Three Week Series: “The Dark Way, the Bird Path and the Open Hand,” Part One

 A teacher asked a pilgrim, “Where have you come from?”
“From Dongshan’s,” replied the pilgrim.
“What does Dongshan teach?”
“He usually teaches in three ways.”
“What are they?”
“The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.” 

During this time we have had the occasion to visit with different teachers. They are from all over, San Antonio, Santa Rosa, Denver, Oakland and Lexington. As if on pilgrimage we move from temple to temple, zoom room to zoom room, experiencing the teachings of different teachers along the way. A fair question that might be asked is, “What does so and so teach?  What about ____? So it was long ago in Tang Dynasty China, where pilgrims would move from temple to temple, teacher to teacher.

So, a pilgrim arrives after having visited with Dongshan,”What does Dongshan teach?” The pilgrim answers, “Ususally he teaches in three ways, ‘The dark way, the bird path, and the open hand.'” Ok. My heart is reeled in. Over the next three weeks, through the use of other koans, I will be moving into Dongshan’s world:  the dark way, the bird path, the open hand.

The Dark Way

A while back I wrote this for our Thursday meeting of Bluegrass Zen. It seems a well suited reflection on this time of the Corona virus. I have been talking with folks lately about how everything has changed, that life now has left the land of expectation, the map of life that I have come to rely upon no longer corresponds to the territory. Life, in the form of a virus has called us out and we are in the dark, none of us has ever been here before. So, here I offer the dark way, where the routine and to-be-counted-upon has been taken away and we are on our own, feeling our way, soloing in response to what comes. 

Don’t light a lamp—there’s no oil in the house. It’s a shame to want a light. I have a way to bless poverty: Just feel your way along the wall. Yinyuan Longqi

A few years ago, I took lessons in West African Drumming, learning songs from Ghana and other countries in the region. Learning these songs I was instructed in a rhythmic part which, when mixed with the other parts, would create polyrhythmic cross rhythms that together laid down the overall beat for the song (or something like that). Sometimes there would be words to the songs, other times not. The parts themselves had to be played very precisely so that all the parts would fit together as intended. With the improvised solos, it was another story.


With the solo there was no roadmap through the territory of the song. With the solo you were on your own to improvise as you are able within the structure laid down by the parts. With no proscribed part, the soloist is “in the dark” as to where to venture next. She feels her way through the piece.

This koan is like this. We move through our lives and our personalities develop as we grow to adulthood. We adopt routines, and get acquainted with the folkways, mores and practices of our culture. We take on a world-view and fashion a self-image that fits well within our world-view. In other words, we play our part. That is, until we are called out to solo, to risk leaving the comforts of our neatly constructed life, to respond to life as-it-is, calling us. This is to leave home, or to follow the metaphor in the koan, to go dark – to forget what it is we know about life in the lamp’s bright light and to feel our way our way along the wall, not-knowing where life will lead. This is scary. We go dark as illness comes, grief descends, and as our disappointments plague us. Or simply, sometimes, it just goes dark, the old ways no longer adequate for the twists and turns encountered along life’s way. Here, sometimes, we lose hope. But, the koan suggests something else.

I have a way to bless poverty

The poverty that is our life’s experience need not defeat us. The koan suggests blessing. There is a blessed way — just feel your way along the wall, present to what is here in the moment. The dark has a texture its own, a support that leads us into life, that will open us to each discrete and successive moment. This blessed way calls us forth, to feel our way as we experience life as it comes to us. Feeling our way along feels like a naked trust, as it can only be undertaken “in the dark,” from a place of not-knowing. Our trust is naked as we trust the uncertain and unknown, noticing and receiving the offering that the darkness brings, that is our’s in the mystery.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.