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.


Step by Step in the dark, 

If my foot’s not wet, I found the stone

Musing in the Dark:

The Dark has its Own Light

It is the night of the new moon – dark, dark. Camping with friends deep in the forest, we sit around a fire and tell stories deep Into the night, feeding the flames, passing the jug, spinning our yarns. As the evening moves deep into night it is time to retire to tents for sleep. I turn away from the fire to walk into the thick black ink of night. Testing the dark, I hold my hand in front of my face. Nothing. Slowly, I make my way as my eyes adjust, opening to what is before me: the stars, the bioluminescent fungus.  The dark has its own light.

Life Beneath the Veil

As we move  to the winter solstice, the nights are long, the days short. The bright days of summer have passed. Now, bees cluster in their hives, the frogs and turtles are buried in the mud; the trees kiss gray skies with bare branches. The world now succumbs to the darkening. I welcome this. Like my eyes blinded by campfire light, I adjust. The creatures of the night emerge, owls on the hunt take flight. One night coming in from the chicken coop, I meet a bobcat: we look as we each turn and go our own way. Winter belongs to the night. And, clearly, there is life beneath the veil.

Without Sight

With the shock of summer’s end now past, I find my heart/mind turning to the dark, into the dark enigma (Hinton), the deep mystery, the not known. Roshi Joan Sutherland notes that physicists have told us that 94% of the universe is dark matter, unknown. That leaves 6% as the known universe. Navigating, exploring the dark is “to go without sight” into the vastness. Fingers feel the wall, baby steps find earth. The dark invites intimacy, the textured walls welcome my touch and lead me on, every step a discovery, an embodied trust that the dark loom of origin holds this all.

So, “Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I found the stone.”

And thus we navigate, allowing the dark to open to us.

Tomorrow evening we will  speak of this dark, the womb of not knowing within which we are held and from which we come. I welcome you to take one of the koans from column 1, sit with it and bring it to our meeting tomorrow. Let’s muse together. See you tomorrow.

Then the student asked Yunmen, “But when it’s not the things I can see, and it’s not what they’re doing, what is it?”
“Say it upside down.”

–Blue Cliff Record Case #15

I Keep Searching for Something

It is not what you think. How many times have I heard that in Zen circles? And as many times as you have heard to the contrary, you are not what you eat. When you are not what you think, or what you eat, or how you feel, or the car you drive, what school you went to, or what job you have, who are you? That’s a good question. Empty it all out and what’s left? After Bodhidharma told Emperor Wu that there was nothing essential or primary or holy to hold onto, the Emperor asked him, “Well, who are you?” “I don’t know,” came the reply. And that is a good place to start. Nothing holy, fixed or certain. Some of our koans come back to that and ask, “Can you abide with this? Live like this? Well…, I’d say easier said than done. I spent years searching for something “higher,” a better version of David, a something to replace the thoughts, the feelings, the car and good school. A blessed assurance and a foundation to believe in, with which to identify seemed ideal, comforting even.

Turning the Tables or Knowing Where to Tap

A story, or is it a joke? Nope. Probably a story, or a parable.

The furnace breaks and the homeowner calls the plumber. It is cold out so she comes right over. She quickly looks over the furnace and pulls out a hammer and taps one of the pipes. “That will be a hundred dollars.” The owner is enraged. “That’s too much for two minutes work. What could cost so much?” The plumber looks him in the eye and says, “One dollar to tap the pipe, and 99 for knowing where to tap.”

Yunmen is a master of knowing where, and when to tap. One feature of his teaching style is to apply one word at precisely the right time. To one question he says, “Barrier!” When asked another he calls out, “sesame rice cake.” With his one word hearts open and worlds come together. In this koan he taps not with a single word, but with a phrase. The monk who has come to Yunmen has done some work, “It is not what I can see nor is It how what I sees functions.” It is not this or it is not that. But, he might ay, it must be something. “What is it? This essence?” he asks. And just then Yunmen taps, “Say it upside down!”

