Water poured on cannot wet,
Wind blowing cannot enter.
The tiger prowls, the dragon walks;
Ghosts howl, spirits wail.
His head is three feet long—I wonder who it is?
Standing on one foot, he answers back without speaking.

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 59, Xuedou’s appreciatory verse

Ghosts howl and spirits wail. The ghost I met some years ago was completely silent. We were traveling in Switzerland, and it was getting later in the day as we approached Lake Lucerne, one of the many large alpine lakes scattered across the Alps. We inquired at a hotel, and found they had nothing in the main hotel, but had a room available in an old mansion, atop a hill a couple hundred meters detached. We took a room on the second floor, and as it turned out, were the only guests that night in the six-room building. Just before dark, a huge thunderstorm, with memorably violent lightning, wind, and rain swept over the lake. After the storm passed, there was a deep calm and quiet in the mountains.

We went to bed, and sometime after midnight I woke, glanced up at the head of our bed, and saw what looked like the apparition of an Eskimo man standing atop the headboard. I took my right arm, back-handed the figure, and shouted, “Hey, get out of here!” My wife startled awake, and I told her about what I had seen. We went back to sleep. The next morning, I asked the desk clerk if there were ever reports of spirits in the mansion, and he said, “Yes, I myself once saw the ghost of a man on the stairway outside your bedroom.”

Unlike in The Gateless Gate, there are dozens of references to ghosts in The Blue Cliff Record. A favorite phrase for Yuanwu, who added commentary to Xuedou’s appreciatory verse on the hundred koans, was: “Don’t live in a ghost cave.” At times, Yuanwu seems to warn against getting stuck in the quietude of samadhi, as when Elder Ting stood motionless between Linji’s slap and Ting’s own bow, in case thirty-two. In other places, Yuanwu points to our human-ghost nature, when we can’t seem to shake patterns of hurtful behavior. In case one, Bodhidharma walks out on Emperor Wu following a short exchange (“What is the first principal of the holy teaching?” asks Wu. “Vast emptiness, nothing holy,” replies Bodhidharma. “Who is this standing before me?” again Wu asks. “I don’t know”, responds his guest. Later, Wu was remorseful their visit was so short). Xuedou, in his appreciatory verse to the koan writes, “Wu yearns after Bodhidharma’s return in vain for a thousand and ten thousand ages/Give up the yearning!” Yuanwu’s comment: “What is Wu saying? He is living in a ghost cave!”

We have a koan in Pacific Zen’s Miscellaneous collection: “Save a ghost.” It is a simple one. The point of the koan, for me, is that we not separate ourselves from the ghost we are hoping to save. We, not someone else, are the ones who howl and wail as we make a living in ghost caves. Sometimes we bother clueless tourists. More often we yearn, over and over again, for life circumstances to be different. When we embody the ghost, we somehow come to understand that there is nothing wrong with our own ghost-like qualities. And the cave becomes a less scary place.


Little soul,
for you too
death is coming.

Was there something
you thought
you needed to do?

does not walk into a room
and wonder

~ Jane HIrshfield, Ledger