When We Can No Longer Advance

To advance from where you can no longer advance and to do what can no longer be done, you must make yourself into a raft or ferryboat for others.

~ Mazu


The above was our cornerstone koan for this past weekend's four-day Pacific Zen retreat, called Gathering in the Valley of Our Time. It was a wonderful, virtual gathering of over ninety people, silently sitting together, listening together, sharing together. The part of the koan that most spoke to me was not the bit about becoming a raft or ferryboat for others ~ itself, a generous Bodhisattva task. It was the first lines that resonated with me: Finding ourselves in a place where we can no longer go forward, trying to do what can no longer be done. It is a place where we are completely, and utterly, at the end of our rope. We face an absolute barrier. It is also the place of greatest possibility.

Over the last months, at moments, this is exactly the place I have felt myself to be in. How can this world possibly continue on? A rapidly deteriorating global environment, which gives rise to fear for future generations. A continually spreading viral pandemic, with questions about the timing of a viable vaccine. A political system seemingly in chaos. And the wildfires. Did I mention the fires? As I have written before, our family's property was burned last October; our house survived, while most of our neighbors’ homes did not. This year to date, with two months left to the fire season, we have had the Walbridge Fire, five miles to the west, and the Glass Fire, fifteen miles to the east. Due to two bouts of 115-degree heat, our Cabernet Sauvignon grape harvest came in a little more than half of what it was two years ago; many growers lost their entire crop to smoke taint.

To advance from where you can no longer advance, and to do what can no longer be done…


These seeming barriers, too, have a light that shines within them. They too, are the heart and mind of the Buddha. So how do we take a step in the darkness, when nothing can be seen and there is nowhere to go? Yes, the how of it! We find that all beings arise to lovingly carry us through that gateless barrier. Of itself, walking through the barrier will not quell the fires, cure the pandemic, or establish a just government. However, passing through the barrier, even just a little bit, shows us that, from the beginning, fires naturally burn, viruses naturally spread, and governments naturally falter. Not one thing is out of place, in all the universe. And impossibly, there is a beauty and preciousness to all of this life that is beyond our understanding, but not beyond our experiencing. Already, the barrier has become the raft; the ever-changing world, the ferryboat.

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