Fire in the Temple

Fire in the Temple April 4, 2011

Sokuhi (1616-1671) was a Buddhist monk and an accomplished poet and calligrapher. Together with Mokuan (1611-1684) and their teacher Yuan (1592-1673), the three were known in Japan as the “Three Brushes of Ōbaku” (Ōbaku no Sanpitsu). In 1650 at the age of 34, Sokuhi was badly burned while fighting a forest fire near the temple and nearly died from asphyxiation. In the midst of the fire, he was suddenly enlightened. He lived for twenty-one more years.

There I was, unsure if the fire was supposed to

fill the temple the way life fills a body. Though

we were frantic, swatting robes at the base of large

flames, I was stopped by the beauty of the yellow

heat embracing everything. 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 every-

where, 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, knock-

ing him to the ground, smothering him with

my robe like a large bird flapping in the dirt.

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 had 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. And as I grew light-headed

in the midst of flames taller than the temple,

I 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 under-

stood 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. I have

tried for years to speak of this, to point to this.

But words fail. And so, the sweep of brush on

paper, like flame on earth. My life began that

day between the fire and the temple.

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