Zen Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories


Tesshin structured his talk a bit differently this week.  Instead of a normal Dharma talk, he decided to share a few “ghost stories.”  Stories like this are common in the Zen tradition.  However, when a Zen master shares a ghost story, we can be sure it is a bit more than your typical tale told around the campfire toasting marshmallows!   


The first story was something which actually happened to Tesshin when he was first starting as a student at his temple in Japan.  In the early days, he was practicing by himself.  His day would start at 4am with trips to the meditation hall for sitting and chanting.  One morning in the hallway outside the Zendo he saw a small pile of some strange substance.   He cleaned it, but it left a stain in the wood.    Next morning, the mound was back in the exact same spot – and Tesshin cleaned it up again.  This pattern went on for a number of days.  Finally, out of exasperation, Tesshin asked one of his rural farmer neighbors to explain this strange phenomenon.  The farmer laughed and said that it was simply bat poop!  The temple must be filled with bats!!  Tesshin searched high and low, but could not find any bats anywhere in the temple building.  What now??   With no clear answers, Tesshin asked his elder “dharma brother” (more senior student or practitioner) what could be causing this.  The answer was even more surprising – the temple did not have bat – rather it had bat ghosts!  The answer here is to dedicate the merits of the next few zazen sessions to the spirit of this bat.  The strangest thing is that this worked – no more bat poop!  If you visit Tetsugyuji Temple today, you will still be able to see the stain in the wood!  


The second “ghost story” is a very famous one in the Zen tradition.  It goes like this …


The wife of a man became very sick. On her deathbed, she said to him, “I love you so much! I don’t want to leave you, and I don’t want you to betray me. Promise that you will not see any other women once I die, or I will come back to haunt you.”


For several months after her death, the husband did avoid other women, but then he met someone and fell in love. On the night that they were engaged to be married, the ghost of his former wife appeared to him. She blamed him for not keeping the promise, and every night thereafter she returned to taunt him. The ghost would remind him of everything that transpired between him and his fiancé that day, even to the point of repeating, word for word, their conversations. It upset him so badly that he couldn’t sleep at all.


Desperate, he sought the advice of a Zen master who lived near the village. “This is a very clever ghost,” the master said upon hearing the man’s story. “It is!” replied the man. “She remembers every detail of what I say and do. It knows everything!” The master smiled, “You should admire such a ghost, but I will tell you what to do the next time you see it.”


That night the ghost returned. The man responded just as the master had advised. “You are such a wise ghost,” the man said, “You know that I can hide nothing from you. If you can answer me one question, I will break off the engagement and remain single for the rest of my life.” “Ask your question,” the ghost replied. The man scooped up a handful of beans from a large bag on the floor, “Tell me exactly how many beans there are in my hand.”


At that moment the ghost disappeared and never returned.


Tesshin asked everyone to respond to this story.  This is interesting.  Why should we respond?  Did you ever remember responding or demonstrating your understanding of a ghost story when you were a kid?  This is a clue that there is more to these stories than simply thrills and chills.  So, what does these ghosts and spirits represent?  We should not shrug here – this is important.  


Many of the students theorized that the ghost was a representation of the ego or mind.  In other words, the bat was Tessin and the wife’s ghost was nothing more than the man.  These spirits are manifestations of the ego causing delusions!  Tesshin’s Dharma Brother, in a kind way, told Tesshin to return to the Zafu and meditate and dedicate the labor of meditation to the bat’s spirit.   In other words, dedicate the merit to his own liberation!    The Zen master in the second story claims that this ghost is very clever.  (hmmm!)  The only way the man can dispel this ghost is by having the insight that the spirit is simply a manifestation of his own mind.  The man picks up an unknowable number of beans and challenges the ghost to tell him the number.  The ghost cannot know because the man himself does not even know.  The ghost is the man – poof – no ghost!


Tesshin wrapped up by stating that ego is a clever adversary on the path to liberation.  Delusion is a challenge which will never end.  However, we build strength against it as we mature in practice.  This is why we practice every day.