Who dares to be at peace with not falling into “has” or “has not”?

Everyone fully desires to leave the constant changes.

When we’ve finished bending and fitting our lives,

We return to sit by the charcoal fire.

~ Record of Tung-shan, 114

This is the last of a five-stanza poem, known as the Five Ranks, written by the 9th century Chinese monk Tung-shan. It forms a landscape painting of the awakened mind, and has been recognized for centuries as among the most elegant and subtle poetry from the Tang Dynasty. While the first two poems, in some ways, reflect the search for our true self, the second two are about realizing that self. The fifth stanza is an invitation to bring that awakening, and its most extraordinary grace, again and again into our everyday and ordinary lives.

Who dares to be at peace with not falling into “has” or “has not”? This line, for me, is about permission. Permission to live free of notions of self and other, black and white, high and low, good and evil. Permission to architect a world of freedom, rather than construct a jail cell with thoughts and fears. It is a strange fact of human nature that we often have difficulty giving ourselves permission to love the inmate of our own cell. In Pacific Zen’s miscellaneous koan collection, we have a simple case: “Are you worthy of being included in this wisdom?” The simple answer is Yes, you are. By right of birth, you are worthy. By right of existence, we are all worthy.

Everyone fully desires to leave the constant changes. Recently while I smoke-roasted garden carrots on the Q to make Thai Curry Soup (it was fabulous, btw), I listened to a shared podcast of the poet and novelist, Ocean Vuong. He quickly seduced me with his deepest love of words and language. As the abandoned grandson of an American soldier serving in Vietnam, who had three children by a Vietnamese woman, he was a two-year old baby when his mother found their way to a refugee camp in the Philippines, and then emigrated to the U.S. Strangely, he is thankful for the war, writing: “No bombs equals no family, equals no me: Yikes!”

When we’ve finished bending and fitting our lives,… Last year, on publishing his autobiographical novel, On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, he invited his mother, who works in a nail salon, to a reading. She could not understand his English talk, but at the end, he found her in the back of the crowded room, crying. A few days later, visiting her in the salon, he realized that for decades she had worked kneeling before her white customers, and now her son was recognized as their peer.

We return to sit by the charcoal fire. Of course, we have an invitation to return to the charcoal fire night after night. Last night, I opened a Five Ranks book written by Yasutani Hakuun, our ancestral teacher, who died in the early 1970s. With this final line of the Ranks, he cautions us to not be fooled by notions of completeness and perfection, but to enter directly into our lives, just as they are: “If we cut gold, we still just have this gold. If we cut a cedar branch, we release the beautiful scent of cedar.” But for me, returning to the warm coals of the fire was sitting around for some hours flipping through four dictionaries and an iPhone app to find the meanings of obscure Buddhist Chinese and Japanese vocabulary found in the book. I am not sure the world’s freedom hinged on my figuring the proper radicals and stroke counts of the kanji characters. Perhaps it did. If so, or not, I enjoyed it. That is my life during these COVID times.

Hear Ocean Vuong’s interview right here: