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.

So, Shariputra, without gaining anything,
Bodhisattvas find refuge in Prajna-paramita,
Living without walls in the mind, and so without fears,
Seeing through delusions and finally seeing through nirvana.
The Heart Sutra

Whatever comes along, don’t believe it.
When something appears shine your light on it.
Have faith in the light that is always working inside you.

Not Separate

The light is always working. Inside or outside there is only this one light. It is the sun rising over the barn in the morning. It is the horse as she whinnies asking to be fed. It is the smile of my friend. It is a crow calling from across the field, “Caw, caw!” This one light is always working. How can I be separate from this light? What can I gain apart from this light? To wake up is to be illumined, to be the sun at its rising, to be the horse as she calls, to be my friend smiling at David. To wake up is to find myself perching on a bare branch calling out, “Caw, caw!” In this light I discover that I am not outside of the world or outside of life, I am life as it unfolds. That close and intimate. For the ancestors there was a word for waking up or enlightenment: Intimacy. And yet…

Building Walls, Believing Things

…I build walls. As I build walls I construct the fortress of the self, my me. David. I am here and separate from the world — every tree and plant, the sun, the moon, the stars, the crow, the dogs, the barn behind the house, each person I meet. Separate. The world is too big, too chaotic, scary really, and I lose faith, my trust in the light always shining. I lose the confidence that moves into life not knowing where it might lead. Lost is the trust to simply be present for the unfolding.

We lose faith in the light and losing faith we take up beliefs. Beliefs are the building blocks for the fortress of self.

There are many beliefs — religious, cultural, social. The most foundational beliefs that we take up are personal, directed towards constructing an identity for ourselves (self image), an inside, that stands apart from world, now outside. And we all know how to do this because we all do it. Walls arise around us as we explain our separate selves to our selves.

because…,I am an unlovable person.
because…,the world revolves around me.
because…,I am a person of integrity.
because…,I am a sad person.
because…,I have achieved.
because…,I am an angry person.
because…,I am successful.
because…,I am a failure.
because…,I am compassionate.

Beliefs serve my self image and my perspective on things. With belief I make my world, brick by brick. With belief I imagine protecting myself from the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”However, with belief I have constructed a fortress of self that hems me in as much as it keeps the world at bay. I am enclosed and limited by these beliefs, these“walls in the mind.”

As the flow of life energy is limited to these four walls, the generosity I experience as I participate in life is cut off. If I see myself as unlovable, I cut off the natural affections of those around me. If I believe myself to be an angry person, it may be difficult for me to express tenderness. If imagine myself as a sad person, happiness might be lost to me. If happy, I might not allow myself the grief that comes with life. I have lost my freedom to be in and respond to life. I lose life in all its messiness.

Noticing this Jesus asks a question, “What does it profit someone if she gains the whole world, and forfeits life?” Good question. Linji approaches it this way, “Don’t do it!!” Well, here is what he actually said, “If something confronts you, don’t believe it.” The Heart Sutra reminds us that there is nothing to gain and we can depend on life as it unfolds here and now.

The Wound: Vulnerable for Life or Shining Our Light

And the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” keep coming. You can’t stop them. That’s life.  Our practice is to be vulnerable to life, to be willing for the slings and arrows as they penetrate the hard walls of belief, expectation and self image. We are wounded. A wound is an opening of thebarrier that separates inside from outside.  Physically that can be a problem, infection might follow. But psychically, wounds can penetrate the hard exterior of the fortress of self. These slings and arrows can open us to life, to the one light. And there all kinds of experiences that open us. In fact, whatever life might bring can open us. We are wounded by hatred and by love. There are wounds of sorrow and wounds of joy. If we are vulnerable for life, all of life will come to us. Outside and inside will meet, and again, as it has always been, there is no separation. And those walls in the mind that were everything to you? They’re gone. Our practice is to open to the messy grace that reaches everywhere and to find ourselves right here in the spaciousness of life with no walls.

