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. And this by Wendell Berry:

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.

I don’t ask you about before the 15th of the month, try to say something about after the fifteenth. Yunmen himself answered for everyone, Every day is a good day.  Blue Cliff Record #6

The fifteenth of the month is the day of the full moon, signifying enlightenment. So, Yunmen’s question could be posed: I don’t ask you about before enlightenment, try to say something about after enlgihtenment.

Here is the story of Yunmen’s awakening:

Yunmen went to study with Mu Zhou. He was a difficult person and teacher. When people would come to his door, he would give them the bum’s rush — leave me alone. Yunmen came to his door, once and was not allowed to enter. Twice. The third time the teacher opened the door a crack and Yunmen jammed his foot  in. He pushed the door open and jumped into the room. The teacher grabbed him, demanding, “What is it?” Rather dumbfounded he  could say nothing. The 90 year old teacher threw him out. He was unable to get his leg out and Mu Zhou closed the door on his leg breaking it. Yunmen was enlightened at this. And he limped for the rest of his life.

There is a lot of pushing and shoving going on in Zen, 30 blows here, 30 blows there. One student gets his finger cut off and wakes up.  A whole monastery of monks is treated to the sight of a cat getting cut in two. In that koan another student, not present when the cat was killed, is asked what he would do to save the cat. He places a sandal on his head and walks out of the room on all fours, like a cat.  An enlightened response that would have saved the cat.  And here in today’s koan Yunmen gets his leg broken by his cranky teacher. And gets enlightened. Later he poses this koan, “not before, what about after enlightenment?”  finally answering himeself,  “Every day is a good day.” The day his teacher broke his leg? A good day. The day a teacher cuts the cat in two? A good day. The day I sat in bed all day with fever? A good day. When my relationship ended? A good day. “Every day a good day. “


Yunmen is not interested in before.  But we are. Who am I? is often answered by explanations and descriptions of where we have been, what we have done. I am this way because…; ever since a dog knocked me over when I was a child, I have been afraid of dogs; My father was not demonstrative, so neither am I. You know the drill…we explain ourselves by where we have been. We miss this moment as our reasons for being are mired in where we have been. We are lost to here, what is now. So, Yunmen is not interested in before, the stories that we indulge as we define ourselves. But we are.

Koans – Story Swapping

Koans are an invitation to the “here” of the moment, to our lives as they are. As we come into our lives we are healed, finding our home in the mysterious vast. Exchanging our ‘life stories” for koan story, the koan turns us around welcoming us as Buddha, as the one who comes thus, tathagata — just so.  Here it is, life before story, before belief, before self. Thus.The sun rises pink on the horizon. The crows call to each other. I open the gate to let the horses in after a night in the field.  This is Yunmen’s everyday.  Interestingly, though, koans will take us through life as we believe it to be in order to get there.

I had a friend  spending time on Yunmen’s “Everyday is a good day,” for whom each moment read as a review of all the bad days she had ever had:  the dissatisfactions of her teen years, the concerns that she had about her weight, height, and shoe size; the trouble in her marriage, dissatisfaction with her job, the troubled relationships with her siblings, how her mother…and her father…. The list went on and on, as it does for all of us.
One day she was meditating and remembered the day a large dog killed her new kitten, picked it up with his teeth and shook it until it succumbed.  As she sat with the memories and the images of her kitten’s savage death, tears flowed. The longer she sat the deeper the grief became – the sobbing shook her whole body, tears and snot streaming down her face. After awhile as she sat, a thought came, “it’s ok.” She asked herself, “How could it be ok?” And the thought came again, “It’s ok.” Inquire as she would for reasons, for explanations, she found none. Just so. Yet, she knew, her body knew that nothing was wrong. It was what it was. She could morn the little cat, AND she knew that deep down – the pain, the grief, the memories – all of it holds a “good day.” 

Sometimes in the story switching that is koan study, the koan will take us into the life we believe in, identify in, invest ourselves in, even as it opens us to the mysterious vast, into the everyday, the good day that is here in each moment.  Eternity.


So much for before, what about after? What is life like after enlightenment? Yunmen is a sly dog, calling forth prejudice and explanation, fantasies and ruminations of a life lived after “knowing what one needs to know.” This would be a pretty good question if enlightenment were about knowing or attaining a special state. Then there would be a sign post, a signifier of having arrived. Then, of course, the question arises, “what about after?”

