Put out the fire across the river
~ PZI Miscellaneous Koans
This koan is not really about putting out a fire. It is more about finding a kind of accord, in a sense a broad empathy, for the fire. And in that, somehow, we find accord with everything else that stands on the far side of the river from us.
As a teacher, I am always trying to put out the fire across the river. Not by extinguishing it, but rather by appreciating that fire just as it is, without trying to measure or change its qualities of burn. Several weeks ago, about 50 of us gathered at a week-long retreat in the North Bay, and many of us brought into the retreat heated feelings around the political cauldron that has been bubbling over in this country. At the retreat, I gave a talk about the difficultly faced by my own family, which is rather passionately divided between supporters and detractors of the new administration. During the talk, I mistakenly said I was a registered Republican, though I am not, and don’t even recall casting a vote for a Republican dog catcher.
That misspoken line, however, was enough to set off in the room what some experienced as a firestorm. One participant said,”I have never in my thirty years in Buddhist circles seen a teacher targeted like that.” Others sent concerned texts, checking in to see if I was o.k.
In truth, I did not feel attacked in the least. My experience was the opposite: as I told one participant, I was honored that people felt comfortable enough to share with me their most bitter feelings of pain, disappointment and anger, even if some of it appeared to be pointed at me.
Our practice, at least in my mind, is not to extinguish the fire across the way. It is to understand that the fire is a natural aspect of our humanity, to be appreciated, not avoided. One participant in the discussion, still smoking a little bit, told me: “J.J., I just really needed you to be there for me as I was grieving; after we do that we can go back to seeing the light.” Fair enough.
Probably not even related, but don’t you love the Doors? Come on Baby Light My Fire
The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
Try now we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre