Blow Your Candle Out

By InkyMama 01/11/19
Mindful Recovery, Dharma Moment

There is a Zen Koan or teaching story about a teacher and his pupil Tokusan. The story goes:

One night Tokusan went to Ryutan to ask for his teaching. After Tokusan’s many questions, Ryutan said to Tokusan at last, “It is late. Why don’t you retire?” So Tokusan bowed, lifted the screen and was ready to go out, observing, “It is very dark outside.” Ryutan lit a candle and offered it to Tokusan. Just as Tokusan received it, Ryutan blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened. – The Gateless Gate 28

I have been Tokusan for many, many years in multiple subjects, not just the study of Buddhism. I have such a hard time practicing what I’ve learned in my daily life. Instead of washing the dishes and feeling the soap on my hands and the temperature of the water, I am thinking about the next chapter of my book or that I forgot to defrost something for dinner. This tale brings to mind something I observed recently in the rooms of recovery that I still find myself contemplating.

There is an older homeless man who attends AA meetings on a somewhat regular basis, I’ll call him Sam. Sam has been around the block more than a few times and is sober in approximately a third of the meetings I have seen him in. Occasionally, he will share his thoughts and they are not just surprisingly coherent, the man is extremely smart, the misfit genius kind of intelligent. In one of his recent shares he was citing page numbers in a specific edition of the bible, unpacking the verses, applying them to addiction on a spiritual and scientific basis, and then tied it all together with a long and perfectly said quote by Mahatma Gandhi. 

Sam has been around a long time, yet he is not what we refer to as an “old-timer” in AA. His intelligence has in a way hurt him and his attempts at sobriety. Right now he has about 65 days sober, which is a record. Sam’s candle is always lit, he knows to much, he may even use his intelligence to avoid emotion and as an excuse to avoid turning his will over to the spiritual experience needed for so many of us to get better. Christopher Hitchens was a Tokusan too. He used his intellect to claim so many things about religion based soley on his opinion. He clung to these notions, specifically in his book God is Not Great, and this earned him both a quick and slow death. Poetically, he lost his voice to cancer while he continued to drown himself with whisky and both the cancer and the whisky partnered in his fate.

Sam, Hitchens and I, and others are all Tokusans. I have and continue to use logic and reason when I should be trusting that the darkness will be my teacher, that I don’t know everything, I can’t figure everything out, I can’t fix everything and, that is the way it is supposed to be. For Sam and I, our candles have been lit for too long and our eyes are slowly learning to adjust to the darkness. 

Blow your own candle out. Trust the universe to guide you in the dark.

About the Author:
Pia Kiri-yo Donovan, better known as InkyMama, is a tattooed, meditation teacher, author, and Buddhist practitioner with over twenty years experience studying Buddhism and teaching meditation. Her meditations and creative non-fiction pieces focus on addiction recovery. She is currently working on a forthcoming collection of short stories. Her work can be found at


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