Just the Dance

Fortunately, no one in Yunmen’s assembly has the nerve to speak up, so Yunmen makes a nod in eternity’s direction – “Everyday is a good day.” A koan-like expression once occurred to me, “When precisely does eternity begin?” This seems close to Yunmen’s “everyday is a good day.” Or Eliot’s Still Point in his poem, Burnt Norton,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.


There is only the dance, the liveliness and unpredictability of each moment, the moves and countermoves, the call and response. Whatever you do,  “Do not call it fixity.”  Better just to dance. To be in the everyday is to be in the liveliness, to not only partake in the dance, but to become the dance – to move with the moves of the unnameable, ungraspable; to move in accord with what is, the Way, the Tao, the here and now.


Save a ghost. 
Pacific Zen Institute, Miscellaneous Koans

A Ghost Story

The summer camp of my childhood and youth, Camp Daniel Boone rested on the Kentucky River outside of my hometown. Above the camp was a railroad bed that once held the track of the Riney-B Railroad. Every camp needs a ghost story and at Camp Daniel Boone we had, “Old Sam,” a caretaker along the route of the Riney-B. Sam walked the tracks at night making sure all was well. The story begins: It was a dark and stormy night. In the downpour the trestle over Marble Creek washed out, leaving only the dark abyss over the creek. Knowing that the midnight train was soon to pass over this section of track, Sam began to run up the track, waving his lantern, shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!” The train barreled down upon him, hit him as he and the train went crashing into the creek bed 75 feet below.

‘Now,’ we used to say, ‘along the railroad bed you can still see Old Sam at midnight waving his lantern and shouting, “Bridge is out! Bridge is out!”’

Nothing like this ever happened. The railroad went out of business in the 1930’s and the track and bridges were removed during World War II and sold for scrap metal. But, each week at Camp Daniel Boone this story was alive and true in its telling: Old Sam working to save us from careening off into dark doom.

The Ghost Saves Me

Old Sam was there to protect us from certain doom, “Bridge is out!” You could say he is a good ghost of the friendly, helpful type Though it seems to me that ghosts are almost always trying to be helpful like this: guarding the threshold between the places I know and am fine with and the places where I simply do not want to go, where I believe I will meet my doom. A ghostly, “Boo!” or a rattling of chains is just enough and I’ll be heading the other way. As I interact with these ghosts and keep away from what I fear the ghosts work to save me from something I have found to be a problem.

As I write this I know that in 15 minutes I need to make a phone call that scares me. I will be speaking with someone who is upset with me, who has opinions about a certain course of action that I have taken. Fear rises in me taking shape as a ghost. She’s huge, dressed in rags. She has a long pointy nose and floppy ears. At times her form changes and she looks like my mother. She tells me that the person I must call has the power to destroy me. “Turn around, run!” she says. “Bridge is out!” Now a bit more forceful, “Boo!” Like Old Sam her project is to save me from certain doom. The ghost works to save the me I think I am .

But really the ghost is shielding me from the person I am afraid of, the situation that scares me, the large force in my life, say anger, that unexamined just appears to be too powerful and overwhelming. Whole areas of life become off limits – sadness, sex, anger, joy, grief, happiness, other people, love, scorn, you name it, ghosts will arise for any scary place. The mansion of Life, life itself, becomes very small indeed, with most or many of the rooms supposedly haunted and off limits. The final truth though is this: I cannot know about the areas in my life where I do not go, thus the haunted places, the dwelling place of ghosts is lost to me.

The paradox of the ghost saving me: I am lost to my life, to the fullness of here.

So, this koan reverses the equation. “Save a ghost,” it calls.

Save a Ghost

To save my idea of me the ghost knows me, or at least it knows what I fear. And finally, this ghost? It is me. I made this me to protect. I made this ghost to stand guard. To save the ghost, I am invited to know it, to enter into relationship with what I fear – to feel it, to have tea with it, to begin to see with fear’s eyes, fret with fear’s frets, walk in fear’s shoes, speak with fear’s language. In a word: empathize, with fear and with myself holding on so tight, hiding from life. With empathy the heart, life itself opens. Here is the Heart Sutra as it imagines no walls in the mind, no fears, a life lived here, a heart open in empathy with what is:

bodhisattvas take refuge in Prajnaparamita
and live without walls of the mind.
Without walls of the mind and thus without fears,
they see through delusions and finally nirvana.

