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Fire Imagery in the Pali Canon

The following article is a based on a talk I gave to the World Alliance of Religions for Peace in 2023.

The famous Fire Sermon in the Pali Canon (the Adittapariyaya Sutta, the Buddha’s Third Sermon), provides us with a psycho-physical formula for finally freeing ourselves, from being on fire with desire.

The Buddha’s words in The Fire Sermon have been translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu as follows:

“Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye—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, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs.

“The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame . . .

“The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame . . .

“The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame . . .

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

“The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame. Consciousness at the intellect is aflame. Contact at the intellect is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the intellect—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 say, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. (SN 35.28; Access to Insight)

The Buddha teaches us how to free ourselves from the pain of dissatisfaction, suffering, and being. The Buddha teaches us how to free ourselves from the pain of existence by providing an insightful guideline for skillful detachment, from unskillful, psycho-psychical states of addictive-attachment: attachment to body and mind contacts; attachment to mental and intellectual-phenomena, and any other kinds of grasping thereby caused and aroused within this common, routine, mundane life; within this unstable, uncertain, earthly existence; within this unwholesome, hungry, often nasty worldly world.

The Buddha saw how the world is burning with greed, hatred, and delusion due to our vainly wanting and desiring much too much and feeling that we are not getting nearly enough; feeling unsure and unhappy about not getting what we want; feeling selfishly dissatisfied with things; feeling greedy and grasping; feeling irritation and frustration; and—in many cases—even feeling deep depression and desperation, and at times rage.

When we listen to The Fire Sermon, we begin to understand how—especially when lacking mindfulness and proper insight—we vainly suffer the anguish of being born, we suffer the flaming pain of aging, we suffer the flaming pain of dying—the anguish of the inevitable. And we suffer the flaming pain of sorrow, lamentation, and distress, such that it can be hard to escape having feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Moreover, we also suffer the flaming, burning, smoldering, pain of:

Vainly wanting, desiring, and craving pleasant sights of eye contact
Vainly wanting, desiring, and craving pleasant sounds of ear contact
Vainly wanting, desiring, and craving pleasant tastes of tongue contact
Vainly wanting, desiring, and craving pleasant smells of nose contact
Vainly wanting desiring, and craving pleasant touches of flesh contact
Vainly wanting, desiring, and craving pleasant thoughts of mind contact

We suffer from contact attachment to the above six faculties, when life would be so much easier if we could just live and exist, without having to suffer due to sensual desire, craving, and un-extinguished lust. At the same time we are also prone to suffering the flaming pain of:

(i) Grasping greed
(ii) Hate and resentment
(iii) Ignorance and delusion

At the same time, in a more positive light, we may also be seeking to develop mindfulness and follow proper insight into how to be able to avoid and extinguish not only the above but also other mental excesses, such as the Five Mental Hindrances, by diligently striving to subdue:

Unhealthy burning attachment to sensual-craving
Unhealthy burning attachment to hatred/ill-will
Unhealthy burning attachment to restlessness/worry
Unhealthy burning attachment to laziness/listlessness
Unhealthy burning attachment to doubt and uncertainty

These feelings are there—inherently—within human perception as an integral part of earthly experience, so we have to be able to recognize, live with, and deal with them by not letting them control our urges, attitudes, intentions, and actions, if we want to live with a well-balanced mental life.

Living a balanced life can be compared to tending a comfortable, healthy home fire, which must be maintained at a moderate, medium temperature in order to guarantee our safety and survival. Such a state is also comparable to adjusting a home thermostat so that the arrow points exactly in the middle—between wanting a little too little or expecting a little too much (or maybe even much too much), when things get out of hand.

Natural human thus meets the conditions of human existence dead in the middle of being, while dealing with the six senses, mental obstacles, irritations and absurdities, which can cause us, on the one hand, to feel either hale, healthy, and well-balanced, or conversely, angry, aggressive, and abusive—physically and mentally unbalanced, frequently “hot under the collar,” and often “cruising for a bruising,” to use some colloquial idioms.

None of us want to be like that, but we all know people who behave in this way; who cannot help or save themselves and meet an unhappy end.

So we heedfully watch out to catch harmful intentions, cravings, and potential attachments as they arise—but before ever catching fire—thereby, avoiding unhealthy psycho-physical dependencies. Thus ensuring that the initial sparks of fiery intention cannot enflame and intensify, and burst into an explosive inferno of energy, leading to real trouble.

It is a long and gradual process of mind/body training, necessitating the cultivation of wisdom, the arousal of positive energy, and focused perseverance to reach the point where the fires of harmful expectation, irritation, and exasperation are eventually extinguished. We may then enjoy a life of contentment, a life of love and compassion, in which the vicissitudes of life can no longer come crashing in to upset our sense of serenity and natural balance.

See more

Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon (Access to Insight)

Related features from BDG

On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part One
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Two: Mindfulness and Keen Awareness
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Three: Arousing Energy and Attaining Rapture
On the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Part Four: Tranquility, Concentration, and Equanimity

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