The Fire of Zen


When Roshi mentioned to me that all else pales in comparison to the Fire of Zazen, I wondered whether he was ever married, had children, worked two jobs, struggled in a poor economy, fought a recession, lost a job, recieved a bullet. It seems that compared to the truely hot fire of this life, zazen is nothing but a cool breeze – A moment’s release – a deep breath. The crucible of our day-to-day lives it what shapes our practice, not moments sat in silence. Or was I bring to the forefront divisions that do not exist except through my perception?

Perhaps this is why Hakuin used to tell his pupils about an old woman who owned a teashop near the monastery. He highly praised her understanding of Zen, yet she never worked a koan, read a sutra or sat zazen – just a little old lady that worked in a teashop. His pupils were skeptical and refused to believe that this woman – this lay-person, this tea-seller – was deep in the ocean of Zen. And, being good little monk sheep, they would heed Hakuin’s advise and go to the teashop, chuckling, to see if this lady had something stronger than the tea she sold.

The woman saw them coming from far away. A little line of monks coming her way, not with an open mind for instruction, eyes open for Zen, or thirsting for tea. She could tell they had come to stomp through her ocean of Zen like children through a rain puddle. She saw them coming and would lead them behind a screen. 

The instant they followed her, she would strike them with a fire-poker. Nine out of ten of them could not escape her beating.

But I think that one solitary monk that did escape her beating did not by speed, stealth or strength. That one monk escaped the beating by entering with an open mind for a cup of tea. He probably sat down, quietly, sipping while the others nursed welts.

We feel the fire of Zen when we see that the flames don’t leap from our posture, our schools or our tradition. The flames leap directly from this life’s practice. It scorches our feet and singes our hair. Those flames lick our nose when we sit zazen. Those flames are always in our peripheral vision, just out of focus, just perceivable when we don’t set our eyes on them. 

But we control those flames when we enter the old lady’s teahouse with an open mind and clear eye. When we sit for just tea. Of course, it may take a few beatings with a fire-poker to see that lesson.


Nine out of ten Zen Buddhists agree,
Don’t seek wisdom from ladies selling tea.
When we visit, avoid the curtain,
Or lumps on the head will be certain.

The fire of Zen burns so bright,
Only when we look behind our sight.
Until then it is just like a cool breeze,
Punctuated by Amitabha’s sudden sneeze.


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