Linji advises us, “When something appears, shine your light on it.” This is his practice suggestion. The gaze turns inward, we face our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as they come to us, not as we wish them to be so that they fall conveniently into our manufactured sense of self and world. We explore and discover. What is this? Who am I? Who is —-? We notice as they rise and then fall and open into the spaciousness that is life. This is a messy grace but here at bottom, compassion and love.

For you it is like this: just hold your willingness for things to be as they are, hold your willingness for here and now. Your heart/mind will open.

Gratitude Brings You Close to Life

Here we are in November. It is a cool day, the sun shines, the clouds above are light and puffy against the blue sky. This morning I let the horses out into the lower field. There the sweet grass is long and plentiful. In the same field I hear calves calling out across the pond. In moments like this gratitude is easy, the heart opens and appreciation flows, my inner being greets and touches the world. Where then is inside and outside? Deep appreciation shifts perspective, transforms how I receive my life. A long ago Zen teacher caught this in his “Praise Song for Meditation,”

This very place is paradise 
This very body the Buddha.

It is nice when it is this easy like that. Deep appreciation leads to profound intimacy, which in Zen we call awakening — perspective changes and everything seems close. Yes, but when things are difficult? Hard? When I feel bad? When the shit hits the fan? What about that?

When IT Hits the Fan

An old teacher was once asked, “What is Buddha?” Perhaps the one who asked was hoping for an ideal picture, Buddha in each flower blossom, in the way the clouds reflect in pond, the full moon rising at midnight or maybe some sort of metaphysical Buddha, flashing light permeating the universe. We all hope for that. But sometimes we get this:

The teacher responded, “Dried shitstick!” Yes, here once upon a time where I live people used old corncobs in the outhouse, you know, andafteruse and a little time — “dried shitstick.” But, lets not dwell there for too long. What about the unhappy instances in your life? The times when you are blue, unhappy, where life seems to have gone to shit. Yes, that feeling. The teacher is pointing to the reality that even that, that is IT too.

Yesterday I went to a Memorial Service commemorating loved ones who had died over the last year. I was there because my Father died last December. As the Bluegrass Band played “Torsten’s Irish Blessing,” the music touched deep. My heart opened and tears flowed — sadness, missing him, mourning what was and would never be again, morning what was not nor had ever been, his face, his smile, his intelligence, his gullibility were all transformed  and were flowing down my face. Now his death seemed sad and simultaneously ok, wrenching and spacious, dark, unknown and bright and clear. The bottom dropped out, and as I sat there with the tears of the bitter sweet, I received my life without complaint. No fault. Nothing wrong. 

So as they say, stuff happens. Life is filled with what we like and what we dislike, the circumstances that we embrace and those we keep at bay. Through spiritual practice the heart opens to what it cannot grasp, to a great Before that lies beyond understanding. Heart opens to sorrow and pain as well as joy and celebration. Heart finds that in it all life is revealed, that the light shines. There is no reason in any circumstance to find fault in life. The open heart is in it all. The invitation is to be in the life you have. Your life will do the rest.

Below is a story by Zen teacher Zenkei Shibayama, retold by my teacher, John Tarrant in his Zenosaurus blog.

Thank You Very Much

Once upon a time there was a young man who was deeply unhappy. He had many good things in his life but they didn’t help. When he was at the end of his tether he heard about a teacher who was supposed to be good with hopeless cases and he made the journey to see her.

“I am very unhappy,” he said. “I’m too restless to sit still and do a spiritual practice and I’m too selfish to practice compassion and service. I reach for what I want but when I get it, I’m not happy, and I’, always looking out for the next thing. I don’t have a clue where to turn. But I’m told that you deal with hopeless cases so perhaps you can help me. You are my last resort.”

“I’m glad you came,” she said. “I might be able to help but you will have to agree to do the practice I ask you to do.”

