Fire in the Temple

Fire In The Temple by Mark Nepo

Buddhist monk faces two fires


Here is a story of how I was drawn to what I need to learn. I began to search, not sure for what. I thought of Tetsugen (1630–1682), the monk devoted to publishing the first translation of Buddha’s Dharma talks into Japanese. He collected funds for many years, only to twice give away the money in order to help feed and clothe those sick and starving around him.

In trying to find exactly where he lived, I stumbled onto the history of the Yangtze River whose name comes from an ancient ferry crossing, Yangzi Jin. This same river downstream was named by others the Tongtian River which means River Passing Through Heaven. This led me to artists who had painted the river and somehow I came across the phrase, the Three Brushes of Ōbaku. What a beautiful phrase. There was no logic to my search. I was just following threads of light like Monet. One thing that felt alive led me to the next.

The Three Brushes of Ōbaku (Ōbaku no Sanpitsu) referred to three revered Zen teachers who were each master calligraphers; one seeming to have taught the other. Sokuhi (1616–1671) was the youngest and perhaps the most accomplished poet and calligrapher among them. Along with Mokuan (1611– 1684) and their teacher Ingen (1592–1673), the three were known as the Three Brushes. I found the notion of such a living lineage compelling. I wondered about their conversations and their luminous connections, as well as the friction that no doubt surfaced from the authority of their own personalities.

Then I came across a brief description of a transformative event in Sokuhi’s life. In 1650 at the age of 34, Sokuhi was badly burned while fighting a forest fire and nearly died from asphyxiation. In the midst of the fire, he was suddenly enlightened. This stunned me. I wanted to know more, but couldn’t find any more. I went through my chores that day wondering about Sokuhi and what happened in that fire.

I couldn’t let go of this detail of a monk’s life. It seemed to glow like an ember flickering 350 years later. That night I dreamt of Sokuhi caught in the unbearable heat of flames as tall as the trees around him.

The next morning I entered this poem in his voice:

There I was, unsure if the fire was supposed to fill the temple the way life fills a body. Others were frantic, swatting robes at the base of flames, but I was stopped by the beauty of the yellow heat embracing the trees. It made me think of my father’s funeral pyre. How I miss him. Where did the fire take him? In the heart’s long look back, I wanted to run into the flames and go after him. There’s something in us that wants to join the flame. It was then master Yuan stood before me, flames everywhere, the forest crackling, the empty temple waiting, master Yuan calm as the lake before dawn. He spoke softly, “Now you have to choose, Sokuhi.” A burning limb fell behind us. He stepped closer, “Will you bring in there out here? Or keep watching from the rim?” His robe caught aflame and I cried out, knocking him to the ground, smothering the heat. Though his back was burned, he stared into the small fire I’d been guarding inside for years. Something in the truth of his love brought me into the world. I began to weep. The flames moved past us closer to the temple. I ran through them to get more water and the smoke of centuries made my eyes burn and the veil between worlds made my legs heavy. I couldn’t breathe. I grew light-headed in the midst of flames taller than the temple and began to sing some song that rose from my small fire so eager to join the fire around us. I didn’t understand what was happening. But the harder it was to breathe, the more I understood my breath. The harder it was to keep my eyes open, the more I understood the moment of true seeing. The last thing I saw was the temple waiting for the flames. When I came to, the earth had been cleared and the temple seemed less a refuge and more an oasis.

Being drawn to write so thoroughly in the voice of others doesn’t happen often, but I felt in this case that I’d been led to serve as a brief conduit for Sokuhi across the years; as if his story was waiting to be told. At this point, I realized that, in trying to write about the mystery of how we’re drawn to what we need to learn, I was drawn to this. Now, as when meeting a koan, I’m left to decipher what it is I need to learn from Sokuhi and his moment of being undone.

I have stopped writing poems with the illusion that I have something to say. I write with a faith that in following a feeling, a question, or an image, I will discover my next teacher. In this case, I found Sokuhi.

The felt experience of surfacing Sokuhi’s story left me breathless and I went to my friend David to read him the poem. I was taken by the moment when master Yuan confronts Sokuhi as the flames are rising around them, “Now you have to choose, Sokuhi.” David and I looked at this as a moment we all must face sooner or later; a moment when we need to bring all of who we are into the world.

Once giving voice to the poem, I realized that Sokuhi’s teacher was Ingen and yet the name Yuan appeared in the poem. I’ve learned to trust such discrepancies and left it as it came. I now claimed Sokuhi as part of my personal mythology, part of the constellation of voices I turn to as teachers and kindred seekers across time. As I told David that I needed to find out more about Sokuhi and this fire, but didn’t know where to look, he smiled and went to his bookcase to take down a large book called The Art of Zen (published by H. N. Abrams in 1989). The author was his cousin, Stephen Addiss, an art historian who specializes in this period of Japanese calligraphy.

We quickly looked through the book and sure enough, there was a chapter on Obaku Zen with a section discussing the Three Brushes of Obaku and a passage each on Ingen, Mokuan, and yes, Sokuhi. We were stunned. It was there I learned that master Ingen’s Chinese name was Yuan.

David’s cousin had unearthed more details surrounding the forest fire:

A deeper enlightenment came to Sokuhi in 1650 during a forest fire on Mount Huang-po. Sokuhi was helping to fight the fire, which was fanned by a strong wind, when he burned his face, arms, and legs and fell into a trench. His colleagues came to rescue him, and at that moment he experienced satori. When he presented himself to his teacher, Ingen said, “You have had the experience of a great death and have come alive.” The first month of the following year, Ingen gave Sokuhi a whisk in recognition of his understanding, and Sokuhi declared, “With the power of this whisk I will work for the Buddha by going out to teach.” Ingen composed a poem for Sokuhi, and from that time on the young monk was considered a Zen master.

What are we to make of such connections? That there is always a story behind the story as we have talked about? That “we are each other” as the traditions say? That we all share a common element of being, that “Thou Art That” as the Hindus say? 

Personally, I keep exploring the moment in the fire when the master challenges the student to bring all that he is to bear on the messy tangle of living. I think this is my challenge. I think this is a challenge for all of us. I keep trying to open this moment so I can stay in conversation with it and in conversation with others about it. This is how the education of our soul unfolds: moment by moment, story by story, as we bring our souls to each other and hold them to the light, trying to make sense of their markings. 

I found two of Sokuhi’s seminal ink drawings. Not surprisingly, they have the waver and feel of flames. One is called Ocean of Good Fortune, the other, Mountain of Longevity. These drawings make me think about the moment after Yuan confronts him, the fire rising about them. It’s only when a blazing limb falls on his master that Sokuhi stops contemplating and leaps into the world. Did he, after being burned himself, understand this? Is he saying with his drawings that leaping through the fire, into the world, to save the things we love is the key to good fortune and longevity? 

Mysteriously, we’re drawn to what we need to learn. We’re drawn to live in the world till the fire within meets the fire without. We’re drawn to move through all the invisible barriers to find what we love, to love what we love, and to save what we love. 

I’m drawn to this conclusion, this beginning, this spirited refrain: that the inevitable journey of being a spirit on earth is to love things dearly enough that in time we become a nameless part of what we love. Until we’re left with the noble effort to voice and affirm what we touch and know when closest to life, for as long as we can. 


The One Life We're Given

Reprinted from The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart by Mark Nepo, with permission of the publisher, Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Mark Nepo. 

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