I have heard: a man’s wife died. When she was alive she fettered him in every conceivable way, not allowing him the slightest possibility of movement. And the husband was very compliant. Rather than assert himself he would argue within, “Why make an issue of it?” and he just agreed with whatsoever his wife said. Before she died, his wife warned him never to so much as look at another woman; otherwise, she threatened him, she would return as a ghost to haunt him. The man was frightened – and a frightened man is quite capable of conjuring up ghosts. The fear itself becomes the ghost.
For a few days after she had died the man controlled himself – out of fear. And be aware: the control born of fear is no real control; most of your sadhus and holy men are maintaining control over themselves out of fear. They fear they may go to hell, that they may be caught by God in the act of doing something wrong and have to suffer the consequences, so they control themselves. The control of this widower was exactly like this.
The control based on fear is not only unreal, it is also a great act of self deception which keeps you from attaining to real control. But still, it can serve for a few days.
So this man managed – but for how long could he maintain it? The desires within him began to argue, “Are you crazy? When she was alive you were afraid, and now even after her death you go on fearing her. Do you really think she can become a ghost? Do you really think it is in her hands to make that decision?”
So he found himself a woman and began to play the lover. That night, when he returned home, he found his wife sitting on the bed waiting for him. He began to tremble so violently with fear that he collapsed. His wife said, “I know where you have just come from.” And then proceeded to tell him the name and address of the woman he had spent the evening with, and every detail of what had passed between them. Now the man was in no doubt. Not only was his wife here as a ghost, but she could repeat to perfection every word he had whispered to his new love, and describe her house, her furniture, and her appearance exactly as they were. And this was only the beginning. Every night his dead wife would appear to torment him. He became very unhappy.
Eventually, in desperation, he went to visit a Zen master, Nan-in. When Nan-in heard the man’s story he began to roar with laughter. “This wife who harasses you is not alive,” he said, “but she is no different from those living wives who nag their husbands. All wives are ghosts, and all husbands too. Only the mind gives them the appearance of reality. In this world, whatever we give our minds to appears real, but the moment you withdraw your mind, that thing becomes unreal.”
The widower complained to Nan-in that he had not come to listen to clever arguments and knowing words. “You don’t know the trouble I am in,” he said. “The moment I arrive home she is there waiting for me at the door, and my whole body trembles with fear. I was never as terrified of her when she was alive as I am now that she is dead. And I know that she is here too, listening to us, and if you tell me some trick to get rid of her, she will say to me tonight, ‘So you have been to see Nan-in, haven’t you, to try to get rid of me!’ What can I do? I want you to tell me how I can get rid of her, but whatever you tell me, she will have heard it too and I am sure it won’t work for me.”