“Why don’t you tell me?” he said “and I’ll decide if it will work for me.”

“Oh no,” she said, “The deal is that you agree to do what I say and then I tell you what you must do. There is no other way.”

He hemmed and hawed and went back and forth and finally surrendered and said, “OK I’ll do it, but I won’t do it forever.”

So she said, “Try it for a year and let me know.”

“A year!”

She said nothing.

“OK,” he said, “Give it to me.”

“I’ll give you the practice I do myself. Whenever anything appears in my mind or appears in the world, I say ‘Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.’”

“That’s all? That’s it? That’ll never work for me!”

“You agreed. For a year. Off you go now. Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

So he left and she more or less forgot about him.

Then a year passed and he asked for an interview and arrived in her room.

“It’s as I suspected, I knew it would never work for me, I’m still just as unhappy and selfish as I ever was.”

Immediately she said, “Thank you very much I have no complaints whatsoever.”

With her words, he felt an eruption in his chest and began to laugh and immediately understood what she meant and laughed and laughed and laughed and his happiness didn’t subside though it did become quieter after some months.

“Thank you very much,” he told people, “I have no complaints whatsoever.”

A koan has been knocking on my heart/mind all week. It is a line from the Diamond Sutra which hard and sharp as a diamond, opens the heart/mind. The koan is a short one:

“Abiding nowhere, the heart/mind comes forth.” 

Before the Coen Brothers’The Big Lebowski,’ “abide” was a word seldom heard outside of church, faithful parishioners giving voice to the old chestnut, “Abide with me,” a plea for God’s presence in hard times. Then along comes Jeff Lebowski, “the dude,” who we are informed by a mysterious cowboy, “abides.” He waits, he hangs, he IS. But if one were to ask the Jeff Lebowski himself, you would hear, “the dude is not in .” That’s just how it goes with Zen — abides, not in. Nothing to hang onto there, one is left hanging in mystery. Which is it? Sort of like the koan, Abiding nowhere….


In Zen the heart and mind are inseparable. With awakening we open to the vastness the universe. Hakuin via the internet says, (I have not been able to corroborate his ever having said this), “Forget the self, become the universe.” As we awaken we open to the vastness, or as Dogen said, we “Become one with the ten thousand things.”  This is half of it. There is another gate, another side of the one coin, the embodiment gate, which as we open into the one will have us respond to the world in love and compassion for the ten thousand things.  This is the heart of our outreach, whatever it might be for you — feeding the hungry, protesting injustice, sitting and talking with someone, digging your hands into the earth to soil someone, sitting and holding hands with someone who is dying. When abiding nowhere, we are available as the universe calls to us and we embody that compassion to the world. One of our koans goes,

“Taking the form of Quan Yin, give shelter to the homeless person.” 

So two gates: into the vastness and out into the world in love. In the life of  the ancestors, those like Hakuin Ekaku you catch the two gates in action. Present to his own practice he is attentive to awakening. Lecturing all over Japan, Hakuin is tireless example of embodiment making his teaching available on the “preaching circuit” and writing, opening the eyes of those who came after him.

Thomas Merton, 20th Century Bodhisattva

Christian Cistercian monk and more than dabbler in Zen wrote this as he awoke from a dream in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky:

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity. Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister. Wisdom.

Merton had his own name for the vastness, a “hidden wholeness.” For some this name might be “seamless,” for others, “The oak tree in our garden,” and for still others, “mind,” or “Buddha” or “way.” He may call it “hidden” but it is right there for him, in this case, in the soft words of a nurse in the hospital as he awakens from a dream. He calls it “hidden,” but it is there as the fount of action and joy. So good on Merton’s “hidden wholeness.” In another one of our koans by French philosopher Paul Eluard it says, “There is another world and it is inside this one.” Out there in plain sight, in the here and now, hidden only for our lack of presence.

