A Fire Runs Through All Things

Read an excerpt from A Fire Runs Through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis

An excerpt from Susan Murphy’s new book, A Fire Runs through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis — as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide

By Susan Murphy

This excerpt from Susan Murphy’s new book, A Fire Runs through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis — as reviewed in the Fall 2023 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide — is provided courtesy of the publisher, Shambhala Publications. We thank Shambhala for sharing this with Buddhadharma’s readers, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

Apart from a cry of “Fire!” the shortest human prayer torn from the throat of emergency on a rapidly heating Earth is “Help!” Meanwhile, the everyday common prayer—the only one we ever really need, despite its relative absence from our lips and hearts—is simply “Thank you.”

For it is amazing to be, to be here at all.

But moving beyond just the human, the singular, silent cry of life on Earth right now is “Precarious!” This too is closer to a prayer than it may seem; it’s an honest, vulnerable, lucid confession of alarm. This admission of vulnerability is itself a search for the strong nerve of resilience.

The times are always uncertain until we cease longing for certainty, and only then do they become truly interesting. The planetary crisis we’re in together is now simply the given the strange, inarguable gift of what is. The fervent half-prayer of “Precarious!” overhears the realization that any escape is futile. Who now in good faith can dispute planetary heating and its appalling consequences and our drift toward civilizational suicide, ruined lands, biodiversity collapse, record-breaking megafires and megafloods, and new pandemics. And then there’s our shadow pandemic, too: panic, confusion, and conspiratorial rage, shadowed by dread, anxiety, and depression.

The Industrialized West has metastasized into almost every corner of this living planet with a turbocharged drive to extract wealth at all cost to life, the hell-bent intent that has now been normalized by democracies and tyrannies alike. The momentum of living by damage has slipped beyond our reckoning and control. Our fractious geopolitical world is now mirrored by massive geophysical changes, as the weather and Earth herself turns angry.

Meanwhile, social media has as much fractured as formed the basis for a consensual, factually based understanding from which to engage the huge questions. Conspiracy, paranoia, misinformation, organized disinformation, and contempt for evidence undermine a coherent response. First the pandemic and now war stalks the world again. Where’s the center that will hold, the sure place in which to invest trust?

It’s impossible to avert your eyes, difficult to see how to respond, and impossible not to long to do so. Even listing the ways in which “so much is wrong” begins to feel like a verbal totentanz, as in the old medieval woodcuts depicting the dance of death: heavy-laden words joining hands with the skeletal grim reaper, dancing us over a hill of doom into the dark.

The planetary dangers that haunt us make our time an exquisite moment, piercing and inescapable. Also baffling to the point of provoking fresh realizations, hence the description of this time as a “gift” brimming with untested possibilities right along with potentially dire consequences. Dare we celebrate the way it stretches us, this strange privilege of being alive right now? Can we embrace the sheer lunacy of our moment, in which the biggest human “ask” in history up to now has chosen us?

A koan scandalizes all suppositions (literal, rational, empirical, neurotic) that hold up the shaky sky of human knowing and fearing, until the leaves blowing in the street, the wave welling over a rock, the eyelashes of the cow all share the same realm as this mind. The shock of this can stoke new depths of fiery, fiercely protective love for the Earth. With luck, this love is fierce enough to protect our home from the worst impulses in ourselves and turn them to good.

Luckily there’s another, very different kind of darkness—that of the mind relaxing in a state of active not-knowing. In this fertile darkness, the search for how to respond can grow more surefooted, agile, and in sync with events rather than pitted against them. Not-knowing is like leaning back against the tree that is always there, older than any forest; or as Dogen puts it, taking “the backward step that turns your light inward to illuminate yourself.” Not-knowing introspection and self-inquiry—as in “What is this self?”—moves us into intimacy with who this is and what is happening.

The ecocrisis of our time raises the question of the true nature of our human presence on the Earth as a koan that rightly exerts an almost overwhelming pressure on our hearts. It cannot be resolved, and the suffering it causes cannot be relieved without breaking through the paradigm that is so relentlessly causing it. Zen koans help us grow skilled in tolerating a precarious state of mind, and not turning away but growing curious instead. That we can’t go forward in the usual way becomes the strangely valuable offer of the moment. Not-knowing, in the spirit of improvisation, accepts all offers! And the Zen koan turns every obstacle into the way.

Take a despairing reaction like “There is nothing I can do to stop this disaster!” Looking beyond the ideas of “I,” and “stop,” and even the activity of “doing,” can we even dare to look deeply into the crisis and not-know what it is, or that it is so? Perhaps even disaster loses its power of impasse when scrutinized by a trusting form of productive doubt. Can something be done with less doing, using the calm inside the moments that can be created within an emergency when what is happening is met with not-knowing?

Or consider the desperate sense of “This is beyond me!” Aha! Yes, it is! Reality is definitely beyond the claim of “me.” Might it be possible to live tragically aware of the immensity of what we face and yet rely on the ground of fundamental joy that dares to meet fear? Not-knowing meets and disables fear and can discern more clearly how a situation is moving and what is needed right in the midst of the unfolding moment.