For Yunmen and for Chan in general, essence, if there is such, will take care of itself. Can’t be grasped.

No Explanations. Rather, Here You Are: Now What Will You Do?

This koan, probably all koans, make the invitation for you to respond. The koan is not looking for something “correct” or sanctioned. The koan elicits your response, the words/actions that arise here and now. “Say it upside down.” This is as if to say, “it is no thing, what will you do now that you are here?” (In the koan right before this one in the Blue Cliff Record, Yunmen make a like “tap,” a bit more direct, “Say something in response.”) Yunmen’s tap pulls the student into the moment. Yuanwu in his commentary on the koan speaks of Yunmen and Chan teachers,

In reality there is no other purpose, just to melt sticking points and release bonds for you, to pull out nails and draw out pegs, to strip off blinders and unload saddle bags.

Upside Down and Free

When she was twelve my daughter was accepted into a painting program at the California College of Arts and Crafts. One exercise went like this: the teacher placed a large vase of flowers in the center of the room and directed the students to paint it. As the class progressed she took my daughter’s canvas and turned it upside down. Her instruction was to keep painting. Something clicked for my daughter as she enlivened to the moment — more was possible. Her brush movements became less restrained, uninhibited. Colors vivid. With one tap, the teacher had pulled the nails and pegs, blinders were removed and saddlebags lifted from Becky’s back.

For the moment she was free to paint.


In the old days there were sixteen bodhisattvas. They all got into the bath together and realized the cause of water. They called out, “This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”
The Blue Cliff Record, Case 78
In the old days, when I was lifeguarding at a swimming pool at summer camp, two times a day we had “free swim.” This meant no swimming lessons, no lap swims or water polo matches. You could do anything you wanted. On hot days, the whole camp would descend and swim freely, throw the ball, jump off the board, play tag or Marco Polo, toss the ball or just stand in the water to cool off. Free Swim. No one ever knew what would happen. It is like that when you are free.

Full Immersion

To take the meditation path is to get into the bath, fully immersing yourself in life. Meditation is a gesture of inquiry, a willingness to discover what is here, without needing to control, judge or manipulate it in any way. No scheming. Meditation is a cleansing and a putting down of what we think about life, what we believe, as we open to life itself. It is free of technique and program, a “free swim.”  A “free swim” and a noticing. To meditate is to trust, not in any specific outcome or formula, but to trust as we trust the next breath to be there, the ground to rise up to meet us. It is to trust that life is happening and we are a part of it.


The good news is that we do this together. We are immersed in life together. Particularly that means our community that is Bluegrass Zen. I am thankful that we have taken this meditation path together. We find in community — in the joys and irritations, the sorrows and silence — the support here for exploration and discovery. With a meditation community there is a foundation for not-knowing, for not believing, for not having it figured out. It is a joyful thing to decide to get into the bath of life together, explore and notice.

The Cause of Water — Awakening at Last!

It is good that we do this practice together — actually there is no other way. We dive deep into the bath, and life works in and around and through us. When life as us meets life in the many things — crows, chickens, dogs, the trees, the sunflowers, the wind as she blows, the water as it flows, the warm weather, the sweat as it rolls down my forehead stinging my eyes, my joy, my sadness, the other 15 Bodhisattvas — we wake up: we had been together all along, no separation. At this point, the cause of water? No problem.

Those 16 Bodhisattvas had this to say:

“This subtle touch reveals the light that is in everything. We have reached the place where the sons and daughters of the Buddha live.”

Splish, Splash.

Free Swim!!

The Preface

The cypress tree in the garden. The flapping flag on the pole. As a blossom bespeaks the boundless spring, a drop bespeaks the ocean’s water. The five-hundred-year-old Buddha clearly leaves the usual stream. Not falling into speech or thought, how do you express it?”

The Koan

Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?
The cypress tree in our garden.