A Community of Ghosts

One last thing. Once Jesus went to cast out a demon and when he asked the demon its name, the demon replied: my name is Legion. Yup, demons, ghosts whatever you might call those guardians of who you think you are, they are legion. I have found in my practice that once you entertain one, they all want to be known, want to step into the light of day. Ok, that’s the practice: you save your ghosts and I will save mine. And we always have this koan, “Save a ghost.”

If you get it the first time you hear it you can teach the Buddhas and ancestors.
If you get it the second time you hear it, you can teach the gods and humans.
If you get it thethird time you hear it, you can’t even save yourself.

When did you get it?

The moon sets at midnight, I walk alone through the town.
-Book of Serenity, Case 76.

Who’s on first?
Abbott and Costello

Who’s On First?

We live in a “who’s on first?” world.” Ranking makes a difference. Every week, coaches, sportswriters and statisticians give their opinion about who is the best basketball team in the nation, they rank all the contenders, 1 to 25 plus 1. Of course, that means a great deal to me now as a resident of Kentucky where basketball is a religion. I am pleased to report that “we” are currently ranked #4 with national title possibilities. That is how it goes, who’s on first? — basketball, football, lacrosse, etc… — who is the richest person in the world? The best chef? The fastest? The smartest? The most intuitive? When I was a minister colleagues would get together and compare — how large? how many in church? Total budget? Even Zen teachers…Good God! All of us clawing our way “Straight to the Top.” This koan with its three times hearing brings me to wonder: Who’s on first? How do I measure up? Recently, I took an intelligence test. It didn’t turn out like I would have liked, you know — 140 or higher. That is how it goes — with comparison and ranking comes self-judgement and criticism.

It Hurts Being Me

Comparing and ranking is painful, it just plain hurts. As long as there is first, first runner up and don’t measure up, I am constantly placing myself on the continuum, valuing myself according to rank — ok here, not so good there, and not even close when it comes to…math. My overall score, my worth? The other day a friend commented on this saying, “I just feel inadequate.” Not a good place to dwell, always needing to prove my self as worthy. When I feel like this I can sense life and possibility shutting down, I clam up and hide away from a world where I have come to believe that I don’t count. In the koan this despair is noted: “you can’t even save yourself.” My world is only as large as my limiting belief. It hurts being me.

Upside Down – On Not Saving Yourself

You are on a Merry-Go-Round, with all this the ranking and the comparing, reaching for the brass ring, a self you imagine, one you can live with, know and love. Ah!! You get it. But the painted ponies continue their circular course, and each time around you must try again, and again, and again. Your pursuit of a self is exhausting. Reach, grab, hold, fix and maybe you will measure up. For now. But, the teacher with this koan is tricky and correct: you can’t save yourself – once, twice, three, three thousand times. Last week’s number one crashes in this week’s polls. In life as-it-is you come to learn that you can’t live to a self manufactured image of your self. Instead, leave the brass ring and feel the pony in her up and down, the wind on your face, the laughter as it rises from deep in your belly, the touch of your friend as she reaches for you from atop her pony. And if you reach for the ring, just feel the excitement of grabbing hold, “yes!” Or missing it, “Darn!” It is all right here.

Not saving the self is to be in your life in accord with what comes.

The Moon Sets At Midnight

The moon sets on your knowing, on your images and ideas of self, well known and worn and you welcome what you don’t yet know. You begin to experience the vast and seamless dark on its own terms. You walk alone, dark, and in the dark. Your walk is one of discovery. There is no separation between you and what is. You are at-one.You begin to live and move with deep appreciation of life as it unfolds. You are alone here, for at-one where is the other? Life meets you, here, in this dark town. Then the awakening — this is how it has always been, before rank, before the suffering, before a self.

Lingyun was wandering in the mountains and became lost in his walking. He rounded a bend and saw peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. This sight awakened him and he wrote this poem:

For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman. 

How many times did the leaves fall

and the branches break into bud?

But from the moment I saw the peach blossoms,

I’ve had no doubts.

