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Serendipity: The Burning Coal, A Zen Tale

“A Buddhist Parable”

“A Buddhist Parable”

This passage comes from p. 182 of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. It’s not a bad description of some people I know.

Shawn tells her the Buddhist Parable of the Burning Coal. “Dude is holding this burning hot coal in his hand, obviously suffering a lot of pain. Somebody comes by—‘Whoa, excuse me, isn’t that a burning hot coal in your hand, there?’

“Ooh, ooh, ow, man, yes and like, like it really hurts, you know?’

“I can see that. But if it’s making you suffer, why do you keep holding on to it?’

“‘Well, duh-uhh? ’cause I need to, don’t I—aahhrrgghh!’

“You’re … into pain? you’re a nutcase? what is it? Why not just let it go?’

“‘OK, check it out—can’t you see how beautiful it is? lookit, the way it glows? like, the different colors? and aahhrrhh, shit …’

“‘But carrying it around in your hand like this, it’s giving you third-degree burns, man, couldn’t you like set it down someplace and just look at it?’

“‘Somebody might take it.’

“So forth.”

“So,” Maxine asks, “what happens? He lets go of it?”

Shawn gives her a nice long stare and with Buddhist precision, shrugs. “He lets go of it, and he doesn’t let go of it.”