Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

Akhenaten Gives his Full Attention to Aten


Where There’s Light There’s Fire

In this carving, above, we find Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten catching some serious rays from the sun god Aten. Akhenaten is sometimes credited with instigating monotheism. This god, God, is shown in upper right in orb form. Aten’s rays appear as the source of all being. Our notions of fire, heat, and light all arise from that which we now call the sun.

Every form of religion involves a sun deity. Since perception shapes conception, it would be surprising to find a culture where the solar presence was not prominent. Belief systems would certainly be influenced by that which fashioned the tissue of our eyes, their optics tuned over many millennia to be most sensitive to those wavelengths that the sun casts most brightly.

We fold the perceptual experience of physical light into a metaphor for understanding, for gaining wisdom. It’s not a coincidence that Christian lore has Jesus saying, “I am a light of the world,” while Buddhists sometimes take Shakyamuni’s last words to be, “Make of yourself a light.” In both our physical world and psychic world, though, we distinguish fire from light. The light from the candle’s flame extends beyond the flame’s edge. The light of our understanding may lead us to seek nirvana: the extinguishing of the passions’ flames.

When Shenshan asks Dongshan about his own mending, Dongshan replies, “With each stitch the whole earth is spewing flames.” Is the light of Dongshan’s understanding separate from the flames the earth spews? Apparently not, for Dongshan speaks out of the flames. His understanding is woven from recognizing that fire is essential to his experience. Even a single stitch blazes forward to meet him.

Feeling fire in the roots of the world has standing in the history of contemplation. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus found the transformative process of fire to underlay the universe around him:

That which always was,
and is, and will be everliving fire,
the same for all, the cosmos,
made neither by god nor man,
replenishes in measure
as it burns away.

– Fragment 20, ~2500 BCE

There’s a calcined fitness in the fact that all we possess from Heraclitus are a handful of fragments, the slow burn of time leaving us a few singed epigrams.

The old Chan teacher Lin Ji kindly pointed out that “the threefold world is like a house on fire,” and that “one should not linger long.” At the same time, he taught:

You who come from here and there, you all have a mind to do something. You search for Buddha, search for the Dharma, search for emancipation, search for a way to get out of the threefold world. Idiots, trying to get out of the threefold world. Where will you go?

Fire in the heart of things means it is unavoidable. The light emanating from this fire affords no shade.1


The Sun Never Sets

The Sun ain’t stable.   – Don Van Vliet


Wondering about this relationship between flame and light led me to consider the Sun. That blinding hole in the sky we’ve all chanced a look at, even though we knew not to. When our eyes open to the Sun it’s immediately overwhelming – like an electrical shock of light. Our bodily response short circuits our thought – we close our eyes, turn away.

This most brilliant light, the ultimate energy source for all the vast intricacies of life, originates in an immense spherical cauldron of fire. Burning for four billion years, with another four billion to go, its blaze is the most implacable physical presence we will ever know. A string of more than one hundred Earths are required to span its diameter, and a million to fill the plasma ball out to its photosphere brim. It’s so hot that no chemical bond has a hope in hell of surviving – no need to worry about bacteria or viruses, it’s a clean environment. There is such abundant energy present that the atoms, almost all hydrogen, have lost hold of their electrons. The atoms are ionized, which is why we say the sun is in a plasma state. Most matter in the universe is found in this state, while our direct experience of plasmas is mostly limited to lightning and the aurora.

The pattern of solar plasma convection.


Plasma convection just underneath the sun’s surface organizes itself into “cells,” each one larger than Texas. The hotter plasma rising appears as the bright center of each cell, while cooler plasma falling appears as dark boundaries separating cells. This convective roiling of the sun’s plasma, as seen from our satellites, occurs very slowly, due to the immense size of the structural features. Videos of the sun’s activity must be sped up significantly for us to see the plasma bubbling.