Centuries later the Japanese teacher Keizan responded with his own poem:

The village peach blossoms didn’t know

their own crimson

but still they freed Lingyun

from all his doubts.

Today is the first day of Spring. We are well into the lengthening of days, the air is warming and the geese are making their way north. On the first day of spring I celebrate the rising, the awakening, the movement into the new. So, why not this wonderful spring koan, — Lingyun is walking the mountains, rounds the bend and sees the peach blossoms on the other side of the valley. Awakening!

Thirty Years

And he wrote a poem. With this poem, I feel with Lingyun.

For thirty years I searched for a master swordsman.

How many times did the leaves fall

and the branches break into bud?

I have given my life to the spiritual search. TM, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton. I have studied with Henri Nouwen, Jerry May, Tilden Edwards, Seung Sahn, John Tarrant and other roshis and friends at the Pacific Zen Institute. Throughout my life I have known that there is another world — one where it all comes together. Like a moth to the flame, a catfish to the lantern, a early bird to the worm, I have been drawn — at times relying on ways of knowing, at other times giving up, throwing my hands up and admitting that I just don’t know. Curiously, almost without fail, when I give up this other world seems to close in.

So, for thirty years Lingyun searched. It is a joy to search and wonder, and open and question. It is a joy too to embrace frustration and despair, to quest (just as an aside, perhaps you remember Monty Python’s scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Bridge of Death). Thirty years, searching is to keep the question, sometimes consciously, sometimes outside of awareness, What is this? So, I meditate and study, I find and lose faith, believe and then live without belief. Thirty years…that sounds about right.

And All the While…

Leave fall.

The branches break in bud.

The birds call, the hens lay, the sun rises in the east, the horses call to be let out of the barn, her smile greets me in the morning.

“There is another world, but it is in this one.” Paul Eluard, sometimes used as a koan.

There is another world and it is right here, all the time. How many times….asks Lingyun, did the leaves fall, the branches break in bud?

I have noticed over these 30 years how easy it is to live one step removed, to live in the commentary, the inner chatter. This will often come forward as I name things, that is the horse asking to be let out, the name of that song is “Into the Mysitc; Van Morrison sings it, he is Irish, but once lived in Northern California. Blah, blah, blah — one step, two steps removed — one step, two steps from my right here. Enter opinions, ideas about life. Three steps. And here I am missing it: Leaves still fall. The branches still break into bud. Life is beautiful like that: it is not what I think, and it just keeps on.

Awakening at Last!

Awakening is not something we can conceive of, we cannot think our way to it. One old teacher said, “Move towards it, you move away from it.” Ok. Well, then it is always a surprise. We don’t find it, awakening finds us. Peach blossoms find us. The Universe finds us. And we stir, foundations shake. Lingyun rounds the bend, there they are, the peach blossoms across the valley — they find him — no doubts, no opinions either — just the peach blossoms, the intimacy of awakening. Lingyun disappears in a moment of peach blossoms.

A week and a half ago a foot of wet snow fell on Panola Ridge. It was so beautiful! Early in the morning, just around sunrise, I ventured in to the yard around the house. As I stepped into the driveway a huge Craaaaack! filled the air. The sound found me and there was, for a moment, just a crack. Soon, the thoughts rushed in. A large branch over the house, it can fall and crush the house, better do something. But, in the moment of Craaaaack! no doubts.

An Opening

For me this is a opening into the spiritual life. The peach blossoms, the craaaack, the redwood tree, me, all woven together, an inter penetrating reality. And indeed the foundations I thought I had are shaken, there is just this, here, here and here. Now. Lingyun and David P are brothers without doubt. Interconnected or whatever. But what now? I see hints in the later verse on Lingyun’s experience:

The village peach blossom didn’t know

their own crimson

but still they freed Lingyun

from all his doubts.

As I move into the world, what is it to be David and not know and STILL play my part in the universal dance. Without comment or opinion or idea, without right or wrong, what is it to blossom and bloom, the open and show in the sun? To do my part and respond as life unfolds? What is the character of emptiness as David lives in the world? The 30 years becomes 40; 40 becomes 50, what is it for David to be free? Here, here and here. Now.


Koan: The teacher asked, “How do you step from the top of the hundred foot pole?”

