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Someone asked: “What does ‘Sitting correctly and contemplating true reality’ mean?”
The Master said, “A coin lost in the river is found in the river.”

~ Record of Yunmen, 15

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the river: “All things merge into one,” wrote Norman Maclean, “and a river runs through it.” And now we are back.

If we look at the river from a high level, we might call it the Dao, or the Way. And by retrieving the coin that has been lost in the river, we are recovering the treasures of our lives. But that is just a metaphor. Our lives, I think, are much more intimate, more wet, and far richer than that which can be explained.

A friend recently wrote me that he was going through memorabilia, including letters and pictures, left by his father, who passed away some months ago.

I have two items on my desk left by my own father when he died. One is a old pipe, which he took up for a time after giving up a long habit of smoking cigarettes. He started smoking at 10 years old, working with the family’s ranch hands, and by the time he was coughing blood in his sixties, he knew it was time to stop. He lived to ninety. The other is a small manila envelope with the only writing of his that I have: “$210 if you buy; $180 if you sell. Gold 1887 2-1/2D” That was the price of gold in 1973.

Buck had inherited an old coin and a tremendous gold nugget from his mother several years before. Both the coin and the nugget were stolen from his trailer home a decade after he noted the price of gold. A coin found in the river is lost in the river.

I held the gnarled old nugget once, when we cleared out my grandmother’s house in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It was hard to say how much it weighed, but it had heft in my small palm, and its surface was warm. Just recently, I found a letter written by my grandmother about the discovery of the nugget. It was found by her great uncle in the 1850s, soon after the Gold Rush began, in a creek outside of Angels Camp, the small mining town made famous by Mark Twain’s story about jumping frogs. The uncle had passed it on to his daughter, who then gave it to my Grandma Rose.

We say that relations with the deceased often mend with time, and I can attest that dreams of my father in recent years have improved. He had been a difficult person his whole life, and as he grew older, macular degeneration had blinded him and arthritis began to cripple him.

A year after he passed some 13 years ago, I had a vivid dream of him wandering about a park as a homeless person, completely lost. A few years after that, while we were on a trip visiting colleges, I dreamed that he and my mother (who divorced after a long marriage) were together, smiling broadly. I took that to mean our girls would be fine when they left home, and they have been. Recently, I had a dream where he and I were working on a project together, building something out of wood, and our interaction was good and easy. A coin lost in the river is found in the river.

Contemplating Yunmen’s true reality, for me, is not just about swimming in the river, clear and cool. Look closer, down into the water: there are sparkles of gold on the sandy bottom. Those are the bits of our bright lives. They are a treasure. And they have never been lost.

Come, Thief

The mandarin silence of windows before their view,
Like gods who nod to every visitor,
“Come, thief,”
the path to the doorway agrees.

A fire requires its own conflagration.
As birth does. As love does.
Saying to time to the end, “Dear one, enter.”

~ Jane Hirshfield