-Gateless Gate, #37

The question is a common one, a ice breaking sort of question between student and teacher, a question that gets to the heart of the matter, “What is the meaning of life? What is Zen? Or as David Hinton translates it in his “No-Gate Gateway, “What is it, the ch’i mind Bodhidharma brought from the west?” This question can hang you up, especially if you are into explanation, giving the reasons, etc…. The teacher in this case cuts through all that, saying only, “The cypress tree in our garden.” An old teacher once said of this koan, “The cypress tree has the activity of a thief.” What do you suppose is being stolen, where does that leave “me” in the scheme of things. That’s the cypress tree. That is usually where I go with the koan. This time it is the garden.


I’ve been in the garden all week. The tomatoes, 23 plants!, are in the ground and growing like crazy, doubling in size over just a day or two. Also, watermelon and cantaloupe seeds. Sunflowers. This year I have planted all my plants in mounds, piling up dirt and hauling composted horse manure from the barn. In the garden many hours a day, I have become reacquainted with ticks and have seen my skin turn color, from pale flesh tones to red and then deep brown. You can look at my neck and arms and you might say, “farmer’s tan” or depending on your mood and opinion, “redneck.” Hoe in hand I have begun the battle with the weeds.

Too, I have been thinking of gardens. The Garden of Eden myth, and the fortuitous fall that is part of the creation that brings us into life. I have contemplated the gardens of Islam, filled with smells, sights, design that bespeak paradise right here and now. And even the nursery rhyme of my childhood, “Mary, Mary quite contrary…”you know the rest – a protest rhyme in the time of Mary I of England. It was Bloody Mary who restored the Catholic faith in England – quite contrary to the wishes of her subjects. The silver bells and cockleshells are references to torture devices and the pretty maids in a row, guillotines. Gosh, Mary, “how does your garden (the country) grow” now?

Gardens are life, teeming and chaotic. As I have spent my time gardening, Zhaozhou’s koan comes to me. This garden, my life, how goes it? The cypress tree that cuts through grows in the midst — in my life what is this midst?

As I crack the veneer of my pastoral life here on my Kentucky farm, heart opens and I smell the acrid smoke mixed with tear gas that hangs over American cities. I hear the cries of George Floyd as he dies before my eyes. I feel the death of 100,000 people in this time of plague. Even as I am comfortable and safe from economic dislocation, I feel the despair of the 40 million people who have lost their jobs. Racism, a building block of our American institutions, raises its head and I feel the shame, “that’s me.” How does my garden grow? My heart breaks. This is my life too. As Zhaozhou says in the long version of this koan, “I don’t teach using objects (things on the outside). So, my life: anger, fear, rage, sadness, guilt, all kinds of pain right here is my garden, my life. As my heart breaks, it is hard and humbling, tough and humiliating – here I am, in it all.

At the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “I must confess that that dream that I had that day has in many points turned into a nightmare.” The interesting thing is that we can awake from a dream, no matter how scary.

Awakening – First, the Precepts

As I look at what I am facing in my own life, aware of the whole laundry list of feelings, thoughts, the quarrels that I have with reality, I remember the Bodhisattva vows — they are boundless, without beginning or end. We cannot fulfill them absolutely. Nope, but they set the path, point the way. This Bodhisattva Way? Like a physician who’s first precept is “first, do no harm,” so it is for us as we vow to support and encourage others to embrace life, and to work for the physical and spiritual benefit of all. There’s that and as we walk that path, we can do so with hearts open, without judgement, to how we are of help and of how we fall short. Such is life’s garden, our practice on-going. This is really important: we will fall from what we believe to be the perfect garden into life as it is — the whole mess. Practice in this context means a continuing humble embrace of what is here for you.

Awakening – the Tree

In the koan the student makes an appeal to tradition, looking for wisdom. As we seek wisdom we often locate it “back then,” way back, when people knew what we do not, or sometimes we place it in an apocalyptic vein, “wisdom is for the future, when we have it all together.” Zhaozhou takes that right to the now, the moment, the right here: “the cypress tree in our garden.” For Zhaozhou and the student there was the garden and there was that tree — right in life, here and now. With this koan, it is for the student to find intimacy with the koan as it opens to the healing vastness of here.

When my father was a doctor for the Public Health Service serving the Tohono O’odham people in Arizona, folks would not come to him. The local shaman/medicine man had told them not to. My father requested a meeting with the shaman and they came to an agreement. Folks would go to the shaman first and be healed. He would restore the upset balance, and then they could go to my father for medicine. Healing was a deep re-knitting of reality for the Tohono O’odham, a journey into before life became unbalanced, out of wack. 

Koans are here to reunite us with Reality, the continuous flow of life, the radiance of heart before we began to cut it to pieces and fit it into the image of what we think life should be. Koans heal. In this they are like love notes from the universe — your life flows in endless stream with all that is. All. That. Is. Dis-ease begins in separation, one from the other, myself from my “dark” feelings. We cannot discount anything, no thought or feeling, or anyone. To do so is to quarrel with what is here, with life itself.

So, again, my garden. There is fear and guilt, despair and shame, rage, anger, frustration, marginalization and the tendency to marginalize. There is also contentment and joy, celebration and uplift. It’s a complete mess. And it is all there. As I loosen my hold, as I unclench, each and every thing given is an opening, a gate to wisdom in the vast dance of life.

Once a teacher was asked, “How do I enter the way?”
The teacher said, “do you hear the sound of the stream?”
”Enter there.” 

So, when asked, Zhaozhou had a cypress tree. What have you? What is in your life? Ok, then, enter there. We have everything we need and we practice with everything we have.

So, finally this is a wonderful time to practice. We have protest and pestilence loosening our hold on things, and we have a tree, or maybe it is a tomato plant, or a weed, or feeling left out or frustrated. Whatever…. Opening to life is hope and it is simultaneously the realization of hope – right here.


Bluegrass Zen Hybrid Meetings, Every Thursday, 7 pm

In Person And Online

I take refuge in my companions. – PZI Refuge Vows

Within the vast web which is life, we find refuge, solace, companionship in one another. Simply, it is good when we get together. Over the last two years, because of the Covid-19 virus we have met exclusively online. As things have begun to open up we have begun again to meet in person as we continue with the online option.

To meet with us in person we hold our meetings at  the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, KY located at 3564 Clays Mill Road in Lexington. Our meetings include 25 minutes of meditation, a dharma talk with David Parks Roshi, and a time for discussion following the talk. Please try to arrive early as we begin at 7 pm sharp.

Many of our distant members and friends still like to meet with us online using the Zoom meeting platform. To join us visit the Pacific Zen Institute and register for the evening. When you register, you will be given a link to the meeting.  Here you will sit with members and friends of Bluegrass Zen from around the country and across the world.

Everyone is welcome and anyone may join our meeting either in person, via computer, tablet, or phone.

A student said to Yunmen, ‘The radiance serenely illumines the whole universe…’ Yunmen interrupted him and said, ‘Aren’t those someone else’s words?’
The student replied, ‘Yes they are.’ Yunmen said, ‘You have misspoken.’

Abiding nowhere, the heart/mind comes forth. 

In this Covid world I am searching for real words, living words, signifying, pointing to something real. Instead, I get opinions. Politicians, leaders, the person down the street, the acquaintance across town are free with their opinions. As they speak they tell me what they have heard, explain to me the virtue of their opinion over others. They appeal to authorities, red, blue, right and left. In their appeal for loyalty, these opinions often leave the realm of evidence and ask for my fealty to a world of assumption and belief. All this reminds me of the the words of Yunmen in the Gateless Gate:

 A student said to Yunmen, ‘The radiance serenely illumines the whole universe…’ Yunmen interrupted him and said, ‘Aren’t those someone else’s words?’
The student replied, ‘Yes they are.’
Yunmen said, ‘You have misspoken.’

So much misspoken these days. So, I am looking for living words.