The way we have framed reality is plainly out of kilter and out of date. Koan mind breaks the rigid frame and makes an ally out of uncertainty, asking it to be our guide in the darkness.

Every koan has a bit of the apocalyptic about it, lifting the veil that this dream of a separate self throws over the wholeness of reality. Apocalypse implies destruction of a world, but hiding in that word is the older meaning, that of a necessary revelation, a veil torn away, leaving no choice but to see what is hidden from us in plain sight.

Similarly, people speak of a healing crisis in the course of an illness, a looked-for climax poised to tip us either toward death or toward the dawn of healing. “Medicine and sickness heal each other”: Yunmen is pointing to suffering healing into nondual awakening, the dream of separation waking into the reality of no “other.” Precarious emotional states likewise can intensify into a healing crisis in which seemingly indigestible anger, fear, or grief can suddenly tip over and metabolize a general amnesty. That beautiful word forgiveness suggests the germination of ease within precariousness.

Crises shape and transform us all our lives. The limitations that grow apparent to a crawling infant become the seeming unlikelihood of learning to walk. Impasse is the unavoidable opportunity to see beyond expectations, suppositions, and impossibilities as they crumble before our eyes. Crisis, whether at the vast or intimately personal level, is what reveals that there is no “normal,” despite all strenuous efforts to coax one into being. Not-knowing is relaxing into trusting this.

There once was a captain of a racing yacht that had completely turtled, then rerighted itself twice in the vast, twenty-meter waves of a storm that also snapped the mast. His panicked crew of five shouted maddened suggestions at one another in the roaring wind and waves. The captain later reported that in the very midst of the terrifying chaos, he “took a moment to make a few notes” to determine their position, the wind, and the wave direction. He was calculating the one safe path to a possible port. His calm focus and discernible lack of panic helped settle the crew. They grew quiet and alert, and against very steep odds, crewed the stricken vessel to safe harbor.

Koan-honed mind can be just like finding the energy and even-minded awareness of the first responder in an emergency. It rouses awareness in a way not unlike the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s mind of a hunter, alive to all points in the widest possible field of attention: “The hunter knows that he does not know what is going to happen. . . . Thus he needs to prepare an attention which does not consist in riveting itself on the presumed, but consists precisely in not presuming anything and in avoiding inattentiveness . . . a ‘universal’ attention, which does not inscribe itself at any point and tries to be on all points.”

All points are equal in such a field of alert attention. When you allow yourself to breathe and slow down in zazen, you inhabit time more bodily and fully and gradually cease the effort of manufacturing yourself. You spare yourself, the way meditation spares you. Then Mazu’s challenging koan, “Benefit what cannot be benefitted, do what cannot be done,” begins to make real sense. There is no heroic injunction here to do the impossible. When you are more seamlessly spare and complete with just where you are, there is little or no doing at all. Then what needs doing is already getting done, before any knowing.

There’s no rush possible here, and nowhere to get to. You cannot love, sit in meditation, or live with a koan speedily. “Too fast, too forceful, you miss the way,” as the Buddha advised. Not-knowing inhabits time and place too fully for that.

A friend described taking a long walk on a beach in Australia one day during a prolonged drought and meeting an indigenous man gathering pippies, delicately purple, butterfly-winged shell creatures that burrow down in the wet sand on the edge of the waves. He was finding them as if by magic, as though he’d read the tide and the wind and the sky and the curve of the beach exactly right. My friend fell into conversation with him and learned where the fish were running, and that they’d gone way upriver and were not coming down.

Interesting, she reflected, as her suppositions went to the drought, the saltwater penetrating far up into the freshwater reaches of the river. She volunteered these busy thoughts, then slowed down enough to notice. “Ah, but why aren’t they coming down?” she finally asked him. Dropping a few more pippies into his bucket, he looked at her as if she were strange. After a while, giving her time to pull out of herself recognition of the deeper way of things, he at last gently said, “They don’t want to.”

There is a pushiness that characterizes the attitude of seeing the world as something to stand over and control rather than sense and move in accord with its natural unfolding. That attitude will ultimately fail, for it completely misses the agency, the self-mastery, and the utter right to be here that all living things possess. It misses the ebb and flow of what you might call the Dao, which is beyond any “doing”—like the wind that blows or the water that flows as it will. We have no way out of this, fortunately.

For such wisdom to dawn for my friend, to help her arrive where she truly was, she first had to willingly endure the indignity of uncertainty. She had to relinquish knowing in order to become aware of something lying outside of knowing’s reach. She had to be willing to lose in order to receive. As with every koan, knowing has to come undone.

From A Fire Runs Through All Things: Zen Koans for Facing the Climate Crisis by Susan Murphy © 2023 by Susan Murphy. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com

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Susan Murphy

Susan Murphy

Susan Murphy Roshi is the founding teacher of Zen Open Circle in Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Upside Down Zen and Minding the Earth, Mending the World.