Like a Candle in the Wind

So sorry Elton John but I’m actually not blogging about you. Rather I thought I’d reflect on another interesting activity that we engaged in over the weekend.

Everyone knows how important meditation is to martial arts practice (or any practice, one might say). So it made perfect sense that we spend part of the early morning seated in meditation. After all the years of black belt winter retreats, Kyudo intensives, even just bowing into regular class and whatever our personal routines are outside of formal training, we’ve all had some significant practice with seated meditation. Some of us take to it much more readily than others (Dillon and I for instance have such bad ADD that even a half an hour feels like eternity whereas Walsh and Doll are probably much more comfortable staying seated and still). At any rate, Master Pearson changed things up on us Sunday morning, asking us to sit in front of a lit candle instead of just the usual wall. We were instructed to follow our breath, counting to ten, and using the final exhalation to extinguish the candle, then to count our breath again and relight the candle after reaching the number ten.

I, for one, found this new approach quite a relief. While I usually count my breath while meditating and try to stick to these cycles of ten, I find I often get lost in the exercise and I’m counting as high as 80 or 90 before I catch myself. So this additional task of blowing out and relighting the candle helped me to focus and more easily let go of the thoughts and dust that entered my mind during each cycle.

When we debriefed the exercise afterward, Master Pearson posed a question. “Where does the flame go,” he asked, “when the candle is extinguished.” Unsatisfied by our sleepy answers at the time, Master Pearson assigned the further pondering of this quandary as homework…with an answer due in two weeks when we travel together to Cincinnati.

As I returned home to Ithaca, I felt the question gnawing at me, sure that I had heard this same query presented to me once before. I couldn’t let it go and started digging through my martial arts book shelf, convinced that I had read this exact question elsewhere. Finally, as I skimmed through a source packet from an East Asian history course I had taken in undergrad, I came across the very same wording in an article describing Koan practice, made famous by Zen Buddhism centuries ago.

Here, the answer was given that each individual is like a lit candle. The person, by his mere existence, has the ability to offer his light to another. This is the path of the Bodhisattva…lighting other candles by his own flame. But when he attains enlightenment, his flame is extinguished. It doesn’t go anywhere. It simply ceases to be since he has broken the cycle of birth and death.

This seems to apply quite readily to the exercise, especially given the fact that we continually blew out only to relight our candles. However, I’m stumped. Master Pearson, though a Zen Buddhist himself, is extremely careful never to cross or confuse martial arts with religious teaching or doctrine. And when I mentioned to him that this question “where did the flame go,” was, in fact, a famous koan, he told me he was unaware of that. So clearly this teaching does not apply to us as Hagsaeng Naebu, at least not as it applies in the context of Buddhist tradition.

So what does it mean for us? Where does the flame go? Is there any applicable truth in the koan’s answer?

Please…feel free to do my homework for me! You have two weeks…where do you think the flame goes?



  1. Hey Shaffer

    I like this post, I stumbled on this through the search function on I don’t know if I know exactly what he had in mind, but I can give you a guess, and i think its a 2 part understanding.

    I once had a dream about a candle going out. I woke up in a semi terrifed state lol. Buddhism has great analogies for candles, specifically candles going out, because it relates to death and impermanence. A candle is like our life, its not unlimited, once the wick burns all the way through, life is done. However, there’s no guarantee the candle will burn to the very end. Life is like a candle in the wind, and the candle can go out at any moment. This gives the understanding that life is very fragile and nothing is guaranteed.

    Understanding death and impermanence creates a real focus that removes one self from unnecessary distractions and creates a usable energy that’s very powerful. If I was a person like Alexander the Great, I would use my understanding of death and impermanence to fuel my constant need to want to conquer the whole world before I died. Or if I was a artist, maybe I would focus on making something like the Sistine Chapel before I died. Or if being a buddhist, I can focus my energy into really exploring the mind and finding stillness. So I believe the energy of death and impermance is very powerful, when its harnessed, its superfocused

    What happens when the candle goes out? I think that question only occurs if one thinks that the candle can even go out. I think there are a 1000 answers for where it goes, depending on who you ask. I believe the flame never goes anywhere, because where did it come from? The flame isn’t what we believe it to be. But I think I think if you watch a candle go out enough, an experiential understanding of impermanence happens

