Tending the Fire by Ralph Steele

A Saturday morning lecture given at the San Francisco Zen City Center, 
January 30, 1999

Hmm. What are you doing in there? What are we doing in here? Right now? At this very moment?

I want to talk about the dhamma as a way of utilizing the theme of “tending the fire.” We all have a fire. Believe me, we do. It’s so important that we be mindful of our fire. The Buddha called that fire “suffering.” And indeed it’s a potent fire when we look at it. That’s why I ask you, and why I’m constantly asking myself, “what am I doing in here?”

You know, there’s the surface layer, but let’s go underneath. Let’s go underneath to the traumas, the sexual abuse, being put down, the many different forms of rejection that we have experienced from childhood to now. We continue to perpetuate our suffering when we do not look below. We go on pretending there’s no fire there.

When certain life situations happen, that fire blazes for a moment or two, or a day, or a week. Some of us end up on medication. Some do a sesshin to tend their fire. That’s not the purpose of doing a sesshin or meditation retreat. What the Buddha was trying to do, and what he did – what he accomplished – is peace. Peace. Freedom. So enlightenment. If that is not our primary intention, then we’re not doing a Buddhist practice. We’re not practicing. We’re unintentionally perpetuating our suffering. And it’s potent. Mmm. So potent. And it gets out of control when we don’t tend our fire.

We have so many examples of how our fire can get out of control. We cannot only fill the room with grief, but we can fill this entire town with just our stories. So we have a fire. Hmm. And it’s always going to be there. It can be out of control, or it can be in control. I have a clinic in Santa Fe, a pain clinic, meditation based. It’s been there quite a while. One of things I do is a meditation-based breast-cancer support group. And when women first come to meditation, to the group, their fire is blazing. Angry at the world, perhaps? If I’m a Christian person, I’m angry at God. I’m angry at my husband who gave me breast cancer. I’m angry at the doctor who talked to me condescendingly.

My job is to help them to tend their fire. I can’t heal their cancer, but I can help them to tend their fire. It’s that simple. We’re all in this together. When we don’t pay attention to that fire, conditioning, habitual patterns, and addictions come up. Our job is to manage our body, speech, and mind. And when we don’t do that, they manage us.

Here’s an example of conditioning. One of the things Jack Kornfield and I do once a year is we work with gangs. Serious gangs. I mean very serious gangs with bullet holes and knife wounds. But they want to get it right. They want to make it right because they trust us. We work with other professionals and rent a camp somewhere in the country. We fly in gang members age 14 – 25 from Chicago, East Oakland, the Bay Area, east L.A.

We did this one group in Fairfax in Marin County a few years back. They didn’t like the food we eat [laughter] – so, one day they walked into town, the town of Fairfax (CA) [laughter]. All right? Oops. You already know. One white person and about eight or nine African Americans, about eight or nine Latinos, walking into town – baggy pants, hats on backward, looking for something to eat. They walked into the store. As they walked into the store, people just followed them around the store. When they came back, they said, “Ralph, you know, we thought this was supposed to be a good place. So, why are all these people following us around? They don’t trust us. They’re like looking for us to sneeze and they would call the police.” That’s our conditioning. That’s our society. Those are our habitual patterns. Those are our addictions – when we don’t tend our fire.

It’s like that everywhere, not only in this country. My partner, Sabina, and I were at the Frankfurt train station, on our way to giving a seminar in Copenhagen. I’m an old jock football-basketball guy. I was pushing a cart with the luggage to one of those newsstands, and she went off to do something. And USA Today was there – was right there. The cart was here. I turned around, got the USA Today, paid for it, turned back around, and my briefcase, which had been on the cart, was gone. Gone! And in that briefcase were all my notes for the seminar in this country I was headed to – to people I had never seen before in my life. At the train station there was an ocean of human beings. I just went nuts. I was running all over the place. And as I was running, people were making a path, you know. [Laughter.] All they saw was this guy with a black leather jacket on and dark glasses. They were just scattering all over the place. Conditioning. I really didn’t notice that until I got on the train and just sat back and looked. And I laughed and laughed. You know it’s so funny – the conditioning that arises when we don’t tend our fire. This is what happens. Habit sets in.

In our sitting practice, hmm, you know, can you be with it? When physical sensations come up? I use the analogy of munchkins, you know; the munchkins sawing on your knees, on your back. The more you flare up, the more they’re partying.

Can you be with it? Can you be with the practice? Can you let the dhamma guide you? Can you be with the dhamma? Dhamma. The root words are Sanskrit dhri, “to cradle,” and ma, “mother.” Dharma. Dhamma. Can you be with it? Can you be with it?

That’s just the first step – being with it. The next step is understanding the nature of impermanence. Understanding that you really have no parents – meaning that if you’re not practicing freedom, if you’re not practicing enlightenment, if you’re not walking on the path, then that means you have a parent or want a parent. That means that you are dependent on something. We have to walk the path. There are people ahead of us on the path, senior teachers to let us know, “Hey, this practice works.” But we have to walk it.

