November 18, 2015
Being Careful with Fire

By recalling an old firewatch tradition, this Japanese art piece imparts an important message for today from our founder.

Calligraphy by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: Hi No Yo Jin (Be Careful about Fire)

Calligraphy by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: Hi No Yo Jin (Be Careful About Fire)

The tradition of firewatch in Japan may have begun in the seventeenth century when night watchmen would walk through the streets hitting clappers to remind people to put out cooking fires before sleeping. This was very important for houses made of wood and paper. Even today, on the eve of the new year in Japan, a group of volunteers will patrol neighborhoods, hitting their clappers and chanting hi no yo jin: be careful with fire!

Years ago the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, represented that phrase in Japanese calligraphy in the piece shown here. It hangs today in Central Abbess Eijun Linda Cutts’ office, and reminds us that the traditional warning is still relevant. Fire can both serve and destroy, protect and harm, nourish and deplete. We must balance proper use of fire with its proper care.

How are we careful with fire? Fire within can offer the gifts of energy, of creativity, of illuminated insights. It can foster the opening of possibilities—of love and appreciation of self and others. Fire within can also flare up in impatience and anger. Yet with proper care the energy of fire can burn with a steady flame, available and ready to provide what we need to engage with the world around us. This fire can allow us to combine our energy with others, resulting in something greater and more effective than any of us could manage alone. These fires warm us and others.

In our practice at City Center, Green Gulch and Tassajara, we as a sangha remain attentive to tending our internal fires with care, in order to share our practice in service to others: to our neighbors, to our communities and to society as a whole.

Please lend your support to this practice and be part of the effort at Zen Center to tend fire with right effort and great care, as described recently in a year-end message from our abbatial leaders. Thank you for considering a donation to San Francisco Zen Center.



From an interview by volunteer Dorji Wangchu with Central Abbess Eijun Linda Cutts.