A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, January 3, 2010
WHO IS THE TRUE CHIEN?: And Other Ghost Stories About Our Lives
Calling out to hungry hearts.
Everywhere through endless time.
You who wander you who thirst.
I offer you this heart of mine.
Calling all you hungry spirits.
Everywhere through endless time.
Calling all you hungry hearts
All the lost and left behind
Gather round and share this meal
Your joy and sorrow
I make it mine.
— “Gate of Sweet Nectar”
Inspired by the Zen Oryoki Chant
Most of us have ghost stories in our lives. I recall my grandmother’s story of being visited by her grandfather the day after his death. She’d spent most of the day with the family at his house where he was laid out in the living room. That evening she was in bed when he just walked right through the bedroom window, even though it was on the second floor, gently stroked her hair, kissed her on the forehead, turned and walked out, again right through the window. Except for also recalling how he didn’t speak and was dressed in the same Sunday suit that he’d been laid out in, that’s pretty much it. But she never forgot it. In fact it became a part of her understanding of the world, which included ghosts, demons and angels. I certainly never forgot that story. And as an adolescent I took an interest in the paranormal, and read a lot in the area.
But this interest was short lived. Actually it was magic that ended it. I’d been given a cheap set of magic tricks. I wasn’t very good at it, so don’t worry, you won’t have to endure me asking you to pick out a card anytime soon. Instead I became quite interested in the biographies of magicians. And it was specifically reading about Harry Houdini that probably drove the last nail in the paranormal coffin. Houdini was very close to his mother and was bereft when she died. Several spiritualists offered to help him communicate with her, and gratefully he went to them. However he immediately detected trickery. And mortally offended, spent the rest of his life debunking spiritualists and their ghosts. I was impressed by the fact Houdini never found someone he could not expose. Reading this my interest in the phenomena as object reality evaporated like the morning mist.
But, even early on I also saw there was another side to this universal romance with ghosts and the telling of ghost stories. I’m fascinated by the results of a 2005 Gallup poll that showed 32% of Americans believe in ghosts while 37% believe in haunted houses. I wonder a little about that five percent gap. But the point is ghosts are a part of our lives. So universal that ghosts have to either be real or a real part of our human psyche, of the way we perceive and make meaning in the world. By my young adulthood I decided ghosts had more to do with what’s going on inside our skulls than in the world at large. I remain of that opinion.
Now that doesn’t mean ghosts aren’t important. So, I was delighted when some years later I had begun Zen practice and discovered the spiritual discipline of koan study. Which takes brief anecdotes or stories or fragments of poetry and using them as objects of meditation and opportunities to engage with Zen teachers. And, those koans included a number of ghost stories.
Among my favorites is the story of an abbot who would give a public lecture every week, who eventually noticed an old man in the congregation who had some spectral quality about him, an eeriness that wasn’t quite right. This led to a private conversation where the old man admitted he wasn’t a human being. Rather he had been a Zen master living on that very mountain ages before when someone came and asked him about the nature of karma, of the consequences to our thoughts and actions. He had told that questioner that a true person of the way was not bound by the consequences of actions. And as a result he had now lived five hundred lives continuously reincarnating as a fox spirit. Which, if you don’t know, in East Asian cultures, is not a good thing.
The story continues, and opens possibility for you or me, if we want to engage it, to encounter our own lived lives, and what actually is our relationship to what we think and do. But, mainly I want to share a different story today. And then perhaps reflect a little on it and what it might mean, again, for you and for me.
It is preserved as another koan, collected in the great twelfth century anthology, the Wumenguan, the Gateless Gate. The question is brief as can be. “Master Wuzu asked one of his students, ‘the woman Chien and her spirit had separated. Tell me, which is the true Chien?” That’s it.
The teacher Wuzu loved to formulate spiritual questions out of folklore, and the reason this question could hang like that was everyone knew who Chien was. Like the best of ghost stories, no one knows from where it originally comes. I gather there are at least three traditional versions floating around. Well, here’s a fourth.
Once upon a time in a distant province of the great Middle Kingdom there was a kindly man, a widower, named Changkien. He lived in a lovely village on the shores of a small river that fed into the great Yellow. He had been a hard worker and was lucky and had become a merchant of some repute. Changkien had a single daughter, her mother having died in childbirth. Her name was Chien. Changkien adored his daughter and assured that she was given every best he could, even teaching her to read at a time when that was not done. Also, he had taken into his household an orphaned boy, a distant relative. His name was Wangchou. Changkien raised the boy as his nephew, which in that time and place meant a great deal.
The children were both bright and lively and quickly became inseparable. One day observing their intent play together Changkien joked that they were a perfect couple and would have to marry some day. Now in this place and time childhood betrothals were the norm. So, the two children believed they were committed to marry someday.
Well the years passed, and Changkien decided it was time to find a good marriage for his daughter. He had no memory of what at the time long before had been meant to be a small joke. He went to the village marriage broker and found another successful merchant whose wife had died the year before and was now looking for a spouse. He knew the man was a bit of a sharp trader, and nearly his own age, but if his daughter married this man a comfortable life would be assured for her. So, he entered into negotiations. As a kindly man as soon as he came to a satisfactory arrangement with the merchant he told his daughter. His nephew was there, as well.