    Maybe not the answer you were looking for but I don’t have anything else =D I like the blog

    1. Thank you for the comment! I have also been thinking about fire, and where it goes when it “goes out.” One thing I have learned to do in wilderness survival training is to “make” fire, by friction. One of the simplest ways to do this (called the hand-drill method) is to twirl a long skinny stick between the palms, so that it drills in to a piece of wood on the ground. With enough speed and downward pressure, brown dust turns to blacker dust at the point where the pieces of wood rub on each other. If this dust can be gathered together, usually in a notch carved in the wood, it becomes a coal which can then be gathered in tinder (dry leaves, grass etc.) and when blown on, bursts in to flame. This process “creates” fire, maybe it would be more proper to say “harnesses” the fire- through gathering the heat created by the friction. This process still seems miraculous and mysterious to me, and I have before wondered, what is this fire? Its body isn’t exactly physical, but it is- is rises from the wood, that it consumes. It breathes oxygen, like an animal. So I have come to view it pretty much as an animal. What happens when it is blown out? I hate to put fires out, because I feel like I am killing the fire. Where does life go, when a living thing dies? Maybe this is the question in the question “where does the flame go,” as also mentioned in the earlier comment. Does a “spirit” remain as it was, does life disperse in to the earth, the world, the air, other life? I am liking to think about Lee’s thought that maybe, it doesn’t go anywhere. I will be thinking about that more. The fire does seem to change form when it goes out- my first sleepy answer was, “into the air?” So now I have more thoughts and more to think about it- not exactly an “answer.” Where does the flame go, when it is blown out?

      1. I asked my Facebook friends the question~ answers range from scientific, to spiriual, to hell (and back?) Left wondering- does the flame really turn in to smoke? Is there any more component to the flame, then becomes the smoke? It doesn’t just “disappear,” from a scientific or spiritual perspective. It definitely goes some where. Some of it in to the air. If there is more energy, that doesn’t just go in to the air, then- … … …

        (from Facebook- thanks friends-)
        Harold Brown Into a parallel universe.
        Ana Doll hmmmm. So there’s a parallel universe full of candle flames?
        Ana Doll I’m goin home now but I’ll check for more thoughts tomorrow~ Thanks, -thanks Harold!
        Harold Brown Yeah…I think its called Hell.
        Dove Dreddy the void my love… or maybe the same place all the missing left socks go?
        Lilah Gardner up in smoke 🙂
        Christine Bulshitavitz it disintegrates into tiny particles? in turn, we inhale little tiny particles of flames for the rest of our lives?
        Ross Whiting Goes back to being Potential Energy.
        Christine Bulshitavitz
        Well after Googling, i see it might depend on what material the candles is made out of may play a roll in what happens… Google Metallic Wick Candles, some of them have lead in them amoungs other things
        Christine Bulshitavitz sorry, I may be way over analyzing the question, but you asked! and I love to Google!
        Alex Dedicke it hops into your mouth — if you don’t close your mouth quickly enough after blowing it will burn your tongue!
        Alex Dedicke closing your mouth smothers it – then it ends up in someone else’s mouth. or hell, that was a good answer.
        Kelli Jo Tobias Back into the box of matches or lighter… I think
        Cait Gemmell the inspiration faery holds onto it for you until it is needed again! 😉
        Kez Ban It is a delicate one. The balance of wind and wick and wax…When fire ‘disappears’…’s spirit or energy is still present. Ever notice how a person could be very fiery, but then a flame is lit and looking at it calms you down? just a theory.
        Kez Ban kind of like how water changes form to become gas, solid, liquid…..if it can be said that a spirit is a ‘gas’
        Rose Kitchen Maybe it doesn’t go anywhere …simple change into something else? from a flame into smoke from smoke into air…maybe it is a matter of changing your perception of something?
        Rose Kitchen maybe the chemical reaction of you blowing out the flame changes what it looks like but doesn’t make it “go away”. After all we are all made of atoms moving at different speeds ….who is to say the flame “goes any where” ? Maybe it simply speeds up to a rate that the human eye can not see?

What do you think?

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