The Flowing Bridge: Exploring a Zen koan and the Mysteries of Everyday Life

The Flowing Bridge: Exploring a Zen koan and the Mysteries of Everyday Life May 1, 2021






A dharma talk

James Ishmael Ford

Empty Moon Zen

May 1st, 2021


“As I cross the bridge, the bridge flows”

From the Miscellaneous koan collection of the Harada Yasutani Zen tradition

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a person of the intimate Way, a person of the Zen way here and now. There is a vermillion thread tying who we are here to spiritual ancestors in Japan. No doubt. The connection is profound and strong. That thread, I don’t think it actually can be torn. And, really, strands of that same thread from Korea, and Vietnam, weave together to become who we are. Perhaps making it all even stronger. And each of those threads trace back to China. Our mother for this way. But she has a mother, as well. The thread continues back to India and dream lands formed at foothills of the Himalayas.

This vermillion thread is precious. In its various wrinkles and twists it has opened ways of liberation, of freedom, of the wise heart. And I’m so grateful.

Originally, if you were serious about the matter, you would renounce family and the world and enter the Buddha’s order. If you wouldn’t or couldn’t, you supported those who did and hoped for a more propitious rebirth. In Japan in time the institutional holders of the way would have a serious monastic foundation, but would actually live for the most part as parish priests. Something similar would also emerge in Korea. For both those of the First Way and the Second, with some exceptions, from the beginning with exceptions, practice mostly belonged to the professionals.

But here in the West, well dragons and snakes live together. Practitioners of the way might be monastics, they could be priests, but mostly they, we are householders. The Third Way. As I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. And how it’s manifesting.

With that I was talking about a koan with a dear friend and student, Dana Lundquist. Due to past bad karma she finds herself married to a Zen priest. But she’s managed to avoid that particular entanglement for herself. For Dana the way is very much living into this Third Way, the householder way, fully and passionately.

Passionately. I think about that word. In his novel Creation, Gore Vidal explored the Axial Age, that period when most of the world’s major religions birthed. With just a little compression of time he was able to let his protagonist, the prophet Zoroaster’s grandson visit with all these founders. The only one Vidal really liked was Confucius. And even he had to suffer at Vidal’s pen, being given a horse-like face and chronic bad breath.

But it’s Vidal’s treatment of the Buddha I find I have trouble forgetting. For Vidal the Buddha’s gaze was always middle distance. He never looked anyone in the eye. It is easy to read much of the classic Buddhist literature and get the impression the way is about disengaging. Float above the matter. If you don’t care, you can’t be hurt.

I don’t think this is what the Buddha taught. And it is obvious that it isn’t the Zen way. But it is sort of a near enemy of the real way. A counterfeit of wisdom. And one that many who think they’re following the intimate way actually embrace.

We’re about something else. We’re about the power of passion. We’re about not turning away. But we are not simply about sinking into the floods of the world. Our way is something a bit different. And. This invites us to a koan, a presentation of the way, a story given to us as an invitation to take our part in the dance. (Dance. Another hint…)

In our inheritance following the koan reforms of the early twentieth century master Daiun Harada, we begin with a koan that is meant to open our hearts to the mystery of boundlessness. For most of us its going to be the Mu koan.  Mu breaks our certainties about who we think we are. If we are lucky enough to have that taste then we enter the kindergarten of our way, a collection of brief koans, sometimes actually fragments from larger koans.

Mu, however, is never very far from these miscellaneous koans, as they’re called. But each of them add new wrinkles, invite us to new angles, teach us new steps in the dance.

The one that comes to my mind here is “As I cross the bridge, the bridge flows” The Zen master and Catholic nun Elaine McInnis wrote a small book about the miscellaneous koans. The title of her book was the Flowing Bridge. I’ve always loved that title. Sometimes I think of it as the dancing bridge.

Dana, my friend, she and her husband have invited a four-year old into their lives. If things go as they certainly hope they will, before long they will have a daughter. As a result of this when we were speaking, Dana yawned. She’s not getting quite as much sleep as she has been used to.

She wanted to talk about that flowing bridge. She understood its connection to Mu. Specifically, she asked, “What is Mu when your time is not your own?” She knew it was connected to that bridge and its flow, its dance. And it’s a variation of a question we constantly encounter. I would say especially for those following the Householder way of Zen.

