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.