Save a ghost. 
Pacific Zen Institute, Miscellaneous Koans

A Ghost Story

The summer camp of my childhood and youth, Camp Daniel Boone rested on the Kentucky River outside of my hometown. Above the camp was a railroad bed that once held the track of the Riney-B Railroad. Every camp needs a ghost story and at Camp Daniel Boone we had, “Old Sam,” a caretaker along the route of the Riney-B. Sam walked the tracks at night making sure all was well. The story begins: It was a dark and stormy night. In the downpour the trestle over Marble Creek washed out, leaving only the dark abyss over the creek. Knowing that the midnight train was soon to pass over this section of track, Sam began to run up the track, waving his lantern, shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!” The train barreled down upon him, hit him as he and the train went crashing into the creek bed 75 feet below.

‘Now,’ we used to say, ‘along the railroad bed you can still see Old Sam at midnight waving his lantern and shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!”’

Nothing like this ever happened. The railroad went out of business in the 1930’s and the track and bridges were removed during World War II and sold for scrap metal. But, each week at Camp Daniel Boone this story was alive and true in its telling: Old Sam working to save us from careening off into dark doom.

The Ghost Saves Me

Old Sam was there to protect us from certain doom, “Bridge is out!” You could say he is a good ghost of the friendly, helpful type Though it seems to me that ghosts are almost always trying to be helpful like this: guarding the threshold between the places I know and am fine with and the places where I simply do not want to go, where I believe I will meet my doom. A ghostly, “Boo!” or a rattling of chains is just enough and I’ll be heading the other way. As I interact with these ghosts and keep away from what I fear the ghosts work to save me from something I have found to be a problem.

As I write this I know that in 15 minutes I need to make a phone call that scares me. I will be speaking with someone who is upset with me, who has opinions about a certain course of action that I have taken. Fear rises in me taking shape as a ghost. She’s huge, dressed in rags. She has a long pointy nose and floppy ears. At times her form changes and she looks like my mother. She tells me that the person I must call has the power to destroy me. “Turn around, run!” she says. “Bridge is out!” Now a bit more forceful, “Boo!” Like Old Sam her project is to save me from certain doom. The ghost works to save the me I think I am .

But really the ghost is shielding me from the person I am afraid of, the situation that scares me, the large force in my life, say anger, that unexamined just appears to be too powerful and overwhelming. Whole areas of life become off limits – sadness, sex, anger, joy, grief, happiness, other people, love, scorn, you name it, ghosts will arise for any scary place. The mansion of Life, life itself, becomes very small indeed, with most or many of the rooms supposedly haunted and off limits. The final truth though is this: I cannot know about the areas in my life where I do not go, thus the haunted places, the dwelling place of ghosts is lost to me.

The paradox of the ghost saving me: I am lost to my life, to the fullness of here.

So, this koan reverses the equation. “Save a ghost,” it calls.

Save a Ghost

To save my idea of me the ghost knows me, or at least it knows what I fear. And finally, this ghost? It is me. I made this me to protect. I made this ghost to stand guard. To save the ghost, I am invited to know it, to enter into relationship with what I fear – to feel it, to have tea with it, to begin to see with fear’s eyes, fret with fear’s frets, walk in fear’s shoes, speak with fear’s language. In a word: empathize, with fear and with myself holding on so tight, hiding from life. With empathy the heart, life itself opens. Here is the Heart Sutra as it imagines no walls in the mind, no fears, a life lived here, a heart open in empathy with what is:

bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

A Community of Ghosts

One last thing. Once Jesus went to cast out a demon and when he asked the demon its name, the demon replied: my name is Legion. Yup, demons, ghosts whatever you might call those guardians of who you think you are, they are legion. I have found in my practice that once you entertain one, they all want to be known, want to step into the light of day. Ok, that’s the practice: you save your ghosts and I will save mine. And we always have this koan, “Save a ghost.”