What about when you’re fostering a four-year old? What about when you hold her and realize this is almost certainly a lifetime thing? What about the nightmares? What about the laughter? What does it mean to see beyond the separations, and yet find you can hold a child?

How does a bridge flow? Dana provided one of the answers, she said, “my daughter as priority is Mu.” Indeed, that bridge flows. Absolutely, that bridge dances.

After we finished our conversation, I realized how much my friend Chris Bell is in my mind. Chris is another person of the intimate way, a Zen practitioner, and a UU minister. He was also my intern many years ago, when I served in Newton, Massachusetts. The church he ended up serving, the UU congregation in Santa Rosa, California was actually the one from which I went to seminary, the church within which I formed my own vision of manifestation in this world.

As it happens in July he is retiring. I’ve been thinking about the day he was installed as their minister. I realize all of it is sort of a commentary on the koan about the flowing bridge, the koan about taking care of a four-year old is Mu.

He’d invited me to preach the service. And it was quite an affair. Among the dignitaries at the service was Santa Rosa’s mayor who expressed the city’s gratitude for the amazing commitment that the congregation had made by moving into the downtown, repurposing an old theater. Probably my favorite of the many things said, certainly the one whose words I most clearly recall, and directly connect to all this, was something Doug Kraft said. At the time he was minister in Sacramento. He was and is a Vipassana teacher. Another follower of the intimae way.

Doug gave the charge to the minister. He framed it all within a reflection from a twentieth century Hindu teacher, Nisargadatta Maharaj who said:

“Wisdom says I am nothing.
Love says I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.”

Let me repeat: Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything. Between these two, my life flows.

I found those words taking my breath away. You want to unpack what it means to follow the Third Way of Zen? You want to understand Dana’s mommy Zen? You want to get the intimate way right down to the blood flowing through your body?

Let the bridge dance. Let it flow…

It’s so very important to cultivate wisdom, to see into the deepest aspects of who we are as we are, to minutely investigate everything, right to the end, to the no-thing, the nothingness of it all. Buddhist mindfulness practices like Vipassana and its cousin Zazen, Zen meditation with their meticulous investigations of the function of mind, reveals much.

But, as they say on latest night television: wait, there’s more! Right on that call to cultivate the mind is another assertion, the assertion of the heart: “Love says I am everything.” Here reality as love asserts itself. And, I think, it reveals the missing part that has led many who begin Buddhist practice who only attend to the functions of mind find we’re wandering down wrong paths. It’s not one. Of course, neither is it two. But, we find the one. We find the two. And we find the dance between. The flowingness of it all.

It shows us how to explain Mu to a baby. It shows us how the bridge flows.

Our way is all about the mind and it’s all about the heart. “Between the two, my life flows.”

Doug wrapped up his reflection. I felt really inspired. I could only stay a little while as I had to drive down the sixty miles to Oakland from which I would leave extremely early the next morning. I got lots of kisses and hugs on my way out.

Then the rubber hit the road.

Chris stayed at the reception for another hour or so. It had been a triumphant afternoon, the culmination of so many years of work. How could Chris feel anything but joy? Well, maybe a little exhaustion. And then when he got home, he had a message waiting for him. His father, who was at dinner in Ohio at about the same time as the installation service was going, had been stricken with a massive heart attack and died. Chris had to leave for Cleveland on the next available flight.

Dana’s Mu, Dana’s bridge is making a home for a child who desperately needs a home. Chris flying to Cleveland. You and me in this moment, together.

No doubt the way of the mind is important, critically so. But we also need the way of the heart. There is a moment to remember we are nothing, how our being, yours and mine, rises and falls in and as something so much vaster than we can ever imagine.

Awakening, as they say, is not what you think.


First way. Second Way. Third Way? Are they the same or are they different?

As we cross the bridge, the bridge flows.

In that moment of need, when your father drops dead, when your four-year old has nightmares and calls to you, it turns out the truth revealed by mind clearly isn’t the last word. Not at that moment.

What is the last word at that moment is love, the movement of our hearts calling out to each other, our heartbeats finding a rhythm together. It’s the weaving of you and you and you and you and me and me and me and me into the tapestry that is the cosmos. It is the secret of the vermillion thread.

Flowing and dancing. So terrible, so joyful. From one pole to the other and then back again.

Wisdom says I am nothing.
Love says I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.

As you cross the bridge, the bridge flows.

Thank you.

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