Location, Location, Location

In Real Estate these are the magic words. Location makes all the difference. What’s true of real estate is true of our social location. We tend to interact solely or mostly with people from similar location, class, race, clan, world view. Facebook knows this. Check out your newsfeed. How often do you receive posts from folks with differing perspectives? Not so much, right?

Location is more than our place on earth, it is our place in the social landscape, determined by the silos we live in. And each location, each silo, has its own narrative — other people’s words, words which invite allegiance and loyalty, that define our place in the tribe. Just to say, we will find ourselves here — humans crave community and this is one way we have of engendering community. And yet, the Chan masters ask us to speak for ourselves, to move from static words that don’t seem to move or breath to living words, words of heart that mysteriously come forth and touch others.

But how?

Koans: Postcards from Awakening

Let’s jump ship, abandon location, the worlds we cling to as we explain ourselves to ourselves and others, through which we find our place. For that we have koans.

Koans are not things that fit into our belief system nor can they be used to manipulate others in support of a particular world view. Rather, they pull us out of our attachments and perceived certainties in deference to the moment, calling us to be “now” and right “here,” or nowhere. They guide us as we abandon location, the living words of the koan engendering living response, alive to the situation. Koans fit the moment. Moving and shimmering with vitality, like a postcard from awakening they call, “Wish you were here!” The universe calls out to us in the koan. Like the horse shining in the sun on my early morning walk, the koan calls me into relationship. They are living words that open to an encounter and relationship with life as it is, not as remembered or imagined. But, simply, as it is.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of two relationships – I – It and I – Thou. I-It is the relationship of manipulation, of fixing, of moving something from point A to point B. I-Thou is the living encounter, a conversation and dialogue. I-Thou is the beginning of intimacy, an opening to transformation. It is the call and response of life to life, a movement towards awakening, towards the coinherence of things. In an I – Thou world, there is no room for the words of others, slogans or creeds. In the I – Thou relationship, heart/mind opens to heart/mind.

Dharma Talks in a Covid World

I have learned a great deal in the 9 or 10 weeks we have been Zooming. It has given me a chance to work on my Dharma talks, noticing my location as I speak. I have spent nearly 40 years speaking to groups of people. I have developed over that time a style that I am comfortable with and that seems to reach others in a meaningful way. I am grateful for this because it meets my heart’s desire to be there for others in a deep way. Yet…

With these Covid Zoom talks I have noticed how I take techniques I have learned over the years of public speaking to reach others — bring folks in easy, use plenty of illustrations and stories, use the element of surprise, body language as a simultaneous communication, etc…. This all came clear to me when a friend of mine asked me what I had talked about on Thursday evening. What I noticed is that my tone was more relaxed and conversational. In conversation with my friend I seemed more connected to the moment, to my own heart/mind and to that of my friend. I allowed myself to sense the vitality in my communication, the words that breathe and move, that shimmer as they flow from the lips and touch others. Covid Zoom talks have thus taken me deeper into my own practice and community.

The Japanese word for talk is teisho, which means “presentation of the shout.” A teisho need not explain anything, much less is it an exposition of a koan that might lead to intellectual understanding. Actually, it is not about anything outside of the presentation itself. The teisho is the moment, the shout, the hit, the sun rising at dawn, the horizon aflame. Life co-inheres, each reflected in the other, always changing. It’s alive, all of it. In deep conversation, we speak from right here and now.

Living Words

So, living words. Heart to heart. As we share with friends and neighbors, over Zoom on FaceTime and over the phone: Are those your words? Or the words of others? How are you feeling through this pandemic? How is your day? No, really, how are you today? Nobody can say it for us. As we give up the axes we have to grind, as we eschew location, and step off the pole into life, we find ourselves and one another. Right here. Nice practice in a crisis.


 The Open Hand

 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.”     

Where Have You Come From?

Sometimes I come out of my fear, the projection of my “self” into an imagined future of dire consequence. At other times I arise from my desire to please others, seeking approval. As long as others like me I must be ok. The other day it was shame, guilt, a diminishment of the present moment, of my life as it is — This “I” I think I am could be better. And there are other identifications along life’s path: pride, jealousy, resentment, you probably know the drill and have your own particular location. Where are you coming from?

