Monday, October 18, 2010

Out of Body Experience: Zen Ghosts by Jon Muth

"Michael! There's a ghost outside!" said Karl.

"What?" asked Michael."

"A big scary-looking ghost."

"Is it Stillwater?"

"It doesn't have Stillwater's face," said Karl.

"Yes, it does. Come in, Stillwater." said Addie. Happy Halloween!"

The three kids are planning their costumes for a big night of trick-or-treating. Addy has a beautiful shimmery moon princess gown; Karl is designing his monster of awesome destruction costume; and Michael is torn between being a pirate and an owl.

"This is a very special Halloween. There is going to be a full moon, and I know someone who will tell you a ghost story," Stillwater promises them.

Michael decides on a pirate costume, and as it begins to darken, the three set out to score some treats. As the big Zen panda promised, the night is perfect. The sky is a deep Sapphire blue, the full moon is rising, and the street is filled with costumed kids--and had they looked closely, some not-so-human sojourners as well.

The kids garner a good haul and then trek through the moonlight to their appointed meeting place with Stillwater--a stone wall just through some autumn woods where Stillwater has promised to meet to take them to their storyteller. As Addy and Karl argue over trading treats, a masked and wispy white figure approaches.

"Boo!" said Stillwater. "Follow me."

The kids follow their bulky leader's ghostly form through the moonlight toward his house, which is already beginning to be artfully shrouded in mist. Inside they seat themselves on the floor as Stillwater indicates and a large panda who looks much like Stillwater takes a seat before them to tell his tale. Stillwater seats himself on the floor behind the children, and the storyteller begins.

It is a tale of two children, the closest of friends, who grow up expecting to be married. But the father of the young girl, Senjo, decides to marry her off to a rich older man who can provide for her and her whole family better than the poor young Ocho. On the eve of the wedding, Ocho, who cannot bear to see his love married to someone else, leaves their village, rowing his boat down the lake. But as he puts some distance behind him, he sees a shadowy figure following him along the bank. It is Senjo, and although the two know that what they are doing will be seen as wrong by their elders, Ocho takes Senjo into his boat and they travel far away to begin their lives together.

But after some time has passed, Senjo longs to see her family, and Ocho agrees to return with her and suffer the wrath of her father to make his wife happy. When they arrive at her father's dock, Ocho offers to go first to the father's door while Senjo waits behind. But when her father sees him at the door, he grows pale with astonishment, and leads Ocho to a room where a thin, shadowy, but familiar figure lies alone in the bed. Could it be Senjo, the same dear wife he has left waiting by the lake?

The children turn questioningly to Stillwater, but in the place where he was sitting there lies only his mask. There is but one Stillwater in the room, and he is the storyteller still sitting before them.

"That was a good story," said Abby. "Thank you."

As in his earlier books, Zen Shorts (Collector's Edition) (Zen) and Zen Ties Jon Muth's new Zen Ghosts (Scholastic, 2010) leaves the reader with much to contemplate. His Zen ghost story works as a straightforward atmospherically spooky story, and Muth's glowing illustrations are both stunningly realistic and emotionally evocative. Stillwater's paper white paper lantern echoes the image of the full moon, and Muth's autumn-tinged landscape contrasts satisfyingly with the cold white light of his full moon, underscoring his theme of dual existence. While the "doppelganger" is not unknown as a motif in European ghost stories, some youngsters will be a bit perplexed at the meaning behind Stillwater's story's surprising conclusion. Others who know the previous books will take what they can from the story and ponder its meaning on their own.

Muth's appendix explains the tale as derived from "The Gateless Gate," a koan, which he defines as "a question you have to answer for yourself"--one which appeals "directly to the intuitive part of the human consciousness."

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