The Fire of Zen

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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.

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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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Three Monks Named Mu

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This is the story of three little monks. Three little monks named Mu.
Three little monks stuck in a rut. Three little monks with nothing to do.
Backs so sore and feet asleep, robes a-tattered and minds still meek.
Three little monks left the temple. Three little monks who knew no better.

 

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Up the way and around the bend, all routes taken without end.
Streets and alleys, paths and roads. Thoughts and feelings bear a heavy load.
Thoughts, feelings, forms and things. Staffs with rings! Oh these heavy things!
Footprints in snow. Where to go? Three little monks still did not know.

 

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When one little monk, a monk named Mu, suddenly knew what to do.
She picked up her staff of oak, a battered straw hat and just like that
raised her small voice in song. Discursive and sweet, she kept the beat,
To the sound of a heart unbound. Rapturous and joyful was the sound.

 

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The other two monks, both named Mu, were still at a loss of what to do.
This girl. This wisp. This flap of the breeze! While they could only cough or wheeze.
But another monk (named Mu by the way) thought he could also save the day.
By breathing deep, aloof and alone. This monk let out a low sorrowful moan…

 

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The song of the sky! The moan of the deep! Into the last monk the song did seep!
Breathing in scent of airy sky and salty deep, one last heart picked up the beat!
With little to do or to say, this monk realized why he came out that day.
Not for money, food or alms in a basket. Not for smiles, bows or chants over a casket.

 

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The last monk, a monk named Mu, picked up some wood to beat the measure
Clap! Clap! Clap! Each sound a breath, each beat a life, each clap a pleasure.
This last little monk joined the rest. This last little monk too passed the test!
With sweet song and mournful sound, and the steady earthy beat of the ground.

Somewhere in the windows above, came the cooing of a dove
At closer look, a different form it took and a deva’s voice the ground shook.
From hells far and wide, demons did adibe and sat silent, calming their mind.
At the graveyard nearby, a hungry ghost did sigh, her hunger, for once, silent inside.

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From up-on-high and down below, from mountains grand and valleys low,
Hungry ghost and nosy neighbor, woodworker and unconcerned creator
Large and small and all in the middle. All gathered together to hear this riddle.
This sound. This song. This co-nun-o-drum. Was this the reason for all to come?

 

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The reason was not a feeling of bliss, clarity of mind or even to just pass the time
The reason they were here became very clear. The answer. Oh! So very near.
Neither joy or pain, sunshine or rain. Or snow covering roads newly lain.
One to sing, one to mourn, one clap the beat, change soon accompanied such a feat…

 

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The first monk, her song so fleeting, sprouted wings and flew off tweeting.
The second monk, his voice almost a growl, sprouted fur and began to howl.
The third monk, steady as a clock, sank to the earth as a moss covered rock.
A rock, a bird and mangy dog! No names, no fancy dress, all embody emptiness.

 

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Each monk heard the song of Mu and then knew exactly what to do.
Three little monks with minds awake, singing Mu for benefit’s sake.
Do you know what to do when the song of Mu comes for you?
Beat sticks, sing a song or let out a mournful howl just as long?

 

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So ends the vague tale of the monks with nothing to do.
To tell the tale sure was fun but I hope you didn’t plan on resolution.
Answers here , questions there, the sound of Mu floats everywhere.
When a bird visits a window’s ledge, a dog sniffs your garden’s hedge
Or when a rock’s jagged face brakes a brook’s gurgling pace.
Take a breath and say a prayer
Because the Song of Mu hangs dense in the air.

 

All images used with permission from LawrenceBarrow’s flickr account.

The life koan and the practice of death

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The barstool Buddhist, the backyard Pagan and the country club Christian are all defined by one common thread – A dark thread that when pulled taut and snipped causes a panic. A scattering in the flight of night-jars and a divergence in the pondering of crows. To avoid this chaos we frame our experience of this life in a manner that shields us from the fact that it will end.

We frame our lives around Heaven and Hell;
      The chorus of angels and the howls of demons.
We frame our lives around Amida Buddha and a host of Bodhisattvas;
      Glowing immaculate and exuding compassion and care.
We frame our lives around the True Teachings and Holy Texts;
      Inerrant and bright, edited and compiled. Manipulated and contextual.
We frame our lives around the hope of transcedence and stumbling enlightenment;
     The promise of reincarnation and cycle of birth and death,
We frame our lives through God and a soul;
     Fear.