But sometimes, like Bodhidharma coming from the west, devoid of first principle, absent the Holy, I proceed from the dark vastness, not knowing who I am or where I am going. I am just now here.

The Open Hand

Now here hands are open, mine and everything around me. The world unfolds giving and I receive — the kindness of a friend, her smile a gift on a rainy day; the way the dog nudges against me, asking me to rub her ears; the phone rings, a friend calls; the sun as it rises – the horizon aflame; the trail rising to meet me as I walk the property; the Blue Heron rising from the pond, squawking as she flies. The hand that freely gives is the hand that receives. The hand that receives and declines to hold is already the hand that gives. Dongshan teaches this open hand. Good thing too. How could one teach anything else?

We will take up Dongshan’s Open Hand using the koan, “Guanyin’s Hands and Eyes,” from the Blue Cliff Record.

Yunyan asked Daowu, ‘How does the Bodhisattva Guanyin use those many hands and eyes?’
Daowu answered, ‘It is like someone in the middle of the night reaching behind her head for the pillow.’ _
Yunyan said, ‘I understand.’ Daowu asked,
‘How do you understand it?’
Yunyan said, ‘All over the body are hands and eyes.’
Daowu said, ‘That is very well expressed, but it is only eight-tenths of the answer.’ Yunyan said, ‘How would you say it, Elder Brother?’
Daowu said, ‘Throughout the body are hands and eyes._’

The Bird Path – A Wild Goose Chase

 I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
-trad., performed by The Carter Family“Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore.”
-Dorothy in the Wizard of OzA 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.”

Where Have You Come From?

We are on enforced pilgrimage, the world has changed and we have found ourselves a-roving, wandering the once familiar to find that it has all Covid-19 changed. The shed in the back of my house is a bit different now, the way I walk the fields of my farm has changed, the trips into town are now adventures into not knowing what I’ll find as people do or don’t distance, as I view the world anew, now unfamiliar and strange. “Where have I come from?” the koan asks. “Where am I? Where am I going?” The question is enough and all of a sudden I don’t know. Call me unsui (a cIouds and water wanderer). I drift like the clouds and flow like the mountain stream, not knowing what shape as I drift, the course of the next moment as life flows. And as I drift and flow there is clarity — this, just this, is for you.

In English, the word, “pilgrim,” finds its root in the Latin words for “moving beyond one’s field.” As pilgrims we move from place to place, wandering beyond our field, forsaking home. Leaving home is to leave the familiar, the table there, the chair here, a bed within which to sleep, a kitchen for food. Outside four walls, the constraints that home gives us, we move freely through life, like free-floating clouds or flowing water. So, the wandering monk, Santoka Taneda, makes another appearance in our Covid series. On pilgrimage, outside of the four walls of expectation,

Aimlessly, buoyantly,
Drifting here and there,
Tasting the pure water.

—the taste of what is here. Santoka once said,

“Westerners like to conquer mountains; Orientals like to contemplate them. As for me, I like to taste the mountains.”

And the valleys, beaches, trees, friends, herds of buffalo, the night sounds, the birds of day calling out under the full moon, silencing as owls claim the night. Not knowing, not expecting what is next, or regretting what has been, we taste it all, like cool water, the mountains or a bowl of rice and beans when we are hungry.

In leaving the home we have built for ourselves, the secure identity of self, our true home comes clear. Home is here and now, appearing and disappearing, moment by moment. On pilgrimage, our’s is the bird path — no trace, no road, a no-path sky path.

Wild Goose Chase

Shakespeare popularized the term in Romeo and Juliet and it has been with us ever since, a “wild goose chase.” In the 50’s Scottish minister George MacLeod picked it up, “wild goose,” to describe spirt in life — mysterious, unexpected, coming and going as it will.

