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.

I alone am the world-honored one.

They fade away.

Who in this world of Spring may continue forever? No-one!

Each flower that blooms, passes.

Each blossom of leaf, falls.

Seeds continue to sprout and grow.

We strike this world hard. Hard enough that our screams at entry echo through our lives. BAM! But only one strike. Just one. Then we drag foward in this life. The length is unknown but we hear the echo of our first sound behind us. Ahead of us. Next to us. Desperate to find that voice, we practice.

When the Buddha was born, he walked seven steps and pointed to the heaven with one hand and to the Earth with the other. He said, “Above heaven and below heaven, I alone am the world-honored one.”

In this vast emptiness, there is no sacred, no mundane. No “world-honored one.” Just the echoes of the screams of infant, scared shitless, blinded by the first light of the world. Our voice doesn’t change. That first scream says “There is only me.There is nothing in this existance but me!” Over time we build walls, personas and constructs but that scream still echoes. The truth of that first scream remains…

“There is only me.There is nothing in this existance but me!” A child cries in the morning, an old man yawns in the evening. In between the muffled sounds of clarity.

Far from selfish. There is nothing in this existance but me. Screaming in the light. Scared. Practice brings to realization that we are not alone in that scream. Our voice, seperated, are impermanent. Together, they continue to ring, impossible to grasp.

A nursery of Buddhas.

Each one, a world-honored one.

Each voice, the voice of Buddha.

Each voice, my voice.

Our voice.



Sigalovada Sutta: Buddha’s Advice on Mom [and householders]

Mother and father as the east,
Teachers as the south,
Spouse and family as the west,
Friends and colleagues as the north,
Servants and workers below,
Brahmans and ascetics above;
These directions a person should honor
In order to be truly good.

Wise and virtuous,
Gentle and eloquent,
Humble and accommodating;
Such a person attains glory.

Energetic, not lazy,
Not shaken in misfortune,
Flawless in conduct,
and intelligent;
Such a person attains glory.

A compassionate maker of friends,
Approachable, free from stinginess,
A leader, a teacher, and diplomat;
Such a person attains glory.

Generosity and kind words,
Conduct for others’ welfare,
Impartiality in all things;
These are suitable everywhere.

These kind dispositions hold the world together,
Like the linchpin of a moving chariot.
And should these kind dispositions not exist,
Then the mother would not receive
Respect or honor from her child,
Neither would a father.

Upon these things
The wise reflect;
They obtain greatness
And are sources of praise.”



Unbinding, Simplicity, Black Flag and Flowers

There’s no fire like passion, 
    no loss like anger,
    no pain like the aggregates,
    no ease other than peace.

Hunger: the foremost illness.
Fabrications: the foremost pain.
For one knowing this truth
as it actually is,
is the foremost ease.

Freedom from illness: the foremost good fortune.
Contentment: the foremost wealth.
Trust: the foremost kinship.
Unbinding: the foremost ease.

~Dhp 202-205

… If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

~Albert Einstein

We are born with a chance
    Rise above
We’re gonna rise above
I am gonna have my chance
    Rise above
We’re gonna rise above

~Black Flag


American Buddhism: Reflected, Revisited and Rejected

I have a story—as we all do—about how I came to find my bodhi tree. I have a story of its leaves that cool, its roots that stabilize and its trunk which protects.  Mine started perhaps differently than yours— in a small (but old) temple on the outskirts of a Chinese metropolis— a place of refuge for me; a quiet moment in the hectic and loud city around.  I was 16 and would often sneak out of my apartment, take the number 8 bus downtown and slip through the large gates and enter the temple. I had no idea what Buddhism even was at the time. All I knew was that in here was peace. It was found in the old, leaning pagoda, in the dancing incense smoke and in the intrigued smiles of the old monks who shuffled around.

My Chinese, I regret to inform, was lackluster. I wanted to understand Buddhism so with my limited vocabulary I asked one of the monks, “What do I do?”

                “Sit in quiet. Be here.”

I am sure he said more, but that was all I understood. Confused I replied, “That’s all?”

He smiled, shook his head and walked off. I was confounded and slightly perturbed, “Stop being so mysterious,” I mumbled, “I have no idea what I am supposed to do here, buddy! You can’t just walk off!”

Even though I was confused, I did what he said. I found a stone step under an eve, leaned back against a wall and sat in quiet. I breathed in the moment and breathed out the moment. Simple, I know, and possibly not even Buddhist, but in that time frame something clicked. There was no beautiful angels, no shining bodhisattvas that came down to bless me; no glory hallelujahs sung by a gospel choir, just a quiet understanding. Personally, that was good enough for me.