Chien and Wangchou were stunned. Changkien took their silence as we often do, as a canvas on which to paint whatever message we want, and he felt they were both pleased with his good work on behalf of his daughter. He also realized he had not yet thought about his young charge and began to think about another family in the village who had a daughter that might make a good match, as well. He wasn’t too worried about Wangchou’s future because early on the boy had shown an amazing talent with woodworking. In fact the boy had made nearly half the household furniture.
That night Wangchou packed up his meager belongings, threw them into a canoe and was about to launch into the night. But before he could push off he heard his name called. It was Chien. She ran up to him and they kissed, kissed as lovers for the first time. Silently she threw her own small bundle into the canoe and they slipped away downstream.
Years passed, they had married, Wangchou had become a successful furniture maker and they had three children of their own. But Chien never forgot her father and her love for him. The truth be told, Wangchou also missed the old man who was the closest he would ever have to a father. Finally they decided it was time to return up stream to their home village and, if at all possible, to make peace with Changkien.
They left the children in the care of a local family, packed the old canoe with some presents, and made their way back to the village. It was evening when they arrived near the family house. Wangchou asked his wife to wait and to allow him to go up to the house and make sure that Changkien would receive them.
He walked up the quickly darkening evening, each tree and the path itself sparking memories. Even the smells were familiar and somehow comforting. Finally he came to the door and for the first time in his life instead of just walking in he knocked. It took a while before Changkien came to the door. He was clearly older, a little more bent over, but his eye had the same sparkle Wangchou remembered from his childhood.
The old man took a moment to recognize his former ward, let out a great laugh, and against all the protocols of their culture, embraced Wangchou, holding him tightly. “Boy, boy, I’m so glad you’re home. I’ve never stopped thinking about you since you disappeared that night all those years ago.”
“So, you’ve forgiven us?” asked Wangchou, hesitantly.
“All is forgiven! I’m just so glad you’re back.” Then a pause. “What do you mean, us?”
Wangchou felt a shiver run down his back. “Why Chien and me.”
There was a horrible silence. “I don’t know what you mean, Wangchou.” Another pause. “The night you left Chien took to her bed, fainted away, and has been in a coma ever since.” He took the young man by the hand and they walked up the stairs to Chien’s old room. And sure enough lying asleep in the middle of the bed was a deathly pale Chien.
More silence. Who knows what stories the two men were telling themselves within that silence. But finally Wangchaou said, “Dear uncle, I have to show you something.” And with that they walked downstairs and out of the house then down the path toward the river. They were about halfway there when Chien appeared, dressed in the clothing she had worn from that morning, but wild eyed and running. However, as she came to them she didn’t pause, but instead continued on past them toward the house.
As the men turned they saw the other Chien, dressed in a white nightgown also running toward them. They quickly realized she was not in fact running toward them. Instead the two Chien’s ran right up to each other, grabbed each other, hugged each other, and gradually melted each into the other.
That’s the story. And out of it the Zen teacher Wuzu asks us, “Who is the true Chien?”
Now there’s another koan, question, riddle, invitation to encounter who we are at the deepest levels that has no back-story at all. It goes “save a ghost.” So, for all of us, how do we save a ghost? And who is that ghost that needs saving? Within that question we are asked who is the true Chien? And what has Chien got to do with our lives? And I mean as intimately as possible, your life and I mean my life.
It doesn’t matter if there are ghosts in some objective sense. At least it doesn’t matter for the question we’re being asked here. What are the ghosts of your life? What has torn you apart? What longing? What angry moment? What idea you hold onto no matter what contradictory information you get? What fragment of your heart is following its own current into the graveyard, plucking at the shirtsleeves of passersby, whispering not quite fully formed sentences of longing or anger?
Our reading for today, the brief poem contained in a larger kirtan or Hindu chant arranged by the American chant leader Krishnadas, was inspired by the Oryoki chant, the Zen Buddhist meal chant. “Calling out to hungry hearts./Everywhere through endless time./You who wander you who thirst./I offer you this heart of mine./Calling all you hungry spirits./Everywhere through endless time./Calling all you hungry hearts/All the lost and left behind/Gather round and share this meal/Your joy and sorrow/I make it mine.”
It’s not save a ghost, it’s save this ghost. Bring that fragment of your heart, whatever it is, this ghost, to wholeness. So, of course another question is buried within this statement. What is wholeness? Is it some smooth unity that admits no disruption? Or is it a fullness of many fragments brought together within the skin bag that is our sense of self? Let’s just say for the moment we’re woven out of many things, some good, some not so good, but it is all of them taken together that makes us. If that is true, what would the whole look like? Like home?
Where are the various parts of the Chien that is you and me? And what brings them together into a wholeness that does not deny our fullness? Home? Is this our true home?
Think about that and then how is it possible to not call out to all those hungry spirits wandering the world. Call them home.
Who knows where it can lead?
Perhaps even to saving your very own ghost.