A Zen Story About Dealing With Our Demons

In a discussion thread at Naked Capitalism I found this Zen teaching story about dealing with a troubling hallucination (below). It shows how perceptive and practical Zen discipline strives to be. The master sees the ghost for what it is (a figment of the learner’s imagination), and he thinks of an experimental way the learner can discover for himself where the ghost comes from. Telling the man the truth would contradict his experience and lead to denial. Enabling his own discovery of the truth resolves the problem.

The challenge of teaching lies in having just such ideas again and again, in ever-changing circumstances, for people seeking answers to problems that cannot be resolved because they are sustained by the perception of the seeker himself. Objective answers reinforce the belief behind problem. Insisting on the truth of what one says leads to unresolvable debates–secondary rationalizations employed to win arguments that only obfuscate reality.

Even more challenging is that most of us don’t know what we are looking for when we ask for answers to our problems, as the learners in Zen stories never fail to express in their surprise at what they discover.

Mastery develops when the teacher can be relied upon to enable an effective learning experience for the learner. Even greater ability is demonstrated when he has given up wanting to teach altogether, and begins to respond without purpose as the situation demands.

The larger historical issues addressed in the Naked Capitalism post are beyond individual actors to influence. Change comes through collective experience, to which we can be but witnesses. But to witness is not passive. Collectively, awareness can move mountains.

The Subjugation of a Ghost

“A young wife fell sick and was about to die. “I love you so much,” she told her husband, “I do not want to leave you. Do not go from me to any other woman. If you do, I will return as a ghost and cause you endless trouble.”

Soon the wife passed away. The husband respected her last wish for the first three months, but then he met another woman and fell in love with her. They became engaged to be married.

Immediately after the engagement a ghost appeared every night to the man, blaming him for not keeping his promise. The ghost was clever too. She told him exactly what had transpired between himself and his new sweetheart. Whenever he gave his fiancee a present, the ghost would describe it in detail. She would even repeat conversations, and it so annoyed the man that he could not sleep. Someone advised him to take his problem to a Zen master who lived close to the village. At length, in despair, the poor man went to him for help.

“Your former wife became a ghost and knows everything you do,” commented the master. “Whatever you do or say, whatever you give your beloved, she knows. She must be a very wise ghost. Really you should admire such a ghost. The next time she appears, bargain with her. Tell her that she knows so much you can hide nothing from her, and that if she will answer you one question, you promise to break your engagement and remain single.”

“What is the question I must ask her?” inquired the man.

The master replied: “Take a large handful of soy beans and ask her exactly how many beans you hold in your hand. If she cannot tell you, you will know that she is only a figment of your imagination and will trouble you no longer.”

The next night, when the ghost appeared the man flattered her and told her that she knew everything.

“Indeed,” replied the ghost, “and I know you went to see that Zen master today.”

“And since you know so much,” demanded the man, “tell me how many beans I hold in this hand!”

There was no longer any ghost to answer the question.”

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