I have no home. I have no parents. I make awareness my home.
I have no life or death. I make the tides of breathing my life and death.
I have no means. I make understanding my means.
I have no magic secrets. I make character my magic secrets.
I have no ears. I make sensibility my ears.
I have no body. I make endurance my body.
I have no limbs. I make promptness my limbs.
I have no strategy. I make unshadowed-by-thought my strategy.
I have no miracles. I make right action my miracles.
I have no principles. I make adaptability to all my circumstances my principles.
I have no talents. I make ready wit my talent.
I have no friends. I make my mind my friend.
I have no enemy. I make carelessness my enemy.
I have no sword. I make absence of self my sword.


I have no parents. Hmm?

Sister Mary, my grandmother, Sister Mary Rainey, lives on Pawleys Island, one of sixteen Sea Islands stretching 160 miles along the Atlantic coast mainly between Savannah up north to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She was called “Sister Mary” before I was born, before my mom was born. In the church on Pawleys Island, the male deacons are called “babas” and the female deacons are called “sisters.” Members of my family have run that church for over a hundred years.

Sister Mary is presently 95, going on 96. She’s been a sister for a long time. She’s still at home She’s still taking care of herself. She lives by herself. The only person she lets live in that house is me when I go home because I was born there. She’s a very special lady. My cousins have to go over to the house every day to get the gifts and the money that people leave behind after they stop by for her blessings.

As a child, I remember our horse died. And so we buried it. That was a big hole. At least four or five feet deep. It was big. I mean to me, as a kid, it was pretty big. And we put that horse in the hole and we covered it with lime to keep the animals away, and then we covered it up. Two days later I went back out there. The horse was dug up and the majority of the horsemeat was gone. And I went back and told Sister Mary what had happened. And she said, “Everybody has to eat. We’re all part of the chain.” We’re all beings here on the planet. We all need to look out for each other.

The Buddha didn’t teach us about the mental factors so that we can become attached to them. But we do become attached to them, and that’s what creates our conditioning. Yes. We can blame our parents, but how long are we going to hang on to that? You know, some of my clients are fifty-some years old and they’re still ragging on their parents. How long do you want to do that?

Yes, we’ve all been abused, misused, and stepped on. That’s very true. Yes. There’s deep pain. When I say “fire,” yeah it burns – it burns very deeply. Remember, the Buddha did not teach us about the mental factors so (that) we can be attached to them. We attach ourselves to them and oh, boy! The conditioning and the suffering! We get so burned by that fire. Spend a few thousand dollars and a few thousand hours in therapy and psychiatric clinics, going through three or four marriages and divorces, and oh boy! Think about it, huh? Mood swings on and on and on. Instead of tending our fire, we allow our mind, body, and speech to manage us – not the other way around.

Bring in the power of mindfulness and understand the nature of impermanence, hmm? Mindfulness – ah! – a personal trainer. Personal trainers are a bad thing here in California, huh? [Laughter.] People like Demi Moore and all those other Hollywood stars – they’re looking good. They have their personal trainers. Just like mindfulness. Think about it. You practice mindfulness, and your friends say, “Oh, you’re looking good!” [Laughter.] “What have you been doing?” “Oh, I’ve been meditating.” “Oh, well I want to go that meditation, too.” Well, they do not have the faintest understanding. It’s more than just meditation. That’s why I ask you, “What are you doing in there? The power of mindfulness helps us to notice our conditioning and our habitual patterns. Oh, how sweet this practice is!

Seeing the true nature, seeing the non-duality, no self – when one begins to tend the fire. Understanding. Being mindful is watching out for our ego, is watching out for our self. We have a self; we have an ego. That’s okay. What’s not okay is when you don’t watch out for that rascal that’s in there, because that’s where our data bank lies. And for some reason, it seems to come out with all the negative first: the put-down, the condescending attitude. It’s very clever. Trungpa Rinpoche said something about the ego:

The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality. Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit. The teachings are treated as an external thing, external to “me,” a philosophy which we try to imitate. We do not actually want to identify with or become the teachings. So if our teacher speaks of renunciations of ego, we attempt to mimic renunciation of ego. We go through the motions, make the appropriate gestures, but really do not want to sacrifice any part of our way of life. We become skillful actors, and while playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path. 
[Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism: Boston, Shambhala, 1987, p. 13.]

“Pretending.” That’s specifically addressed to the old students. I’m not putting the old students down, because the new students are here today because of what the old students have cultivated, and I welcome you both.

Diversification is – hmm – seems to be in the air for some reason. I don’t know why. This is probably one of the most diverse cities in the nation. And look at this room. Very interesting, huh? We need to investigate that. There’s something wrong. And I’m not only talking about diverse in color, but I’m talking about diverse on all different levels. Hmm.