Abides, Not In

So, Jeff Lebowski “abides” and yet by his own report, he is “not in.” (Just a side note: this echoes Jesus in the gospel of John, “in but not of the world.”) Must be that he “abides nowhere.” And, the “heart/mind comes forth.”

There are times in my life when deep down I am able to admit that I haven’t a clue. Seemingly I am “not in,”abiding nowhere, opiniions dropped, beliefs discarded. Those are the times when life comes close, my senses are primed as I meet the moment, see things that I don’t usually see (gate 1), find myself doing things that surprise even me (gate 2) Life is kind like that, revealing itself as I am ready, my senses wide open, my heart moved by the surprising generosity that meets me and calls me forth in compassion. And finally, two gates are no gate at all, just life — Abiding nowhere, it all comes forth.

As I walk, I ride the water buffalo.

Koans are a way of understanding apart from explanation, a not-understanding, if you will. In Buddhism, there are some big ideas that can shake the foundations of our assumptions — no-self, impermanence, enlightenment — you have heard them, or not. Many books have been written, concepts carefully explained. You can put these ideas together into a sort of dogma or doctrine, showing the relationship between impermanence and no self, etc…. Yes, and you can take this and make something to believe in.

There is Buddhism with belief. Zen is without belief. Zen is not about organizing life around some key concepts. Koans won’t participate in this project. If the concepts are the map, then the koans are the territory. If the map is topographical, one line indicating 10 feet in elevation, the koans are the surprise as the mountain begins to rise beneath your gait, as your thighs begin to burn, as you feel the exertion, your heart racing and your breath quickening. With a koan, you are thrown into life, as it is, not as desired, believed or imagined or explained. Koans mean encountering what is here, present. A koan points as you explore and discover the pattern of things, the open heart at the center of the world. A koan asks not for belief or allegiance. Rather it opens the field of life, beckoning us to explore, experience and respond as part of life revealed, not apart from it. So, today’s koan:

As I walk,
I ride the water buffalo


I have two horses, Ruby and Flare. Ruby is a 20+ year old thoroughbred and Flare is a 30 year old pony. Ruby, the larger of the two, rules the barn yard. Riding the horses is something of an experience — there are times of deep connection with the horse. Her left shoulder lifts and my body shifts to the right. Give a slight tug on the left rein, squeeze with the legs, placing the right leg slightly back and she turns to the left. To write it here is to analyze it. It all happens rather seamlessly and that is the point — we are connected, as if joined.

I notice this sometimes happens with people as we work on a common task together, say, doing the dishes. I clear the table, handing him the dishes as he washes them and places them in the dish rack. She takes them from the rack, drying them and putting them away. And sometimes it just flows — from person to person, in a way that the connection becomes palpable, experienced, real. In the one of the dedication chants we sometimes use it says, “the whole universe is one seamless body.” Washing the dishes like that.

We are part of life, not apart from it. We join with life, living, moving. Ruby’s shoulder rises and my weight shifts. Doing the dishes it is unclear exactly who is doing what — it is that close. Seamless. Sometimes this is called “moving in the Tao.”


In the koan our walking is seamless. But, before we get to that, there is a cultural thing to clear up. The water buffalo, or the ox, is a symbol in Zen for the seamlessness of things. So, this wonderful koan:

Walking I am a part of this life, everything shines with this light.

And it could be anything. As I…

  • ride the horse…
  • do the dishes…
  • talk with my friend…
  • drive to the market…
  • sit down for dinner…
  • meditate…
  • cook soup…
  • bake bread…
  • type these words…

I am riding the water buffalo, the ox. Seamless.

But, koans not only open the door to the “one seamless body,” they show us how we are living our lives, they illumine — not with judgement, but simply, “It is like this.” They ask us to notice our walking, or driving, or cooking, etc…. “How is it for you?” they ask.

For instance:

I remember a walk I took on September 30, 1997. I remember the date because it was the day that Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind came out. I placed the CD in my Walkman and went for a walk. I had been having trouble with a relationship, and had begun to doubt my vocation in the Christian ministry.Full of doubt, tears flowed and I just walked.

