October means Halloween, and although Buddhism might not be the first thing you associate with this holiday, author Jon J. Muth has created a lovely new children’s book that connects the two. Zen Ghosts is the third of three books by Muth that feature Stillwater, a gentle, giant, koan-speaking Panda. All three books also feature the same three siblings - Karl, Addy and Michael.
In Zen Ghosts, the three children are getting ready for Halloween when Stillwater drops by their house, offering to go trick-or-treating with them, and promising to take them to a storyteller for a ghost story afterward. All Muth books have amazing pictures, and Zen Ghosts is especially beautiful and fun. One two-page spread features a beautiful full moon and dozens of children in a riot of different Halloween costumes.
After trick-or-treating, the children follow Stillwater to the storyteller, who looks suspiciously like Stillwater himself. The children wonder if it is, and this theme of 'what is real?' repeats throughout the book, forming the basis for the gentle connection between Zen Buddhism and Halloween. The storyteller tells the children a Japanese ghost story based on a koan from The Gateless Gate, a classic koan collection. In it, a young girl facing an arranged marriage flees her parents, eloping instead with her childhood love. The story has a unique twist that again probes the theme of non-duality and reality.
Some may feel that the koan-based ghost-story-within-the-story is too sophisticated for a young children’s picture book, dealing as it is does with arranged marriage, elopement, and a young girl running from her parents. Personally, I feel that it reads like a fairy tale, and is no more difficult for children to process than fire-breathing dragons or captured princesses. Certainly, a parent will need to help explain some elements, and most children will be somewhat confused by the 'what is real?' sub-text. But part of the sign of a good book for me is that it triggers discussion and questions, and - in fine Zen tradition - even confusion.
So I highly recommend Zen Ghosts for the children in your life, particularly those aged 4-8 or so. Consider bringing some Zen into your Halloween!