Ground Zero, World Trace Center

“Save a ghost”
~ Pacific Zen Miscellaneous Koans

Two years after the attack on the World Trade Center, I was transferred by my company to New York to help run its financial research department. As part of the move, the company put us up in corporate housing for a bit, which turned out to be only a block south of Ground Zero (the cheapest real estate in Manhattan at the time).

When we first visited the apartment, I opened the door for my wife and two little girls. Rose, who was five at the time, immediately ran across the living room, wrapped herself in a sheer curtain, and said, “Look Daddy, I’m a ghost!” Later, when we put them to bed, we had to shut the curtains because the construction lights in the pit, which by then was clean of debris pile, were too bright.

The ghosts of the September 11 attacks haunted us then, and haunt us still: emergency flights from Kabul, trillions of dollars spent on the forever wars, domestic paranoia demanding military-grade weapons for the retail market, a country deeply divided. Our ghosts struggle to speak our language.

That bright and clear Tuesday morning 20 years ago, I was driving north toward San Francisco, talking on my cellphone to a colleague in London, who was watching cable news on the trading room screen. A plane had flown into the north tower, by accident, it seemed. We both had been in New York only couple of few days before, hosting a investor’s conference in mid-town. I knew the World Trade Center well. My first financial job interview was there; I often visited clients there; it was my subway stop for four years. My office was a few blocks away when the first attack came in February 1993; a light snow was falling that afternoon.

Our ghosts will forever need saving. Wislawa Szymborska wrote:

“Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now, now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky, its breath is short.
too many things have happened that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about has not…

In teaching Zen, I often struggle to explain what our project is. I can easily show it: hold up finger, caw like a crow. Tell a story. But how to explain it? I could say our goal is happiness, but that would needlessly divide our world; paint our lives as smaller than they really are. I suppose it is freedom, but our common, narrow definition doesn’t work here, either. It is inclusive, not exclusive, of things: freedom within confinement. It is awakening within a world of delusion, the light inside the dark. To find it, we must step away from our usual definitions. Dwelling nowhere, we must allow our heart and mind to come forth, says the Diamond Cutter Sutra. Ghost saving is good for that.

A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed the Aboriginal story of Maralung, a song man, and the source of his songs. The songs came from the ghost of a master song man, who told Maralung: “They are in a ghost language, so that humans could sing it, but only spirits could understand it.” We don’t have to understand the song to sing its words.