The fireboy seeking fire. Our reflexive "This isn't it." Barry Magid October 27th 2012

Miscellaneous Koans

In an old story, a monk on pilgrimage comes to ask a master for instruction in the Dharma. The master looks at him and smiles and says, "Ah, the fireboy comes seeking fire."
There's a long pause.
The master asks, "Do you understand?"
The monk says, "You're saying the thing I'm looking for I already possess."
The master shakes his head and says, "You don't understand," and dismisses the monk.
The monk goes off and has a very bad night.
He goes back to see the Master the next morning. He goes into dokusan quite agitated and confused, "Master, I just don't understand. What about this am I getting wrong?"
The master looks at him and says, "The fireboy is seeking fire."
And the monk has an entirely different realization.

The fireboy is some kind of mythological being entirely made of fire. His very nature is fire. He comes looking for fire. Obviously, the thing he's looking for is the thing he is made of, himself. And this is an analogy for our original nature, already present, yet somehow eluding us. Another kind of metaphor for that is the expression of "riding an ox, looking for an ox."

So what's different in the two encounters? What does he get the second time that he didn't get the first? See, I think the story as a koan illustrates something of the difference between an initial experience of kensho and a deeper, more penetrating realization. It's not uncommon for people to have some momentary experience, where they can feel -- really feel for themselves -- that nothing is missing, that they're whole, complete, perfect, just as they are. Wonderful experience, right? Not that rare, but when it happens, sometimes it's very dramatic, and in that moment you can have the sense of the very thing I've been looking for is who I am all along.

Yet what happens is that we experience that as a particular state, different from other states, and we can repeat it, hold onto it, lose it, and so forth. When the monk is told he doesn't understand, and he goes back to his room to sit and ponder "What's wrong?" he's plunged into doubt and confusion. He's searching all over again for an answer he thinks he doesn’t have. He comes back to the master: Fireboy seeking fire. What happens the second time is that the "seeking" gets experienced as the fire as well. For the first time the monk has some experience of "My mind where I'm thrown into confusion. Where I don't know. Where I'm looking. Where I'm seeking." That's fire, too. It's not just that moment when I suddenly feel like, "Oh, now I've got it. I'm not missing anything. Everything's fine." If you call that the fire, then that's a fire that goes out. That's not going to stay around.

To understand more deeply is to see that that fireboy is not just made of fire himself, but lives in a world of fire. That there's no experience, no thing, nothing he can encounter that's not fire. He has to come back with the sense that this is not a particular state to achieve or hold onto, but everything, everything is that fire: the seeking, the confusion, the doubt, the anger. And that can't go away; you're always going to have that. You get some sense that all those experiences are it. They're not transitory. The world is going to always present you with confusion, doubt, anxiety and anger. Now if they're fire, you're really in luck. We don't want to have this sort of experience that this thing we're looking for is as precious and rare as diamonds. That's of no use. We're not trying to have something that's the equivalent of winning the lottery, getting this one big lucky moment. It's much more about how we deal with all our moments.

When we sit, we need to -- in Joko's way of practicing -- just see over and over again how we, reflexively, say "Oh, this isn't it. This isn't the state I'm trying to get or hold onto. This is one of those boring, intermediate places that I want to get through in order to get back to that real thing." That's how most people practice. Even that, even all those intermediate times: Fireboy seeking fire.

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