Sokei-an – The Samadhi of Fire

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This is part of a lecture that Sokei-an gave at the First Zen Institute of America in New York City around 1938. Samadhi is a word used to describe the state that results from complete meditation.

The Samadhi of Fire

“We do not need beautiful scenery around us
To practice Zen meditation.
When we quench our minds, we feel cool — Even in the flame of fire.”

This is a famous Zen poem. When we meditate in the heat of summer, we always recall this poem. Zen students take refuge in meditation in all circumstances: when we are depressed, when we are ill, when we are in poverty, when we are in flight. While others wander, Zen students return to their seats and meditate. So to us, meditation is our home.

On Sunday mornings we meditate; then, from this meditation, we go out to perform our life. The next Sunday, we return to meditate. When we are stricken with illness, we need meditation. When we have lost our position, we return to meditation. When we must risk our lives, we start with meditation. We always return to meditation.

In ancient days in my country, warriors came in the morning to meditate in temples, then went out to the battlefields, fought bravely, and perhaps died. Warlords, when their castles were about to fall, seized by the enemy, returned to their meditation seats to meditate upon Emptiness.

When I was young, and it was examination day, before I went to school, I would close my books and go to my seat to meditate. If, in the examination, a very difficult problem appeared on the black board and I was in a quandary, I meditated to quench the palpitation of my heart, for I had found that my brain worked better after meditation.

Meditation is the final decision. Sometimes it is the first step towards death. You forget everything in meditation. To us, meditation is returning to the bosom of God. We are free from all external turmoil.

It is very difficult to practice meditation when you are in trouble; naturally, you have no courage to do it. You just run amok. It is better to practice before the mind is upset. Westerners are not in the habit of doing this. But to us, it is a completely natural thing to be quiet when we are in difficulty.

In Japan, about four hundred years ago the abbot of Erin-Ji, Kaisen Osho, had a student and patron who was a famous warlord. I once went all over that temple with my teacher’s brother and saw its huge gate, which is a building in itself. There is a large hall downstairs, and in the upper story is the hatto (the hall in which lectures on the sutras are given). We climbed many stone stairs, passed through this gate, then went along a path paved with stones to reach the main temple building.

Oda Nobunaga, one of the greatest warlords of Japan, attacked the followers of the warlord who was a patron of this temple. Some of the soldiers, under the leadership of a man called Sasaki, ran into the temple seeking refuge. The abbot gave them sanctuary. In ancient days, when an abbot accepted refugees into his temple, it was the unwritten law that he could not be forced to give them up.

The leader of the attacking force said to the abbot: “If you do not give up Sasaki, I will burn down the temple.” The abbot refused.

The gate was set on fire. The five hundred monks and the abbot took refuge upstairs, and seated themselves in the posture of meditation. Without moving, they were annihilated in the samadhi of fire. It was at this moment that the poem was recited.

So to us, meditation is not only for quiet moments. To practice meditation, we cultivate our forces of courage and valor. When you are in some predicament, you join your hands, and with your prayers invoke God to guard you. You are very happy to have faith in a god who looks over you. We do not have faith in a god outside ourselves. We return to meditation. There is no running around in the fire, shouting or scratching at the wall, dying like a cat or a dog. We die accepting the fire. It is our faith.


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