BURNING, BURNING, BURNING, BURNING: Zen at the End of a World August 28, 2021




Zen at the End of a World

A Dharma talk
at the August 28, 2021 Empty Moon Zen Zazenkai

Edward Sanshin Oberholtzer.

Guiding teacher at the Joseph Priestley Zen Sangha
Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

The public works department has been busy here in East Buffalo Township. For reasons that are beyond me,  in the midst of this summer’s blistering heat they decided to resurface the township roads. Ours got an especially thorough makeover – two inches of hot macadame followed by the standard, for Union County, application of oil and cinders. Workers sweating over hot asphalt in tempertures that hovered in the high nineties, with a heat index of 108, grinding, shovelling, rolling, sweeping. I crossed the street to go to the mailbox shortly after they passed through and found my shoes sticky with tar and cinders. It took my mind back to my childhood in Tennessee when we would watch the tar pool in the roadway and bubble up in the scorching summer heat, though nothing like the heat we have,  all of us, East and West, been facing this past summer.

Burning, burning, burning, burning, as T.S. Eliot wrote in the Fire Sermon section of The Wasteland. Burning, burning, burning, burning. And what is burning? As the Buddha himself said  in his own, in the original Fire Sermon,“Bikshus, all is burning….the eye is burning, ……the ear is burning ……..the nose, the tongue are burning….burning with what? burning with the fire of lust, of hate, of delusion, of birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations,pain, grief, and despair.”

No, of course the Buddha was not talking of the asphault bubbling at the foot of my driveway, nor was he talking about the melting of glaciers,the slowing of the Gulf Stream, the rise of sea levels,heat prostration and forest fires on the west coast, stronger hurricanes here in the East, no, not these,  however much I’d like to strain that analogy. But where, after all,  does responsiblity for global climate change lie if not in our own burning desires? I sit in the comfort of my living room with a thermostat set far below the temperture of the heat wave outside the four walls of my house. I drive my car, rather than walk, the mile and a half to the grocery store to buy products that were shipped by diesel fueled trucks from across the country, sometimes, from across the ocean, all adding to my carbon footprint, all fueled by my desires. Burning, burning, burning, burning.

Sometime after Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, began teaching, he was called to preach to a group of bhikshus, of monks, former fire worshipers, led by a man who would come to be called Mahakashyapa, who would be one of the foremost among the Buddha’s disciples, the keeper of the flame, if you will, of asceticism. And in this, the  original Fire Sermon, which the Buddha delivered on Gaya Head to those monks he, the Buddha noted that “Seeing thus, the well-instructed disciple of the noble one grows disenchanted”, “He grows disenchanted with the eyes. He grows disenchanted with the ear… He grows disenchanted with the nose… with the tongue… with the body… with the intellect, disenchanted… with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness of the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect. Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

And yet the world is still here, in all of its sweaty, scorching heat. Burning, burning, burning burning.

In the Blue Cliff Record, we hear a monk say to Dasui, “When the thousands of universes are altogether and utterly destroyed in the kalpa fire — I wonder whether this perishes or not.”

“This perishes,” said Dasui.

“If so,” persisted the monk, “does it follow the other?”

“It follows the other,” said Dasui.

And here, here in this kalpa fire, this burning at the end and, perhaps,  at the beginning of things, we hear Robert Frost’s voice:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Thousands of universes, burning, burning, burning, burning. And this one universe, this one world, our home. What have we done? How are we to face this ecological devastation?

A monk asked Dongshan, “When cold and heat visit us, how should we avoid them?”
Dongshan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat?”
The monk asked, “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”

Dongshan said, “When it is cold, the cold kills you. When it is hot, the heat kills you.

And so being one with the kalpa fire in the ten directions. Being one with the kalpa ice in the ten directions. Dongshan tells us to open our eyes. Be here, be here now with what we have done to our earth, with what we have done to the forests, the rivers the seas, with what we have done with our lives and with the future of our sons and daughters. Turn towards that future. Embrace it. Be one with our karma.

I remember hearing John Daido Loori deliver a talk on the Gatha of Atonement. Atonement, he said, it’s just being at one with our actions. Clever folk etomology, I thought and continued to think until just recently when I looked up the word “atone” in the Oxford English Dictionary, only to be struck by the realization that, in fact, it does simply mean to be at one. Turn towards the heat, let your self dissolve into the heat, being one with that heat in the ten directions.

Burning, burning, burning, burning.

And when we turn towards, what do we face? Dongshan calls us to an intimacy with all we have done, with the fruits of our own acts, with the future for which we bear responsibility, a future we are bequething to our children. We face a future made uncertain by our own brokenness, by our own manifestations of the three poisons, greed, hatred and ignorance. But the world goes on and as Ecclesiastes puts it: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Kalpas come and go, universes are consumed in that kalpa fire, but the Dharma goes on. Wipe humans from the face of the earth and cockroaches, which are dependant on us, would soon vanish. Dogs, cows, sheep, these too would all go. My cat, however, would shrug and return to the wilderness. Trees and grasses would bend with the breeze. Ocean waves would break on the shore. We have an opportunity, a chance to turn and, in that turning to meet ourselves, to meet our acts, to embrace them, to see ourselves and those acts of ours with clear eyes. And all around us…….

Burning, burning, burning, burning………

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