It began to rain as I sat there, and as much as wanted to stay, I realized it was time to go. Walking out of the temple I found myself in an “everything is so pretty and let’s all hug one another” mindset when I tripped over the bottom of the door frame and stumbled out of the temple.

                Buses, cars, bells, people- noise, noise, noise.

I was knocked out of my mindset quickly as the boisterous city reminded me that it was still there, still loud and still very, very dirty. 

                Hello, World. You do tend to make quite the entrance.

I was 18 when my family moved back to the States. I can’t say that I was too excited about the move but I was ecstatic about the prospect of being able to gather information on Buddhism. I had spent two years retaining all that I could from the little English literature I could find on the subject. It felt a little like trying to dig through all of the cereal bits in Lucky Charms to find the marshmallows. I can’t begin to tell you how many magazines and books I bought on the subject. Reading was my sanctuary and I adored every simple and complex thing my mind mulled over.

The problem came when I realized I was the only Buddhist in my area. When I say area I mean that I was the only Buddhist for roughly 65 miles. No temples, meditation centers, robes or mala beads. Just some jacked up 18 year old and her books.  I learned a lot from them but the truth was I needed some help and guidance. I needed to go out and search the American Buddhism scene.

                The rabbit hole was big and had a warning sign and yet I jumped into it.

I don’t know what I expected. I suppose half of me expected the quiet monks in the Chinese temple while the other half expected Cylon’s and Dalek’s. I did not think that Buddhists would float about on clouds of enlightenment tossing out petals of peace and wisdom to weary souls. I am sure I expected something…I just didn’t expect this. I was unaware that as a Buddhist I was supposed to do yoga, be a vegan, have $85 mala beads (made by Tibetan nuns, of course), hate Republicans, live in Boulder, and be a hipster. Apparently the Buddha had gone from chilling under a tree to slugging around a grenade launcher of harsh words and drinking Pabst (with his lululemon mat strapped to his back). I think I missed the sutra that expressed this side of him. 

The Buddha’s words, which were once a refuge, had turned into to a product to sell, a large outlet mall where one could pick and choose the easy bits and leave the contemplation behind. American Buddhism reminded me a lot of that moment when I stumbled over the door frame and tumbled into the city.

            It was noisy, loud and scared the hell out of me.

I had twelve different people screaming twelve different ways to enlightenment in my face, and others who would scold me over my meat eating habits while being drunks themselves and still yet others who tried to convince me that the Buddha really wanted me to do a Hero’s Pose and buy those yoga pants. I once had the pleasure of listening to a man my own age (22) explain in a coffee house that he was a Buddhist and completely understood the Dharma. I also had the pleasure of scoffing loudly and leaving.

Where was I? What was this place? It was overwhelming, deafening and did not resemble anything I had ever seen before. There was no respect for one another, no listening and no wisdom. Just very, very loud people who said so much that ended up being nothing more than dust. I tried to course my way though the words and opinions but I only found more. Along the way I met a few Buddhists that I respected and adored. I found the same peace and wisdom in their words that I did in the words of the monks in China. But I felt as if I were on a river;

            I tried to get close to the rocks of their sanity but the current pushed me down.

After two full years of being wholly frustrated by it all, I had enough. I was angry, sad and hurt. I pulled off my mala beads (made for me by a friend) and let them gather dust on my windowsill. I took my books and magazines and shoved them into a tidy corner of my closet. I shook The Buddha’s hand firmly and said, “Listen. I know it’s not fair. I adore your words; they are just hard to find in the screams here.”

            And I walked away.

It’s been close to 8 months now and honestly I still feel lost. Buddhism was, and still is, my path. It is the one I want to follow but the one I cannot find. I get upset when I see pseudo- hipsters with their mala beads and sandals telling me how easy it is for them. My blood boils and all I want to do is beat them with their hair gel. Buddhism was never easy and it never will be, at least for me. It’s a struggle to look inwards and see all that I am. It’s a struggle right now.

What do you do when you’ve lost the one thing that made sense? What do you do when you can hear the words of truth but get lost in the maze of opinions? I’m not sure if I will ever wander back to my path because I am not sure if I can find it. I suppose that could make me weak or even petty and perhaps I am.  One day I hope to find my old, sturdy tree. I hope to sit underneath its green leaves and listen to the wind. I hope more than anything I am finding my way out of the rabbit hole and back into peace.

This was a guest post by Brianna Ecklid. Brianna lives on the cold shores of Lake Michigan. She reads far too much for her own good, writes short stories, and geeks out about comic books. Someday she’ll own a cute hobby farm and mess up people’s brains with her words but for now she is content with spring and crocheting. You can contact her at or on twitter as @absentbree.


