Wumen says in his poem:

A line is dropped in a swift stream.
Greedy for the bait, he is caught.
If you open your mouth only a little, your life is lost.

A line is dropped in a swift stream. Greedy for the bait, he is caught. The swift stream is the rushing mind. When we’re preoccupied, when we’re fearful or anxious, it’s easy to get caught in things. It was easy for Yunmen to trip up this monastic. He was greedy for the bait. When we really believe that we are incomplete, that someone or something else has the answer, then we go biting for all kinds of things. If you open your mouth only a little, your life is lost. The moment we look outside, we turn away from the essential, we turn away from ourselves. That’s why zazen is so important, because it’s a constant, insistent practice of not opening the mouth even a little, of not getting lost.


Photo by Lee Sesselle

There’s a poem by Rumi:


Little by little wean yourself.
This is the gift of what I have to say.
From an embryo whose nourishment comes
            in the blood,

move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a teacher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.
Think how it is to have a conversation
            with an embryo.

You might say, “The world outside is vast
            and intricate.

There are wheat fields and mountain passes
            and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies and
            in sunlight

 the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”
You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays
            cooped up

in the dark with eyes closed.
         Listen to the answer.
There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

You ask the embryo why she or he stays cooped up in the dark with eyes closed in the midst of such an incredible world. “There is no other world,” the embryo says. “I only know what I can see, this is all that is real. You must be hallucinating.” That’s a very real perspective for the embryo. That’s what darkness is when we speak of delusion, of not having light. When we have little light with which to see, the world is a very small place. And by all appearances it is the real world. Yet all the Buddhist teachers of the past who realized unity with the great universe have taught that this saha world is not the real world. This self contained in skin and history is not who you are. Why stay confined in such a small experience of the world?

This life, this moment, is the only time we have. Let’s not waste this gift of life—and this opportunity to practice the dharma—that we have so fortunately received


Photo by Oliver Ingrouille

Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei is vice-abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery, branch president of Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple, and head of the National Buddhist Prison Sangha. He received dharma transmission from Daido Roshi in 1997.