I’m walking through streets that are dead 
Walking, walking with you in my head 
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping

So, I had this walk through the streets of Whitinsville, Massachusetts. I walked listening to Dylan’s mournful song of an end. For hours I walked. Mostly caught up, reacting to my circumstances. I was so cut off from body; coherent thoughts were lost to me. Feet tired, brain wired, clouds weeping, I got lost. In my sorrow, numb, I had checked out, cutting myself off from my life, the very life that I was having then and there. My cries were so loud, I couldn’t hear them. The seamlessness of all things, which includes my own sorrow, was lost to me.

Walking but I could see no buffalo.


There is a koan that goes, “If you turn things around you are like the Buddha.” When we discount the experiences that we would rather not have, we cut ourselves from the life source, from our experience of life’s seamlessness. Turning things around we wake up to our thoughts, feelings, our situation, our gesture becomes one of openness to what is here, curious and daring to dive deep into the heart of things where the “whole universe is one seamless body” At the heart of things? The Buddha, or we might say, Awakening.

Gosh, there I am again, sad, doubting of self, work, the Tao. Yes, but now I am riding the buffalo.

I remember early in my Zen saying, “It reaches everywhere!”



A student asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?  Zhaozhou answered, “No!”

On a regular basis I have people asking me “what is a koan and how do I use it?” That seems to be one of those questions that has an endless stream of answers.

Life meets Life

While on retreat a few years ago, I made friends with a beautiful mare. On a walk I noticed her in the sun lit paddock that she shared with a mule, a donkey, and two goats. Imagining myself as a sort of horse whisperer, I thought that we might get acquainted. I moved to the fence and she looked over and walked over to where I stood.  Right away I noticed a sort of call and response. I see her and move towards her, she sees me and does the same.  Soon we are standing our faces just inches from one another, her face just to the side of mine both of us looking carefully at one another.  She moves her nose from one side of my face to the other, barely touching me as she shifts. I dare to pick up my hand and touch her cheek. She backs away a bit and I remove my hand.  She moves closer as I again touch her cheek. She lets me rest my hand there as I begin to stroke her cheek and then touching her forehead.  I move down her neck, stroking it and am soon patting her shoulder. I am beginning to feel quite good about this encounter and about my new friend.  Awash in self-congratulations of a horse well whispered, I lose some of my focus and she moves away.  In fact, she turns her back to me.   Now I am looking at her backside.

What I noticed about my encounter with my equine friend was that it seemed as if when my heart softened, as I began to open to the wonder for her being, perhaps she softened a bit opening to me. There is a call and response, a reciprocity. Life responds to life, opens to life. This is something we know and experience every day with lovers, friends, dogs, cats, the crow who notices you from her high-wire perch over your driveway.

The further we move into life and the more  we trust the life before us, our hearts open and soften into connection, into deep comm-unity.  Here we find a unity and integrity in things, an interpenetration of being where boundaries shift and the seamlessness of life/things/the world and universe becomes apparent.  Life becomes one.
When Zhaozhou spoke of this he said simply, “It’s alive!  It’s alive!”
Koans in this deepest sense are alive.

Koans – Postcards from Awakening

Koans are words strung together. One popular definition of a koan is to call it a riddle – a problem with an answer, something to be solved, hacked into to reveal its wisdom. As we define problems we tend to view them as something “out there” that needs to be changed, or figured out, or fixed; maybe manipulated to fit my agenda. We treat koans as things that we can use to get what we want, i.e. enlightenment. Just solve the riddle, fix the problem, get enlightened.  Would that it were that simple.

Not a Thing

Koans are not things. A koan is a living text. These words live and breathe. They move and shimmer with vitality. And like a postcard there is a message, “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 coherence of things.

