Mind Like Fire Unbound

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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Part Two: The Essay


"The wise, they go out like this flame."

The discourses of the Pali Canon make a frequent analogy between the workings of fire and those of the mind: The mind unawakened to the supreme goal is like a burning fire; the awakened mind, like a fire gone out. The analogy is made both indirectly & directly: indirectly in the use of terminology borrowed from the physics of fire to describe mental events (the word nibbana being the best-known example); directly in any number of metaphors:

I have heard that on one occasion, when the Master was newly Awakened--living at Uruvela by the banks of the Neranjara River in the shade of the Bodhi tree, the tree of Awakening--he sat in the shade of the Bodhi tree for seven days in one session, sensitive to the bliss of release. At the end of seven days, after emerging from that concentration, he surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As he did so, he saw living beings burning with the many fevers and aflame with the many fires born of passion, aversion, & delusion....

Ud iii.10

The All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Visual cognition is aflame. Visual contact is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on visual contact, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither pleasure nor pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, ageing & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, griefs, & despairs.

The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame...

The nose is aflame. Odors are aflame...

The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame...

The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame...

The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Mental cognition is aflame. Mental contact is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on mental contact, experienced as pleasure, pain or neither pleasure nor pain, that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, ageing & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, griefs, & despairs.

S xxxv.28

The fire of passion burns in a man
    excited with sensual desires;
The fire of aversion, in an angry man
    taking life;
The fire of delusion, in a bewildered man
    ignorant of the Noble Teaching.
Not understanding these fires, people
        --fond of self-identity--
    unreleased from the shackles of death,
Swell the ranks of purgatory,
    the wombs of common animals, demons,
    the realm of the hungry shades.
While those who, day & night, follow the teachings
    of the rightly self-awakened one,
Put out the fire of passion,
    constantly focusing on the repulsive.
They, the highest men, put out the fire of aversion
        with mercy,
And the fire of delusion
    with the insight leading to penetration.
They, the masterful, by night & day,
    having put out (the fires),
Go totally out,
    without remainder,
having totally comprehended stress,
    without remainder.

They, the expert, with an attainer-of-wisdom's
        noble vision
    with regard to right knowing,
Fully knowing the passing away of birth,
    return to no further becoming.*

Iti 93

Not only is the extinguishing of passion, aversion & delusion compared to the extinguishing of a fire, but so is the passing away of a person in whom they are extinguished.

Ended the old,
    there is no new taking birth:
Dispassioned their minds
    towards future becoming,
they, without seed,
    inclined to no-growth,
the wise, they go out
    like this flame.

Khp 6

Sister Sumedha:

This, without ageing,
    this without death,
this, the unageing, undying state
    with no sorrow
with no burning....

Thig xvi.1

When the Master was totally gone out--simultaneously with the total going out--Ven. Anuruddha uttered these stanzas:

He had no in-&-out breathing,
The one who was Such*, the firm-minded one.
Free from want, evincing peace,
    the sage completing his span.
With heart unbowed
    he endured the pain.
Like a flame's going out
    was the liberation
        of awareness.

D 16

The aim of this essay is to explore the implications of this imagery--to give a sense of what it was & was not intended to convey--by first making reference to the views concerning the physics of fire current in the Buddha's time. This, short of an actual experience of Awakening--something no book can provide--seems the most natural approach for drawing the proper inferences from this imagery. Otherwise, we are bound to interpret it in terms of our own views of how fire works, a mistake as misleading & anachronistic as that of painting a picture of the Buddha dressed as Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton.

The presentation here is more like a photomosaic than an exposition. Quotations have been aligned & overlapped so as to reflect & expand on one another. Comments have intentionally been kept to a bare minimum, so as to allow the quotations to speak for themselves. The weakness of this approach is that it covers several fronts at once, and can make its points only incrementally. Its strength lies in its cumulative effect: revealing--beneath apparently disparate teachings--unifying patterns that might go unnoticed in a more linear narrative, much as satellite pictures can reveal buried archeological remains that would go unnoticed by a person standing on the ground.

One of the noteworthy features of the Pali Canon is that common patterns of thought & imagery shape the extemporaneous words of a wide variety of people reported within it. Here we will hear the voices not only of the Buddha--the speaker in all passages from the Canon where none is unidentified--but also of lay people such as Citta, monks such as Vens. Ananda & Maha Kaccana, and nuns such as Sisters Nanda, Sumedha, & Patacara. Each has his or her own style of expression, both in poetry & in prose, but they all speak from a similarity of background & experience that makes it possible to view their message as a single whole, in structure as well as content.

The structure we are most concerned with here centers around the image of extinguished fire and its implications for the word 'nibbana' (nirvana) & related concepts. Used with reference to fire, nibbana means 'being out' or 'going out.' Used with reference to the mind, it refers to the final goal and to the goal's attainment. Our essay into the cluster of meanings surrounding this word is meant to read like a journey of exploration, but a brief preview will help us keep track both of where we are in relation to the map provided by the Abstract and of where we are going.

The first chapter surveys ancient Vedic ideas of fire as subsisting in a diffused state even when extinguished, and it then shows how the Buddha took an original approach to those ideas to illustrate the concept of nibbana after death as referring not to eternal existence, but rather to absolute freedom from all constraints of time, space, & being.

The remaining three chapters deal with the concept of nibbana in the present life. Chapter II introduces a cluster of Buddhist ideas concerning the nature of burning fire--as agitated, clinging, bound, & dependent--and draws out the implications that these ideas have for what happens when a fire goes out and, in parallel fashion, when the mind attains nibbana. In particular, it concludes that of all the etymologies traditionally offered for nibbana, Buddhaghosa's 'unbinding' is probably closest to the original connotations of the term.

Chapter III takes up the notion of clinging as it applies to the mind--as sensuality, views, precepts & practices, and doctrines of the self--to show in detail what is loosened in the mind's unbinding, whereas Chapter IV shows how, by detailing the way in which the practice of virtue, concentration & discernment frees the mind from its fetters. This final chapter culminates in an array of passages from the texts that recapitulate the pattern of fire-&-freedom imagery covered in the preceding discussion. If read reflectively, they also serve as reminders that their perspectives on the concept of nibbana can best be connected only in light of that pattern.

We should note at the outset, though, that nibbana is only one of the Buddhist goal's many names. One section of the Canon lists 33, and the composite impression they convey is worth bearing in mind:

The unfashioned, the end,
the effluentless*, the true, the beyond,
the subtle, the very-hard-to-see,
the ageless, permanence, the undecaying,
the featureless, non-differentiation,
peace, the deathless,
the exquisite, bliss, solace,
the exhaustion of craving,
the wonderful, the marvelous,
the secure, security,
the unafflicted, the passionless, the pure,
release, non-attachment,
the island, shelter, harbor, refuge,
        the ultimate.

S xliii.1-4

Mind Like Fire Unbound

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Revised: Sat 17 October 1998