Zen And The Art of “Ghost World.”

Saving Terri Schiavo

“Ghost World,” enjoying a revival on the Independent Film Channel, is not about ghosts, not at least about the usual Hollywood ghosts. The 2001 indie is about a precocious irony-spotting new high school graduate, Enid (Thora Birch), trying to stay real in the unreal city of Los Angeles.

The title is what drew me to the film because, as I recently learned, “ghost world” is an expression from early Buddhism. And although I couldn’t find any evidence this was director Terry Zwigoff’s reference, it helped me make sense of his movie’s strange ending.

See, 17-year-old Enid keeps running into a very old man dressed in a suit and tie who is always sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. Problem is, service on this city route has long since been discontinued, as she reminds him. He just smiles.

As she loses everybody in her life, including her best friend (Scarlett Johansson), the old man becomes the only person she can count on. He’s always there, waiting for the bus that never comes.

Then suddenly it does come. Strange bus, empty. Retro bus — in keeping with the movie’s constant backdrop of 1950’s-style L.A. diners, of collectors obsessed with 78 r.p.m. records.

So maybe it IS a ghost story after all. But the “ghost world” is not 1950’s L.A. — the lovely green unpolluted affluent Golden Time of the richest and most powerful nation, etc., of James Dean, teens in T-birds, surfers, drive-ins. No. That is not it.

The ghost world is NOW. Let me explain. . .

Ghost world. I first heard the term at a snowy weekend retreat at Mountain Cloud Zen Center near Santa Fe. I was a stranger in a workshop conducted by Joan Sutherland, a Zen teacher from the redwood coast of California. Her method is astonishing. She is on to something. Namely, the power of bringing ancient ways of meditation and inquiry into contemporary American lives.

Her retreats involve koans – some old, some new. This might seem surprising if all you know about koans is their reputation as riddles, paradoxes, exercises in absurdity, cute word games, Chinese Buddhist jokes, or J. D. Salinger’s famous literary conceit about one hand clapping.

Sutherland shows how deep the koans go, as the responses she evokes in her groups show. Koans carry the authority of stories passed on for generations. From the start she reminds people that koans do not require correct answers, but they do compel responses, negative or positive.

And one of her koans is this:

“Save a ghost.”

In classical Chinese “ghost” – kuei – is one of the 214 root characters. It’s obviously important. It’s distinctive. It even looks like a ghost. The expression “hungry ghost” occurs often in translations from Buddhist literature. The trouble with ghosts is they are always wanting something. And they cling: to bamboo and bushes, to ancestors. They wander. They take you with them into the forest, beyond the lake. If they are around, you will be distracted.

Sutherland said the medieval Chinese talked of “the ghost world” as a invidious metaphor for everyday life. She left it at that. But suddenly the koan lighted up, at least for me. I saw the world of medieval China from which Ch’an Buddhism (which became Zen) was a refuge. Perhaps it was a refuge from constant warfare, from brutal imperial rule by “the son of heaven,” from veneration of ancestors, superstitious ritual. Banality of evil. . .