Put Out the Fire Across the River

Something is burning, like a fire across the river. You can see it, it burns brightly, consuming everything in its path. The animals run. The wildfire leaves only the earth, scorched and black in its wake. This fire across the river is distant and apart, beyond your ability to do anything about it. Then someone suggests, asks, maybe even demands, “Put out the fire across the river.” The first thing you might want to notice is how it feels to be asked to accomplish the impossible.

We have each experienced “fires across the river.”

A friend tells you that he no longer wants to be your friend.

A loved one languishes sick upon her deathbed.

You are let go from your work because the company is “downsizing.”

These are situations that far away, unreachable, places we find ourselves where we have little or no control. But, even with the fire far away we feel the heat, the burn. And something within us just wants to put out the fire, make it stop. This is how the impossible presents itself to us. The koan invites us to enter into the impossibility, suggesting that in the realm of the koan, there is a way.First, we know what doesn’t work.

  • What you know won’t help. What you know got you here -- there is a fire, it is across the river, there is nothing you can do. What we know makes this impossible.

  • Your plans and schemes, too, seem powerless and of little help from across the river. Simply, whatever you plan, you can’t get there from here.

There is nothing to do but to enter the difficulty, to bless our not knowing as we feel our way into the dilemma, into the impossibility.

Over the last few weeks, I found myself in the position of being the primary caregiver for a person for whom I carried not a small amount of resentment, from whom I was estranged. This was my fire across the river. On my side of the river, I could watch, set up bleachers and sell tickets. The last thing I was able to do was to put out the fire. I could stop neither her behavior nor my burning resentment. Any attempt I made to put out the fire only seemed to add fuel for the burn. The fire did what it does best, burned. From the distance the world seemed aflame. Then, life happened and I was called upon to come and take care of her as she lay in her deathbed dying of cancer. I fed her, lifted her out of beds and chairs, helped give her a bath and served her food and drink. I wiped her bottom and picked her up off the floor when she fell. This was my path, this is how it rolled for about two weeks. At first, my actions were filled with resentment, my thoughts less than pure. I decided to do what could be done, move towards the burning and keep caring for this person. A week into it I noticed something: the fire was gone. Something had shifted and I no longer needed to live in resentment, anger and the pain of my enmity. Totally honest, what I noticed was that something like love was rising in me.

Another word for enlightenment is intimacy.

As we practice, and live our lives we are challenged to approach life as it is without preconceived notions about the nature of things. Without knowing where we are going, we discover where we are -- and always that comes down to being right here. This is intimacy, occupying the life you have, here and now. So, you see this fire on the other shore is close in. As I cared for the woman dying of cancer -- cleaned and fed her, attended to her needs, resentments fell off like the leaves of the autumn maple. A warmth like love came as I sponged off her arms and legs, as I helped her stand. The fire that burned in me was extinguished and I couldn’t find one across the river. When you physically care for someone like this, it is hard to carry resentments. Things fall away from us as kindness and generosity come.





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