In the early evening, just before dusk arrives and when colours are no longer washed out by the brightness of the sun, the trees and grasses reveal a deeper presence. A dog sitting on a porch looks up and smiles. In that very moment, before any thought has risen, eternity is revealed, and with no need of language, you understand it.
Zhaozhou, the ancient and great Zen master, was asked by monks who were lost in argument and thought, whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature. Zhaozhou replied, “no”. This is a “no” that stops any ideas or thoughts we have about things and creates an opening, like a wormhole does in space, to a direct experience of something seemingly far removed from us - eternity, awakening.
Another Zen koan, “save a ghost”, can also take us to a new place. One of the really interesting things about this koan is that it DOESN’T say “SAVE YOURSELF”, it says “SAVE A GHOST”. Zhaozhou’s “No” may be helpful to us when we start devising plans and schemes to save ourselves from seemingly frightening and anxious ghosts. What happens if we drop our ideas of saving “I” and wormhole our way over to the ghost galaxy? Well, something really surprising and life giving!
For most of us, the thought of actually doing this with a real ghost (a particular fear, anxiety, our sadness in our life) is truly terrifying. A Zen meditation practice, slowly and surely, gives us the strength and curiosity to save ghosts and bravely step into the places that scare us. There are other ways as well.
There may come a time when we have no choice but to be with a ghost, circumstances may drop us smack in the middle of one. Many Zen students have told me stories of times in their life when they founds themselves suddenly in a very dark place, and to their surprise, there was a strange peace and heightened awareness of the richness of life there. American philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin also noticed something similar in patients who could notice a place in themselves outside of thought and language, a “felt sense” place as he called it. Gendlin noticed and wrote extensively of the healing power of this place in psychotherapy.
Noticing a “felt sense”, saving a ghost, feeling eternity in a particular moment, entering Zhaozhou’s “No” wormhole, or having all your doubts extinguished when you see peach blossoms on a spring day, are all different expressions, in varying levels of intensity, of this true place that Zen practice is.