This Life is For You

This life is for you; you in the midst, life continuously as-it-is. The flowers, the trees, the chickens in the yard, the cows in the field, the smile on your co-worker as he greets you, the “Good Mornings,” and the “How are yous?” Someone holds the door for you as you walk into the room and there is that person with whom you argued yesterday. After work you make a trip to the doctor to hear that your blood pressure is too high and that trimming a few pounds might help. You remember your father who died young — sudden heart attack, a “widow maker” the doctor called it. Your dog welcomes you home when you remember that you forgot-a common occurrence -what is it this time?- nothing here to eat – to stop at the store on the way home. Ugh, and you would rather not go out again. This is life and your life is for you — the utter chaos, the whole mess, the ecstasy and the agony, the heaven and hell. This life is for you. You live it, day to day, ups and downs, groups of people, the animals that keep you company. You are disappointed, elated, held accountable, reckless – last year you fell in love. There is a vastness to life, it is always changing, and as you awaken you discover that while nothing is holy, life, as-it-is, with all of this, is beautiful. Sometimes it makes you cry.

Beautiful, Find Me a Place to Hide!

That’s what it is to see into the heart of things, everything is as-it-is and as-it-is, is just so and you are in it all, steeped and at-one. Zhaozhou, put it like this, “It’s alive, it’s alive!” Right there. That is all. This is to awaken, to see into your essential nature, your Buddha nature, the Kingdom of God, whatever you might want to call it. What can one do with such a thing? One could do what the early Christian pillar-saints, the Stylites did — stay there, try to hold onto the experience, make something out of it, declare it meaningful and grand, holy, the utmost and the highest. After all, that is a pretty good place to hide. Hide? Or perhaps there is a more excellent way. But first, Hide!

The Agony of the Ecstasy

Yes, the beauty, the vastness, the change, all of it can be scary and overwhelming. Our experience of life in the ecstasy (derived from the old French lestaise”in a frenzy or stupor, fearful, excited.”) and the agony (old French as well, “contest”) stops us. As we awaken to the beauty we also discover that all this, the whole shebang, the frenzy and the contest, is beyond our control. So whichever metaphor you might use for a hiding place —atop a pole, head in the sand, pillar, behind the walls of a fortress, enclosed within the house, whatever, awakening, as we take it and shape it to our delusions of mastery and control, becomes a sort of agoraphobia, a fear of getting out. We can’t control it on the outside so we will make an inside where we can. We want to stay atop the pole, the pillar, build a house, exchanging what we don’t know for what we do. The teacher’s challenge, “Take a step,” out of the house, off the top of the pole, from what you know into what you don’t, life as-it-is.

The Ecstasy of the Agony – Can I Get a Witness?

Life in its ecstasy and in its misery is agonizing, a contest. In other words, life comes forward to meet you, calls. This is Guan Yin in all her guises – love, hate, kindness, sadness, anger, grief, and on and on. Life’s call beckons response, a step off the pole. The teacher, echoing life itself, asks, “how do you step from the top of the hundred foot pole?” So through this piece I have been playing the etymology game, a sort of archeological dig into the language. Let’s step that up a bit: the word contest derives from the Latin, com- “together” + testari “to bear witness,” to together bear witness — the life in me and the life outside me gives way to the discovery that life is one, with no inside or outside. This One Life bears witness to the great love in all. From together witness to together action — this is the Bodhisattva Way. Life responds to life and we live our awakening in the midst of it all.

The Koan:

Zhaozhou said: The Supreme Way is not difficult; it simply refrains from picking and choosing. As soon as these words are spoken, you might judge that this is picking or choosing, or that it is clear. I do not dwell in clarity. Can you stand by this and give me a response.

A monk stepped forward and asked: If you don’t dwell in clarity, what do you stand by?

I don’t know that either.

If you don’t know, why do you say that you do not dwell in clarity?

It is enough to ask the question. Take your bows and step back.

Supreme Way

In the time of Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma the talk was First Principle and Holy Teaching. Now its Zhaozhou going on about some Supreme Way — Supreme like the highest way, the best way. Thinking of such things, the Supreme, the Best, the Highest, we think, “that’s hard.” When Zhaozhou says “not difficult,” we go, “That’s easy for him to say!” he is a Master.  Sometime we look at meditation and practice like this, maybe everyday when we sit down, “this is hard.” So thought Layman Pang:

One day, while the Layman was meditating in his sitting hut, he suddenly cried out, “It’s hard, hard, hard! And I’ve put two coats of linseed oil on this platform too!”

