lotus blooms in fire

OK, that post title is a bit of click-bait. But you’re here now. So let me explain how the 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen’s phrase is the title of this post.

Some of you reading this know I tested positive for Covid-19 on July 9. At present five co-workers on the same shift on the unit in the hospital where I work also tested positive.

I am fine now. No worries. I came out of 13 days of isolation yesterday, to join my family on our 25th wedding anniversary.

For those who knew this about me, the subject line might seem like I had some crisis (a fire) during which my “enlightened nature” blossomed (like a lotus).

Sorry to disappoint you.

While my initial symptoms whacked me with malaise for three days in bed, the rest of my time in isolation I just dealt with fatigue and brain fog. No raging life-threatening fire.

Mostly I struggled with the fear I would ever regain my energy and mental clarity. And die.

The image from the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen of the lotus blooming in fire kept my hopes up that yes, I could bloom within the fire of fear, fatigue and brain fog.


13th Century Zen Master Dogen Zenji
13th Century Zen Master Dogen Zenji


The blue lotus blooming at the time of flames

Dogen encouraged his students to practice meditation as a way of cultivating:

“The blue lotus blooming in the midst of fire and at the time of flames.”

Reading Dogen’s teachings in isolation touched me deeply.

“Let things come and abide in your heart, and let your heart abide in things.”

Like the children at play in their burning house in the famous parable from the Lotus Sutra my preoccupation with the trinkets of samsara, e.g., my Android apps, and Netflix queue, quickly faded.

I got it that while I talked Dharma, I wasn’t walking the path during this illness very well.

Suffering and the end of suffering

“All my teaching,” the Buddha is reported to have said, “is about suffering and the end of suffering.”

But he also said to escape the burning house of conditioned existence, you must first acknowledge that you are living in one. Dogen made may references in his teaching carer to this burning house we find ourselves in.

That’s when I realized this forced isolation was a chance to go deeper into Dharma practice and contemplation. One I might never have again.

But, this little voice in my head kept saying, I am too fatigued to meditate. I think I should just lie in bed and veg out. My doctor did say I need rest!

These words from Ajahn Chah, one of the most revered meditation masters of the last century, came to mind:

My way of training people involves some suffering, because suffering is the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. He wanted us to see suffering and to see origination, cessation and the path. If you don’t go this way there is no way out.”

The inner complainer

Yeah, I sighed, he was right. He said that back in the mid 1950s. A disciple of Ajahn Chah, Luang Por Pasanno, wrote a couple of years ago, reflecting on what it felt to practice in Thailand on really, really hot days:

Often we deal with imperfect conditions by getting in touch with our “inner complainer” that’s whining away, going on and on about how miserable we feel. Instead of mindlessly doing that, we can use challenging circumstances to have a good look at the habit of complaining.

When the mind is complaining about the circumstances, we observe how this simply perpetuates suffering. It’s not that we’re trying to sugar coat the tendency to complain by saying to ourselves, “Oh, isn’t this wonderful? I just love it when it’s 108 degrees outside.”

Instead we’re facing reality and being honest with ourselves. At the same time, we understand that simply because circumstances are less than ideal, they do not also have to be a source of complication or oppression.

The point is to distinguish between the direct, physical experience and the layers of mental complication we add to that experience. When we do that, it gives us an inner refuge, allowing us to be comfortable in any circumstance.

That’s one of the magical things about Dhamma practice. We can be at ease and clear in any circumstance if we’re willing to direct our attention in a skillful way.”

Spot on, brother!

Slow mindful walking meditation

While my breath awareness practice was too difficult when whacked out with fatigue and brain fog, I found the slow mindful, walking meditation energizing and refreshing.

Then my breath awareness practice miraculously improved!

Speaking of walking meditation, I’ll end this with another Zen saying helps me find the Middle Path within confusion and difficulty.

Walk straight by winding along

Toward the end of his life, the Japanese Zen Master Genshu Watanabe (1869-1963) called a young disciple to his bedside and posed a question.

“How can one go straight,” he asked, “on a steep mountain road of ninety-nine curves?”

The disciple was baffled, so Watanabe Roshi answered the question himself:

“Walk straight by winding along.”

It’s just that simple.

Walk straight,  winding along the “ninety-nine curves” of your life just as it is right now.


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