The simple immutable fact that defines every single religious movement; that allows theocratic empires and energizes popular movements, that builds kingdoms and topples empires. Every imaginary passion play and player, every belief manipulated is created in a knee-jerk reaction to the fear that binds us together. The fear that, at one point, despite all actions and hope to the contrary, this body will die.

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All those beliefs and rituals – every memorized holy-move and choreographed transcendental-dance – are a divergence away from the practice of accepting and becoming intimate with death. We create benefits that await us afterwards; glorious and serene. We create dramatic fabrications that elevate our being to something larger than us. Thoughts and actions reverberate like the strike of a bell or the beating of a drum. We create rules and austerities ad nauseam. We concoct paths and plans. So elaborate. So encompassing. So comforting and utterly false.

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each of us should strive to awaken.
Awaken! Take heed!
Do not squander your lives….

Creating dramas does nothing to prepare a person for death it only makes the journey there seem more pleasant – like the facades of a Hollywood movie set. Wishing to leave an eternal mark we scratch dreams into the tree trunk; painting a picture of an unfolding drama that distracts rather than contributes. Death isn’t special to any one person. It is just a process. No definite creator and no master plan. Death is the one thing in life that we can not avoid, the one battle that we can not win. It is the one opponent that always has the upper hand and higher ground. Just as one foot is placed in front of the other in walking so is it in birth and death. The action of moving a foot is part of the process of walking. In the same way dying is just part of the process of living.

No great and mysterious Wizard of Oz. No magic hats. No seeds of power. No easy answer. No medicine to drink. Just men and women being born and dying. We create our own illusions to comfort us from that simple, stark truth. Sharing that illusion with others does not make it any more real, only communal. Like a herd of bison being driven off a cliff by echoes, shouts, branches and shadows. A stampede of panicked eyes and flaring nostrils rushing towards oblivion goaded with neon signs and flashing lights. We need to accept and confront the fact that death is an integral part of the life koan. It compels the practice. It does not lead the stampede, it reins it in. It holds the bridle of life.

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I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to
escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no
way to escape ill health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to
escape this.
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of
the nature to change. There is no way to escape
being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot
escape the consequences of my actions. My
actions are the ground upon which I stand.

There is a legacy of thoughts, actions that after our death, float momentarily and then sink below the flow, imperceptible and interconnected.

This is the focal point of practice. Here it gets distilled to a shot of Old Crow. A burning shot of reality for our fundamental fear that brings flush to our cheeks, movement to our feet, fire to our belly, an intimate moment. When we adopt the pomp and circumstance, when we go for the show, we drive away from the chance at intimacy with our human condition – with our moment. The five remembrances state our fears exactly: Old age, illness and death. But rather than building a architecture of illusion and comfort it points the magnifying glass uncomfortably close to us. No flowery language. No soothing words. Just strong, honest, painful poetry.

A basic guide to reconcile death and change with our daily lives. A tete-a-tete with our morbid friend telling us that we are of the nature to grow old and no amount of plastic surgery, botox or praying will stop that. I am of the nature to have ill-health, there is no way to escape ill-health, no miracles and no prescriptions. I am of the nature to die, there is no way to escape death, it is the great equalizer. All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature of change. The greatest and most desperate grasp a house-holder makes is to their family. It leads us to do perhaps the greatest things and causes the most strife. We need to be intimate with the fact that everything is transcient, impermanent, in constant ebb and flow.

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My daughter had a nightmare last night. She called me in her room and asked that I hold her. She grasped my hand and eventually went to sleep secure that my hand would always be there to provide support – strong, consistent, comforting. As I fell asleep I was secure with the thought that my hand will always be there to provide those things. The illusion of childhood and the illusion of the parent. Being mindfull of the truth behind life and death doesn’t remove our fear or our anticipation but it prepares us to face each moment with strength and calm. I realized last night that one day, perhaps, th e roles w ill be reversed and my daughter’s hand will be there when I cry out. When I feel the fear of death. When it is my time to be driven like a herd of bison to the edge.

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Mindfulness of death just prepares us for the most shocking of impermanent things, the impermanence of our lives. It steals away some of the strength of death by allowing us to become familiar and inimate with change. When the shock of death hits us. When our absolute fear and terror strike. When the ability to count breath becomes a miracle in and of itself. Then we need to face reality with fortitude and confidence that no matter our actions the herd is going to be driven off the cliff. The only question is do we go in wild with fear or prepared and calm. As the controversial self-titled Zen Master Suzuki Shosan said

Put everything aside and only study death. Always study death, free yourself from it, and when death actually comes, you won’t be flustered…”