His wife said, “It’s easy, easy, easy! Just turn your eyes to the floor, lower your feet to it, and be on your way!”

Ling-zhao said, “It’s not hard or easy! The mind of the Patriarchs is in every blade of grass!”

I think Zhaozhou (and Bodhidharma for that matter) would agree with Lingzhao. The mind of the Patriarchs is in every blade of grass, every grain of sand, each needle on the tree. Yes, the patriarchs and matriarchs and my mind and your mind, the music playing in next room, the dog resting in hercrate, the horses in the cold barn, the dishes dirty in the dishpan. This Supreme Way reaches everywhere and touches everything — no inside or outside and no special way to be chosen over any other way. This Way is not easy or hard, not even Supreme. It is right here, in every action, every thought, every emotion. Zhaozhou says this is not difficult. I say that the Supreme Way is the Ordinary Way and that when I am thirsty I drink, when the snow covers the walkway, I look for the shovel. With that being the case…

How Could I Pick and Choose?

To be here is to smile at beauty, to meet absurdity with a hearty laugh. This morning, wind chill at 14 below, I bundle up for the barn chores. Here there is no picking or choosing — just response. When hungry, eat; thirsty drink. Cold? Bundle up. To live in each moment is to meet life with life, to respond to the vastness as a part of and in concert with what is here.


So Zhaozhou in just this way avoids picking and choosing, he avoids making special, better and best, one way better than any other way. That might seem clear, or enlightened even — Zhaozhou is, after all, a Zen Master, his lightning lips pointing to what matters. Those very lightning lips say, “That might sound like clarity, but I don’t dwell there.” “With that being the case, how might you respond?” he asks an earnest young monk. This is a call beckoning response. If it were me I might say, “When it rains, I put on my hat,” but the monk thinks there is something to figure out here, something to stand in, or hold on to. “Ah,” he thinks, “enlightenment.There’s something.” He asks his teacher, “If you don’t dwell in clarity, where do you stand?”

Not Knowing and Nothing Doing

“I don’t know that either,” says Zhaozhou, echoing Bodhidharma with his don’t know. There’s an answer for you. There is no thing to hold onto, no name, no special state to achieve, no thing called enlightenment. “Nothing to attain,” says the Heart Sutra. Just this! Right here. Life/meditation/getting up in the morning is nothing’s own doing. Something like this from David Hinton’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, poem 48:

To work at learning brings more each day.
To work at Way brings less each day,
less and still less

until you ‘re nothing’s own doing.
And when you’re nothing’s own doing, there’s nothing you don’t do.
To grasp all beneath heaven, leave it alone.

Leave it alone, that’s all,
And nothing in all beneath heaven will elude you.

Missing the Bodhiharma-like quality in Zhaozhou’s answer, the student says, “If you say you don’t know, why do you say you don’t dwell in clarity?” To which Zhaozhou says, in essence, “Good question, sit with that one for awhile.”

Life Itself

Limitless and vast. That’s life. And yet as I accumulate knowledge, gathering it and heaping it into piles of belief and opinion, heap upon heap, I separate myself from what is and with the illusion of control interfere with the ever-changing ebb and flow in life. As I seek to explain the world and myself to myself I make it all solid and graspable. This is to know, to gather a self solitary and destitute, cut off. The Supreme Way is to let go of it all, belief, ideals, attainment, even non-attainment, delusion and enlightenment. Zhaozhou’s Way? It is right here as I bundle up against the cold, worry about my family, feed myself when I get hungry. This is nothing doing as I notice what is here and joining the flow as things go their own way.

Zhaozhou’s contemporary Linji writes of this sort of thing noting that the “Way of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed, eat your rice and then, if you get tired, then lie down.”

The Supreme Way is not supreme for being special, it is quite ordinary, and it has always been here. As heart opens we begin to notice and willingly let go.

Does a Dog…?

Does a dog have buddha nature?