I like to say that working with a koan is like sitting on the couch with your dog. The koan is a living thing and your life in relationship to that living thing is different than your life not in that relationship. Our lives are changed as we make connections. In relationship the heart softens and opens and with that softening and opening   the boundaries that we depend on betwixt self and other are not so strong. Indeed, we find the limitations within which we define “self” are not as certain as we believe them to be. In conversation with the koan,   barriers and walls collapse, and hearts open to the vast expansiveness, into the well of freedom that calls us ever more deeply to where my heart and the heart of the world beat with one pulse.

How does this happen?  Rather like my conversation with the horse, I think. The koan shows herself in the sun as I move to check her out. “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” she asks. “No!” she says. So, I move closer. She turns towards me.  I reach in her direction. She touches my shoulder. Then I notice the goat nearby. I move in its direction. The koan shifts and turns her back. I pull a carrot out of my pocket, she turns towards me. I touch her muzzle. Again, she nudges my shoulder, her nose resting there. This koan and I have met.  Soon, this strange koan about a dog, is barking at the goat as she steals my carrot. Woof!!

Life is not a problem.  It is not a riddle. It is lived organically. Alive, life itself beckons me with its call. As I move in response the conversation never ends, we find our place in the shape of things. Call – Response, Life flows.

David’s Blog is here. On his blog you will find commentary on koans, both from the PZI koan curriculum and from David’s own set of “Christian Koans,” koans taken from Christian scripture. Enjoy!

Deshan visited Longtan and questioned him sincerely far into the night. It grew late and Longtan said, “Why don’t you retire?” Deshan made his bows and lifted the blinds to withdraw, but was met by darkness.
Turning back he said, “It is dark outside.” Longtan lit a paper candle and handed it to Deshan. Deshan was about to take it when Longtan blew it out. At this, Deshan had sudden realization and made bows. Longtan said, “What truth did you discern?” Deshan said, “From now on I will not doubt the words of an old priest who is renowned everywhere under the sun.
” —- Gateless Gateway, #28

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.

–Wendell Berry

The Rest of the Story: Traveling by Day

Deshan lived his life by the light of day: he knew what he knew, and trusted it to carry him through life. He felt his knowing was adequate to his life. He cultivated the scholar’s life spending long hours with the Diamond Sutra. Deshan was famous throughout the north of China, traveling from monastery to monastery speaking to large crowds, the monks of the monastery and townspeople who would come in the pursuit of wisdom. They wanted to know, to have things explained to them. “The Diamond Sutra King” they called him.

Deshan lived in the bright light of his knowledge.

Talk had spread throughout the north of heretical masters down south who were speaking of a transmission of wisdom, “mind to mind, outside of scripture.” For Deshan this was an assault upon the truth revealed in the sutras. He took it personally. He would travel to the belly of this beast and vanquish the foe. He packed up his notes and commentaries on the sutra and headed south.

Arriving in the region of one of the southern devils, Longtan, Deshan felt hungry and stopped at a teahouse at the foot of the mountain. A old woman came to serve him. He was intrigued by the way she looked at him, her eyes, her confidence as she came to the table. He asked her for tenjin or tea cakes. As he ordered he remembered again the double meaning of tenjin, as is appropriate here, ‘tea cakes,’ but also, ironic to his journey, “mind kindle.” As he ordered up his cakes, the woman noticed the cart loaded heavy with Deshan’s Diamond Sutra text, commentaries and notes.“Whatcha’ got there?” she asked. “That is my life’s work on that cart,” he replied, “my commentaries and notes on the Diamond Sutra, the sum of my vast knowledge. I am the King of the Diamond Sutra.” “Is that so?” she said, “then I have a question for you. If you answer it, I’ll give you tenjin. If you can’t answer, you get nothing!” “How hard can this be?” thought Deshan. “Sure,” he replied.

“Like it says in your Sutra,” the old shop-woman said: “Past Mind cannot be realized. Present mind cannot be realized. Future mind cannot be realized. Which mind is it you want kindled and set ablaze?”

