it will generate questions that are reassuring because they have no modesty or tact.
Q: How would I try it though?
A: Remember that area behind the no trespassing sign—where you haven’t looked since the last time something seriously unhappy happened to you? Use the koan. When we have a problem we think, ‘that’s it then, that’s settled, that area is radioactive and I just won’t go there.’ A ghost constrains our movements; we have to walk a maze—avoid our email or the phone or thinking about particular people or things that might happen. And because we don’t go there we don’t learn about what it is really like there, where the ghosts live. And because we are avoiding a place it’s hard to be in other places too, the avoidance starts to colonize the here. The place you are avoiding might be the place where happiness appears. This is the problem of suffering, the first noble truth.
Q: Is it an action adventure first person shooter koan?
A: Everyone starts where they are. The koan has its own life and changes you.
Q: What else might happen with this koan?
A: The koan contains point of view reversals. For example let’s say your ghost refers to a time in your teenage years when your girlfriend took a nap on the couch beside you and in the night she was infected and when you woke up she was a vomiting zombie (it could happen and did in the online game Left 4 Dead and the movie based on it). In that case you too can become a vomiting zombie and see through her eyes, hear through the holes in her head and not be upset about the matter at all. Enlightenment is fundamentally an appreciation of the journey.
Q: Do you have any less Gothic examples?
A: As you lose your expertise, you go farther in (or to higher levels in the koan) The design space of consciousness is filled with characters who die and come back to life at different levels. You become more intimate with your ghosts, they reveal more of their helpfulness. They become nearer than breathing.
Yet More Questions:
1. If you were a ghost what would you do?
2. Someone said when he got enlightened the mountains got enlightened too. Do ghosts get enlightened?
3. Are your ghosts part of your family? Do you have obligations to them?
4. When you save a ghost, what happens to the ghost?
5. What is it like when you approach the no trespassing sign in your consciousness and what is behind the sign?
6. Say something about an old photo that you carry or remember.