These Flames are Cool and Refreshing

What do a 16th-century Zen master and a contemporary cartoon dog have in common? Both of them maintained equanimity as their worlds burned, says Cristina Moon. And this is why we train as Buddhists.

Cristina Moon
10 May 2018
Cartoon dog comfortable in flames.
Panels from “On Fire,” by KC Green.

On April 3, 1582, feudal lord Oda Nobunaga imprisoned Zen master Kwaisen and his monks in a tower at Yerin-ji Monastery in Japan. Then, he set it on fire. Historical accounts say that not a single monk screamed as they burned to death inside.

Before Kwaisen perished with his monks, he gave a final dharma talk. He began by asking the monks how they’d use “this most critical moment” to turn the Wheel of Dharma. After each had responded, Kwaisen concluded: “When thoughts are quieted down, even flames are cool and refreshing.”

Even for the most disciplined Buddhists, it can be hard to imagine such a scene. Instead, when we think of sitting in a burning building, we may remember a now familiar cartoon dog. You know the one—he’s wearing a bowler hat and a saccharine smile, a mug of coffee next to him on the table, his house in flames. Next to his glassy eyes, a speech bubble reads, “This is fine.”

For many, this cartoon dog is a symbol of our current political dystopia. He is our friend or family member who goes about life caught up in petty humdrum, paying no mind while Russia hacks American democracy, children die in school shootings, and nations inch closer to nuclear war.

The dog is also a reflection of the exhausted activist, trying to hang onto some semblance of sanity while the rug gets pulled out from under us again and again.

But what if the dog is also Kwaisen?

Can we imagine that the dog is not pretending that everything is fine because he’s blind to the flames? Maybe he understands completely. Perhaps he sees what he cannot change — a house in flames — and what he can — his internal state. Instead of reacting to the heat and destruction around him, he uses this critical moment to turn the Wheel of Dharma in the cleanest, most decisive way he can.

For me, a decade-long Buddhist practitioner who recently moved into a Zen martial arts dojo, I’m trying to learn to be fine even when there’s a literal sword pointed at my throat. Before I arrived at the dojo, I felt that my ability to be the person I wanted to be depended on an optimal mix of external conditions, like sleep, food, stress, exercise, environment, and people. I spent a lot of energy managing those external conditions and blaming them when things didn’t work out.

We can engage Buddhism as deep spiritual training in accepting what we cannot change so we can focus with all of our might on what we can.

Today, my time is focused on what needs to change inside of me. The most straightforward place to start, I’ve learned, is in how I inhabit and use my body. Knowing it is subject to death, I cultivate a present moment awareness tinted with mortal urgency. In that mode, there is no time to lose or energy to spare. Waste a single breath — whether in tea ceremony or kendo (Japanese fencing) — and the opportunity in that moment to realize my true self evaporates.

I’m learning to let go and not waste energy on my attachment to dukkha — which is often translated as “suffering”, but can also be interpreted as “dissatisfaction” or “this is not how things are supposed to be.” As more and more attachments are shed, including the attachment to putting attention on what’s wrong, it’s easier to give all of myself to whatever is critical to do right now.

When it feels like our real world is burning, we can choose to burn precious energy pointing out just how f*cked everything is. Or, we can engage Buddhism as deep spiritual training in accepting what we cannot change so we can focus with all of our might on what we can — and go for it.

The historical Kwaisen spoke poetically. Our cartoon dog speaks plainly, more in line with the language of our time. I want to take the dog’s frank words literally. Rather than identifying with a dog engulfed by delusion, I engage a canine who has dispensed with any fruitless expense of energy. He’s sitting in a burning house, perhaps about to meet death. And, this is fine.

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon lives at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple in Hawaii.