Trial by fire
16 July 2008
I am reading, with much admiration, the blog recounting the efforts of the members of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Soto Zen monastery in California, to cope with the wildfires currently ravaging the countryside. The blog is aptly called ‘Sitting with Fire’, and I am much struck by how calm and circumspect the reporting is by the team on the front line. We can all hope to be so serene in the face of our own, often far less life-threatening, crises.
Nevertheless, such calm in the face of adversity sometimes causes Zen practice to be stereotyped as cool and unfeeling, always still, dreamlike and lacking passion. In contradistinction, I’d like to draw a little attention to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon* (Aditta-pariyaya Sutta), which for all its emphasis on temperance is, ironically, rather … fiery:
Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye — experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain — that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.
Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he is fully released. With full release, there is the knowledge, ‘Fully released.’ He discerns that ‘Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
Does the Buddha say ‘quench the flame’? No, he says, ‘fully release’. The flames that burn give way to flames that liberate — practice is to learn to tell which is which?
Zen practitioners here have long understood that fire is not only a part of the region’s landscape, but also an integral part of their spiritual experience. The reason they’re out there – to be in closer contact with the harmonious balance of nature – includes the fire.
“Fire is not a stranger,” said Stücky. “It’s telling us to be here in accord with the reality of fire … we’re not really fighting the fire. We’re meeting the fire, letting the fire come to us – make friends with it and tame it as it reaches our boundaries.”
Schommer said the fire had strengthened his spiritual practice. Clearing the brush meant creating places where fire could not burn. He called it a parable to the mental practice of Zen meditation, where you clear the mind from external thoughts burning through.
“Before this, I was floundering,” he said. “This has been an awakening for me.”
*T.S. Eliot alludes to the sermon in Part III of The Waste Land (1922).