We have fear. There’s this deep fear after we reach some type of comfort zone – fear of change. Take a moment. Look around the room. It’s okay. This is a Zen center. But we’re in America. We do what we want to do. [Laughter.] Go ahead. Please. Make eye contact with somebody. Please do that. Let yourself see yourself in that person. Take a moment. If you dare do that. Some of you did. Some of you didn’t. Because of fear. You can’t see yourself. Can you see yourself in another person? If you can’t do that, then you do have conditionings. Because that’s what’s stopping us from seeing ourselves in the other person. That’s the only thing that’s stopping us. Listen to this.

Life is the sacred Mystery singing to itself, dancing 
to its drum, telling tales, improvising, playing 
and we are all that Spirit, our stories all 
but one cosmic story that we are loved indeed, 
that perfect love we seek we are already. 
that the love in me seeks the love in you, 
and if our eyes could ever meet without fear, 
we would recognize each other and rejoice, 
for love is life believing in itself. 
[Manitongquat, “A Prayer to Humankind,” in Context, 1983, No. 1, p. 59.]

Hmm? No self. Non-dualism. When we get to that level, the only thing we have is dhamma, hmm? The only thing we have is peace. The only thing we have is freedom. When we get to that level of seeing, of being, of breathing, of living. Cultivating that knowing. Cultivating that gives us inner strength and confidence. Confidence that, all right, here comes death; you put death in your lap. You’re living your life, moment by moment. Here it is right here. “How’re you doing today? Fine. Are you okay in there? I’m okay in here. It’s a great day, isn’t it?” Hmm. Moment by moment. As one Zen master said, “it’s like walking on the bottom of the ocean.”

Tell you one more story of Sister Mary – of confidence in the dhamma. In the south they have chain gangs. Those are guys in uniforms with black and white stripes, and their ankles are chained together. Their job is to clean the roads. We lived on a dirt road in the swamps, and they would come down the road cleaning the bushes about maybe ten or fifteen feet off the road. And my brother and I, we would see them coming up the road, and they’d get closer, and it’s a scary feeling. It’s in the air. We would run into the yard behind the hedges, and we would watch them. And I don’t know why – everybody was always black, except for the guy who was in charge. So, there’s one white guy and all these black guys. He has a pair of glasses on – the kind that look like a mirror. and a double-barreled shotgun. And he’s standing there with the gun hanging open. They come up the road, and they get in front of the house, and all of a sudden, Sister Mary walks out of the house with a pitcher of lemonade – a cup of tied to it with a string – and a plate of sweetbread. As she gets closer to these guys, the guard closes his gun. She walks by this guy as if he’s not there. And she walks up to these guys, and she’s giving them lemonade and sweetbread. And as she’s giving them that, she’s blessing them and saying, “Don’t worry. You’ll be okay, you know. It was wrong what you did. Accept what you did.” These guys are sweating and crying. And they’re saying, “Thank you ma’am. Thank you ma’am.”

She gets through with the gang. She walks up to the guard to offer him sweetbread and some lemonade, and he just shakes his head. And so he missed that darshan. She goes back in the house, and these guys continue up the road. However, they start a cadence. And they start singing. And they start swinging everything in unison – ah! it was sweet! – as they go up the road. And my brother and I would run back out there, and we’d start shooting marbles, playing around. It was so joyful – that peace. Someone who walks into that, walks with that confidence and demonstrates the results of that – it’s like a child was just born into a room. Light is all over the place. That peace. Mmm.

The practice. Understanding our intention is very important because the Buddha had one practice – he had one thing in mind, as well as all the other Buddhas before him – enlightenment, freedom.

I’ll read you this as a closing. It’s from Zen master Dogen – the mind of the ancient Buddhas as we walk this path together:

The mind of that ancient Buddha should not be understood as something irrelevant to your experience, as some mind which exists from the beginingless past, for it is the mind which eats rice gruel, or tastes other food in your ordinary everyday life. It is the mind which is grass, the mind which is water. Within the life, just as it is, is the act of sitting like a Buddha, which is called “arousing the thought of enlightenment.” The conditions for arounsing the thought of enlightenment do not come from anywhere else.

It is the enlightened mind that arouses the thought of enlightenment or freedom.

One honors the Buddha with a grain of sand. One honors the Buddha with the water in which the rice has been soaked.

One offers a handful of food to living creatures, like the smile we just gave to each other, and to the Buddhas. Like this dhamma talk I just gave you.

Ralph Steele has studied with Lama Thubten Yeshe, Sogyal Rinpoche, Stephen Levine, and Jack Kornfield, among others. He teaches meditation and works with emotional and physical pain management at his Santa Fe, New Mexico clinic, Life Transition Therapy. This article is adapted from an autobiographical manuscript, Tending the Fire: An African American Buddhist Story, and incorporates material from an interview conducted with Steele by Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center.

Ralph returned to Santa Fe in May of 2000. If you wish to contact him please fill out the contact form here. 

• Revised 19th February, 2000