Deshan couldn’t answer. He could barely speak. Nothing he knew, or had read, or heard could help him with this question. He was completely in the dark now. No way to navigate this territory. Soon, he would learn what the woman was offering him, but now, he was only confused, upset and desperate. “Is there a Zen Master around here?” he asked the old woman. “Yep, just a few miles up the road, that’s Longtan’s place.” Head full, belly empty, Deshan went to meet Longtan.

Far Into the Night

Longtan was happy to greet Deshan. As they met Deshan tried his best at a Zen greeting. Knowing that Longtan’s name meant “Dragon – Lake,” he said, “I have known of you for a long time, Longtan, but having arrived here I find neither a dragon nor a lake.” “Now you have Longtan right here,” came the reply. (Pretty good exchange, if you ask me. It seems Longtan has the upper hand.)

As evening approaches Deshan asks Master Longtan to teach him. They speak long into the night, darkness surrounding the small hut. Finally, Longtan, says, “It’s late. Why don’t you retire.” Getting up, Deshan lifts the blinds, the darkness thick. “It is dark outside,” he says. Longtan reaches for a lantern on a nearby table, lights it and hands it to Deshan. Just as the younger man reaches for the lantern, Longtan blows it out.

Ah! Deshan gets it, his heart opens wide, the burden of the day leaves him. He’s in the dark. The maps he carried to find his way have been taken away. He negotiates the territory now one step at a time, each moment to itself, the ground rising to meet him.

…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. 

Deshan gives a long bow.
“You just saw into things. Tell me, what is it?” Longtan asks.
“That from this day forward, here amid all beneath heaven, I’ll never doubt the tongue of an old master.”

Go Dark

I am going to end the story there. It goes on with Longtan praising Deshan to the assembly of monks the next day. And finally, Deshan gathers all his texts, commentaries and notes and burns them saying,

Even if you understand all the intricacies of dark-enigma itself, it’s barely a hair’s-breadth adrift in the vast emptiness of this Cosmos. And even if you comprehend through and through that loom of origins at the heart of things, it’s barely a drop tossed into endless seas.”(David Hinton, No Gate Gateway)

In the Dark, Not Knowing

We know what we know — I learn and study, set up house. I know who I am related to. I know the names of my children, I know how to change the spark plugs on my car. There are whole fields of endeavor. I am familiar with some, not so familiar with others. To know is to be in the light of day, to have an somewhat accurate map of the territory, to count on the fact that if I raise the heat on a pot of water at sea level to two hundred and twelve degrees, it will boil. But even with all I know, life is mysterious.

You see like most of us I was raised in the light of day: I want to know, I think I know, if I don’t know, I think that someone knows and is keeping it from me, all that, but finally at the end of the day, we really don’t know.

Where do my thoughts come from? How is it that they seem to appear without consulting me? How is it that an emotion might rise in me with no apparent reason? Or the next moment — given all that I do know, how is it that I can’t know what will happen next? Where do dreams come from, and where do they go when I can’t remember them. Finally, I look at all I know about life and begin to experience all that I do not and I find that there is far more of the latter — life is unknown and uncertain.

And I am glad for it – not knowing, being in the dark, opens life. Not knowing means that my mind is open and I am curious about what comes next. Not knowing feels the vibrancy of life, is responsive to the energy of what is here.The tea lady asks Deshan, “which mind past, present or future, will you set ablaze? and as he searches for mind, he is thrown into not having an answer (having no mind?), something that will satisfy him, as all his knowledge has satisfied him before. Now desperate, Deshan is thrown into life itself. Riding the currents of life energy, he begins to feel his way along in the dark. He ends up at Longtan’s place. Here, looking for a Dragon and a Lake, he finds none. Instead, Longtan says, “I am right here, the real Longtan,” inviting him to the intimacy of encounter.