-Gateless Gate, Case #1

It is About the Dog

This holiday season, Christmas, New Years, has been all about the dogs. I have two official dogs, Panda a Great Pyrenees mix and Lexi, a Husky. Unofficially there is another dog, Fritz, a neighbor German Shepherd puppy who runs with Lexi and Panda. Together they are The Three Stooges.  They spend all day, everyday, together. They get into stuff: horse manure, road kill. And they have a jobs: Chase off the coyotes, dig random holes, and pester the farm cats. They also guard the chickens and calves and their rounds always include a visit with the horses. Of all beings on the farm they seem the most connected linking the equine, bovine, avian, feline and human worlds. It is a nice arrangement. For their service they receive kibble and table scraps.

I love these dogs.

Did I say they get into stuff?

No respecters of human boundaries, on occasion they leave the farm to wander a neighbor’s field. The neighbor’s dogs will most often chase them away. If trespassed upon the dogs of Panola (our neighborhood) have a code — minor injuries are allowed. If the humans don’t get involved things seem to work themselves out. However, the other day the humans got involved and Lexi came home with a bullet wound to the foot.

Did I say I love these dogs? Lexi’s wound became my own. I am heartsick for her and deeply grieved that a neighbor would do this — shoot a dog.

Bring Things Close

In life the big questions are lived. Thinking might help, but that is about. It is in the living that we find awakening. Zhaozhou’s koan is often the first koan given Zen students. The traditional instruction is to become completely “No.” Live, breath, move as No. That’s good, but today, for me, it is about the dog, the wound, the grief — the intimacy that love calls forth. When I was working on No for the first time, my teacher would tell me to let the world come close — the trees, the leaves, the grass, the ravens calling from high in the Redwoods.

Now it’s about the dog. Lexi, the young Husky. When her foot hurts she whines; when she steps on it wrong, she yelps. She will try to scratch her ears through her E-collar, never reaching the itch. I can feel it too as my hind leg reaches for my ear only to find plastic. Then the man who feeds me reaches over and scratches my head. Ahhhh!

This practice is about love, the intimacy of union. We live with, for and as the other.

Wishing you a blessed New Year of awakening, where heart is open and we find our lives woven into the fabric of what is.

Love, David

Slowly you wade in a running brook,
Extinguishing its sounds 

-verse on Case #6, Blue Cliff Record, “Every day is a good day.”

At the foot of the hill, down from Panola Ridge, runs Drowning Creek, a medium sized stream that opens into the Kentucky River 8 miles downstream. It is said, as it is said about every creek, mountain, and small town hereabouts, Daniel Boone once camped here as he opened Kentucky to encroaching settlement. Drowning Creek is a typical Central/Eastern Kentucky Creek with a limestone creek bed, opening into small pools along its course. And as I get to know the topography of the area, I notice the Creek is always changing. So, too, the creek of my life, always changing. There is an old Christian hymn replete with creekside imagery, “My life flows on in endless song.”

Seasons and Change

Each season brings a change. The creek diminishes to a mere trickle in the summer time and in the Fall leaves flow downstream getting caught up in branches along the way; winter brings ice with water flowing beneath the surface and in Spring Drowning Creek leaves its banks inundating nearby fields. And of course, Drowning Creek changes moment by moment. Each time I hike down the hill, across the old railroad grade (another story) to the creek it is a different creek. As I slowly wade into the water it is never the same water. Drowning Creek, any flowing brook is change.

Wade In the Water

Underground Railroad conductor, Harriet Tubman, used the old spiritual “Wade in the Water” to encourage her passengers to get off the trail and into the creek to elude slavecatchers and Bloodhounds. Whether it is the slow trickle of summer or the deluge of spring, to wade in the water is to no longer hold yourself apart from life but to be in it, soaked through, no separation. Having stepped off the well trodden path you are life’s constant change. You move as life moves. To wade in the water is to awaken, to find yourself in the midst — the creek as it cascades, water over rock, each moment new. In the midst of life’s floods – joy, sadness, love and loneliness; in the frozen moments of not knowing what to do, or how to be, you are here in life. Here you find the Grace of each moment rising to meet you, the path not mapped out, but flowing and ever-changing. And you are a part of that.

Extinguishing the Sound

If I am immersed, fully in, present in each moment, not separate from any thing, how can a sound apart from that intrude? What sound might I extinguish? Or brought in closer to my day to day, the car breaks down, where is the problem? I have an argument with a close friend, how could this be wrong? In emptiness, in the fullness of here, where is this external sound that needs to extinguished? Therefore, wading through the water, I extinguish the sound. Here’s another: Bodhidharma sends Huike off in pursuit of his mind:

Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.”
Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.”
Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.”
“There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.” 

