Finding the Ember

NOTE: A recent talk by Roshi Joan Halifax of Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico served as the inspiration for me to write this article. I am grateful for her wisdom.

Baizhang Huihai (720-814) was the Zen Master of the monastery; Guishan Lingu (771-853) was his student and served as Head Monk. One cold winter evening, Baizhang came upon Guishan in the monk’s hall, alone, sitting in deep meditation. The room was so dark Baizhang couldn’t make out Guishan’s face.

Baizhang asked, “Who is sitting there in the dark?”

Guishan replied, “It is your student, Guishan!” “It is so cold and dark in here. Would you poke through the ash in the stove and see if there are some burning embers to restart the fire?” said Baizhang.

Guishan did as he was asked, turned to Baizhang and said, “There are no embers left in the ash.”

Master Baizhang walked over to the fire, grasped the tongs and dug deeply into the ash. After a short time, he found a tiny, glowing ember. He held it up, and turned to Guishan. “You said there is no fire left. What is this?” At that moment, Guishan had an awakening.

There is a great teaching in this seemingly simple and straightforward koan. It seems rather simple—why sit in a cold, dark room when there is a stove available? But just imagine Guishan’s discouragement when he dug through the stove and found just cold, gray, ash. No hope of a cheery fire, with it’s warmth and light to comfort him.

How has the ash of this pandemic year covered your life? What darkness did it bring to you? Many people experienced the darkness of fear, isolation, loneliness, confusion. Anger and frustration arose. Some of us lost friends or family, or both during the pandemic. Some of us became ill ourselves. Some of us were fearful of not only illness, but of spreading the disease unknowingly. We are all bound together by the common thread of suffering during this time. Our lives seems broken. But this koan teaches us that life is at the same time broken and whole.

Guishan’s task in this koan was to find the ember hidden in the ash that would ignite the warmth and light of the stove. He had the right tool (the tongs) but didn’t search hard enough. Baizhang also had the right tool, but showed Guishan the determination it took to find that ember. Wholeness and hope was there, buried under the ash.

Sitting practice (zazen) is the tool available to each one of us. It will help us dig through the ash that has been heaped up on our life this year, and find that ember. That ember, given fuel through dedicated sitting practice, will grow into healing light; fearlessness, open-heartedness, and compassion will arise from those ashes. It will not be easy; nothing worth-while is ever easy. But this koan teaches us not to give up; to keep digging deep through the ash for the light and warmth that is there—for the life that is there.

Zen practice contains three important elements: Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Determination. Great Faith speaks to faith in ourselves to see the Buddha Nature that exists in all of us: mind that is pure and stainless, like the purest water you have ever seen or tasted. Great Doubt is healthy questioning, keeping us on the Path for the right reasons; Great Determination is our courage and support when the going gets tough. Sit with these three elements and your practice will support you through and beyond these challenging times.


In gassho, Geido