Plasma spicule flowers on the sun

Rising out of the convection cells is an immense field of fiery “grass” – the solar spicules. These plasma tubes are tens of thousands of miles long. They wave and snap, making the sun’s surface a seething, trembling ocean. The movement of the spicules and larger solar flares is different than earthly flames. The ionized plasma’s motion creates enormous electrical currents, which then generate magnetic fields. These magnetic fields sprout from the surface, and are most intense at sunspots. One such solar “flower” is shown at the lower left in the spicule image, a dark center around which the filaments swirl. The plasma particles, H+s and electrons, travel along the magnetic field lines, but these electrically charged particles also create magnetic fields, so there is intense cause-and-effect feedback between the field lines and the plasma.

This spectacle is captured clearly in video montages of the sun. Video artist Michael Konig has created a particularly beautiful example, using images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory captured over a three year span. The montage shows that the sun not only spews flames, it also sucks flames back into its body. Not something I’ve ever noticed around my campfires. At two minutes in there’s a “coronal rain” event that is gob-stopping, the sort of thing Yahweh might have revealed to Job.2 A coronal rain occurs when the tenuous plasma just above the surface bursts into flames, then pours down in great arcing loops.


Fire’s Fire

The god of fire is seeking fire – Fayen

I have heard the dust crying to be born – Robinson Jeffers


Nothing lives, in the biological sense, within the fierce heat and light of a plasma, the dominant form of matter in the universe. But life needs the heat and light, so we find it perched at just the right distance from such energy sources. That distance could be millions of miles, like our distance from the sun, or a few feet, like tube worms’ distance from the sea floor vent.3

Life not only feels its way to the edge of the flame; it is the edge of the Flame. The “ever living fire” of Heraclitus burns most brightly in the campfire fueled by DNA’s kindling. The plasmic-hot-mess of life birthed many new elementary particles: desire, intention, grief, and joy.4 After all, it’s Raven who stole the sun from Grandfather’s house and placed it in the sky.

There is a corona surrounding the sun, a near-vacuum extending far beyond the spicules. Its temperature is over a million degrees, a hundred times hotter than sun’s surface. Even though the corona is extremely hot, it is so sparse that it is only visible during a full eclipse. Perhaps consciousness resembles that corona – incandescent, transparent, and only sensed in the dark.

In the contemplative tradition, one is encouraged to welcome the burning, as in this conversation between desert fathers, as related by Thomas Merton:

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said,
Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my
little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?
The elder rose up in reply and stretched his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of flame. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?5

In the Chan tradition a quiet conversation between friends can glow like banked coals. Even when the coals grow cool, the fire is not absent. In one story, a poet is visiting her friend who is also a Zen teacher:

They were sitting and drinking tea in the afternoon, when the conversation took a turn and the teacher said, “In the end, I’ll die and you’ll die and we’ll be two heaps of ashes. Then, where will we meet?”

Perhaps the cold remains burn hottest of all.

I find no reason to doubt the inevitability of my own reduction to ash. However, for the time being, I find no diminishing in the fire. Wings stroking quickly, necks extended, the honking snow geese pass overhead; tethered arms reaching for his beloved, the surgery patient surfaces into consciousness in the ICU; sprinting and leaping along the shore, the dog bounds towards the seals she spots in the surf. Fire breathes itself into life, and we recognize our true lineage.

Some Zen practitioners advise that one should meditate “like your hair is on fire.” There’s no “like” about it: meditation is simply noticing that one’s hair is on fire, like everything else. Welcome home.

Sacha Kawaichi, Women Meditating with their Hair on Fire



  • The creation of monotheism shows some correlation with a local lack of physical shade.
  • The coronal rain has its own NASA video.
  • The water emerging from such vents is superheated, ultimately, by the plasma found in the earth’s core.
  • For a more comprehensive treatment of these “elements,” see Corey Hitchcock’s New Table of Non-Periodic Elements.
  • From Merton’s  Wisdom of the Desert (1970).

Chris Gaffney is a Science Guy, and he is happy to take questions from Uncertainty Club readers about science, consciousness, and koan practice. Send him an email at: cgaffney@csuchico.edu.

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