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?