The Monk and the Interrupting Ghost

Commentary on a Fable

There’s a story from old Japan about a monk who liked to go off by himself to a secluded garden and meditate. It was his favorite thing to do. Yet there was a problem when he tried to avail himself of this simple pleasure—a ghost kept interrupting his solitude.

Every evening there was the monk in the garden and there was the ghost, that of a wild-haired young woman who never spoke. She simply appeared some short distance away and stared at him. Naturally, the monk assumed that some devil had sent the creature to either tempt or distract him away from his meditations and so set obstacles in his path to Enlightenment. The monk resolved to meditate even harder. He meditated with a new and fierce determination, and the ghost continued to stare at him

Despite himself, the monk began to wonder about her. In the monk’s world, ghosts were dangerous and deadly creatures, usually bent on the revenge of some wrong. As he had been dedicated to the temple at birth, he knew that he himself could have done nothing to arouse a spirit’s ire. He was neither a former lover nor in his life had he ever harmed anyone. Then there was the ghost’s appearance. Aside from her wild hair and pale, haggard countenance, she didn’t seem especially threatening, nor had she ever taken any action to harm him. Which, he had to admit, would have been easy enough to do since he normally meditated with his eyes shut.

Yet, as I believe I’ve already mentioned, all she did was stare, expressionless, neither seductive nor malevolent. She was simply there, and what he had once considered the greatest pleasure of his life had now turned into a nightly battle, and the monk was not enjoying himself. He was starting to drag his feet a little when the time came to go to the garden, knowing the ghost would be there.

This went on for quite some time, until the monk had to admit himself defeated. He wasn’t getting any meditating done, his path to Enlightenment was as obscure as it had ever been, and the ghost kept their rendezvous night after night after night, until one night the monk broke down.

“What in the world do you want?”

As if a spell was broken the ghost smiled, lost her haggard appearance, and explained to the monk that she had died for love, and so was attached to the physical world and could not move on. All she wanted was for the monk to cut her hair and make her a nun, so she could finally renounce the world and leave. He did so. She left.

There are those who want to attach a lesson to the fable about perseverance, which makes no sense. Yes, the ghost was persistent but the monk caved, and it was only by abandoning his own stubborn perseverance was he freed to remedy the situation. Bit of a mixed message there. A far better lesson might be the one the monk never did seem to get:

It ain’t always about you.