 Master, I am reaching for the light! 
Forget the light, give me the reaching

People who try to do something about what is outside themselves are nothing but knuckleheads. 

Reaching for the Light

I am fast approaching the anniversary of my father’s death. All Fall he has been on my mind and as we approach his death day he feels really close. Before he died my Dad’s thoughts and prayers all circled around “the Light,’ A Muslim, he often spoke about and reflected upon the Verse of Light from the 24th Sura of the Quran. He kept it with him night and day, in his dreams and as he went about his day. He spoke about the light, the niche, the lamp and the glass. As he explored scripture from the world’s religions (The Torah, “Let there be light”; The Christian Bible and the Transfiguration of Jesus, et….), he always came back to this verse in the Quran. As he explored esoteric texts, say in the work of Rudolf Steiner, “the light is formed by the light for the light,” it was against the backdrop of the 24th Sura. At the end of his life, my father pursued his spiritual life as he had for nearly 80 years. And something profound and beautiful was happeni

ng for him, something rooted in his lifelong desire for spiritual fulfillment.

AND he reminded me of the student in Yunmen’s koan, this student who, seeking satisfaction in life, was reaching outside himself. “I’m reaching for the light, ” he says.

It is one of the graces of this life that we experience lack and dissatisfaction in life, that we long for “something more.” It is a gift that out of this longing we undertake our pursuit of healing light, God, Awakening, Buddha Nature…, whatever you might want to call it. We are blessed that a deep desire for wholeness awakens and in Sherlockian terms, “the game is afoot.” In my own life this is a profound blessing, the awakened longing. I look back and this longing has always been. Some call it a “search for meaning,” a needing to know how it is I fit into the fabric of things.

The game is afoot. The game? In the face of perceived problems, we search for the medicine that will heal us, the missing piece that will mend us. For the student, for me, and I suppose my Dad, this is “the light,” a ray from without in which we are brought to wholeness. The missing piece that we seek, since we only experience it as missing, must be outside of ourselves.

The outward searching for wholeness is an attempt to know ourselves, to receive input from outside which will fix me and allow me to achieve the wholeness I lack. Here I, David, achieve my self. In my new fixed view of myself, there is nothing I lack. All is well, until circumstances intrude and it is not.  Another perceived problem rises in life. Then, once again, the game is afoot to find the missing piece. Any fixed view of our selves is limited, limits freedom and will eventually be intruded upon. For this reason the first of Buddha’s Noble Truths is “Life is suffering.” A endless turning.

Give Me What You Got

So now it is up to Yunmen to say something to the student. The student is so earnest and sincere, her longing so deep that she is prepared to do something about it. She reaches out to Yunmen, to the buddhas and patriarchs, to the light, for wisdom. However, as she looks for fulfillment, it is a hard, 180 degree about face that she must make. The light of her own gaze is outward, so Yunmen turns her around, inward, when he says “show me what you’ve got, give me the reaching.”

It’s Your Life

There is nothing you lack. The wholeness you seek you already have. The enlightenment that will fix things is already a fact of your life. You awaken to this wholeness by noticing the life that you are living. So, Yunmen turns this donkey’s head towards home — “give me the reaching, your longing.” And it could be anything —anger, sadness, hunger, love — anything. Yunmen invites the student to become intimate with her life, notice it, occupy it, be in it and in the noticing notice how things shift and heart opens to fullness, to the vastness of what is; opens into love.

Whenever this happens we are awake.

On his deathbed, my father spoke about the light, but now his gaze seemed no longer to have an outside focus. Instead as his words shifted you could see that his consciousness shifted as well. He said this, “it is happening, it has already happened.” These were his last words. They brought to me a memory of an experience he once told me of sitting on a mountain in California, the sun shining across the vastness of a Sierra Mountain Valley, the wind blowing in the trees, the dappled light, ground squirrels moving from rock to tree and back again. “Home at last,” he said about it later, “free at last.” As he sat, a Mountain Crow came and sat right on top of his head.

Just that.

There is no way to know who you are and be free.