Thus spake the master of charcoal: "A well-built fire is its own heaven; a poorly-built fire is its own hell."


A fire should be light and agile, its flames connected like a string of pearls. The spirit and intent of the fire should be retained throughout. There should be neither too little or too much, neither needless flashes nor useless smoke, neither lack of convection nor overwhelming sparking.

A fire should follow the `Law of Least Astonishment'. What is this law? It is simply that the fire should always burn in the way that astonishes the master least.

A fire, no matter how complex, should act as a single heat source. The fire should be directed by natural airflow within rather than by outward stimulus.

If the fire fails in these requirements, it will be in a state of disorder and confusion.

The only way to correct this is to rebuild the fire.


A novice asked the master: "I build fires that sometime burn all night and sometime go out before morning. I have followed the rules of fire building, yet I am totally baffled. What is the reason for this?"

The master replied: "You are confused because you do not understand Tao. Only a fool expects rational behavior from a charcoal fire. Why do you expect it from a fire that a human has constructed? Only Tao is perfect.

"The rules of fire building are transitory; only Tao is eternal. Therefore you must contemplate Tao before you receive enlightenment."

"But how will I know when I have received enlightenment?" asked the novice.

"Your fire will then not go out," replied the master.


In the east there is a shark which is larger than all other fish. It changes into a bird whose wings are like clouds filling the sky. As the bird descends to earth it opens its mouth and belches forth a sudden wave of flame and fire that moves swiftly across the land and then disappears before the peasants can look up to see it.

The bird is known as flashback.

The ordinary man stares in wonder at the bird, for he understands it not. The novice dreads the coming of the bird, for he understands and fears its message. The master continues to tend his fire, for he does not know that the bird has come and gone.

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