Six years ago, I visited the Island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. Famed for its restored abbey church and its roots deep in Celtic Christianity, Iona is a place of pilgrimage. It wasn’t the church, though, nor was it the history that called to me. It was the landscape. During my visit, I spent my days tramping over the small island, from hill to hill, beach to beach. While on the rocky south shore of the island, climbing a rocky knoll, I stumbled upon a pair of nesting wild geese. Honking they flew over my head. I disturbed them, they disturbed me. You just don’t know. 

The wild goose chase is a mystery path, taken with a spirit of adventure, an absence of plot or plan, and a healthy dose of “I don’t know” as we tramp the landscape. The wild goose chase is, of course, “a bird path.”

Flying Birds

…The bird path….

Chickens are terrestrial, leaving track and trace. They dig dust holes in the ground, scratch for insects beneath their feet. You can follow a chicken or I guess a flightless bird like an ostrich or emu. RIP, the Dodo, tracked into oblivion. Ah! But a hawk riding the thermals; or the Purple Martin as she dips and dives, turning quickly just a foot above the ground in pursuit of flying insects. The air opens before, and closes behind. No contrails. No track nor trace.

I have a friend whose heart/mind opened one morning at dawn. She said that it was as if the birds were suspended in the air, in just this one moment.

The dark way, the naked trust of each moment to be just what it is — outside of plans, unconcerned for fixed outcome, devoid of plots or schemes for achievement — opens to blessing. We find ourselves on the bird path.

Willing for the moment, we unclench and let go of wanting to shape our reality into what we know and want. We no longer find fault or enter into a quarrel with the life that is here and now. What comes comes. And if we find fear or anger or sadness or despair or loneliness, if we don’t grab hold, or as we unclench, the joy and love that is there before fear, anger, etc…, the spaciousness, comes into plain view. Outside of our objections to reality, lies the bird path.


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.

Every morning a teacher called out to herself, “Master!”
And she would answer, “Yes!”
Then, “Are you awake?”
“Yes! Yes!”
“Don’t be fooled by others.”
“No, No.”

-The Gateless Barrier, #12

“Now, my dears,” said old Mrs.
Rabbit one morning, “you may go into
the fields or down the lane, but don’t
go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your
Father had an accident there; he was
put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

“Now run along, and don’t get into
mischief. I am going out.”

But Peter, who was very naughty,
ran straight away to Mr. McGregor’s
garden, and squeezed under the gate!
-From Peter Rabbit,by Beatrix Potter

A Tale of Two Naughty Horses

Among the peas and radishes, beans and basil, some people have rabbits in their garden, early morning thieves, eating freely of the tender leaves and shoots, radishes, beans, herbs and lettuce. For a rabbit, a tasty array. And for a horse…?

I have two horses here on the farm, Flare and Ruby. Flare, an older horse and part pony, is the smarter of the two. Ruby, a thoroughbred, has an attitude, pushing the limitations of field, barn and stable. I think it is Flare who has figured how to escape the barn. It is Ruby who takes full advantage. So, the other day  Flare unlatched the door that opens into the barn and before I knew it they had escaped from their stall. I have some sweet feed stored in an aluminum can in the main part of the barn.  Ruby knocked it over and when I went back to tend to them for the evening,  both horses were frantically scarfing down the feed. As I arrive, Flare rather contritely steps back into the stall. Not Ruby, she makes a run for it exiting from the main door of the barn.   It may be her pedigree…,what do they say at the racetrack? “And she’s off…” in a full gallop making for the house and just beyond the house, the garden. I grab a rope and her halter with the hope that I can lasso her, and return her to the barn.   In hot pursuit but still a distance away, I see Ruby turn towards the garden, trotting towards the corn patch, her coat bright in the summer sun. Stepping up to the corn she takes a bite and eats an entire plant. Just as she is taking her next mouthful, I get close enough that she stops eating and takes off, galloping over hills and across fields, further and further from the barn.  I chase her from  field to field until finally she tires and trots back to the barn, waiting for me to open a door and let her into the stall.  Some gardens have rabbits, I have horses.  They take bigger bites.