Old Man Monk under the Buddha Tree.


Old man Monk sitting under the Buddha tree.
Silent, quiet and still, calm as could be.
The grasses folded, the wind blew,
Time stands still to those
who hear the song
of Mu.

But then a tremor, a sound, a wave in the air
brought Old Man Monk’s thoughts to bare.
Thin, focused, rootless and free,
Old man shifted his weight
and opened an eye
to see.

A rustle in the weeds, a thought on the breeze,
A gasp, a groan, a giggle, a stifled sneeze.
What is this thing that comes this way?
Any manner of man or beast,
or fey?

Or is it something visiting from the realms ethereal?
A pernicious troll on a stroll, looking for a meal.
A dragon. Griffon. Perhaps a faerie?
Or an ogre that cannot
stomach things
of dairy?

A sharp-eared fox suddenly emerged from the brush,
Sporting peering eyes, a tail that was lush.
Old Man Monk cracked a smile
“Dear Friend, It has
been a while.”

But a fox is a fox and a conversation with them quite rare,
and it walked off, tail twitching, with very little care
about monks or trees, or songs on the air.
Its only thought to catch a hare,
for dinner, unaware.

His mind was silent again, but the air still quite stiff
When Old Man Monk stopped meditating to sniff
and a whiff of smoke began to grow
Which led the old man to gasp
“Oh Dear. Oh no”

From the behind  a burning brush emerged a fiery mass!
All smoke and scowls, consternation and gas.
This demon is somewhat of a crumongeon
But luckily that sword is used
to cut souls and
not bludgeon.

Ol’ snaggle tooth growled and put up quite a front,
popped a squat with grumble and a grunt.
With a jingle and a jangle,
a bounce and a flail,
that big ol’ demon
almost sat on a quail.

Old man Monk, rolled his eyes and slapped his knee
Still quite happy for some com-pa-nee.
But the company was not the issue,
He only wished that
demon brought a tissue.

Smelly and loud, he is, and coarse and robust
Overly serious, constantly kicking up dust
But he sat happily as Mu floating by
mindfully chewing on
an unlucky

Eventually the demon stood up, knees knocked and walked away
Leaving a burnt mass where grasses once swayed
Left with out so much as a nod or a smile,
Seemingly unaware of Old Man Monk
the whole while. 

Alone again, the monk sat with his thoughts to ponder.
When suddenly the sky was ripped usunder.
Lightning! Thunder! The clashing! The din!
when, just then, fell two beings of
primordial creation.

Asuras they were, No doubt, of a some far-off realm
dropped down to earth with sword and helm.
Ground shakes and echos deafening,
Old Man Monk hunkered
down and began
to sing.

The song of leaves, of tree, of roots and blooms and spring.
A song of past, present, and what the next day will bring.
The silent song stopped the ground’s deep shudder
Every note causing each battling
titan’s heart to flutter.

Smiling inwardly, sighing soflty and breathing deep,
Giant bodies sank to the ground and did sleep.
As Old Man Monk sang the tune
wiped his brow and
fell in a swoon.

A fox, a demon and two Titans in deep combat!
All under this Buddha tree by which he sat.
The fox now gone, and demon away
and two titans that sleep
finally held at bay.

What more could happen today! The Old Monk thought
Thinking he got more trouble than he ought.
When a groan and chill bit the air,
He froze in his tracks.
Turn? He did not dare.

From the mossy ground where the titans did sleep,
Rose a gaggle. A groaning, shambling heap.
Necks long. Necks thin, stomach large and gross
Without turning around he knew…
Oh dear me…Hungry Ghosts.

His song long gone, his protector far away,
how does one keep such horror at bay?
Laying his hand down, a moment he lingered
and then swiftly, deftly, with a knife
offered up his own finger.

These ghosts, these ghouls, these spirits forlorn,
these beings from a land yet not to be born.
Gazed at the finger lopped from his fist.
so small, so slight, so kind, this gift.
With a laugh and a thought
dispersed in a fine mist.

Exhausted, confused, alone and bleeding but alive still
Old Man Monk quietly sat back down on the hill.
Hands shaking, breath only in a gasp
He furtively struggled with
what he could not grasp.

Suddenly above a bright, clear light shined upon him
Compared to his day you would think this not grim
But while the glare of a Deva offers no ire
It burns with a heat even hotter
than a demon’s hellfire.

