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The Candle


Emma’s Place holds an annual candle-lighting ceremony. The grieving kids and their parents and their counselors and the friends of Emma’s place, standing in a circle outside the cottage, light candles and shares their loss and their memories, and then everyone blows out their candles and the kids have ice cream sundaes. There’s a koan here too. Our Zen group members are raising malas to support the work of Emma’s Place. Did you see my blog three weeks ago? https://www.zen-ken.com/post/mala-again. If you missed it, check it out. I’d love to have you on my mala. It’s easy. Just log onto https://emmasplacesi.org/donate/ . In the message space, please write “Ken’s mala.” If you donate $108, I’m going to burn your name on a bead on my new mala. I’ll wear it everywhere. You will be with me on my journey. I would love that.


Matthew Keiffer was recently working on a koan, a story about the student Te-shan and the teacher Lung-t’an. This is one of those koans which, hearing them now in dokusan, as a student works with them, I wonder how I passed.


It is a longish koan, and I am interested now in the beginning. But it goes on; and the end, I realize, was probably my entry point years ago. At the end, having seen the light, the studious Te-shan burns all his notes about the Diamond Sutra. I understood that. I wasn’t going to get to the inner peace I was looking for by studying Buddhist philosophy, as much as philosophical arguing lay well within my comfort zone. That point I got. That way would only take me down another academic rabbit hole.


I imagine I ignored the beginning, which must have befuddled me, focused on the end, found my entry point there and passed.

The beginning of the koan though is one of those stories that are being transformed for me by the students working with them. I hear things now that I’m sure I didn’t hear when I grappled with them as a student.


Te-shan is one of those archetypal Zen students who is fascinated with theoretical questions. I smile now. I remember him. Lung-t’an, when we meet him in this koan, is a very patient teacher. Their conversation goes late into the night until Lung-t’an, exhausted, finally tells Te-shan it’s time for bed. Te-shan makes his bows but, as he is about to exit his teacher’s hermitage he is confronted by the blackness of a night without moon or stars. And, of course, no streetlights.


Lung-t’an seems to appreciate his student’s predicament. He hands him a lighted candle. I can feel Te-shan’s gratitude for his teacher’s act of kindness. And then, suddenly, Lung-t’an blows out the candle, plunging Te-Shan again into darkness.

According to the traditional Zen accounts, Te-shan, in that moment, experienced great enlightenment. I can only imagine now what I thought when I first confronted Lung-t’an. “This is bullshit.” Of course, even then, I could recognize the experience of having the “rug pulled out from under me.” Bernie had done it to me many times, and I’d seen him do it with others. I understood the shock, the jolt to our conditioning, but “great enlightenment”: bullshit. In my experience with Bernie, when he would pull the rug out, often in the presence of others, what I felt was humiliation. Maybe, eventually, I would appreciate the lesson, feel gratitude even as the pain of the experience lingered, even as I learned to laugh about it over the years, to tell the story of my humiliations with self-deprecating humor, still the pain lingers. They were powerful experiences, but definitely not the Aha moments of great enlightenment.

I’ll tell you one.


You may have heard this story. It goes back to the days of The Verrazano Foundation when we were struggling to raise money. Bernie was a powerhouse of a fund-raiser. I called him for advice. “If I was looking for a fundraiser,” he said, “you’re the last person in the world that I would hire.” He didn’t even bother to light the candle. He just blew it out.

But now 20 years later, as Matthew struggles with his koan, so much is coming up. I was always looking for the kind, encouraging teacher. Bernie was resurrecting all my Oedipal conflicts with my father, apparently not so neatly resolved during my analysis, as I had thought. I wanted Bernie to be impressed with my accomplishments. I wanted Daddy to be proud of me, but I was terrified of surpassing him. He had dropped out of college his freshman year. My breakthrough with Erika came in the realization — there were tons of evidence to support this which I had been ignoring — that, if I succeeded — which meant surpassing him — Daddy would be nothing but proud of me.


He died before I finished my Ph.D., but he knew I was going to finish, and he was proud.


He was probably always proud. I just didn’t see it. He just wasn’t the nurturing figure I was looking for. (Maybe I had found her in Jishu and lost her). It definitely wasn’t Bernie. The harsh teacher, even a teacher as wonderful as Bernie, triggers so many associations. I thought I had settled this and gone on with my life. But here it was resurrected in my relationship with Bernie. He never said, “Good work.” As close as I got to a “good work” from Bernie was his humorous and yet I felt proud introduction of me as “the only person who had ever been arrested on a street retreat.” I did hear from Eve that he talked proudly to others about the charter school network we were building, but nothing directly from my father figure.


I’d heard stories from my mother, too, of how proud Daddy was of me.

Years ago, when I first confronted Lung-t’an, all I could see was another father who wouldn’t give me what I wanted. It was easier for me to work with the end of the koan. Now, sitting with Matthew in dokusan, I am turning a corner and seeing Lung-t’an differently.


Maybe, I am hearing my favorite sociology professor, Alan Blum, point out to us in class that it was easy to debunk a classical sociologist. I was thinking Georg Simmel. The challenge, Alan suggested, was to offer a reading which makes Simmel brilliant. Maybe I am hearing Scorsese yelling at DeNiro, “Stop making Lung-t’an the mean father. Make him the loving father.”

I am pivoting. Lung-t’an blows out my candle. He’s not pulling the rug out from under me, knocking me down a peg. He’s communicating something totally loving.

I am Dumbo the little elephant who could fly, the hero of one of my Little Golden Books. Dumbo thought he could fly only because he was holding the magic feather in his trunk. Only when he drops the feather does he realize that he can fly.

I have been angry at Lung-t’an all my life because he suckered me. He had given me something that I needed — in that moment I thought I had found the nurturing Daddy — and then almost immediately had taken it away. He was the mean daddy.

But what if he really was the kind and loving daddy? Aaah. I thought I knew what I needed. I needed someone to light my way. Lung-t’an gives me what I think I need and then he snatches it away, and in that moment, I realize that what I thought I needed — someone to light my way — was not what I needed at all. That ‘s the “wow!”

I had called Bernie believing that I needed guidance in fundraising. He didn’t give me what I wanted, and I was hurt. It took me years to discover that I already had what I needed, I just didn’t know it. It was many more years before I stopped looking outside for fund-raising advice and looked inward and found it in my mala practice.


But it took all these years more, and Matthew’s tussle with Lung-t’an to see it, to appreciate Lung-t’an and to appreciate the gift that I received from Bernie that day on the phone.


Emma’s Place holds an annual candle-lighting ceremony. The grieving kids and their parents and their counselors and the friends of Emma’s place, standing in a circle outside the cottage, light candles and shares their loss and their memories, and then everyone blows out their candles and the kids have ice cream sundaes. There’s a koan here too. Our Zen group members are raising malas to support the work of Emma’s Place. Did you see my blog three weeks ago? https://www.zen-ken.com/post/mala-again. If you missed it, check it out. I’d love to have you on my mala. It’s easy. Just log onto https://emmasplacesi.org/donate/ . In the message space, please write “Ken’s mala.” If you donate $108, I’m going to burn your name on a bead on my new mala. I’ll wear it everywhere. You will be with me on my journey. I would love that.


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