It is not knowing that has brought Deshan this far.

Longtan and Deshan talk into the night. Longtan suggests bed. Deshan notices it is dark outside. Longtan hands him a candle and as soon as he grabs it, Longtan blows it out. It is dark inside too, spacious, vast. There is nothing in the way. For Deshan – the first day.

What you know, you know. It sort of ends there. Far more trustworthy is not knowing — not knowing the possibilities open beyond anything you can think or imagine. Life, not forced into a mold of knowing, is open, flexible and free, responsive to what is here.

…to know the dark, go dark,
and find, too, the dark blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. 

Feeling my Way

Two years ago I was talking with my father who was wondering what he would do upon the death of his second wife. He was 90, living in the country and alone. I could feel the urgency in his question, the mounting desperation and before I knew what I was saying, I said, “I can move here.” That was the first I was informed. I have since retired, moved from California, and my father died 5 months after my arrival in Kentucky. Now I live alone on Panola Ridge outside of Richmond, Kentucky. I take care of cows, horses and chickens, and I teach Zen. There are other koans about the dark, here’s one:

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.

We think we know, we want to know, but we do not. There is a blessing in this as we feel our way along. Life meets us, and we are in the right place.

Some Questions:

  1. Tell me about the tea lady: what was this tenjin, this mind kindle, she was serving up?
  2. Have you ever felt desperate for understanding? What is that like?
  3. Longtan says to Deshan, “Now you have Longtan right here.” What is Longtan up to? What is on offer? Where is this offer in your life?
  4. Deshan and Longtan exhaust tthe day, the darkness descends upon them. They move from sight, knowing, into the dark, not-knowing (in his verse on the koan, Wu-men says of Deshan, “Alas, he has lost his eyes.”) Is there a time in your life when it seemed that not knowing opened things up for you?
  5. Who is the “old master” that Deshan refers to?


Meditation is simply the practice of paying attention. You will pay attention the way you pay attention. So, there is no right way to meditate, just your way. To begin meditation, just sit down and notice how it is for you. Notice the opinions that come to mind as you sit, notice your feelings, how your body feels on the floor or in the chair. Allow your attention to bring you to “here,” and to the “now” of your experience.  There is no right way to do this. There is nothing to fix or to get right. Whatever comes notice that. Meditation is a laboratory of sorts, a practice that allows us to be present to life. As heart opens in meditation, you may be surprised at what you discover.

Koan Study

Koans are tools for transformation, helping us, where life was once shut down and confined, to find freedom within the vastness of  life. Koans are an invitation to participate in this larger reality. Through metaphor and myth they help us to imagine and feel our way, finding our place, experiencing the seamlessness of things as our own. The study of koans opens us to Spirit. At Bluegrass Zen we have Zen koans, the tradition from which this practice derived and David has developed Christian koans, gleaned from the contemplative reading of the sayings and doings of Jesus.


Inquiry will bring us to the heart of things, undercutting our assumptions about life, opening us to the deeper possibilities in life.  Simply we ask questions of our experience.  The deeper we dive the more life reveals itself to us.


Life itself is a conversation, a call and response with the vast mystery, inviting us into ever deeper communion.  Conversations, within small groups and one on one with spiritual friends, is a way to join in, of inquiring deeply into our own lives. Here, conversation can be a revelation, opening the gates of transformation.  At Bluegrass Zen we have small group opportunities for conversation and possibilities for one on one conversation with David, the teacher at Bluegrass Zen.

Work with a Teacher


Individual Meetings with the teacher of Bluegrass Zen, David Parks, is one of the way to deepen your meditation and koan practice. You may contactDavid here   if you would like to meet with him in person, on the phone or onlin

ering. You can talk to your David about ways to help out and be connected to the community, even if you live far away.e via FaceTime or Skype.It is also beneficial to support your teacher financially, if you are able, through dana contributions, as well as to be a part of the Bluegrass Zen community by volunte