The monk cried and he yelled, he thrashed and burned
and the Deva, put out, away from him turned
She left in a huff, in a fury of hair, a bit snooty… 
to seek out people that could
appreciate her beauty

Chilled to the bone and burnt to a crisp
tired, aching from newly mangled wrist
Our friend, the monk, pulled himself up once more
below the Buddha tree, despite being so sore.
Wondering why and how and for what reason this all happened
his life was so boring, nothing to get mouths a-flappin’

Then it dawned to him and he leapt with a thrill
When he realized that the tree on the hill,
the devas, the ghosts getting their fill.
the giants, his finger, the mind that won’t stand still.
Angry Demon with sword, Fox with it’s kill
Were. All. Empty. The same! Nothing and no more.
All rain on the sill when Mu knocks on the door.

So Old Man Monk continued sitting under the Buddha tree.
Silent, quiet and still, smiled as big as could be.
The grass’s chant, the wind’s sigh,
Time stands still to those
who hear the song
and die.

And die he did, that monk. It’s sad and it’s true…
Don’t worry. Don’t cry. There wasn’t much you could do
With no spirit to soar, no soul, no heavenly dew…
That monk just fell over and sank deep into…





Zen Temple Promoting Same Sex Marriage in Japan

Shunkōin Temple is offering same sex marriages at their temple during the month of June as a celebration of Gay, Lesbian Pride Month. Shunkōin is a sub-temple in the Myōshinji temple complex (near Ryoanji Temple, the Golden Pavilion, and Ninaji Temple) in Kyoto, Japan. The temple was established in 1590 by Yoshiharu Horio and houses some interesting Christian artifacts from the Edo period (1603 to1867) when Christianity was systematically banned, and eliminated (read: murdered) by the Tokugawa shogunate.

According to their blog:

In 2000, Former U.S. President Bill Clinton proclaimed June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride month. Almost a decade later, on June 1st, 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama proclaimed June to be LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) Pride month in the United States. Shunkoin Temple would like honor these decisions and to increase the understanding of gay and lesbian rights by promoting same-sex weddings at our temple during the month of June, 2011

Japan does not recognize same sex marriages as far as I can tell but they do allow its overseas nationals to marry same-sex foreign partners in countries where they are legal. 

Also check out the recent article on The Dharma Bums Temple where they provide welcome arms to the LGBT community.


The Heart Sutra to a 2 year old

Avalokitesvara, you say! Doing deep meditation all day.
A silent song, a dance in the gray.
Didn’t stop for a bowl of stew, cake or tea
Stared deep into life’s flowing sea, clearly saw that it was emp-i-ty.

Dancing around, the wind in hair,completely free from pain and care.
Things are thoughts and thoughts are things!
(I said it once, twice, thrice! Do you also dare?)
My care, my hair, the thoughts on the air all amount to Noth-i-ing.

My dreams at night, my dance all day, scrapes on knees and flowers in May
Oh, they arise and fall! It has always been this way!
No God in sky, no Devil below. No pure light, no unholy glow.

In emp-i-tiness no moss to gather on a rock that does not roll.
No gateman at the end to pay a toll.
No puzzle pieces to a-gather, no riddles in my brain to rattle.
No boogieman hidden at night. No robber lost in flight!

No weeping eye, no spying ear, no nose to twitch,
No lying tongue, body to bathe or mind to bewitch!

No auburn hair, no joke to tell, no cupboards bare, no rose to smell, no touch of angels’ wings.
None of these things!
You think this sad. A real mess. Also no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness.

No kings. No fools. Nothing in-between.
No sacred night! No as-it-ever-has-been
No grave in sight but also no immortal might.
Cradle to grave, tomb to toddler. There is no need to fight!

No tears in the eye, no pie in the sky.
No story, no song (sorry this non-sense took so long),
but in this non-song a Bodhisattva just bounces along
With no path in front. No path behind. No hindrance, no fear. We don’t mind!

With each breath a miracle, a present, a gift; I hope this rhyme provided some lift.
To make you feel not so small but really, actually, trully quite tall
Like a tree with branches that connect to all.
Like leaves that blosson, burn and then fall.

For when your branches spread ahead
and penetrate the gloom and the doom
To touch the forgotten, the remembered, the yet-to-be,
You have obtained anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.

But it is a lender, meant to be shared for benefit.
Which is why the following mantra is such a perfect fit.
This silly mantra comes off sounding so glib,
It completely clears all pain; This is no fib!

Oh Dear! What would your mother say?
This very day! What would she say?
Gate! Gate! Paragate! Parasamgate!
Bodhi Svaha! Is what she would say!

But what would you say? This very day?
My mild child, my child wild?
Which words sing a silent song and dance in the gray?

Tu whit! Tu whoo! What to do?
Grab a boat. Sink or float.
Either way we cross the bay. Hooray!


The above drawing is my samsara-toddler’s copy of the Heart Sutra in Japanese. The inspiration of the poem.