A couple of months after I started acupuncture school, Pischering made his first appearance at SCCCM. It was evening, and Pischering had come to pick up Kazi Dama at the end of a clinical teaching shift. I believe they were planning on going out for a steak dinner at the Hindquarter. That same evening, there was a class going on in one of the larger classrooms. It was called Exploring the Five Elements, and it was being offered to students and to interested members of the general public. Chinese medicine utilizes this idea of the five elements, or five phases – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – quite extensively, and it is a model that is applicable not only to medicine and human physiology, but to all aspects of life. The class was being offered as a five-seminar series, with each seminar exploring one element from a variety of viewpoints. The organizer and facilitator was Dr. Finkelstein, a popular teacher of a style of acupuncture that was based almost completely on the five elements.
Quite by chance, the last speaker of the evening, someone promoting firewalking for personal growth, canceled at the last minute. Dr. Finkelstein intercepted Kazi Dama just as he was leaving the building, and asked him to fill in for the firewalker. “All you have to do is talk about fire for an hour!” he pleaded.
Kazi Dama patted Dr. Finkelstein reassuringly on the back. “I can do much better than that,” he said. “I will have my friend Pischering speak. He is a much better teacher than me. Look! Here he comes now!”
And that was how Pischering got roped into talking to a class full of acupuncture students and a handful of Surf City residents. After hearing that Pischering had spent part of his life as a healer in Africa, I was glad to have this opportunity to hear him speak to this group of future doctors. Maybe he would say something about being a doctor. I sat in on the class.
“Good evening,” Pischering began. “My name is J. Pischering. I am a good friend of Kazi Dama’s” – he bowed briefly in his friend’s direction – “and I understand I am to talk about fire this evening!” He paused for a moment, closing his eyes and gathering his thoughts.
Pischering opened his eyes and began his lecture. “If you think about it, numerology is the basis of all systems of thought,” he said. “Why do we have a seven-day week? A twenty-four hour day? A sixty-minute hour? Twelve inches to a foot? These measures are artifacts of the numerological thinking of our ancestors. Most systems of thought start with a numerology of Two: Nothing and Something. Space and Time. Matter and Energy. The Yin and Yang of Chinese culture. Among my people, the fundamental duality was expressed as Earth and Sky. I believe that the Chinese have something very similar – Heaven and Earth. They introduce Man in between, creating a numerology of Three. But the subject of this seminar series, as I understand it, is the numerology of Five.
“Let’s consider the five elements, shall we? Let’s start with another system of five elements, one that is utilized by the Hindus and Buddhists: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. What you will notice right away is that this series is a progression – a progression from the most substantial to the most rarified. This tells you that the worldview of the system in which it originated is based on the idea of transcendence, of ascending to ever more subtle realms until one arrives at the ‘quintessence’ , the highest and most subtle element that is beyond this realm. And indeed, this is the agenda of Hinduism and Buddhism and many other religious or spiritual systems.
“And what about the Chinese five elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water? Wood burns to form fire; fire then makes ash which becomes earth; deep in the earth metals form; on the cold metal water condenses; water feeds the tree that makes wood, which feeds the fire, and so on. You immediately see that this is a cycle, not an ascending series like the Hindu/Buddhist five elements. What does this tell you about Chinese thought?”
“That it’s based on cycles?” ventured an enthusiastic first-year student.
“Exactly!” said Pischering. “And that is why your medicine works so well – because it understands interacting cycles, which is what human physiology is all about. Does this mean that the Chinese model is right and the other one is wrong? Of course not! They are simply different models. If the Shaivite yogi visualizes fire in his shoulder blades, and the Taoist alchemist visualizes fire in his heart or under the cauldron of his kidneys, is one of them putting the fire in the wrong place? Of course not! But is fire something that both of them, and every other human being, can relate to? Absolutely.
“I would like to argue tonight that fire is primary in a way that the other elements are not, and that an understanding of fire is very important if we are to come to an understanding of human nature. Why is fire primary? Well, think back to the fundamental dualities. Einstein’s mass and energy. Fire is energy. The fireball of the Big Bang. The Something in the Nothing/Something pair was originally pure energy. Fire. It is tempting, for us as water-based organisms, to think that water is primary. But long before there was water for the first organisms on this planet to evolve in, long before there was earth for the water to collect in, long long before there were plants to grow out of the water and earth, long before there was metal or any other kind of matter, there was energy. There was fire.
“In our neck of the universe, the immediate, obvious emanation of fiery energy is the sun. When we speak of ‘fire’ in the everyday sense, we are talking about the raw energy of the sun, trapped in matter by a plant, then released back out of matter as light and heat via the breaking of chemical bonds. Our metabolic ‘fire’ is one step removed; the solar energy that has been trapped by plants (or by animals who have eaten plants), then released within our bodies by the fire of digestion to fuel our life activities.
“Because our life itself is essentially solar fire expressing itself, it is very important to understand the nature of fire, to understand our own nature. Have you ever been camping, and it turned dark, and cold, and you got the fire going? How good it felt? How you were compelled to keep the fire going, how primal that need was? Imagine if you were the first human being to discover how to make fire! Before that, when it got dark at night it was that much easier for a tiger or lion to pounce on you and eat you for dinner! Imagine how cold it must have been in the winter, even under several layers of animal skin! With the fire, the animals were scared and stayed away. With the fire, you could stay warm. With the fire you had light at night, you could extend the activities of your day. With the fire you could cook! How much better life suddenly must have gotten!
“But there is a downside. All this burning of wood produces smoke, which as we now know contains carbon gases that trap solar radiation and cause global warming. All this burning of wood as the human population grows causes deforestation and desertification, and air pollution. Plants do this amazing thing where, powered by sunlight, they take carbon out of the carbon dioxide in the air, combine it with hydrogen and oxygen from the water in the ground, and make solid matter, make themselves out of these molecular building blocks. As a waste product they make the oxygen that we breathe. Every time we burn wood or any plant product, we release not just the stored solar light and heat; we also release carbon, in the form of greenhouse gases, back into the atmosphere. As we get more and more clever, we find other things to burn – gas, coal, petroleum – and the problems get worse and worse. The funny thing is, we are now so clever that we understand the damage we are doing, but we can’t stop! The reason we can’t stop is that this fiery spirit, this tendency to expand and spread and destroy, is in our very nature. We are fire, and how can fire control itself?
“So this, my friends, is the conundrum of our species. Can we change our nature? Can we transcend? Or is our fire nature part and parcel of what we are and will it continue to ruin our world? This is your homework! Meditate on fire!”
And that was the end of what would come to be known as Pischering’s Fire Sermon. Some people clapped; the environmentalists in the crowd yelled, “Right on!”; quite a few people looked dazed or bummed out. One woman raised her hand and said loudly, “But what about the Nothingness that preceded the Something? You say that fire is primary; well, what about the Void that comes before? Maybe that’s our true nature.”
Pischering was halfway out the door, but he stopped, turned, looked at the woman, nodded admiringly, and said, “Very good! We have a Buddhist in the crowd! This is an excellent philosophical point, and worthy of our consideration. The numerology of One* is very appealing indeed. Good bye!”
A lot more people had questions, but Pischering and Kazi Dama were very hungry and they politely but quickly extricated themselves from the buzz around them so they could go eat their steaks.
*On this confusing point of the equivalence of the Void (zero) with what he calls the “numerology of One,” Pischering later explained to me that in his view, the yearning for the original state that is thought to precede existence is the same “yearning for the One” in all religions – whether they call it God or the Void or whatever.