So, if Peter is a naughty rabbit. Flare and Ruby are naughty horses. Never too naughty myself, I am attracted to the mischievous, the playful, the naughty. Sometimes I have been known to encourage children to stretch the borders of what is acceptable. Sure, it looks like conditions are perfect for a snowball fight. You want to play hide and seek in the church sanctuary? I don’t see why not. Ok, let’s see how far you can swim outside of the area marked off for swimming. Once when he was a child at summer camp, my Dad was chasing a butterfly with a friend. When they reached the boundary of the camp, they looked at each other and stepped over the fence in pursuit. Bully for him. Good job. I remember my own flirtation with naughty. It was a midnight in my youth when I went with some friends to hunt frogs. The naughty part? We never asked the farmer whose pond we were visiting if we could hunt there. When we heard his dogs coming after us and saw a pair of headlights over the hill we took off, scared AND amused. To be alive!! Stepping outside of the boundaries is to stretch the limits of self definition,  to celebrate life outside of the borders. It feels something like saying Yes!


I think of the barriers that I put between myself and life.  Like the fences on my farm separating my land from my neighbor’s, I employ barriers. They bound the territory,  enclosing or encapsulating the David I believe myself to be, unique, separate, different — from the trees and flowers, from neighbors and friends. God, Buddha, Allah or whatever you want, too, is separate, say in the Pure Land, or “up” in heaven, occupying another field, another territory that is far from me.  These barriers can be deeply held beliefs that I carry around and use to explain myself and my difference to myself.

  • I don’t fit in.
  • I had a lousy childhood and so I am like this.
  • I have to work hard for others to love me.
  • I am worthy/unworthy of other’s praise.
  • I am socially awkward.
  • There is a better life for me if only….

Barriers/beliefs enclose the territory. But, it is like this: what separates me also binds me. With belief, I range only within my self image and definition. This is to live in exile, from self and other. Life is bigger than this.  Nothing less than eternity beckons.

Knock, Knock. Who’s there?

Last Spring, some carpenter bees bore holes and fashioned homes for themselves in the wooden siding of my house.  In late June the assault on my house continued when I woke to the  sound of a downy woodpecker drumming as she excavated the bee holes, digging out the tender bee larvae. The constant and consistent drumming awakens me.  Life pulsates, she raps and calls.

Right here, wherever “here” is for you in this moment, the universe is thrumming: Wake Up!! drums the rain on the roof.  Wake Up!! drums the flower by the path. Wake Up!! drums the sadness felt at the death of a loved one. Knock. Knock. Knock. Always and in all ways she knocks, drums. Here’s your chance.

  • The barn door opens and Ruby makes for the garden. Yes!
  • The butterfly flies out of bounds. My father, 11 years old,  is in pursuit. Yes!
  • The farmer’s engine starts up and headlights approach across the field. Yikes!!!! Hahahaha!  Yes!

The incessant thrum of life sounds and we find ourselves in the rhythms, awake to the seamlessness. Joining the pulsations of the moment  the heart, not separate, resounds, “Yes!”

The koan is vast, encompassing and moves easily over boundaries. “Master!” There is a call.  “Yes!” is a response.  This practice is seamless, continuous and unending.  Call, response — who calls? Who responds? As I write, the white pine trees outside the window dance in the wind. So, here is the voiceless voice, a mysterious call from I know not where. Out of the dark recesses, feels like the heart, there rising in me, equally mysterious, “Yes!  Yes!”

Is this what it is to be awake?

Oh yes, one more line: Don’t be fooled by others. Others? Well, that would be me somehow co-opting awakening, creating barriers and beliefs where none are necessary. That would make me other than myself, split off from here. So, for now I appreciate finding myself in the stream, in the on-going dance of life, as the pine boughs sway, as I work with students, tend garden and keep chickens, cows and horses. It is nice to be here at the keyboard. As I write, the dog, Panda, sleeps at my feet. This feels like trust, a faith in the dark, uncertain and unknown.

Master! Yes! Just this. Call and response joined.